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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 I've already answered. Good clean fun for the whole family.

This week's questions:

  • Dog-Proofing the Garden
  • Slugs Love Herbs
  • Bulb Refrigeration
  • California Fuchsia
  • Herbicidal Maniac
  • Indoor Herb No-Fly Zone
  • Cranky Crabapple

    Dog-Proofing the Garden

    Dear Doyenne,

    I have two very active Belgian Sheepdogs (who are indoor dogs) for whom I have fenced in my 1 acre backyard. When I moved into my house, the backyard had a very nice landscape design and some interesting trees, flowers, and shrubs. Now it has what my husband and I refer to as "the Belgian Racetrack", a labyrinth of deeply-grooved paths that crisscross the yard. It's not entirely unappealing, and I would like to incorporate these tracks into my landscape plan. Here are my questions:

    1. Can you suggest a way to make the paths rainproof that isn't terribly expensive? We're talking about 1/2 mile of dirt track around the backyard that, during the spring thaw, becomes what I would imagine to be the perfect mud-wrestling pit. Clean house + muddy dogs = much frustration!

    2. Can you suggest a hardy groundcover that I can plant around my shrubs and flowerbeds so that, even if 'the boys' do run through them, it won't look like someone went through with a backhoe?

    Thanks, in advance, for your welcome suggestions!


    First off, let me say that I LOVE your idea of incorporating the racetrack into your landscape design. This is an excellent solution to dealing with dog traffic, going -- if you will -- with the flow.

    One relatively inexpensive way to make the paths less muddy is by using a mulch that's commonly known as hog fuel (I kid you not). It's just coarsely shredded pine bark, the kind you often see on jogging paths, outdoor tracks, and well-kept hiking paths. The large pieces of shredded wood knit together to form a raft of sorts that sits above muddy soil.

    As for a groundcover, go for the cheap stuff you can buy in growers' flats. Vinca, pachysandra and ivy come to mind, each more boring than the next, but cheap and utilitarian.

    Give those Belgians a big wet one from me, KL

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    Slugs Love Herbs

    Dear Doyenne,
    I garden in Loma Linda, CA. My worry is that the herb plants (dill, thyme, and basil) I have been putting in my flower beds are being "stripped" of their leaves -- the last one I put out was leafless within two days. This happened with the thyme and basil initially about two months ago, and with the dill plant last week. The plants themselves stay intact, just naked! My father suggested that perhaps I was having trouble with slugs. I am more than willing to put out slug bait, but I also have two large dogs and am concerned about whether that could be poisonous to them (by the way, I do know it's not the dogs eating the plants). Interestingly, I planted a lavender plant in the same bed, and it seems to be fine. Any ideas? Thanks for your great info!


    Sounds like snails; definitely their modus operandi. You wouldn't believe how fast these creatures move when a big juicy basil plant is on the menu. Slug bait IS poisonous to dogs and all manner of creatures and I cannot recommend it unless you use it responsibly -- that is, put the bait in the bottom of a bottle, and lay the bottle on its side near the plants. Other options are copper strips around your plants, crushed egg shells, hand-picking at night, or -- my own preference for slug control -- a product with iron phosphate mixed with non-toxic bait. Incidentally, while the snails may not like to eat the lavender, there's a good chance they hang out inside the bush during the day.

    Happy hunting, KL

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    Bulb Refrigeration

    Dear Doyenne,
    I bought a box of bulbs last fall to plant for spring. I live in Alabama and would have been able to plant them as late as December. I didn't get them planted in October or November as I should have, and we have had an unusually cold winter. I kept waiting for a warm spell in December, but we didn't have one. Now it's too late. Somebody told me to keep the bulbs in the refrigerator and plant them next fall. Can I do this?

    Also, I did't get to trim my one climbing rose bush either for the same reason -- too cold. Any suggestions on that?

    Thank you.

    Mary Beth

    Mary Beth,
    You may be able to store your bulbs in a refrigerator if you make sure they're in a sealed container, safe from the drying effects of freon. But why bother, when you might just as easily plant them. They'll probably abort their flowers this year, but if you plant them with a high phospherous fertilizer, they may soak up enough nutrients to flower next spring.

    And if you haven't already pruned that rose, start hacking! The fun has yet to start.

    Best, KL

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    California Fuchsia

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in Seal Beach, Californnia and my California fuchsia has been blooming all winter and now is looking very sad and loosing leaves. Can you help?



    Your California fuchsia (Zauschneria) is fatigued! It needs some down time. Cut it right back to the ground and let it rejuvenate from the base. In several months, the plant will look glorious, and ready to bloom again.

    Time for you to start hacking, too. KL

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    Herbicidal Maniac

    Dear Doyenne,
    In a last-ditch effort to reverse my lifelong trend of instantly destroying any plant unlucky enough to brought within 30 yards of my home, my mother gave me this little succulent plant. She has about a million of them, and she says to me, "Nobody can kill this plant. Don't water it. Don't pay it any attention. If you can't grow this, you can't grow anything." Yeah, it's dead now.

    I tried not watering it (well hardly ever), and it quickly shriveled. I started watering it (a theoretically moderate amount) about once a week, and it died within three weeks. My mother the Green Thumb has declared me a hopeless case. I SO desperately love live plants, and I SO badly want to be able to grow something -- anything! Is there anything besides fungus that's truly unkillable, especially in sticky southeastern Georgia? And what's up with succulents, anyway?


    Herbicidal Maniac
    (Stop me before I kill again)

    What are we gonna do with you? Well, let's absolve you first. There's nothing easy about house plants, even the succulent ones. Got any outdoor real estate? Let's plant a shrub.

    How about a gardenia? I hear they grow like weeds. Rumor has it you can take a pot of gardenias, put it right on top of the soil and it'll root into the ground. Another tough shrub is the Florida anise tree, Illicium floridanum, which gets 6'-10' and needs part shade and average soil. If you truly love live plants, skip the indoor kind. I make a habit of it and hereby set you free!


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    Indoor Herb No-Fly Zone

    Dear Doyenne,
    Help! How can I get rid of (as far as I can tell) fruit flies in my window herb garden. I live in cold Michigan and I tried putting the plants out on my balcony just long enough to kill the flies but not the plants. Well, the plants died and I had to buy all new herbs. I assume that the flies entered my house when I brought them in from the store where they were purchased. I would like to keep the plants organic. I have already tried spraying them with mild soap and water and murphy's oil soap and water. But the flies are completely unfazed. I would greatly appreciate any advice you could offer. P.S. I love your show.



    Hi Daniele,
    The pests you're describing are more than likely fungus gnats, not fruit flies. The best way to control them is to cover the surface of the soil with gravel or pebbles right up to the trunks of the plants. Fungus gnats thrive in open, moist soil and this will deprive them of a habitat.

    Give it a shot. KL

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    Cranky Crabapple

    Dear Doyenne,
    I have several crab apple trees in my yard. They are fairly large mature trees, bloom beautiful pink flowers every spring, and stay healthy and normal until the first signs of humid weather (in NJ, that can be anywhere from May to July). As soon as the weather gets a little warm and the humidity jumps up a little the leaves start to turn yellow and brown, turn up on the edges and eventually fall off. By July they are at least 50% bare and by September they really look sad. They bear a few apples but it seems that has been reduced since the problem has occurred. I would like to save them before my wife has them cut down (not really but her complaining is driving me nuts). Would appreciate any help/advice you can provide.



    Your crabapple problem is not uncommon with older varieties of the genus that are susceptible to rust, scab, fireblight, you name it. The best control BEFORE buds break is to cover the tree with a dormant spray. Depending on how large your trees are, you might need to hire someone to do it. If you want to try it yourself, buy Bordeaux mix (a copper/sulfate spray) which can be applied with a hose-end sprayer (follow directions on the bottle). Something else to consider is having the trees pruned to insure good air circulation through their crowns. Also, be sure you discard old leaves and fruit as they drop (do not compost them).

    Good Luck, KL

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