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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 bulb care and whitefly eradication to lawn alternatives. 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 Archive of Enquiry that the Doyenne has already answered. Good clean fun for the whole family.

This week's questions:

  • Here Comes the Running Bamboo!
  • What's an Innoculant?
  • Corn Gluten to Control Weeds
  • Lemon Tree Rehab
  • Keep Your Acer in the Shade
  • Scraggly Woodruff and Bloomless Wisteria
  • An Encyclopedic Treatise on Gourds

    Here Comes the Running Bamboo!

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in Portland, and my dear neighbors planted some really gorgeous bamboo that they didn't contain very well. It's sending runners into the lawn along my veggie bed, and we're both researching how to deal with the situation. Remove bamboo (maybe replace with clumping variety)? If they don't want to do that, what sort of barrier is called for?

    Thank you!

    Your bamboo is most likely running towards your veggie bed because it's been irrigated, and the soil is deep and lovely. To stop its spread, you (or your neighbor) will need to use barriers. Fortunately, we've just done a bamboo segment on Weekend Edition Saturday, and everything you need to know about growing and stopping bamboo is on our feature,
    Look Who's Planting Bamboo!

    Best, KL

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    What's an Innoculant?

    Dear Doyenne,
    Perhaps a bit outside the garden proper, Ketzel, but what is it with seeds that must have "innoculant" soaked in milk or 7-Up to prep them for sprouting? I'm about to sew birdsfoot trefoil in a woodland area to hold dirt and feed birds.

    Also, do you have anything useful to get rid of or or at least control voles? Don't seem to be enough mousetraps in circulation to neutralize my vole population in a 60-foot-long fieldstone planter.

    Happy Spring!

    I've never heard of milk or 7-Up as an innoculant; in fact, I suspect the acidity of either of those substances would inhibit germination. Soil innoculant is a dormant bacteria that is mixed as a fine dust over the seed of legumes before they are sown; this provides the legume with the nitrogen-fixing bacteria immediately so that they do not have to attract the bacteria themselves. In essence, it speeds up the whole process and adds vigor as well as soil nutrients for legumes or cover crops.
    As far as the voles are concerned, the most lethal thing I'll recommend is a herd of cats.

    All the best to you, KL

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    Corn Gluten to Control Weeds

    Dear Doyenne,
    I heard something about spreading a corn waste product as an organic pre-emergent weed control. I believe that it works by withering the initial teeny little root that the weed seed (or any seed, for that matter) sends out. What exactly is this stuff, and how do I get some? We live in Z4, Cooperstown, N.Y. (home of the Baseball Hall of Fame and every hardy perennial weed on the planet!).


    What you want is corn gluten meal, which causes a fungus to proliferate and makes small weed seedlings "damp-off," or rot, after they germinate. It's fairly inexpensive, has little or no effect on established plants, and is sold in most garden centers and feed stores under the brand name Supressa.

    Enjoy, KL

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    Lemon Tree Rehab

    Say Ketzel,
    I have a lemon tree that I got in August of 2001. I live in Colorado (zone 4), so I have it in a pot in the house. We moved in December to a new location about 20 minutes away from the old. The boys put the lemon tree in the back of the open truck and its brand new leaves froze. I thought it was doing better when the leaves started getting really sticky and some of them had these brown scale-like things on them. It is now covered in the sticky residue, the branches and trunk are full of the scales, and the old leaves. Its new leaves are drooping and dying. The weather is dry so I watch the hibiscus who keeps the lemon tree company for watering clues. Please help me revive this tree.


    Very clever of you to use the hibiscus to indicate when to water the lemon. A stressed lemon tree (especially an indoor one) is very susceptible to pests; scale is often the first blight to appear. The cure is drastic: Remove all of the affected leaves and dispose of them -- new, old, everything -- and reduce your lemon to a deciduous tree (put the discarded leaves in the garbage, not the compost). Also make sure there is no scale on the tree's limbs (or on its friend, the hibiscus). Repot the lemon into fresh soil and keep it well-watered but not soggy in a bright, sunny window with good air circulation. You might also move it outside to a bright-but-not-broiling location during the warmest months of the year.

    Enjoy, KL

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    Keep Your Acer in the Shade

    Dear Doyenne,
    I have seen suggestions that Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum' is suited only for shade or partial sun. Would that be true of our location in Zone 6 as well? We do not want to plant a lovely tree only to inherit a batch of burned foliage.


    Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum' will burn if exposed to direct sunlight for more than six hours; in particular, it needs protection from noon until 4:00 p.m. The species is adapted to and grows best in the dappled shade of overstory trees. Hopefully, you can offer it close to the same.

    Best, KL

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    Scraggly Woodruff and Bloomless Wisteria

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in Gig Harbor, Wash., and have had a nice bed of sweet woodruff for about 10 years (it was planted by the previous owners of my house who were real gardening whiz-kids). Last year it got scraggly and I tried replanting with some new plants, but they didn't take either. It's almost gone, although I tried again to plant some new starts in it. It was so pretty before! What do I do?

    One of the few plants which have survived my efforts is the wisteria, but it has only a few blooms while my neighbor's is absolutely covered in blooms -- theirs seems like it has no leaves, but mine has all leaves and no flowers!


    It's possible that the foliage on your sweet woodruff might have died back if the soil dried out and/or the area's become too sunny or dry. The plant loves part-to-full shade and moist soil. You may need to offer your plants supplemental water, especially if they are growing under established trees where root competition is sucking the area dry.

    Depending on how old your wisteria is, do know that young plants can take up to eight or ten years before they flower, especially if started from seed. Other reasons wisteria fail to bloom: lack of adequate sunlight (needs at least six hours of full sunlight); too much nitrogen fertilizer (causes more vegetative growth); pruned heavily in winter or spring (also encourages vigorous vegetative growth); severe winter injury/cold-blasted flower buds (though that is clearly not a problem this year) or a bum plant. It happens.

    Hope this helps, KL

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    An Encyclopedic Treatise on Gourds

    Dear Doyenne,
    What is the definition of a gourd? Does it have to come from a vine or a herbaceous plant? The "gourds" in Haiti (at least that's what they're called in French and Creole) grow on trees, they are huge and super heavy, and I believe the currency in Haiti is named after them.


    File this under the heading: Be Careful What You Ask For! I sent your question to the librarian at the Morton Arboretum, and here's his encyclopedic reply.

    Best, KL

    I love questions like this, because, in the first place, they demonstrate the usefulness of scientific over common names, whereas, in the second place, they demonstrate that common names mean something, too. In this case, gourd is originally a French noun (spelled la gourde) which derives from the Latin "Cucurbita", and means, in French, a gourd, a calabash [about which, more anon], a wicker bottle or flask or wineskin; an idiot or fathead!

    The Oxford English Dictionary states the following English usage of "gourd" as 1. A large fleshy fruit of trailing or climbing plants of the natural order Cucurbitaceae, specifically the fruit of Lagenaria vulgaris (the bottle gourd), which when dried and hollowed out is used as a vessel; 2. applied to plants of the orders with fruits resembling those of the Cucurbitaceae (for example, the calabash, or sausage tree); 3. the 'shell' or whole rind of the fruit dried and excavated, used as a water bottle, float, rattle, etc. (see also the 'calabash'.)

    Tropical Crops/Dicotyledons 2 volumes, by J. W. Purseglove, John Wiley, 1968 (still one of the most useful references out there for tropical crop plants) lists the following "gourds", mostly Cucurbitaceae:

    1. Lagenaria siceraria (formerly vulgaris) or the bottle gourd, now spread throughout the tropical and warmer regions of the world; it is also called the white-flowered gourd and the calabash gourd, but should not be confused with the true calabash, which is the fruit of Cresentia cujete, a small West Indian tree of the Bignoniaceae. Digression on the calabash follows. Purseglove says the calabash is native to tropical America and the West Indies and is now widespread throughout the tropics (read Africa and Asia), whose fruits are large, globular or oval, up to 25 cm in diameter, with hard dry walls when ripe (bat-pollinated flowers!!). The thin, durable woody shells of the fruits, which can be polished and carved, are used as containers and other domestic utensils, as ornaments, and for percussion musical instruments. Calabashes have been found in archaeological sites in Peru. (Kigelia africana is the sausage tree, also in this family.) One or both of these may be the African tree referred to in your e-mail.

    2. Back to the Cucurbitaceae, another species called the "bitter gourd" is Momordica charantia. It also goes by the local names of bitter cucumber or balsam pear. Young bitter fruits are cooked and eaten as a vegetable in India and the Far East. It also finds its way into curries and the fruit may be pickled. Its original home is unknown except that records indicate it was there in the Old World tropics and taken to Brazil early in the slave trade and became widespread in the tropics. Its name is the only thing typically gourdy about it.

    3. Trichosanthes cucumerina or "snake gourd" is similar to number 2 -- gourdy in name only. The immature fruits are cooked as a vegetable. It occurs wild from India to Australia and occasionally one finds it grown in the West Indies.

    That just about exhausts the information on gourds that I can turn up. I hope this helps your gourd-quest.

    Michael Stieber/Library Administrator and Reference

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