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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:

  • Freaky Cut Flowers
  • When in Doubt, Don't Fertilize
  • Peony Buds Turn Brown
  • Tree-Climbing Ivy
  • Groundcover on Hill
  • Groundcover under Spruce
  • Redbud Propogation

    Freaky Cut Flowers

    Dear Doyenne,
    A few weeks ago, my husband and I went to visit my mother-in-law, and she had the most unusual looking long-stemmed display in a vase in her living room. The leaves on the long stems were a bronze color and leathery on one side; on the other side, they were almost a flourescent purple. Never seen anything like it before. Stems seemed like they were made out of rolled paper or something. How can such colors and textures exist in nature? Is this a real plant, or just a hoax on the part of the store?


    It's a real plant, all right: Banksia integrifolia, native to Australia and a favorite in the cut-flower industry. The 'hoax' part is that after the foliage (stem) was cut, the plant was placed in a container with a highly absorbent dye. The stem wicked up the color and distributed it throughout the inside of the leaves and stems; thus, the otherworldly Star Trek effect. In essence, the growers/florists took an already exotic-looking plant and tarted it up with dye to make it look even more... exotic. The same freakish procedure is frequently used on carnations: that's how they get the blue-and-green-tipped petals. Funny, huh?

    Best, KL

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    When in Doubt, Don't Fertilize

    Dear Doyenne,
    I'm kind of new to this dirty-hands business and I have no clue how to get really basic information, like when to start fertilizing my flowering plants and bulbs in the spring and what to use when I have a bunch of different kinds of plants. Everything I read seems to assume a certain amount of knowledge and, for instance, it seems difficult to get the information for what and when to feed tulips. Got any ideas?

    Thank you so much,

    Welcome to the fun world of gardening. You are on the right track: reading gardening magazines, looking at books and asking neighbors what works for them is all part of the learning process.

    However, not everything needs to be fertilized, especially if you have amended your soil and continue to use mulch/compost around plants. Compost is an organic amendment to improve the physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil. When dug in, it can improve soil structure, moisture-holding capacity and aeration. It also acts as a source of slow-release nutrients, and increases earthworm and soil microbial activity, both of which benefit plant growth. Most important, over time, composting will reduce -- if not supplant -- the need for fertilizers.

    Bottom line: wait till there's a problem before throwing drugs at it. And even then, consider a more "holistic" approach. And in the event that something seems really peculiar, get a soil test to find out what nutrients might be lacking in the soil (contact the County Extension office near you for places that do this).

    Enjoy, KL

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    Peony Buds Turn Brown

    Dear Doyenne,
    Help! For the past three years our formerly beautiful peonies develop blooms that fail to open, and instead turn brown. Could my well-intentioned effort four years ago have caused this reaction? I sprinkled fertilizer designed for roses (which has an insect repellent built in) round the peonies. I've since tried removing any residual fertilizer and have added soil to the flowers. But, we continue to have brown peonies. Any suggestions?

    Thank you,


    I doubt if the rose fertilizer you applied four years ago caused this problem. When buds appear but fail to develop into flowers, it could be a number of things. The buds could have been:

    1. Killed by late frosts
    2. Killed by a botrytis (fungal) disease
    3. Attacked by thrips (clear-yellow, sucking insects that can be treated with insecticidal soaps)
    4. Harmed by excessive rains or hot weather as they were forming

    Take your pick. It's also possible that your plants are undernourished; consider a balanced 8-8-8 fertilizer just as they're emerging in the spring.

    Best, KL

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    Tree-Climbing Ivy

    Say Ketzel,
    We live in a suburb just west of Denver and have an ivy climbing a cottonwood tree. The tree is definitely not doing well, but I have been told by tree professionals that the ivy is not destructive to the tree. I am somewhat skeptical. In you opinion should I try to remove or kill the ivy? It is very pleasant to look at, but I want to save the tree, too.

    Thanks for any help,

    The good news is that I've never heard of English ivy (or any other plant with a common name of ivy) regarded as a harmful invader around Denver, so leaving it be is not likely to bite you back. The only other ways I can imagine the ivy being a problem for your cottonwood is if:

    1. It grows up into the canopy, overtopping and shading a significant portion of of the cottonwood's canopy leaves.

    2. The cottonwood is old and losing limbs already, the sheer weight of a big, vigorous ivy vine could help bring it down a little faster, speeding up the process by a couple of years perhaps. Hope this helps.

    All the best, KL

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    Groundcover on Hill

    Dear Doyenne,
    I live near Ridgefield, Wash. in Clark County. We have over two acres of ground, most covered with pasture grasses. One particular hillside is about 100 square yards with mostly a heavy clay soil. We want to get rid of the grass and plant a ground cover. Several ground covers have been suggested including kinnick-kinnick. I want to plant something that is native and non-invasive. Any suggestions?


    Actually, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (aka, kinnick-kinnick) is a very good choice as a native ground cover. Plant them on 2' centers either from 4" pots or gallons, and make sure they're well irrigated (drip, not overhead) during the first two summers. Plants grown in containers, even if they are native, must be given some coddling in order to establish. Make sure to control any weeds that might compete with the Kinnick-kinnick and apply a mulch of fine bark. You might also feed them with an organic nitrogen source such as cottonseed meal to speed their growth.

    Hope this helps! KL

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    Groundcover under Spruce

    Dear Doyenne,
    I just moved into my first house after many years of apartment dwelling. My first project was trimming the overgrown branches from two Norwegian spruces. Now I want to plant the space under them, which gets some, but not great light. I'm thinking of planing vinca, which I've been advised should do well there -- but I don't even know how to start. How do I prepare the soil under these trees? Right now the ground is a bit soft with what looks to be years of dropped needles. Oh yeah, I'm in Bethesda, Md.

    Thank you,

    Start by determining how much soil is under the spruce: At about 20" away from the trunk, dig down about 8". If you do not hit any roots, you can plant small starts of vinca about 10" apart to make a solid groundcover. If you do hit roots, keep moving out away from the trunk until you can dig an unobstructed 8" down. Feel free to add compost to the soil to increase the volume (though again, no closer to the trunk than 20"). Keep the vinca starts well-watered until you see new growth, then give it a deep soak every other week or so, unless you have reliable rain.

    Now for the question you didn't ask. Alternatives to vinca, which is, in fact, a plant invading American woodlands and seriously overused. I'd recommend Epimedium, which does brilliantly in the D.C. area, is easier to please than vinca, and not a plant that runs away. Lots of brilliant cultivated varieties to choose from at better area nurseries.

    Enjoy, KL

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    Redbud Propagation

    Dear Doyenne,
    I would like to propagate the redbud trees which grow in my backyard. These are not nursery-grown trees, but apparently ones that have been natively in place at least since pioneer times. I have seed pods from last fall. What do I do next?


    The two-to-three-inch brown pods of redbud contain several hard-coated brown seeds. Collect them in September or October, dry, clean and store in a glass jar in the refrigerator for three months. Redbud seeds require a three-month cold period for the embryo to break dormancy in order to germinate. Soak in hot water (190°F) for 30 minutes before planting in a light germination mix (barely covered with soil). Keep the mix medium moist, but not wet. Transplant into the garden when plants are 12-inches tall. Redbud grows quickly, so protect with a wire cage to prevent rabbits, etc., from chewing the bark.

    You're all set! KL

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