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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:

  • Berryless Holly
  • Gardenia and Phalaenopsis
  • Early Bloomin' Narcissus
  • Ailing Potted Plants
  • Avocado Plant Plight
  • Patio Under Maple

    Berryless Holly

    Dear Doyenne,
    We have holly trees but no berries. How can we tell what sex they are, so that we can find a mate of the opposite gender?

    Thanks,
    Joan

    Joan,
    As you have astutely noted, hollies are dioecious, which means that male and female occur on different plants. Odds are yours is female. I'm hoping you know what species and/or variety you're growing since that's the key to finding a suitable male counterpart for pollination (it's all in the timing). Beyond that, the rule of thumb is that you need one male holly for every seven or ten female hollies.

    Best of luck, KL

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    Gardenia and Phalaenopsis

    Dear Doyenne,
    I received a gorgeous indoor gardenia for my birthday. It is huge and covered with buds, but I am notorious for killing plants and I would like to see this one live. I have it in a southern window that gets sun mostly in the afternoons (if there is any sun). I live in the Pacific Northwest, so we have quite a few dark, rainy days without much sun, and my house has windows facing North and South primarily. Also, the plant seems a little "wilty" and I wonder if I'm not watering enough, or if watering too much?

    Also, my daughter gave me a phalaenopsis orchid for Christmas, which I suspect was cold-shocked before she got it -- the leaves have a weird gelatinous texture and the roots look very dry. Is there some sort of emergency treatment we can give it? I have it in the same southern window as the gardenia, where it is pretty shaded most of the day.

    Thanks for your help. I feel like the plant emergency department sometimes!
    Lauren

    Lauren,
    This may sound strange, counterintuitive, and even a little brutal, but put the gardenia outside under a covered porch. Gardenias grow wonderfully in the Pacific Northwest if they are put in a pot outside, watered when they are dry and fertilized each time you water them during the growing season (April to October). Only bring your gardenia inside if the temperature threatens to drop below 20F. Gardenias are hardy, even in pots, down to that temperature. Indoors, they suffer horribly from low light and dry air. They are also prone to pests indoors. You might repot the gardenia into a slightly bigger pot with fresh soil as well.

    Regarding the Phalaenopsis: Keep it in a sunny window but not with direct light (which sounds like what you are doing) and let it dry out between waterings. Then, each time you do water, add an all-purpose orchid food at half the recommended feeding rate.

    Enjoy yourself, KL

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    Early Bloomin' Narcissus

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in Los Angeles, and I can't figure out why I have my narcissus bulbs blooming in late December and early January. We've had two short rainy days, and I keep the bulbs in the ground all year. I don't water much in the fall, so I haven't encouraged them to sprout, but they have, and will be gone before I know it. Is it our warm weather which fools them?

    Thanks,
    Gladys

    Gladys,
    It is very normal for bulbs such as Narcissus to bloom in December and January in your area. Because there is a lack of pronounced winter chill, the bulbs respond to the temperatures of the soil and sprout leaves, which in turn respond to the lengthening days as a signal to bloom. I've heard of people having limited success in delaying bloom by pouring ice on the areas where the bulbs are (sounds silly to me). A better idea might be to try varieties that naturally bloom later, such as Narcissus 'Hawera' or N. 'Pheasant Eye'. Then again, you could break out of the box and try South African bulbs, beauties such as Watsonia, Freesias, or Tritonia, none of which require much chill and bloom naturally in spring.

    Enjoy, KL

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    Ailing Potted Plants

    Dear Doyenne,
    I reside in Portland, Ore., and I'm having trouble with two potted plants. One is a President Lincoln Lilac which we bought about two years ago and a trumpet honeysuckle (also potted). They are currently on my small front stone verandah next to my mailbox.

    It's probably normal for these plants to lose most of their leaves this time of year, but they are not doing well at all and I don't think they have much time left! Please help, I really want to keep them alive.

    Deepest thanks,
    Donna

    Donna,
    Guess what? Both of those plants are ill-suited to containers. If you can put them in the ground they would be much, much happier. The one lilac that might thrive in a container is the smaller Korean lilac, 'Miss Kim' (a very different look in a lilac), as long as you keep it well-watered through summer. Similarly, if you're looking for a flowering vine that would thrive in a pot, consider the star jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminoides or T. asiaticum. They are both evergreen twining vines that do require some protection when the temperature drops below 20F, but are much smaller and therefore better suited to container life. Also, they are incredibly fragrant and long blooming, lasting the summer.

    Hope this helps, KL

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    Avocado Plant Plight

    Dear Doyenne,
    I have three avocado plants in desperate need of help. Two of them we got through mail order and one is being grown from a pit. The leaves of all three plants get silvery spots, then black spots, and then they fall off and die. None of our other house plants show any sign of disease.

    Thanks,
    Debra

    Debra,
    Water your avocado plants from the base, and wait for the soil to dry out between waterings. Also, take care not to get water on the leaves. To rid the plants of fungus, you might try spraying the leaves with a sulphur-based fungicide. Do this outside on a warm, but not hot day, in the shade, making sure you have good air circulation. Finally, don't be afraid to remove and dispose of the most affected leaves.

    Best of luck, KL

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    *****

    Patio Under Maple

    Dear Doyenne,
    There is a large big-leaf maple in a lot just the other side of my fence line. As you can imagine, all that grows there are some patches of weedy grass. However, the dog and I decided that under the tree is the coolest spot in the yard in high summer. I'd like to lay some broken up concrete slabs down for a patio under the tree. I'm thinking of spacing them 1-2 inches apart and putting scotch moss in the cracks. I could even leave larger gaps if it would help get water to the roots. I'm not going for a formal look and I gave up on perfection long ago. Somehow I need even-ish ground -- either digging down a bit or building up a bit or both. Can this be done without harming the tree too much?

    Thanks,
    Traci and Dog

    Traci and litter mate (that's how my friends describe Della and me),
    Yes, you can go ahead with your plan without worrying about harming the tree. Big-leaf maples have enormous root systems, so it would be very difficult for you to do enough damage for the tree to notice. Unless, of course, it's just a sapling. Since that clearly isn't the case, have fun.

    Enjoy, KL

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