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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.

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:

  • Japanese Maple Seedling
  • Wilting Vinca
  • Tomatoes In the Shade
  • Floral Fatigue: Peony and Iris
  • Rambling Roots
  • Nob Hill Tomatoes
  • Battling Poison Ivy
  • Deer Invasion

    Japanese Maple Seedling

    Dear Doyenne,
    I would like your advice on planting a Japanese Maple seedling in northeast Arkansas. It will be placed on the north side of a house in partial shade.


    A couple of things: Take care not to plant the seedling too deeply, keep it from drying out (mulch around its base but don't smother the stem), and be sure the area you're planting it in has good drainage (not hard clay). In the event that the ground has never been cultivated before, be sure you loosen up the soil.

    Best of luck, KL

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    Wilting Vinca

    Dear Doyenne,
    I have had a problem with my myrtle (vinca) for several years. It began in one mature bed and has spread to other areas in my large yard in Mishawaka, Indiana. In the spring the myrtle grows, blooms, spreads, everything it is supposed to do... it's beautiful. However, in late spring, I begin to see some of the plants literally wilt, like they are not getting any water, or something has been at the roots. Sometimes the plant will come back the next spring, sometimes not. I have used Fertilome Triple Action (boy does that smell), hot soapy water, diazanon (spelling?) at different times... nothing seems to help. I fertilize every few weeks. My other plants are doing fine, even those in the same beds. Should I remove the wilting plants?


    Interesting problem. Never heard of vinca having this problem before. Sounds like it's a fungal problem (anthracnose? phytophthora?), and therefore more a nuisance than a real threat to a well-established planting. The best way to deal with fungal pathogens in general is to increase the beneficial fungi with a really good organic mulch, e.g., wood chips. How about just settling in a layer of chips unde the vinca -- it will be rather labor intensive, but probably worth the effort. They don't decompose too quickly, and will improve the health of your soil.

    All the best, KL

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    Tomatoes In the Shade

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in an apartment in in Olympia, Washington. I am trying to grow golden early grow tomatoes in a 9 inch container. three are out but not growing much. Tall cedar trees overlook my deck, so I am constantly moving the pot to chase the sun. Is there any hope for these tomatoes or should I stick with flowers?


    Alas, tomatoes depend precisely on the conditions your environment lacks: sunlight and heat. Unless those cedar trees let in a good 4-6 hours of morning sun, you'd be wise to give up growing vegetables for now. Even salad greens, which love a little shade during summer's dog days, need a few solid hours of sunlight to produce. As you'd suspected, you are indeed better off with shade-loving plants. Wish I had better news!

    Best, KL

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    Floral Fatigue: Peony and Iris

    Dear Doyenne,
    I have a cottage in southwestern Michigan purchased about 14 years ago. The property had large peony bushes that bloomed profusely. I planted iris bulbs about eight years ago and they bloomed for about four years. Now my peony bushes bloom hardly at all, ditto the irises. All are in a sunny location. Soil is clay-like. A friend suggested pulling up the irises and adding lime to the soil then replanting which I did and which helped somewhat for awhile but now they are not blooming either. Are the peonies just too old to bloom any more?

    Thanks for your help.

    Greeta, Certainly there's a strong chance that your iris simply need dividing (in fall). And though peonies can go for decades without dividing, you could try that, too (divide in late summer, leaving 3-5 eyes per division, and make sure the eyes are not planted more than 2" below the soil surface. Then mulch heavily to prevent frost heaving in winter).

    However, the fact that neither flower is blooming could indicate an environmental problem rather than tired plants. If you've been working the soil a lot in the last four years, and adding a lot of fertilizer, it could be that the plants are putting more energy into vegetative growth at the expense of floral growth. An organic mulch might help to "normalize" the soil if indeed this is the case. If the soil is really, really clay, you're better off using coarse wood chips to make sure air gets through.

    Hope this helps, KL

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    Rambling Roots

    Dear Doyenne,
    I have 2 big tree (hug size) in my front yard with roots that are dangerously approaching the house and breaking through the driveway. I can also see the roots coming above ground. What can I do to stop the roots from extending so much into these areas?

    Any advice would be much appreciated,

    I'm afraid there's not much that will keep roots from growing other than death. The surface rooting is indicative of poor soil conditions -- probably compacted and not well aerated - hence the surfacing behavior. You can have root pruning done by a certified arborist at the juncture of the driveway/yard area, and then install root barrier, but then the trees will require extra water and other TLC to recover. I can't imagine you're going to want to spend this kind of effort on mulberries.

    Ultimately, it might be better just to start all over again -- remove the trees, have the area tilled, plant new trees with better behaved roots, and install root barrier at hardscape junctures. Admittedly, it's a tough call.

    Best, KL

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    Nob Hill Tomatoes

    Dear Doyenne,
    I grew gorgeous red & yellow tomatoes each summer in my backyard in Indianapolis, however, in the four years that I've been back in SF, I've had little luck having the same success.

    Without a garden, I have tried growing tomato plants in large pots on the roof of our Nob Hill condo. They get plenty of direct sun on the roof, however, given SF's foggy climate, especially in the summer months, they don't always get that good heat, day and night, like in Indiana.

    Do you have any advice on how to grown tomatoes successfully given the scenario I've offered? I have been growing "Early Girls" as they are mid-sized and aren't as space demanding as "Beeksteak" or other such varieties for a container garden. I have little yield, however. Are there other varieties that might take to a climate like SF's and live successfully in a pot?

    I don't like cherry-size tomatoes. (They seem to tiny and not worth the trouble.) I am really looking for a variety that is big enough to slice up and eat with mayonnaise and salt on a crusty bagette.
    Kind Regards,

    Cultivars and some creative management should help you replicate your Midwestern success with tomatoes. Try local nurseries for short-season varieties like "Northern Exposure" which produces well in cool climates and has good flavor, too. Tomatoes like it hot, but since San Francisco summers are undependable, you can warm up the soil by placing one of those electric coils they sell in seed-starting kits at the bottom of the planter. (I've heard that a better solution is fresh chicken or horse manure for the same steady heat, but I don't think you'll find a source on Nob Hill!) Cut a hole for the plant in black landscape cloth or plastic and put it directly over the soil to help maintain warmth and absorb infrequent sunlight. Feed regularly, using warm water, then get out the Hellman's.

    Best, KL

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    Battling Poison Ivy

    Dear Doyenne,
    What is the best way to kill poison ivy plants? My wife and I just moved out to the country in Massachusetts and have both been exposed to this nasty plant!


    Alas, there is no "magic bullet" for posion ivy. Roundup, although a broad spectrum herbicide, works very well when directed solely at the target species , but you'll have to make the call whether or not to use this herbicide.

    Should you choose to, here's how: Mix up the formulation in a spray bottle used exclusively for this purpose. On a sunny, *windless* day, spot spray the leaves of the poison ivy. Be sure to avoid any spray drift that may hit desirable plants. Within days foliage will wilt, yellow, and die, but don't be fooled: it's only the tops of the plants that are affected this time of the year. You'll then have to continue to reapply to any emergent shoots. Then, in the fall, be sure to apply to any living tissue, as the active ingredient will now be transported to the roots and will kill the plant.

    Generally, I 'd recommend waiting till fall to use herbicides on perennial weeds, since that's when the plants are putting their resources underground which means you'd only have to spray once. But with health hazard plants, I imagine you'll want to take a more aggressive approach .

    Wish I had more "p.c." advice. Be careful out there!! KL

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    Deer Invasion

    Dear Doyenne,
    I recently moved to Stamford, Conn. and am scrambling to deal with deer amidst shady woods. Our neighbor is the water company's watershed & am thinking of planting a privet, wanting something natural. Years ago, New York Times Magazine mentioned a deciduous privet, revealing intricately interwoven branches in winter. (Searching New York Times now was unsuccessful) Any idea what it could be? If so, is this a good solution for me? Other suggestions?


    I can't help you with the Times reference. Frankly, I am no privet fan; many of them are invasive. And I'm not sure they would do very well at repelling deer (if that was your goal; or was it just a hedge? I'm unclear here).

    Other more "armored" hedge materials might be appropriate -- I'd suggest Berberis but have recently read that it's considered invasive in parts of New England (you might check). Barberry can make thickets nearly impossible to penetrate given the density of the thorns.

    If this is a shady site (as suggested), none of these materials will grow as densely as they would in full sun. It might be even better, in this case, to construct a chain link fence (you can get green ones) and then camouflage it with shade-tolerant plantings. It will need to be tall (I think a minimum is 6 feet) to keep the deer from jumping over.

    Finally, since your problem is no doubt shared by all your neighbors, why not ask around and see if anyone who's lived there for a while has come up with other clever ideas.

    Best, KL

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