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Past Questions and Answers | January 2011

This month's questions concern:

Sick Lilly-Pilly
Crape Myrtle
Overwintering Geranimums
Planting Pansies
Ericaceous Compost
Pinching Back Houseplants
Jacaranda Seeds
Starting Bulbs Late
Poor Draining Soil
Get Rid of Sow Bugs
Transplanting Rhododendrons
Plant Out Poinsettias
Rosemary Plant Care
Different Plant Foods
Pruning Camellia Sasanqua 'Yuletide'

Please scroll down to read the answers.

Question #1:  Sick Lilly-Pilly

Question:  My lillypilly has blistering on new leaves does this need to be treated. Also do they get gum tree like blossoms at any time. Thank you.

 Dianne Gibbs, Sydney, NSW


ANSWER:  Hi Dianne! Lilly-Pilly is the common name for Acmena smithii (Eugenia smithii) which is related to Syzygium.

Lilly-Pilly is native to Australia and a great evergreen shrub or small tree, but it is susceptible to Eugenia psyllid (Trioza eugeniae), which can be difficult to get rid of. Psyllid can cause a puckering of the leaves and is more a cosmetic problem than anything.

The good news is that plants can tolerate quite a large population of psyllids and still maintain their health.

The bad news is that the plants can look really bad if you have a large infestation.

A couple of things you can do are:
  • Change your maintenance habits: Avoid excess irrigation and fertilization and pruning. All of these things trigger new growth which the psyllids love.

  • Use Biological Controls: Eugenia psyllid is partially controlled with a parasitic wasp Tamarixia, but that alone won't get rid of them.

  • Monitor Foliage and Spray: Monitor the foliage and when you see an increase in psyllid population (you can use yellow stick strips or just check visually) spray with Neem oil, insecticidal soaps or horticultural oil. Any of these can provide temporary control of psyllids that are directly contacted by the spray, just make sure the infested new growth is thoroughly covered with the insecticidal spray.
Unfortunately you will have to use a combination of the above to get the problem under control, and no pesticide or other treatment will restore pitted foliage to a healthy appearance, you will have to prune that off.

Also, yes, they do get small white flowers with tufts of stamens that look like small brushes similar to Eucalyptus because they are both in the Myrtaceae Family.

I have Eugenia along my driveway and simply by rarely pruning it, I have maintained a good looking shrub. Good luck!

Question #2:  Crape Myrtle

Question:  I will be planting Crape Myrtle and need to know if I can keep them short or will I have to put them where they can grow large...???? Thanks.

 Patricia Lindsey, Jeffersonville, IN


ANSWER:  Hi Patricia! The great thing about Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) is that you can treat them as a small tree or a shrub. They tolerate pruning very well, and can be trained into a small tree or kept short as a bush. It really is up to you how big you want it to get.

My one piece of advice is to prune it after it has flowered in the summer so you don't prune off the flowers and miss its beautiful display of color. Enjoy!

Question #3:  Overwintering Geraniums

Question:  How do I store geraniums for next season?

 Liz Simon, Port Washington, NY


ANSWER:  Hi Liz! Geraniums (Pelargonium) are terrific plants because they are so forgiving. You can beat them up a bit and they come right back. In your area, you have a couple of options to overwinter your Geraniums. I don't know how many you have, but you can:
  • Bare Root Plants: Dig the geraniums up and carefully shake all the soil from their roots. Then hang the plants upside down in a cool 45-50°: F (7.2-10 C), dry place. An alternate method is to place 1 or 2 plants in a large paper sack. Once a month during winter, soak the roots of each plant in water for 1 to 2 hours. Most of the leaves will eventually fall off. (The paper sack method is much cleaner than the hanging method.) In the spring, when all chance of frost has past, prune or cut back each plant. Remove all shriveled, dead material. Healthy, live stems will be firm and solid. After pruning, pot up or plant the Geraniums and water in well.

  • Move plants indoors: Prune the geraniums back to 1/2 to 1/3 of their original height, and then carefully dig up each plant and place in a 6 to 8-inch (15.2-20.3 cm) pot. Water them in well, then place the geraniums in a bright, sunny window or under artificial lighting. Geraniums prefer cool indoor temperatures with daytime temperatures near 65° F (18.3 C) and night temperatures around 55° F (12.7 C). Geraniums become tall and spindly when grown in warm, poorly lit areas. During their stay indoors, water the plants only when the soil becomes dry. Occasionally pinch the geraniums to produce stocky, well- branched plants.

  • Cuttings: Using a sharp knife or pruners, take 3 to 4-inch (7.6-10.2 cm) stem cuttings from the end ends of the shoots. Pinch off the lower leaves, then dip the base of each cutting in a rooting hormone. Stick the cuttings in a rooting medium of coarse sand or a mixture of coarse sand and sphagnum peat moss. Clay or plastic pots with drainage holes in the bottom are best. Put the cuttings into the medium just far enough to be self-supporting, then water in well. After the medium is allowed to drain, place a clear plastic bag over the cuttings and container to prevent wilting. Place the cuttings in bright light, but not direct sunlight. The cuttings should root in 6 to 8 weeks. When the cuttings have good root systems, remove them from the rooting medium and plant each rooted cutting in its own pot.
Which ever method you use, you will have good looking geraniums in the spring and summer, they are that tough!

Question #4:  Planting Pansies

Question:  We just moved from upstate New York. To Florida. I want to know when is the best time to plant flowers like pansies?

 Jack Delahunt, Callahan, FL


ANSWER:  Hi Jack! In your area, with your mild winter temperatures, now is the best time for pansies, violas, poppies, stock, and calendulas. They are all cool weather annuals and do well in full sun.

If you need anything for partial shade, try some primroses and cyclamen, they are gorgeous at this time of year.

I hope you are enjoying your mild winters after living in New York.... do you miss the snow?

Question #5:  Ericaceous Compost

Question:  I have bought a spruce to keep in a pot outside. My soil is rather alkaline for many plants and the water here is very chalky. I want to know if I should use ericaceous compost for this tree when I put it into a bigger pot?

 Bronwen Taylor, Calne, Wiltshire UK


ANSWER:  Hi Bronwen! Yes Spruce (Picea) Trees are acid loving (ericaceous) and would definitely benefit from being planted in ericaceous compost when you pot it up. Now the compost will only meet the plant requirements for the first month or so.

After that, if you have chalky, alkaline water, I would put 1/2 the recommended amount of an Ericaceous or Acid-Based Plant Food in the water every time you water it to improve the pH of your water. This will keep it healthy and thriving all year long.

The same would be for any other acid-loving plants you want to plant in your area, such as: azaleas, camellias, ericas, heathers, magnolias, or rhododendrons.

Enjoy your tree!

Question #6:  Pinching Back Houseplants

Question:  How do you prune an indoor flowering plant properly to encourage new growth and blossoms? I don't know where on the stem to cut and how to cut. Thank you.

 Jana L Young, Brownsville, TX


ANSWER:  Hi Jana! I don't know what kind of house plant you have, but here is a general rule of thumb. Of course if you have a Sansevieria or Cacti, this won't work, but this technique is used on your typical green houseplants, like a ficus, pothos, or fucshia, etc.

Simply follow the stem down until you reach a branching point. See the pictures I have posted with this question.

Pinch out growing tips (use your fingers, a scissors, or pruning shears) of the tallest stems, removing them close to a leaf joint. Do this all over the plant until you have an evenly shaped plant. By doing this you will create a bushier, healther plant.

I tend to prune my plants in the fall and winter, when they are not growing as actively as they do in the spring and summer.

If you have a different kind of houseplant that doesn't lend itself to what I have just described, write me back and we'll go from there. O.K.?

Question #7:  Jacaranda Seeds

Question:  Whilst in Spain this year I collected some seeds from Jacaranda trees what do I do to get them to grow for me? I have bought this type of seed before without any luck. I am a seasoned gardener but still do not know all the answers.

 Margaret Moores, Bridport, Dorset UK


ANSWER:  Hi Margaret! I don't think any of us know all the answers! That's what makes gardening so much fun, we are always learning.

Jacarandas (Jacaranda mimosifolia) are best raised from seed and like Zones 9-11. Since you're along the coast, which is around a Climate Zone 9 and within its comfort zone, I doubt the non-germinating seed is a climate problem.

I don't know how dry the seed is that you collected, but normally you allow the pods to dry on plant; then break open to collect seeds.

Try soaking the seeds overnight, then plant them in a 2 1/2 to 3-inch (6.4-7.6 cm) pot of moistened rooting mixture and put the pot in bright, filtered sunlight. Water only enough to keep the mixture barely moist, not soggy, until germination.

Germination should occur in 2 to 3 weeks. When the seedlings are 6-8 inches (15.2-20.3 cm) tall, move them into a 4-5-inch (10.2-12.7 cm) pot filled with regular potting soil. After that, allow the soil to dry out between waterings, as you would a normal seedling.

In a few months, apply a complete liquid fertilizer, like a 15-15-15 every 2 weeks during the active growth period. Transplant them out into your garden in the spring.

I have a Jacaranda in my backyard, and it produces seedlings like crazy, so I'm sure if you're having a problem, it's probably be because of un-ripened seed and nothing to do with your skill level!

Let me know how it goes, I always like a follow up to hear how things are going!

Question #8:  Starting Bulbs Late

Question:  I know the optimum time for planting bulbs is October-ish, but could I get away with planting now (12 December). I would like to plant out some spring bulbs like Fritillarias - but am I too late ?

 Neil Jackson, Manchester, UK


ANSWER:  Hi Neil! Sorry this form of question and answer depends upon the answer coming out in the next month's magazine, thus making it even later for your bulb dilemma.

You are in Climate Zone 8, so chilling isn't a problem for you. Bulbs usually need around 14-15 weeks of chilling. If you plant in December - January you will get flowers a bit later - like around April - May instead of March - April, but I don't see that as a real problem.

You are definitely pushing the envelope, but I say go for it!

Question #9:  Poor Draining Soil

Question:  How can I stop my lawn from getting waterlogged when it rains? I have clay soil.

 James Cornelly, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire UK


ANSWER:  Hi James! I know what you are saying. My folks live in an area that has very heavy clay soils. When you dig a hole to plant anything you create your own little swimming pool because the water just sits there!

There are two products you can successfully use:
  • Penmax: This is good for existing lawn areas, and Penmax will open up the pores of the soil up to 8 feet deep in just a couple of hours. You can go to the website:

    Since you are overseas, you will probably have to email them on their product order form page: to ask how to get their product shipped to you.

  • Gypsum, also known as Sulfate of Lime: is also a good solution, but you need to work this into the soil before planting. So you might need to re-work your soil, and then re-seed.

    Gypsum is a light-colored finely powdered rock or pellets containing calcium sulfate. Similar products that are blends of calcium and sulfur, are gypsite (crystaline form of gypsum) and lime sulfur (which is sold as calcium polysulfide ). The latter may have a wetting agent which makes for deeper soil penetration.

    It improves soils for water penetration and aeration by breaking up particles of clay and neutralizing the salt in salty (high-sodium) soils, without raising the pH as lime does.

    Because it is a mild soil acifidifier, gypsum may be used where the use of lime would pose a problem to acid-loving plants. Use the pelleted form, it's easier to use than the powder form.
I know if you use either of the above products, your problem will be solved!

Question #10:  Get Rid of Sow Bugs

Question:  How do you stop garden slaters from eating your tomatos and other bugs without serious chemicals?

 Luke Chevalier, Perth, W.A.


ANSWER:  Hi Luke! Garden Slaters also known as Sow Bugs or Pill Bugs are not too hard to get rid of. Build your own trap with:
  • 1 small plastic container with a lid
  • 2 Tbsp. cornmeal
Cut a small hole at the base of the container, large enough and close enough to the bottom to allow sowbugs to walk in. Place cornmeal in container. Place container into area infested with sowbugs. After feeding on the cornmeal, the bugs will drink and then explode! Replace cornmeal frequently.

Sounds awful for the bugs, but it does work.

Question #11:  Transplanting Rhododendrons

Question:  I have purchased a rhodendron from my garden centre can I transplant it into the ground now?

 Jack, Westyorkshire, UK

Question:  When is the best time to move a rhododendron plant?

 Deb Havron, Derby, UK


ANSWER:  Hi Jack and Deb! I hope you don't mind my combining your questions together.

The best time to transplant just about anything is when the weather is cool. I like to transplant trees and shrubs in the fall and early spring. This gives the plant time to get settled into its new home and get some roots established before the hot weather comes.

If an area doesn't get a hard winter, with snow and frozen ground, you can transplant successfully all winter long.

Just make sure after you're done, you water your plant deeply for a few months until it has its own root system and get water on its own.

Enjoy your rhodos - they are so beautiful!

Question #12:  Planting Out Poinsettias

Question:  Can I plant a pointsettia in my yard? I see people with big pointsettias in there yards.

 Leslie Benoit, Leesburg, FL

Question:  Where, when, and how to plant Poinsettas?

 Roberta Stankewicz, Orange Park, FL

Question:  I have a poinsettia plant that I would like to plant, could you tell me what kind of fertillizer I need? Thank you.

 Mary DeSantis, Ft. Myers, FL


ANSWER:  Hi Leslie, Roberta, and Mary! Since you all had a similar question, I thought it would be good to answer them all in one place!

Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) make a really nice landscape plant in your area and are easy to care for. You have to keep in mind however, that once planted out, your poinsettia might not be red exactly at Christmas.

Growers spend a lot of time and money to carefully control how many hours of darkness poinsettias get to trigger them to turn color just in time for the holiday season. You can't do that in your yard, but you'll still have a lovely plant.

Plant them out in cool weather like any shrub, they don't need any special soil, but they like full sun except in super hot areas, in which case light shade is best. Once planted, they really need no special care. You can fertilize every few months with a complete granular fertilizer like an Osmocote 15-15-15, and water so that the soil dries out a bit between waterings.

They will get up to 10 feet (3.04 m) tall and about 6 feet (1.82 m) wide.

Enjoy your plants ladies!

Question #13:  Rosemary Plant Care

Question:  Hi! So glad you are there to consult - I have received a rosemary plant for Christmas and care instructions were not detailed, such as how often to water and lighting until I can plant it outdoors. We are truly crossing our fingers on it's survival here. Thank you again.

 Jan Watson, Webb City, MO


ANSWER:  Hi Jan! I'm sure your rosemary plant (Rosmarinus officinalis) is in good hands until spring, no worries!

The good news is that rosemary is a super tough plant and can take quite a bit of abuse and still look good.

The care for indoors is the same as for outdoors, which I have detailed below. When you plant it outside, in your area, I would plant your rosemary in a pot and it move it back indoors in the really cold weather. They are good down to 20° F (-7 C).

They like full sun, can take poor alkaline soil, and only need a little to moderate water. They need very good drainage - that is a must, so if you have heavy clay soil, mix in a good amount of organic matter when you plant it.

Lightly feed them 2 or 3 times a year with a good complete fertilizer. Since it is an herb, try fertilizing with a hydrolized fish fertilizer because that really intensifies the herb's natural oils, and you'll get more fragrance and taste if you want to use the leaves in cooking.

Just make sure you keep the water moderate, they don't like soggy feet, don't over fertilize, and keep it in bright light - full sun, and your plant will be loving you!

Question #14:  Different Plant Foods

Question:  Are there general fertilizers for house plants that are suitable for both acid and alkaline soil loving plants? Sometimes we have been given plants, as presents, without any information with regards to this.

 Barrie McClean, London, UK


ANSWER:  Hi Barrie! You're right, care instructions for most gift plants are somewhat lacking.

Unfortunately you'll have to purchase two kinds of fertilizer. I always use a water-soluble fertilizer 20-20-20 for non-acid loving plants, and a Miracid fertilizer for my acid-loving plants like gardenias and azaleas.

There is no getting around it. Different plants have different soil requirements, and if you don't give them what they want, they start doing undesirable things like turning yellow and dropping leaves.

The good news is that one bag or box of fertilizer lasts forever!

Question #15:  Pruning Camellia Sasanqua 'Yuletide'

Question:  Happy New Year! I have three camellia sansanqua yuletides. I love them when they bloom but mine are quite tall and spindly. I see pictures that show them to be more shrub like. How do I achieve this look? I would like to see them as "post" like standing side by side. I am afraid to start pruning when I know nothing about how to do that and can find nothing in internet searches. I just find beautiful pictures and want that look.

 Carol Freedman, Kirkland, WA


ANSWER:  Hi Carol - Happy New Year! You have a good question - it sounds like your camellias are in need of a bit of pinching back.

Camellias are similar to rhododendrons in that they produce a mass of flowers and do not require major pruning. They do however, need to be pinched back once in a while to encourage the bushiness that you are after.

When you pinch a leggy plant back, it signals it to start growing and then you can pinch it again. The more you pinch, the bushier your plants will get.

Take a look at the picture above that is posted for Question # 6. That is exactly how you want to pinch back your camellias.

Regularly trim back the new growth each year in spring to encourage bushiness, and you can remove spent flowers to encourage further flowering and prevent energy going into seed production.

The old adage to prune a Camellia so that a bird can fly through it is good advice. While you want a reasonably dense foliage, it is a good to remove some of the longer stems to open up the plant and let in more light and air.

This will encourage growth from lower down, improving the health and flowering of the plant. If left, plants tend to flower only at the top of the plant which doesn't look as nice. You can prune your Camellias anytime after flowering.

Do the above and your plants will look just like the pictures you have been looking at!

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