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Past Questions and Answers | February 2007

This month's questions concern:

Eradicating Deadly Nightshade
What to do With Pine Straw
Green-Leaved Euryops
How to Grow a Mango
When to Prune Flowering Pear
Calla Lily Care
Grape Varieties Cross-Pollinating
Troublesome Whitefly
Keeping Cats Out
When to Harvest Garlic & Rockmelon (Cantaloupe)
Starting Strawberries
Pruning Hydrangeas
Clay Soil Problems
Needle-Drop With a Norfolk Pine
Frozen Plumeria
Putting Snow on Plants
Growing Marrows

Please scroll down to read the answers.

Question #1:  Eradicating Deadly Nightshade

Question:  How do I get rid of deadly nightshade from my garden safely as I have cats and children and don't know how to pull it up safely?

 Lorraine, Hertfordshire, UK


ANSWER:  Hi Lorraine! Well you certainly have a serious problem. If you have the true deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), which is closely related to the genus Solanum (more commonly known as the nightshade or potato), then you are wise to be cautious on how to get rid of it.

As every part of the plant is extremely poisonous and neither the leaves, the berries, or the roots should be handled if there are any cuts or abrasions on your hands or skin. The roots are the most poisonous, the leaves and flowers less so, but you still need to be careful.

Many people recommend that it be pulled out by hand, however, I don't recommend you do that. First of all, you don't want to risk getting any of the sap on your hands or skin. And secondly, if you don't get all of the fleshy roots, the plant will grow back since it is a tough perennial.

What I would do is a combination of things. First I would wait until the plant is actively growing and the outdoor temperatures are around 65 to 80 degrees F (18.3 to 26.7 C). I would very carefully cut back the shrub to the ground, wearing long sleeves, gloves and eye-goggles. Carefully put the cut foliage in a plastic bag and throw it away.

Then I would use a product called Brush-B-Gon Poison Ivy Killer. You can find it at:

Pour the Brush-B-Gon, undiluted, on the newly cut stems. This product can kill entire tree stumps, roots and all, so I know it will kill the nightshade's fleshy roots. I would wait 2 weeks and apply the Brush-B-Gon one more time.

Now if any seeds are left behind, they could germinate the following year. If they do, as soon as you see ANY germinating, follow the same procedure.

I don't know how many plants you have, but in time you will eventually rid your yard of this dangerous plant. Let me know how it goes.

Question #2:  What to do With Pine Straw

Question:  We use pine straw around our shrubs in the summertime to trap moisture there. Now that winter is here, should we:

A. Remove the old pine straw, and leave the ground bare around the plants

B. Replace the old pine straw with new pine straw

C. Leave the old pine straw in place until springtime

What should we do?

 Joe Wheelan, Cary, NC


ANSWER:  Hi Joe! Pine straw like any mulch is left in place and you put a second application right over it. Pine straw is usually put down once a year in the spring. If you want to use pine straw as a decoration to keep your yard looking fresh, then the straw should be put down twice a year.

In your case, I would leave the old pine straw where it is, and put a fresh layer over it in the spring. Because of its acidic nature, pine straw doesn't decompose as quickly, so it lasts a long time, while also fertilizing because it is naturally high in nitrogen.

Thanks for the multiple choice question - I liked that!

Question #3:  Green-Leaved Euryops

Question:  I have a Green-leaved Euryops Daisy tree. I brought it inside because I live in Denver, Colorado. It is looking really sad, it has new growth but, the old branches look dead. What can I do?

 Cleta Sohn, Denver, CO


ANSWER:  Hi Cleta! Green-leaved Euryops (Euryops pectinatus 'Viridis'), is a pretty tender evergreen for your area. Denver has a climate zone of 5-6 which is from -20 to 0 degrees F (-28.9 to -17.8 C) and your plant tolerates a climate zone of 9-11 making it hardy only down to about 20 degrees F (-6.7 C). I bet it is looking a bit sad about now, with the unusual cold most of the US and world has experienced this year.

If you have a sunroom where your plant can get lots of full direct sun for most of the day, that's where I would put it, and then in the spring and summer months, when the temperatures warm up, you can move it back outside.

Until then, I would very lightly pinch it back, just take off an inch or two here and there and lightly fertilize it with a complete soluble fertilizer like a 15-15-15. Mix up a batch diluted to half strength and water with that every few weeks.

Give your daisy plenty of light, and warmth, and regular water. Euyrops need excellent drainage, so allow the soil to dry out a bit between waterings.

In the spring when you move the plant back outside (do that incrementally, don't put it in direct sun right away, move it to the shade and over a week or two move it to full sun otherwise it could burn), check to see if any of those "dead" branches are alive by lightly bending them.

If they are brittle and break and the wood inside is brown and dead, then remove those branches. If the stems bend and are green inside (take your thumbnail and scratch off a bit of the outer stem) then the branch will come back and you should leave it on.

Prune to shape and give it another feeding. It will be fine outdoors until the cool days and nights start coming back, so plan to move it indoors again next year.

Good luck, I hope your euryops comes back, they have such cheerful daisy-like flowers.

Question #4:  How to Grow a Mango

Question:  Can I grow a Mango and what do I do to get it started?

 Patti Middendorf, Mobile, AL


ANSWER:  Hi Patti! Mango (Mangifera indica), is a tropical plant that requires minimum temperatures of around 40 degrees F (4.44 C) and warmer. If you can provide the right climate indoors, you can grow a mango, after all, I have grown bananas indoors, and this wouldn't be any harder. Here is what you will need:

Fairly high humidity. Remember this is a tree that does well in Hawaii and Southeast Asia. Lots of sunlight - at least 8 hours of bright sun daily, and good rich soil that is well drained. They are fairly shallow rooted, so you won't need too big a container.

Mangos can be propagated from a ripe seed, but you are better off getting a known variety such as 'Alphonso', 'Ah Ping', 'Pope' or 'Rapoza' that are known for good flavor and sweetness.

They can reach 50 feet (15.2 m) tall and 30 feet (9.14 m) wide, but you could prune it down to keep it a manageable size for your house. They are self-fruiting so you won't need a pollinator.

Use a fertilizer that is made for citrus trees. Indoors you may get scale or mildew problems, but keep an eye on proper growing conditions and you will be just fine.

I hope you try it out!

Question #5:  When to Prune Flowering Pear

Question:  Can you prune a flowering pear tree in the late fall if it already has buds on it?

 Donna Daly, Malvern, PA


ANSWER:  Hi Donna! Deciduous ornamental pears (Pyrus), which I am assuming you have, since the evergreen P. kawakamii isn't going to survive one of your winters, are always pruned during the winter months.

Now I am assuming you are worried that by pruning now, you might prune off flower buds and thus deprive yourself of the wonderful white flowers in the spring.

One thing to keep in mind is that even when trees are dormant, they will have buds, but there is a difference between flower buds and leaf buds. The leaf bud is generally tall and slender while the flower bud emerges thicker and shorter.

Now, taking into account the weird, warm weather we've had off and on this year, your tree could have set flower buds early. It's not unheard of. So you can do two things:
  1. Wait until after it flowers and prune to shape - you won't hurt anything. It's not a fruiting pear, which pruning after bloom you would risk losing fruit. You're growing it for the flowers and foliage which will tolerate pruning just fine

  2. Prune now and you might lose a few flowers
If it were I, I would go ahead and prune it now. I think you'll be just fine and you'll still have the fabulous show of white flowers to enjoy this spring.

Question #6:  Calla Lily Care

Question:  How do I care for my calla lily plant I received as a Christmas present in a 4-inch (10.2 cm) pot. The leaves are turning yellow and falling off. Should I replant in a bigger pot - let dry out - cut down leaves - is it a perennial? Anuual? Should it be planted outdoors? Will it just die? Help!

 Judy Podrasky, Medina, OH


ANSWER:  Hi Judy! Callas (Zantedeschia) are great aren't they? What a great gift to get; one you'll be able to enjoy for years.

It sounds to me like you probably have one of the several hybrid varieties of callas that are becoming increasingly popular and grown as gift plants. Hybrid callas are true perennials grown from rhizomes.

Unlike the common calla (Zantedeschia aethiopica) which is a fairly large evergreen to seimievergreen plant, hybrid callas die back in the fall and come back in the spring. I have a couple in my front yard and they are fully dormant right now.

Your plant was probably forced for the Christmas season and now is going dormant. You can plant these rhizomes outside, but that is usually done in the fall. Until then, you can grow it as a houseplant.

Let the foliage die back fully and reduce the water. You want to water it once in a while because it is still alive, but not actively growing, so its water requirements are greatly reduced. Keep the soil around the rhizome nearly dry, watering it only enough to keep it from shriveling.

Tip: Water only the soil, try not to put water on the rhizome itself, or you risk rotting it.

When the foliage has died back fully, remove it.

You will want to repot the plant into a bit larger container, start with a 6-inch (15.2 cm) pot. Keep the rhizome at the same depth it was in the old pot, it should be about 2 inches (5.1 cm) below the soil surface. Make sure the soil is well drained, and put the pot where it will get lots of bright light, not full sun, just bright indirect light.

In the spring you will see it come back and then you will start to water more regularly and keep the soil evenly moist. Feed with a soluble fertilizer once a month during its growing season.

In the fall when it dies back again do the same all over again, but you can either keep it as a houseplant, or plant it outside.

Either way, you will really enjoy your plant!

Question #7:  Grape Varieties Cross-Pollinating

Question:  I need drawings of how to prune grapes since I have an old hardy grapevine that hasn't produced grapes for 10 years due to overgrowth. I want to revive it. Also I planted a new concord grape by it last year. When will the new concord grape produce grapes? It grew well last year? I also plan to put in a new canadice grape on the other side of an 8 foot (2.4 m) chain link fence. Will they cross-pollinate or will each remain a species of its own? I put them together because it's the only place with sufficient sun to grow. Thank you.

 Karen Putman, LaGrange Park, IL


ANSWER:  Hi Karen! Some of your question will require a bit more detail then I have room for here, but I can address your main points.

There are several methods used in pruning established grapevines, and I would suggest going to the library and getting a book on grape pruning. It is not complicated, but there are several methods, each one with its own goal, and you will be able better to choose what you want by seeing the suggestions first hand.

As for your new concord grape (Vitis labrusca 'Concord'), for the first year, you should just let them grow and do their thing. In the fall you should prune them back and the second year you can start to expect fruit. So if your new grapes didn't bear fruit last year, which they normally won't, you can expect them to this year.

As to your cross-pollination question, I don't think you need to worry about that. Grapes are self-fruitful and usually pollinate by wind, bees have nothing to do with it.

Additionally, seedless grapes would not develop seeds because they were pollinated by a seeded grape. Although there are examples of pollen affecting maternal tissues in other plants, it is not known to occur in grapes. The technical term for this effect is "metaxenia."

Following in the same line, the berry itself would not change characteristic, such as skin and flesh color, because of pollen from a different variety. Canadice (Vitus 'Canadice'), Himrod (Vitus 'Himrod') , and Concord look distinctly different, and planting them together would cause no change in varietal characteristics.

So plant as many grapes together as you want, they will all stay true to type and taste great.

Question #8:  Troublesome Whitefly

Question:  I'm in all out battle with white flies. They are still flying about even in the winter months. Could you please help with a way to eradicate these pests?

 Belinda Purser, Griffin, GA


ANSWER:  Hi Belinda! That is an awful situation you are in, so let's see what we can do to get rid of them.

Unfortunately, heavy whitefly (Aleyrodidae) infestations are very difficult to deal with and are not totally controlled with any one available insecticide. You will have to do a combination of things.

First you can use sticky traps. These are good to not only reduce whitefly numbers, but they can help you monitor the situation as it progresses. In addition to the sticky traps, you can use insecticides like rotenone or pyrethrin, insecticidal soaps or oils such as neem oil. These will reduce but not eliminate populations.

Generally insecticides have only a limited effect on whiteflies because they kill only those whiteflies that come in direct contact with them. In addition to that, because these products only kill whitefly nymphs that are directly sprayed, plants must be thoroughly covered with the spray solution. Be sure to cover undersides of all infested leaves; usually these are the lowest leaves and the most difficult to reach.

When you apply the sprays, do so when the plants are not drought-stressed and when temperatures are under 80 degrees F (26.7 C) to prevent possible damage to plants.

I wish I could give you a magic wand and you could just get rid of them with a shake of the wrist, but I know by using the combination of the above you will finally get rid of these pests. Hang in there!

Question #9:  Keeping Cats Out

Question:  Are there any plants I can grow to stop cats using my quarts chipped area as a toilet? Something they dont like the smell of perhaps?

 Thomas Shankland, Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland


ANSWER:  Hi Thomas! I totally understand your problem. My neighbor has 8 cats and they all like my flower beds. While I like the cats, and all animals, I grew weary of the smell and mess they left behind.

Although I have yet to find anything I could plant to keep them out, here were the 3 things I had success with:
  1. When I brushed my dog I kept the hair and I put it around the fence line where the cats came in. They didn't like the smell, and would avoid that area. The problem was I had to keep putting the dog hair down

  2. I found the same thing with using orange peels. The cats don't like the smell of orange peels, but I had to replenish the orange peel once a week

  3. The last thing I tried, and had great success with, was a product called the "Scarecrow." It does not harm the animal, so I don't mind passing this along. It is a water sprinkler with a motion detector that you hook up to your garden hose

    When the motion detector sees movement in the area you have pointed it towards, it sends out a quick burst of water. I used this for about a week and I haven't seen the cats back. They learned very quickly to use someone else's yard! I have since put it away and I will only need to bring it back out if I need to.

    You can find this product at:
With any of the above you will get rid of the cats and can have your yard back - smell and mess free - how nice!

Question #10:  When to Harvest Garlic & Rockmelon (Cantaloupe)

Question:  I planted garlic in November 2006 and they are doing well, but how long till harvest? Also, what do I look for, a bulge in ground? Also, how long for rockmelon to grow?

 Ron Shuker, Taree, NSW


ANSWER:  Hi Ron! Let's see your garlic is now 3 months old. Typically garlic is harvested 6 to 10 months after planting, depending on the variety and climate.

Watch the leaves and they'll tell you when to harvest. Garlic leaves signal maturity when they begin to turn brown and die. The lowest (and outermost) leaves die first, and then the rest die from the ground up.

When the leaf tips start to turn yellowish brown, stop watering and press the foliage flat to the ground. This prevents flowering and speeds up the maturation of the bulb. Harvest bulbs when the leaves are mostly brown.

When you do harvest them, lift them out carefully with a gardening fork (pulling them up by the stems can damage the bulbs) and let the bulbs dry outside in the sun until the skins are papery (can be up to 3 weeks). Keep them out of the rain, or any moisture. Then you can remove the dirt, cut off any roots and store in a cool, well-ventilated area out of the sun.

As for rockmelon (Cantaloupe - Cucumis melo), the average time from planting to harvest is 70 to 115 days after sowing the seeds. Again this depends upon variety and climate, so check the seed packet and see what it tells you.

Rockmelon are ready to harvest when the fruit slips off the stem easily. To avoid over-ripening, harvest the melons before they naturally separate from the vine.

The best way to check maturity of rockmelons is to place your thumb beside the stem and gently apply pressure to the side. If the stem separates easily, the cantaloupe is ripe.

Enjoy your garlic and cantaloupe!

Question #11:  Starting Strawberries

Question:  This is a great site. When can I start strawberries off in the greenhouse?

 Alison, City Unknown


ANSWER:  Hi Alison! Thank you for the complement, it's always nice to hear!

As to your question, I don't know where you live, but typically in cold weather climates, strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa) plants are set out in the garden in early spring about 3 to 4 weeks before the last frost date. In mild weather climates you can set out plants just about any time of year except when the soil is too wet to work.

I am assuming you are in a cold weather area and want to get a bit of a jump on planting, so you will need to count back from your average final frost date to get a target planting date.

I don't mean to be vague, but I don't know the climate you are in and can't give you a better target planting date. If you want to write me back with more details, I will be happy to reply.

Question #12:  Pruning Hydrangeas

Question:  When do I need to prune my hydrangea? Strange temps this year-do not want to damage it.

 Kathy Hamlin, Statesboro, GA


ANSWER:  Hi Kathy! Yes, we are having really odd temperatures this year aren't we? I think I am just as confused and the plants sometimes because one day it's freezing and the next it's hot!

Anyway, I personally have always pruned my hydrangeas back after the flowers have faded in the fall, and when they have gone dormant. They have always come back looking fantastic with tons of flowers.

I know some hydrangeas flower on new wood, and some flower on the previous year's wood. But as long as I don't do any drastic pruning, like cutting them back to the ground, or removing any healthy stems, then I am assured of leaving old wood and the pruning will trigger new growth.

This way I don't really worry about cutting before or after bloom, because my way, no matter what type of hyrangea I have (climbing, oakleaf, smooth, etc.) I always get flowers.

So I would go ahead and do a light pruning now while the plants are still dormant. Next time, prune after the flowers have faded in the fall, and you'll be just fine.

Hope this helps.

Question #13:  Clay Soil Problems

Question:  I was wondering if you could give me some plants and shrubs,trees that grow in clay soil but I dont have water seepage. I live in 5-7 climate zone. I was also wondering about the difference between a perennial and an annual? Thanks.

 Rebecca Addison, Campcreek, WV


ANSWER:  Hi Rebecca! Let me take the second question first. The difference between annuals and perennials is that annuals only grow for one season and then they die.

An example of an annual would be a marigold. When the cold weather hits, the entire plant will die, roots and all, and not grow back. If it dropped any seed, the following year the seeds may germinate, but it won't be the parent plant.

A perennial is a non-woody plant that will come back year after year. An example of this would be a hosta. The plant will grow all summer long, and in the fall it will die back, but the root system stays alive, but not actively growing. In the spring it will start new growth again and come back.

To your clay soil question, I think you would be much better off improving your soil texture than trying to find plants that tolerate heavy, wet clay soil.

If your soil has bad drainage on top of it, here is what I would do:
  • Rototill the soil

  • Work in some gypsite - this will greatly improve your drainage

  • Work in a lot of organic material like compost or topsoil

  • Add a little bit of granulated fertilizer
When you are done with the above, you will have much better soil texture and better, healthier soil that will be able to grow any plants or trees within your climate zone.

Plus, by improving the texture, your soil will continue to improve because you'll have more oxygen, and microbial activity. I know it sounds like a lot of work, but I have re-worked large expanses of soil in just one weekend, so I know you can do it too!

Go for it, you will be so happy you did, because you will be able to do so much more, and everything you plant will thrive instead of struggling in wet, heavy soil.

Question #14:  Needle-Drop With a Norfolk Pine

Question:  A 7 foot (2.13 m) tall Norfolk Pine was given to me 2 months ago. I have it indoors and it shows new growth on some tips. However many needles have fallen off several lower and middle branches. I am watering it every 1-2 weeks with purified water and it has indirect sun. Can you help with the falling needles? Thanks!

 Ann Messmer, Bella Vista, AR


ANSWER:  Hi Ann! Wow, that's a big Norfolk pine!

I would be curious to know if that pine was grown outdoors or in a greenhouse before it was given to you, because it's pretty common for Norfolk pines (Araucaria heterophylla) that are grown indoors to have the lower branches fall off and look bare.

Here are a couple of tips to help:
  • Water when the plant needs it, and keep it evenly moist, not soggy, but moist. If a Norfolk pine gets watered erratically, or gets too dry, it will start to drop needles and branches. You say you water every 1 or 2 weeks, but try to water when the plant needs it, and not on a weekly schedule.

  • They don't like excess salts, so the fact that you are watering with purified water is good, keep doing that.

  • Give it a bit more humidity. They don't like hot, dry air, it can cause branches to fall off. So either group plants around it, or put out a bowl of water to evaporate by it, or you can even get a small humidifer.

  • Lastly, give it as much bright indirect light as you can. Sounds like you are already doing that, so keep that up.

  • Feed only very lightly once a year with an acid-based soluble fertilizer.
It's very typical for Norfolk pines to do this. It's why you commonly see shorter plants grouped around the base of one in a home, to hide the bare lower portion of the tree.

Take heart, you're doing a good job. Adjust some of the growing conditions, and I think the needle-drop will slow down.

Question #15:  Frozen Plumeria

Question:  My plumeria plants froze. Do they come back after that, and what can I do to help them?

 Laura Leonhardt, El Cajon, CA


ANSWER:  Hi Laura! California really got nailed this month didn't it? Wow, the avodcado and citrus crops are gone, plus any of the tropicals and sub-tropicals really took a hit.

In your case, your plumeria (Frangipani) sure don't like the cold, but they are a deciduous plant.

There is a nearly evergreen variety, but I'm pretty sure you have the more common Plumera rubra. El Cajon is a zone 9-11, so in the past perhaps you have not gotten temperatures below 40 degrees F (-17.8 C) and your plants haven't gone fully dormant, but they should bounce back.

When you're dealing with frost-damaged plants here what's best to do:
  • Initially nothing

  • Leave the dead material there because it will help protect the plant if another freeze comes along and also from sunburn

  • Wait until the warm weather is here to stay and then see where any new growth is starting to emerge

  • When you can see new growth, and all chance of frost is gone, then you can prune off the dead material

  • Water only enough to keep the damaged plants alive, since they have lost so much foliage, their water requirements will be reduced

  • Wait to fertilize until the plant has put on nice, new growth and is well recovered
I think your plants will come back just fine. Next year, if you get those really low temperatues again, you may want to try covering them, or if they are in containers, move them indoors during really cold nights. Good luck!

Question #16:  Putting Snow on Plants

Question:  If you have plants that are under a concrete canopy and they do not get snow or rain in the winter, can they get the water they need from humidity in the air, or should I transfer some of the snow onto the plants for moisture?

 Evah Peterson, Salt Lake City, UT


ANSWER:  Hi Evah! No your plants probably won't get enough moisture from the air. You will have to water them. Dont' use the snow, just use regular water. Using the snow will probably kill them.

Here's one reason anyway, not to shovel snow!

Question #17:  Growing Marrows

Question:  Hi I was wondering if this website does advice on crops. If you do, I as wondering if you can help me with my marrows as I love the succulent vegetable.

 Umair Akram, Bolton


ANSWER:  Hi Umair! Since you didn't specify a particular problem, I am just going to give you some general tips for Marrow Squash, or what some people call Vegetable Marrow, Summer Squash, or Zucchini.

Just as an aside for those not familiar: Marrows belong to Cucurbita pepo, the same species as zucchini. The small zucchini we eat are an immature type of marrow, and if you don't pick zucchini regularly, you will end up with huge marrows.

Now - Back to your question! Marrows are grown in the warmer, summer months. They like full sun with good air circulation.

They prefer rich, well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.5. I personally have found these plants can take a wide range of soils as long as they are well-drained.

Sow your seeds when any chance of frost has passed, and keep moist until germination, then allow the soil to dry out a bit between waterings. Marrows like even, regular watering to keep the fruit coming.

Radishes or basil interplanted can help repel beetles and squash bugs.

Mulching the soil with compost will help keep weeds down, the soil moist, and provide nutrients, which is essential for healthy fruit.

You should have mature fruit 40 to 65 days from sowing. The flavor is best when the fruit is picked small: 4-5 inches (10-13 cm).

I think if you just try growing some, you will find that marrows or zucchini, are probably one of easiest and most prolific vegetables you can grow.

I will caution you to start only a few plants at a time, or you will be like my family, running around the neighborhood giving everyone bags of squash because we can't eat them all! Have fun!

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Parsley is a biennial, often grown as an annual. Plants prefer full sun, but will survive in partial shade.

Parsley can be picked fresh throughout the season, but for use in the winter, cut the leaves in the fall, and dry or freeze them.

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