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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:

  • Beginner Gardener
  • Lilac Pruning
  • Evening Primrose
  • Nevada Gardening
  • California Shade Tree
  • Blossomless Orange Blossom
  • More Shade for California
  • Cactus in Florida

    Beginner Gardener

    Dear Doyenne,
    This is my first year attempting to garden and all I am able to do on my second floor balcony are plants in containers. I live in Boulder, CO and my balcony is South facing - yes it gets LOTS of sun! This spring I purchased window boxes and planted morning glories, pansies, and wooly thyme. The pansies died in early June due to a lack of watering (blame my husband - I was away for a few days). The morning glories and wooly thyme are doing O.K. in some boxes, really well in others. My question to you is this: should I empty out the boxes come winter? I am assuming that the morning glories will die in the winter and I will need to replant some type of vining plant again in the spring after the last frost. Also I figure I will need to put fresh potting soil in the boxes for the spring.


    The wooly thyme may winter over, in which case it seems a waste to dump it. But everything else needs to get yanked. If you used a good potting soil, you shouldn't have to change the pots yearly. Instead, why not add a slow-acting fertilizer to the soil next spring. Then next year, when you're no longer a beginner (!), try branching out in your selection of plants. Consider more perennials, more audacious annuals, even a dwarf conifer (provided it will survive the winter). No reason for your window boxes to be disposable. Let your imagination go!

    Enjoy, KL

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    Lilac Pruning

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in northern Washington state, I wonder if it helps increase the blossoms on lilacs to prune them, and if so, when? Currently the bushes are about 15 feet tall.

    I don't know whether you aren't getting flowers or aren't getting enough flowers. I wouldn't prune just in the hopes of more blooms, but I would prune to improve the shape, air circulation and amount of sunlight that's reaching all branches of the tree. The best time to prune is right after blooming, but that's just a good-to-know rule to avoid inadvertently cutting off next year's flowers. You can certainly prune now.

    Best, KL

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    Evening Primrose

    Dear Doyenne,
    A neighbor of mine in Yellow Springs, Ohio, had a plant that was magic. A tall bushy type yielded a lovely set of buds that at dusk opened slowly, like time-lapse photography, as all the neighbors watched. The yellow flower lasted through the night and was gone the next day, to repeat each evening for several weeks. Needless to say the block was busy and friendly for many reasons but the season of the magic yellow flower (with lovely neighborhood chatter and a favorite glass of wine while standing close to the magic) was priceless. Anyway, my mind has gone back to that time and the neighbor has moved and someone cut it down. The blossom was yellow (similar to a yellow day lily color) and the seeds were black, small and round (similar to morning glory seeds). Can you help? I have tried several versions that plant experts have given me locally and none are the right one.


    Sounds to me like evening primrose, the genus Oenothera. Could be any number of species. You could check out pix of O. missouriensis (aka O. macrocarpa) among others in a plant encyclopedia.

    Good luck, KL

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    Nevada Gardening

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in the Reno, Nevada area. While I love our lifestyle here, gardening is another subject. The soil here is dry, solid as a rock, full of clay-like globs, and pretty much lacking in any nutrients. When I bought this property, there were mature trees and shrubs in sorry shape from neglect, they are now much improved with regular care. My deck faces southwest and gets the fierce sun year-round. The other half is in the shade most of the time. Please! What can I plant in these areas that will survive the heat, cold, horrible soil and be kind enough to come back year after year?



    Actually, there's so much you can do in Reno, you'll be amazed. Before I go on, let me suggest you get a hold of the High Country Gardens catalog from Santa Fe. You'll be able to grow a great deal of the plants in there.

    In the meantime, how's this for a list?

    Rosa glauca
    Rosa rugosa
    Lilacs - LOVE RENO
    Deciduous barberries - Berberis thunbergii types
    Ceanothus 'Glory of Versaille'-might be tough to find

    Delosperma cooperi - hardy iceplant
    Papaver orientalis - Oriental Poppy
    Thyme- all kinds thrive and take hot, dry conditions
    Hemerocallis - Day lily-part shade to full sun
    lily- part montana - good part shade, full sun
    Aquilegias - Columbines- good in part shade
    Colugood - Globe Mallows- blasting hot sun, poor soil.
    Salvia verticillata - 'May Night' 'East Friesland'
    Salvia dorii
    Opuntia basilaris
    Opuntia ocymoides
    Opuntia humifusum

    Now, get gardening! Best, KL

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    California Shade Tree

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in Santa Ana -- Southern California -- inland but fairly near the water (8 or 10 miles). My big apricot tree in the backyard died a year ago (we've lived here 40 years and it was full-grown when we moved in -- so it probably died of old age -- but it had bores or something like that, too) -- it provided us lots of shade for the two bedrooms on the west side of the house as well as a nice view from the windows -- we need a quick-growing easy-to-maintain inexpensive shade tree to plant ASAP. Also, when the old tree was removed, we did not dig out the roots. please give us your best advice. in the meantime, i plan to get a couple of arbors and plant some vines.

    Thank you,

    You've got lots of options; here's a few for fast-growing trees to 25' that will thrive in Orange County:

    Eucalyptus nicholii: nice and not huge, casts light shade, not messy, evergreen

    Eucalyptus torquata: apricot flowers, fast growth, evergreen

    Hymenosporum flavum: Sweet Shade, fragrant yellow flowers

    Agonis flexuosa: weeping tree to 20', tough, fast, evergreen.

    Acmena smithii: Lilly Pilly tree, grows to 20' quickly, evergreen.

    Best of luck, KL

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    Blossomless Orange Blossom

    Dear Doyenne,
    I have an orange blossom shrub, planted at least 15 years ago, that lives and grows in eastern Connecticut but refuses to flower. This year, no flowers at all. Other years, perhaps 6-8 flowers. It stands immediately next to the east side of our house, and it has pachysandra growing (well) at its feet. I feed it superphosphate in the spring and have both pruned (heavily) and not pruned it from one year to the next. Is this just a freeloader?


    My first guess is that your Philadelphus may need more sun; afternoon shade could be the culprit. Also be sure to prune only after flowering (what little there is, anyway) since the shrub blooms on second-year wood. That means that pruning any earlier than July will result in the removal of potentially blooming wood. If you think the plant gets enough sun and you've been pruning the right way, then compost that freeloader, get a new plant, and put it in the sunniest possible spot.

    Enjoy, KL

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    More Shade for California

    Dear Doyenne,
    Two years ago I moved to Southern California (eastern San Diego) from Michigan and I’m still adapting to the climate change and learning about growing plants in these semi-arid conditions.

    Okay, the question – I bought a house that has a mature (read: on its last legs) Lacebark Elm in the back yard. The tree’s broad, tall canopy lightly shades nearly the entire south-facing back yard and cools the back part of the house – which is a blessing in the summer. My question is this: is there a tree that I can plant young as an “understory tree” under the span of the elm that can take over in a few years when the messy old tree finally goes? I want to minimize the number of years the back yard must be exposed to the full force of the sun.

    I am a big fan of water conservation, so I would love to plant a drought-tolerant tree, or one that needs infrequent watering. I am enamored with the “Raywood” Ash that is grown in my neighborhood. Would he be an option?

    Thank you!

    'Raywood Ash' would be an excellent choice! As would the following:
    Ficus carica (fruiting fig)
    Lyonothamnus floribundus 'Asplenifolius' (Catalina Ironwood; native)
    Acmena smithii (Lillypilly Tree)
    Quercus agrifolia (Coast Live Oak; native)

    Enjoy! KL

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    Cactus in Florida

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live near Tallahassee, Florida (USDA zone 8B), and would like to grow some true cacti that would tolerate our wet winters. We have native Opuntias (prickly pears are common)- I would like to try some Cholla types (they look cool). I have seen some barrell genera that are successful here - but the owners cannot give an I.D. In one case the owner confessed to having rustled some from west Texas. My wife and I recently vacationed in Arizona which has rekindled my love for cacti (years ago I played with them as house plants).


    The reason your native opuntias do so well is that they can handle the wet. But most cacti can handle rain during the warm season when they are growing and evaporation is very high. Given then, if I were you, I'd try just about anything that can handle a little frost. And as a little drainage insurance, you could add pumice or coarsegravel to your soil.

    Plants you might try include Echinocerus, Cereus peruvianus and Echinopsis). Chollas are opuntias and should do well.

    Experiment! I bet you'll be much more successful than you think.

    Best, KL

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