Question and Answer – September 2008

Question: My Red Rocket crape myrtle is about three years old and only did well the first year. I don’t know if it is the location or if I pruned it wrong. But, as you can see, it is not doing well at all. Would it be best to move it this fall, or should I just cut it back and start over? B.T. no city given.

Answer: It would help to know where this plant is growing, but it appears that the soil is shallow and made up of generous amounts of white rock. Crape myrtles are tolerant of poor soils, but they really need good levels of nutrition to do their best. Try a high-nitrogen fertilizer now, again in spring and a third time in early summer. In fact, you might even use an all-nitrogen product just to get more vigor into the plant’s growth. Crape myrtles flower on new shoots, and without those shoots, no blooms.

Question: We have tried jasmine and juniper as a groundcover on our berm. The jasmine wouldn’t cover and the juniper got such huge "trunks" that it was not attractive. This berm is in the front of our house which faces west, so it gets full, hot sun. What type of groundcover would you suggest, or maybe something that does not have to be planted every year? We have always planted seasonal flowers in the area around the crape myrtles but we are totally open to any suggestions. We do have a sprinkler system in the yard, but this berm does not have separate heads. It is watered with the grass. C.B., Tyler

Answer: I have several berms that look very similar to this, and I have used both Asian jasmine and purple wintercreeper euonymus in them. Both will do very well in your part of Texas, but they do require a little patience. Asian jasmine does almost all of its growing in the first third of the growing season (April, May and early June). If you plant it later than that, you won’t see much cover until the following summer. Second, both of these groundcovers will take one full season to cover the ground. However, they won’t attempt to thicken that first full year – just cover the bare soil. Some covering will still remain for the second spring, but after two years, they should be fully covered and beginning to develop into a real groundcover planting 4 to 6 inches deep. You can hasten all of that by planting larger plants initially, also by planting them fairly close together (12- to 15-inch centers for 4-inch pots, 15 to 18 inches apart for gallons). Apply an all-nitrogen fertilizer to give them an added boost.

Question: How does one get rid of snails? I’ve tried various poisons for snails, beer, keeping debris cleaned out and hand-picking and crushing. When I hand pick and crush, I can kill up to 300 in one session. Just when I think I have made headway, they are back. They eat my zinnias down to little nubs and I’ve given up on growing zinnias from seed. They sprout and get eaten. Any ideas? C.G., Colleyville.

Answer: Pretty yard! Sevin dust works well on snails for me, but you need a good dust gun to apply it. Dust it back under your plants, into any mulch that is on the ground, and over the tops of the leaves as well. Leave it on the foliage for a couple of days (and nights, when the snails are most active). That has always been my best means of attacking them. Hope it helps.

Question: What is wrong with my palms? James, no city given.

Answer: Anytime you have a plant with leaf tips or margins that are burned and browned, there is some form of moisture stress going on. Usually, it’s simply due to their getting too dry between waterings, but it can be from excessive mineral salts, for example, from fertilizer or salty sprays. Unusual exposure to wind can also cause those tips to windburn. I see some leaf spot on the blades in your photo, but it doesn’t appear to be disease-driven. Sorry not to get you closer, but the answer is probably in there somewhere.

Question: I have had a big problem with bees swarming around my hummingbird feeders. I have three locations in my front, side and back yard with bees on each of the feeders. I am reluctant to spray the bees, as they are beneficial, but they do chase the birds off. I have buddleias, Turk’s cap and other blooming plants for them to use for nectar, and I also enjoy watching the hummingbirds at the feeders. Is there any solution that will not harm the hummers? L.B. in Terrell

Answer: This is a common problem for bird-feeding enthusiasts, and I decided to do a Web search for the answer. Actually, there were many opinions, but the most common one was to move the feeders every few days. Bees don’t find them in their new homes as quickly as the hummingbirds will see them. Wash the feeders frequently, and do not choose feeders that have any type of yellow on them (like fake flower parts on the mouth of the feeder). Bees, like whiteflies and many other insects, are attracted to the color yellow. Hummingbirds like red. One source suggested putting a small yellow pan of the solution off to the side just for the use of the bees. However, all of us concur: bees are very beneficial. Don’t do anything to jeopardize them.

Question: Attached are pictures of one of the five live oaks in our yard. They were planted 15 years ago. They all get treated the same. What could be causing the leaves on several branches of this one to turn brown and fall off? None of the other trees is having this problem. D.S., Fort Worth.

Answer: This is damage done by squirrels as they sharpen their teeth on the branches of pecans, oaks and other species. The bark is all removed and the branches quickly die. It may be disfiguring, but it’s not threatening to the long-term vigor of the tree. No big cause for concern, which is good, because there is no real remedy, either.

Question: My butterfly bush has not bloomed all summer. The buds come out, but do not bloom. I was wondering if the Asian jasmine is causing the problem or is there another problem? I have tried to keep it watered. I really do not want to lose this bush. I love how beautiful it is when it is in bloom and how it attracts so many different creatures. L.S., no city given.

Answer: While I’m not sure what the cause of the butterfly bush’s failure to bloom might be, I do have to wonder why the bermudagrass that’s around it has the dead areas. It looks like the entire space may have gotten dry between waterings. Often, thrips will cause flowers not to open properly, but I don’t know if they might have been the cause this time. The Asian jasmine had nothing to do with it. Cut the butterfly bush back near the ground at the end of this (and every) season, then push it hard the next spring with a high-nitrogen (or all-nitrogen) fertilizer. It blooms on that new growth.

Question: What is causing my tomato plants to die suddenly, almost as if overnight? I see a white growth around their crowns. It is sporadic through the rows. I.M., no city given.

Answer: When you called my radio program last weekend, I thought I had little clue as to your plants’ problem, but the photos help narrow it to two candidates. Many parts of Texas have had heavy rains within the past two weeks. The more distant of your photos looks a lot like a plant that has stayed too wet for several days. Indeed, you can see the plant’s attempt at producing adventitious roots just above the soil line. Those are secondary roots that form in an unusual place when there is a threat to a plant’s survival. That would be my prime guess as to the cause of your problem, and your solution in future years would be to plant in beds that are raised by several inches above the surrounding grade to ensure good drainage.

What I can’t see from the photo is whether there are also knots on the plant’s root system. It looks like there could be. Look for b-b- to pea-sized nodules that might indicate root knot nematodes. They’re microscopic soil-borne worms that sting and suck sap from susceptible plants’ roots, and many tomato varieties are susceptible. In the off chance that you do see the knots, let me make a few additional suggestions that would then come into play. The Nematode Diagnostic Laboratory at Texas A&M can confirm this from a soil sample. Grow only resistant varieties in future years. Plant Elbon cereal rye in October to entrap the nematodes within its roots over the winter. We have no chemical control. You might also want to plant your tomatoes in another part of your garden in the future. But, all of these last comments are dependent on a confirmation of the presence of nematodes.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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