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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:

  • Forsythia Seed Pods
  • Dying Shrubs
  • Transplanted Catalpa
  • Wisconsin Woodlands
  • Fruitless Tomato Plants
  • Flourishing Fig
  • Damaged Chard
  • Aptly Named Fungus

    Forsythia Seed Pods

    Dear Doyenne,
    Do you know if forsythia seed pods are edible? They look so much like snow peas or snap peas.

    Thank you,
    J.

    J.,
    Forsythia seed pods are used in Chinese herbal medicine, but I don't think they'll taste much like snow peas. Frankly, I'd be reluctant to eat them, as plants tend to load up their fruits and seeds with protective substances that can be harmful. Fern fiddleheads are a good example -- they are carcinogenic, but people still eat them!

    Best, KL

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    Dying Shrubs

    Dear Doyenne,
    I have three garden plots in front of my house on Martha's Vineyard (off the coast of Massachusetts). All three have a line of Irish Junipers along the south border. Each line of Junipers is followed by several Mugo Pines. The problem is that the middle plot's Mugos died several years ago, and now the Junipers are dying in that plot also. They both had the same symptoms: All the needles turn brown, starting at the top. Then, the brown sweeps over the entire plant looking almost as if the plant were melting. But, this evil lurks only in the middle plot, both the plots to the right and left are fine.

    The plots are separated by a 4-foot sidewalk, but are otherwise identical. The Junipers are very healthy in the adjacent plots, as are the Mugos. The septic system is under the left plot, nothing under the right plot. But the middle plot is the one with the problem. Should I have the soil tested, or just plant something else?
    Thanks,
    Peter

    Peter,
    It sounds like there's a soil problem in the middle plot. It could be anoxia (soil too compacted or not well drained), or it could be a fungal pathogen. In either case, the roots are failing, as indicated by the plants browning at the tips, then completely dying back. The fact that the plots are physically separate also indicate a soil issue.

    I would not plant anything else here until the soil problem is resolved. Testing for pathogens (in particular, armilaria and phytophthora) is pretty easy for a pathologist. Other things to check would be drainage and pH. Conifers don't like alkaline conditions or poorly drained soils, as a rule.

    Helping the soil regain its health (i.e. beneficial microbes, aeration) will allow it to support plant growth again. There are a number of ways to do this, but first you need to find out what's wrong. Bottom line: soil tests. I don't know what labs are in your area, hoping they're not hard to find.

    Best, KL

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    Transplanted Catalpa

    Dear Doyenne,
    My husband transplanted a catalpa tree that was too close to our newly black-topped drive last year. When he dug it out last year it looked like he didn't get nearly enough of the tap root for it to survive. We almost threw it out, but then we said just stick it in the ground and see if it takes. Well, this spring it not only grew leaves, it has even flowered. My question is this: Is it possible that it still won't make it? We have seen some things look good one year only to die the following year. We live in southwest Michigan, just 15 miles from Lake Michigan.

    Thanks,
    Sylvia

    Sylvia,
    Your catalpa will still need irrigation this summer to ensure its survival. It's likely that if you give it water, mulch and a dose of nitrogen, it will survive subsequent years. If it were my tree, I would water it deeply every week, and circle it with a 6-8" layer of wood chips that covers an area twice the size of the planting hole (take care that the mulch doesn't touch the trunk). Be sure to first remove any weeds or turf that surround the tree's "skirt".

    I bet it will make it if these steps are taken.

    Enjoy, KL

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    Wisconsin Woodlands

    Dear Doyenne,
    I have been carefully manicuring my gardens for years. I want to diverge from this style and return to my landscape's natural habitat. Where can I find out what plants would grow naturally to form a Wisconsin woodlands garden?
    Katie

    Katie,

    How truly heartening to receive a letter such as yours! I'd start with one of the best native plant nurseries in your state, Prairie Nursery. Granted, they do specialize in prairie and meadow plantings but they are committed to native plants and would know precisely where to send you for more information and resources.

    Best of luck, KL

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    Fruitless Tomato Plants

    Dear Doyenne,
    My tomato plants are dropping their blossoms and not forming tomatoes. This is a source of great anguish for me as I live for my home grown tomatoes every year! I started these plants from seed in March. Two varieties - Brandywine and Better Boys - are dropping their blossoms. My French Rose plants are forming fruit. I live in Prescott, AZ, with mile-high elevation, warm and dry, and cool nights. There are also some yellow leaves with blackish spots on the blossom droppers. I have ordered a soap shield product to fight suspected fungus. Do I need to do anything else. Cover the plants at night to warm them up?

    Thanks,
    Linne

    Linne,
    As you seem to already suggest ("cover the plants up at night?"), it is indeed the cool night time temperatures (generally anything below 55° F) that are causing your tomato plants to drop their blossoms. You could try protecting them with cloches (translucent coverings) -- admittedly, a difficult task when the plants start to put on size. Your other option is to grow a cold climate variety tomato such as Northern Exposure, though I realize that's more a solution for next year. The black spots and yellowing leaves are a sign of early blight, triggered by soil-borne fungus. The preventative measure here is heavy mulching, to keep rain or hand watering from splashing fungus up onto the undersides of lower leaves. Meanwhile, I've got my fingers crossed for those French Rose plants.

    All this leaves me wondering - since you've previously grown tomatoes successfully, is this year colder than previous ones?

    Best of luck, KL

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    Flourishing Fig

    Dear Doyenne,
    My wife and I recently purchased a fig tree that is still in the original pot. It is bearing fruit and we would like to replant it in an area with more space. We do have a garden that is partially shaded by a large tree and understand that a fig tree needs full sun. There is full sun in this spot in the afternoon, but we aren't sure it will be enough. We love our fig tree dearly and would appreciate some advice.

    Thanks,
    George and Diane

    George and Diane,
    Having no idea where you live, I'm going to guess that winters for you are not a problem. I also have no idea whether your fig is an indoor or outdoor plant, so I'm hedging my bets here.

    If it's an indoor plant, even partial outside sun should be more than enough. Be sure to harden it off first (put in shade outdoors, then into partial sun very slowly to prevent burning).

    If it's an outdoor plant, it will probably exhibit more growth and fruiting on its sunny side, and might become asymmetrical. As long as this isn't a problem aesthetically (such gorgeous plants should pose no aesthetic problems!) it'll be fine.

    A note: Be really careful with the roots when you transplant. There will likely be circling roots that will need to be straightened or removed. For this reason, I'd suggest waiting until fall before transplanting, so the shock will be less severe.

    Enjoy, KL

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    Damaged Chard

    Dear Doyenne,
    I can only do container gardening here in Mt. Shasta at some 4,000 feet (early frost; multitudes of deer). My otherwise healthy red chard keeps getting some weird gray or silver rust that wilts the plants from the sides. I can't see any bugs, but none of the usual 'flower and garden' sprays seem to deter this, and I don't want to spray insecticide on things I eat, even organic ones. Nearby flowers, strawberries, baby snap peas... are all untouched.

    Thanks,
    Kathi

    Kathi,
    Without seeing the leaves I can't be sure, but the most common cause of damage to chard is from the larvae of leaf miners, which burrow inside the plant leaves and cause discoloration. Best bet is to immediately remove and destroy the affected leaves. If the infestation is really bad, cut down the entire plant to a height of 2-3 inches. It will bounce back beautifully in a relatively short time. Sometimes mildew can spawn in soils with excessive nitrogen and where there is insufficient room between plants to provide decent air circulation -- a real possibility in closely planted containers.

    Keep trying!

    Best, KL

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    Aptly Named Fungus

    Dear Doyenne,
    There is a plague upon my yard. I think that's called dog vomit virus, but whatever it is, I know I have it at my Washington, DC, home.

    The bright yellow ooze emerges in shady spots and in sunny spots. Left undisturbed it becomes brownish in a couple of days. It's almost like a lemon filling emerges in random spots of my bark mulch and then turns into a perfectly toasted meringue top. (I know this isn't a food site, but I can stomach this kind of imagery much more easily than the concept of dog vomit.) Sometimes it spills over onto a slab of slate or creeps up a tree trunk, but I've never seen it emerge in the grass. This is the third summer I've been plagued with this. Can it be eliminated?

    Thanks,
    CIH

    CIH,
    I think this is probably dog vomit *fungus*, which is a common slime mold that loves moist mulch. It will not hurt plants (it's a non-pathogenic fungus), but given its common name can be an aesthetic problem (how's that for understatement?). Easiest thing to do is rake the mulch and expose the fungus to drier conditions, which will make it disappear. Alas, since the spores are probably present, my guess is it will continue to appear -- but really, it's not a problem.

    Best, KL

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