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Why Did My Plant Die?

This is the place to read Ketzel's advice to readers' most harrowing gardening challenges from whitefly eradication to weed killer application, lawn alternatives, and bulb care. No matter where you keep your garden, check out the resources available to you locally. Find a shady spot and maybe a helping hand in the Talking Plants Gardens and Arboretums map of the United States.

Archive
Here's the Vast and Cavernous Archive of Enquiry that the Doyenne has already answered. Good clean fun for the whole family.

This week's questions:

  • Lilac Care
  • Fruiting Orange Recommendation
  • Heal This Birch
  • Creeping Charlie
  • Ivy Query
  • I Love My Balcony But...
  • Sulking Daphne
  • Bulb Bandits
  • Tough Lawn For Utah

    Lilac Care

    Dear Doyenne,
    I do my gardening (such as it is) in upstate New York. I have a small lilac tree that sits on a descending slope. It bloomed the first two years, but last year almost not at all. I pruned it a bit but was cautious, since I'm "challenged" in the area of lilac care. There are some dead looking branches but many have buds. Can it be saved?

    Thanks and greetings to you and your four-legged friends!
    Linda

    Linda,
    I trust your lilac is in full sun? All success begins there. Lilacs thrive in upstate New York, so outside of powdery mildew (which is unsightly but not dangerous), I'm not sure what else may be wrong. I can't imagine it needs much pruning if it's still a small tree, though be sure to prune out any growth that suckers up from the bottom. Let's hope it surprises you with a comeback this spring.

    Enjoy, KL

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    *****

    Fruiting Orange Recommendation

    Dear Doyenne,
    I want to have a fruiting orange tree here in stump town... do you have any suggestions on what variety to get, and where to get it?

    Many thanks for your help,
    Larry

    Larry,
    Growing oranges in Portland is dicey, and it's not just because of winter lows. The problem is the lack of adequate heat in spring, summer and fall. One possibility, however, is Changsha, a Mandarin orange from high elevations in Japan. Try it in full sun, ideally espaliered against a south-facing wall. Check out
    Oregon Exotics in Grants Pass, OR which carries this and several other cold hardy citrus.

    Enjoy, KL

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    *****

    Heal This Birch

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in Roseville, CA (near Sacramento), and I have heavy clay soil. 2 1/2 years ago I planted a substantial white birch. It did very well until this past August when most of the leaves on the main trunk suddenly turned yellow and dropped, though the other stems look fine. There are still no new leaves on the main trunk. The branches on the main trunk do not appear to be brittle, and some small buds formed but no leaves. Should I cut the section out or hope for a rebirth?

    Ken

    Ken,
    You can tell if the trunk is alive by scraping the bark. If itís green and moist, you're in business. And if that's the case just let it be, but be sure to water the birch over the summer. August is the worst month in the west for dry conditions and this is particularly true of clay soils. If the tree isn't mulched already, give is a nice wide skirt to to reduce turf competition.

    Best, KL

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    *****

    Creeping Charlie

    Dear Doyenne,
    We are in need of your help with our very own "noxious weed" How, oh how, does one get rid of CREEPING CHARLIE?!?! Hubby and I've done about everything outside of digging up the yard and starting all over again. My father, the previous owner of our home, never cared about this awful, intrusive weed and figured that "at least it's green." So, we're dealing with a plant that has established itself in the yard over the past 20 years. I do pull it by hand from around the plants that we don't want to spray. Any suggestions that you could provide would be most heartly appreciated.

    Thank you,
    Kate

    Kate,
    I hate to say it, but this might be a job for Roundup, painted directly onto leaves of the plant in the late summer/early fall when the plant's physiology will carry it to the roots. It will work. Yes, it will also take some time and effort, but if itís done correctly, the plant will be gone with minimal disruption to the rest of the landscape. And it sure beats pulling, which I know will not work given how tightly the roots cling and how very small pieces can regenerate (like bindweed).

    I don't envy you! KL

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    *****

    Ivy Query

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live just down the road in McMinnville, Oregon on a secluded 20 acre parcel. My question concerns a choice of ivy to plant next to my metal pole barn. I have attached a wire fence lattice to the side of the barn so the ivy can crawl up and cover the side and create the look of a European building covered with ivy. I'd prefer an ivy that keeps its leaves year-round. I thought about English ivy but have heard it is becoming a pest in the northwest, or maybe more than one type of ivy would work. The side of the barn faces east and south, and there is no significant shade on it.

    Thanks for your advice.
    Stan

    Stan,
    Most ivies aggressive enough for your needs are probably too aggressive, period. The more mild-mannered, ornamental ivies with interesting foliage are far less vigorous, though you could make an argument for the two-toned 'Goldheart' (which is, alas, still an English ivy; you'd have to do a little more research to see whether it has thug potential in your neck of the woods). Since you're after something evergreen, why not something evergreen that flowers? I would recommend one of two evergreen clematis, C. cirrhosa or C. armandii. Both are easy to grow.

    Enjoy, KL

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    *****

    I Love My Balcony But...

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in an apartment in Corvallis, Oregon, and I love my place. It has a front deck, a back porch and a wall of windows. However, the deck faces the east (hot morning to early afternoon sun), and the back porch faces West, Southwest (hot afternoon sun). Almost everything I plant in these outdoors spaces dies, seemingly from lack of water. They dry up and shrivel away. Yes I am watering -- often -- but it doesn't seem to help. I was thinking it might be the soil or the containers. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

    Also, I would like to try doing some composting, but all the resources I've found talk about 3' x 3' crates (or larger). Is it possible for me to do composting given where I live? Or is it a dream that will have to wait until I own a home?

    Thank you,
    Lesli

    Lesli,
    Let's face it, you're gardening in a rather tricky situation. Balconies with an eastern or southern aspect get enormous amounts of hot sun, plus your elevation means that circulating air can dry your pots out very quickly. You might try a potting soil like Black Gold which seems to hold water very well. Then, group the pots together so that they shade each other (if you can block the sunny side of the pots with a bamboo screen this will help too). You might then chose plants well adapted to hot dry situations, for instance, rosemary, lavender, verbena and diascias.

    Re: Compost. Yes, you can buy small containers that seal with a small hole in the top for ventilation. Gardeners Eden sells them. Remember, though, that with limited space you may produce a lot more kitchen waste than your container can keep up with. The container should be left outside.

    Best, KL

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    *****

    Sulking Daphne

    Dear Doyenne,
    I planted a Daphne odoratum last spring in our garden in Carmel by-the-Sea and although it has nice leaves, it has no flowers yet. It is in sandy soil, well drained with lots of organic matter worked in around it. The plant sees about 4 hours of sun daily, is in light to moderate shade otherwise, under an open limbed Coast Live Oak. It is drip watered and fertilized regularly in the summer and fall and then it gets fed late February to early March. I use Miracle Grow and granulated fertilizer, the slow release kind. I don't give the plant a lot of Nitrogen until summer arrives. Adjacent roses and shrubs are doing extremely well, rude with health and I think a little contemptous of Daphne. When should I expect blossoms? Our spring has had several weeks of 60-70 degree temps with no frost and a good mix of sunny days, foggy days and moderate rainfall.

    Thanks,
    Rich

    Rich,
    Daphne is a little tricky in coastal California. It doesn't get quite as much summer heat as it would like and the soil is a bit too acidic for its taste. First of all, you need not fertilize daphne; too many nutrients gives it less impetus to bloom. Let it simply make do with your improvements to the soil. Secondly, put a handful of lime around the base of the plant (anytime is fine). It should eventually turn dark green and set buds next winter. Keep in mind that Daphne odora prefers soil that is neutral pH 7.

    Best, KL

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    *****

    Bulb Bandits

    Dear Doyenne,
    Every time I plant a bulb, the squirrels either eat it, or dig it up and move it somewhere else. What can I do to keep the squirrels away from my bulbs? I don't want to hurt them, I just don't want them eating my tulips, daffs, hyancinths... I lose over half of what I plant.

    Johanna

    Johanna,
    I'm surprised you're having your daffs eaten; squirrels usually don't bother with them. Anyway, you could either bury chicken wire (same trick to keep cats from digging), or if that's not practical, sprinkle cayenne pepper over the area. It has to be reapplied after wind/rain, but since it's only for a limited time before the bulbs grow, it might be worth it. By the way, not that you asked, this also works great for keeping dogs from peeing in a garden.

    Best, KL

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    *****

    Tough Lawn For Utah

    Dear Doyenne,
    We live in Park City, Utah, which is zone 3. Our subsoil is a rock-hard, thick mud-making red clay and we'll have to purchase all of our topsoil. Most folks around here plant bluegrass in 5 inches of topsoil and irrigate it too much. That seems incredibly irresponsible in a high desert. Can you suggest resources or specifics for a hardy groundcover alternative to turf that will use less water and still provide usable play space for a dog and maybe some hardscaping ideas to help? The yard is small, about 1/10 acre, and we'll be starting the process in August.

    Thanks,
    Hutch

    Hutch,
    Any way you look at it, dogs are rough on grasses. I still can't decide what to do for a pee area for my beagle (I have a very small yard). But if you're willing to use some drought and cold tolerant thymes interspersed among large light-colored pavers, the dog probably won't do much damage. I understand that woolly thyme is really tough and stays amazingly green (well, gray-green) winter and summer. You could also plant some bunchgrasses in between pavers for a little vertical relief.

    Hope this helps, KL

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