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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:

  • Camperdown Elm Rescue
  • Killing Vinca With Kindness
  • High Maintenance Bonsai Bouganvilla
  • No Maintenance Laurel
  • Mealy Bug Mania
  • Return of the Squirrel Bandits
  • Lucy the Lab Loathes Lawn
  • Milky Spores For Beetle Control

    Camperdown Elm Rescue

    Dear Doyenne,
    We have a 4 or 5-year-old Camperdown Elm. This spring we transplanted it to our new house. The tree is about 6 feet tall and wide. The old location was very shady and moist, while the new location is full sun, with rocky soil. We have kept it well-watered without fail since transplanting, but now its leaves are curling up and it doesn't look happy. My husband thinks we should transplant it again in the fall to a shadier location with better soil, but I think that would be harder on the tree and that its problems are probably due to transplant shock rather than location. What's your advice?

    Thank you!

    Since I have no idea where you garden (be sure to include your locations, folks!), I'm guessing that either the sale of the house or the state of the thaw in your area made it impossible for you to transplant the tree any earlier. Unfortunately, April is often way too late in the season to ensure decent root growth. Having said that, let's see what we can do.

    What's happening is that the tree lost at least 90% of its roots when transplanted. It then began to leaf out, and even though it has been watered, there is no way for this tree to take up enough water to replace what the leaves are transpiring. That's why it's withering.

    You'll like my first piece of advice: stick with your gut and leave the tree where it is. Then remove any encroaching groundcovers (particularly grass), and mulch heavily. I'd suggest a tree skirt of 12 feet diameter (a big circle, yes, but it's a big tree, too). Continue to water through summer and fall.

    Odds are good your tree will recover nicely.

    Best of luck, KL

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    Killing Vinca With Kindness

    Dear Doyenne,
    I planted vinca plants in an east-facing bed in front of my house in Northwest Arkansas. It receives sunshine until sun passes over the house.

    Many of the plants have leaves that are turning yellow. One plant looks about dead. I have watered them every night and have twice given them Miracle Grow but more seem to be turning yellow.

    What should I do now?

    You're overwatering. You need to let the plants dry out more. Test the soil moisture in the morning (using your finger, very low tech!), and if it's dry, water then (preferably not in the evening). If the soil's damp, don't do a thing. Vinca are susceptible to fungal rot and I fear you're setting up the perfect conditions for this disease.

    Also, I suggest you back off on Miracle Gro immediately. Too much fertilizer can kill a plant; depending on your soil, you may not need any. If you must fertilize, use products that are slow-acting, such as Osmocote or cottonseed meal (also soy or alfalfa meal) if you're certain you're soil's poor in nutrients and bereft of worms. Finally, use a nice layer of mulch around your plants to cool the soil temperature, retain moisture, and maintain good soil health. Give the guys a little time and they're bound to perk up.

    Best of luck, KL

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    High Maintenance Bonsai Bouganvilla

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live in Denver, Colorado and I have a bonsai bouganvilla plant. I read that it needs a lot of light so I left it outside and watered it every day because it is so dry and hot here. It was in full bloom when I bought it and now the petals are falling off and the branches are turning brown and hard. What should I do to care for my plant?


    A bouganvilla bonsai sounds like it might be a bit difficult to take care of, and will need several things to maintain its good looks. Bear in mind that a bonsai is a plant that has been seriously compromised, so it's important to supply it with a constant supply of everything that it needs.

    Bright light such as an open north exposure would be best, as you want to avoid letting sun hit (and heat) the pot. Make sure you don't let it dry out completely between waterings (this is a fine line, because neither do you want it soaked). Your best bet is to water twice a week thoroughly, so that water is running out of the bottom and the pot feels heavy when you pick it up. Finally, add a 1/2 dilution of liquid plant food to the water each time, to make sure it gets the nutrients it's otherwise lacking in a small pot.

    Tricky stuff! KL

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    No Maintenance Laurel

    Dear Doyenne,
    My wife and I are neophytes to gardening in Portland, OR. My mother (who lives in nearby Eugene) has offered us some wonderful, fast-growing Portugal laurel. What conditions are best for it? Sun or shade, lots of water or just when the dirt is dry, proper fertilizer?



    Portuguese Laurel, Laurus lusitanica, is a very easy to grow and reliable plant for our Pacific Northwest climate. It's adapted to drought, not bothered by pests and disease and can take our coldest temperatures. It's also well adapted to sun or shade. For the most lustrous and compact habit, grow it in full sun and average, well-drained soil.

    If you're going to plant it now, in summer, make a small basin around each plant and fill it with water every 3 days or so. Also mulch around the base to keep the surface of the soil from drying out. Keep this regime up until you see new growth, then a good deep soaking once a week should suffice. Finally, pruning: anytime but late summer or early fall.

    Enjoy, KL

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    Mealy Bug Mania

    Dear Doyenne,
    While not being a green thumb, I do have interior house plants I've managed to keep alive for years. At some point mealy bugs entered the picture. They've now spread to a number of plants. I have an arsenal of spray-on pesticides and chemicals, but nothing seems to do the job. To make matters more complex, some of the plants are hard to reach - large/heavy, up high on ledges. There really isn't an option to take then out of the house for super treatments or wipe down each leaf. Main plants under siege are succulents (various cacti), a ponytail palm, asparagus fern, several large dracaena, and some philodendrons. What's the real story - are they doomed?

    Desperate and sticky,

    No easy answer here. Sounds like you've tried just about every option. Wiping them down is the best solution, even though it sounds overwhelming (and from what you describe, sometimes impossible). I can't really think of anything more... aside from taking cuttings of your favorite plants, making sure they are free of mealy bugs, and then, clean house. Sometimes you just have to start with a clean slate when growing plants in compromising conditions.

    Have you checked other sites that specialize in houseplants? Including chat rooms? Could be some solution out there I can't even imagine.

    Good luck! KL

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    Return of the Squirrel Bandits

    Dear Doyenne,
    Help! My tiny San Francisco bay area backyard is blessed with a peach tree, an Asian pear and a very prolific lemon. Unfortunately, I only get to taste the lemons, as the squirrels steal everything else. The Asian pear produced one pear 2 years ago, none last year, but is producing a few dozen this year. Unfortunately I am already finding crab apple sized green pears littering the yard, half eaten. The peaches are also being eaten before they ripen. What could you suggest to combat this plague of furry rodents? Screaming at them has not worked.


    Nothing will keep the squirrels away short of physical barriers. If it's a small yard and small trees, you might drape the trees with lightweight fabric (such as the kind used to keep birds away from cherries). As an experiment, you might also try spraying the fruit with pepper spray to deter them (but please remember to wash the fruit before eating it yourself!).

    Keep me posted, KL

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    Lucy the Lab Loathes Lawn

    Dear Doyenne,
    We live in Portland, have clay soil, and a yard dominated by Douglas firs. We've just learned that our 1-year-old black Lab, Lucy, is chewing, licking and scratching herself to distraction because she is allergic to GRASS. We need help in finding alternative ground covers that can withstand foot traffic.

    Thanks in advance from the family and Lucy, dog/running buddy extraordinaire.

    So sorry for Lucy! But good for you, getting rid of the lawn. I don't know how much foot traffic you're talking about, but most nice groundcovers can't stand too much, so you might consider paths through the plants. A couple of plants to look into for shade: Liriope (grassy mounds to 8"), Lamium (low flowering groundcover), Epimedium (semi-evergreen with early yellow spring flowers), Euphorbia amydaloides var. robbiae (evergreen; my favorite for dry shade), Asarum (wild ginger), Galium (sweet woodruff), and Oregon oxalis (local clover). Creative enough suggestions?

    Best of luck, KL

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    Milky Spores For Beetle Control

    Dear Doyenne,
    I've heard that using Milky spore will keep Japanese beetles away from roses. Is this true, or do you have another suggestion?


    Milky spore -- applied to lawns, and around trees and shrubs -- is a great way to control Japanese beetles while they're still in their immature larval (grub) stage. Ultimately, this will provide long-term control. But now that the beetles have emerged, you're going to need traps. Just be sure to place them away from your prized plants, since the traps will attract more beetles. If your infestation is not terrible, you could harvest them in the morning when they're not too active and dump them in a a bucket of soapy water.

    For more on Japanese beetle control, check out the August 23, 2001 Q&A.

    Best, KL

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