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Why Did My Plant Die?

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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:

  • Norfolk Pine Losing Limbs
  • Fruitless Apricot Tree
  • Mortar-Eating Ivy
  • Chipmunk Invasion
  • Former Wisteria
  • Mushroom-Infested Lawn
  • Squirrels, Squirrels Everywhere
  • Peonies and Ants

    Norfolk Pine Losing Limbs

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in Dallas, Texas and have had a Norfolk Pine for a number of years. It stays on my patio in a large pot. Recently, various branches have begun to turn yellow and die. Slow new growth has begun where the branches have dropped off, but the tree is very unattractive in the meantime. Do you have any ideas?

    Thanks,
    Sissy

    Sissy,
    I do have a couple of ideas. Norfolk pines have the habit of losing entire branches, unlike most angiosperms (cone-bearing plants) that just lose individual leaves. It is unattractive, but not abnormal.

    I doubt seriously this is due to any kind of insect, bacteria, fungus, viruses, etc. And while nutrient deficiencies can cause various foliage problems, they probably wouldn't lead to branch death. My best guess is that if this tree has been in the same pot for a number of years, it has probably not developed an adequate root system to keep up with its top growth. Your best option (besides repotting) is to increase its water. Drought will definately cause dieback, and a patio in Dallas is a hot place to be. Also, consider upping its nutrient intake with plant food. Check at a reputable local nursery for advice on feeding (I don't know how big the tree is).

    Hope this helps, KL

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    Fruitless Apricot Tree

    Dear Doyenne,
    I have a big old apricot tree in my back yard in Ft. Collins, Colorado. For the twenty years that we have lived here (and the tree was full grown when we got here) we have not gotten one edible apricot - edible being the operative word. Many years, when the flowers are not frozen, we get many baby green apricots. This year the tree is LOADED. But they all drop at different stages before they are edible. The people we bought the house from had a cupboard full of home canned apricots!

    Thanks for any help.
    Susan

    Susan,
    It sounds like classic fruit drop caused by a nutrient deficiency - probably boron, calcium, or zinc. Soil testing through a lab (check with local extension agents) can help figure this one out. A mature fruit tree has nutritional demands far above those of most ornamentals. Specialty fertilizers should be available for this purpose - the usual NPK three nutrient mix won't cut it. Get thee to a soil lab!

    Best, KL

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    *****

    Mortar-Eating Ivy

    Dear Doyenne,
    We'd like to start some ivy growing on our new brick house to give it a cozy, been-around-a-while look, but have heard that certain kinds of ivy can damage the mortar. Are there any kinds of "friendly" ivy that might work for us in Dallas, Texas?

    Thanks!
    Rikki

    Rikki,
    Any kind of ivy that can attach to surfaces will damage mortar - that's the way they are able to "stick". They exude an acid from their adventitious roots that etches the mortar and allows the roots to infiltrate the mortar.

    There are other ways of getting a "lived-in" look. I'd go for a trellis system and plant Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus) evergreen clematis (see if Clematis armandii does well in your area; ask at the better nurseries in town), honeysuckle (cultivated Lonicera varieties that behave) or even wisteria (does that grow in Texas?).

    Final word about ivy: cities, counties, even homeowners are spending big bucks trying to control the rampant spread of ivy (like in Portland and Seattle). Why not do a little more digging and come up with something that cohabitates well with other species.

    Best, KL

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    Chipmunk Invasion

    Dear Doyenne,
    What can I do to prevent chipmunks from snipping off my new clematis shoots? Just as soon as they get high enough to start grabbing the trellis I find they have been snipped off.

    Help!
    Beatrice in Upstate NY

    Beatrice,
    Why not just enclose the area temporarily in chicken wire (or smaller gauge wire if needed)? Once the tissue is hardened off, the chipmunks will have no interest in eating it. Give it a try.

    Best, KL

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    Former Wisteria

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in eastern Washintgon and have a 9-year-old wisteria which has bloomed profusely each year. This year it started to bloom, then blossoms fell off and the plant looks dead. How did it happen?

    Thanks,
    Lois

    Lois,
    It sounds like the plant suffered fatal injury the previous fall or winter, probably to the roots. This could happen in several ways: freeze injury (was there a particularly cold spell, and were roots not protected with mulch?), drought (was watering withheld as the plant went into dormancy?), physical injury (was the root zone disturbed by construction or other digging?). The symptoms are classic: there is no sign of a problem until there is a demand for water (e.g. leaf or flower growth), then the roots fail to keep up with demand and dieback occurs.

    It's hard to know whether the whole plant is dead - I would water and add a good nitrogen source in case there is any life left. You could also check the health of the cambium layer of the plant by gently scraping a bit of the bark away and looking for green. If there is no green (go as low on the trunk as possible), then, alas, it's dead.

    Good luck, KL

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    Mushroom-Infested Lawn

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in Aliso Viejo, CA (southern CA). My home was completed in November, and my sod was put down on January. The sprinklers come on daily at 5:30 AM for a few minutes. Every morning (for the past two months) when I wake, my back yard is infested with literally hundreds of mushrooms. Because the backyard gets direct sunlight all day long, most of the mushrooms appear dead when I get home in the evening. But the next day, they are back. Any suggestions how to get rid of them?

    Thanks,
    Daren

    Daren,
    You're describing a pretty typical scenario. The reason is this: your sod was installed over soil mixed with way, way too much organic material (the optimal amount is 5%). This organic matter is now decomposing and the decomposers (the fungi) are busy reproducing.

    The good news is they don't hurt anything, and you can manage them with a different watering regime. Deep, infrequent waterings are much better (and more environmentally sound) than daily, shallow waterings. Just be sure to make this change slowly, as the lawn is currently "addicted" to daily watering. Try a slow (e.g. 4 week) withdrawal; it should adapt just fine. This will also, interestingly, keep the fungi problem down since the daily moisture is contributing to this problem.

    Good luck, KL

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    Squirrels, Squirrels Everywhere

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in Orlando, Florida and am a rabid vegetable gardener. My vegetable garden is approximately 15' x 20'. My problem is the vast over population of squirrels here; I cannot plant seeds in the garden because the squirrels dig them up within 24 hours. If I let my dog chase them he uproots plants in the garden with his running.

    Please help!
    Tara

    Tara,
    I get a lot of squirrel-related questions and the reasons is this: we've eliminated most of the natural predators of squirrels in urban environments, and (however unwittingly) we supply them with all kinds of food. No surprise they're taking over!

    Truth is, there isn't much we can do to prevent squirrels from digging (and do they ever love freshly turned soil). Probably the most effective deterrent is laying chicken wire (or some other paw irritant) just below the surface of the soil. This works great for cats, anyway, unless the vegetables you're planting are root crops. In this case, I would plant seeds in a protected area (cold frame) and outplant them when they are bigger. Carrots and radishes could be planted into the holes of the chicken wire. It's time and labor intensive, but there's not much else to be done.

    If you take this route, Tara, I'd love to know whether you succeed. Do let me know.

    Best, KL

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    Peonies and Ants

    Dear Doyenne,
    I've got a garden of gorgeous peonies that I'd love to cut and bring inside but I'm afraid of getting a house full of ants. Any ideas?

    Also, I have a suggestion for your readers troubled by scale on their ficus plants. I tried spraying mine with a solution of Murphy's oil soap and water, and it worked quite well.

    Avis

    Avis,
    It's more likely they'll just stay on the flowers. However, I suppose you could dip the flowers in a detergent solution (Safer soap or something homemade) to eliminate most of the bugs. I just don't think it's worth the worry.

    Best, KL

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