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Published April 29, 2011, 12:00 AM

Hortiscope: Fescue cultivar may be best for clay soil

Q: I live in a newer subdivision. My front lawn has sod, and I have no issues with keeping it green and growing. However, the backyard was seeded, and I am having a difficult time keeping the grass green and, in some places, even keeping it alive.

By: Don Kinzler, INFORUM

Q: I live in a newer subdivision. My front lawn has sod, and I have no issues with keeping it green and growing. However, the backyard was seeded, and I am having a difficult time keeping the grass green and, in some places, even keeping it alive. I think the topsoil is minimal and there is heavy clay below.

The grass is slow to turn green in the spring, even with a fall fertilizer application. I aerate in the spring and fall and fertilize accordingly. Some patches die during the course of the summer. I can pull out patches of dead grass and see that the roots are not attached. It almost looks like the grass dies when the roots hit the clay. I have no evidence of voles that I can see.

Should I try lime? How about using half rates of fertilizer but fertilizing twice as often? Should I try overseeding with a clay-tolerant variety of grass if there is such a thing? I have lived in this house for three years, and it drives me nuts that I can’t have a green lawn! Thanks in advance for any advice. (West Fargo)

A: From what you’ve told me, it sounds like you are doing all that can be done to have a decent lawn in your backyard. A tough grass that goes largely unappreciated is tall fescue. It has a clay-busting root system that penetrates deeper than any other species of cool-season lawn grass. Dozens of cultivars, such as rebel blends, bonanza and some of the new rhizomatous-type tall fescues, are available. I have grown turf-type tall fescues across the state, including my own backyard. All are soil- and weather-adaptable and wear-tolerant, and require lower inputs of water and fertilizer. If these don’t work, then a major soil amendment project is needed, which I hope can be avoided.


Q: I’ve been researching how to deal with skunks and came across your question-and-answer information. Can you tell me exactly who my local wildlife authority person is and how I can contact him or her? We have live-trapped two so far, but I don’t like the process (stench). Are there any other options? (Davenport, N.D.)

A: What a task that must be! Go to http://gf.nd.gov/about/contactus.html for a contact in Bismarck who should be able to give you the name of someone locally.


Q: I am looking for some advice on getting a Japanese maple to start growing. I purchased the tree from a local nursery three years ago. Half of the tree is growing, while the other half is not. I was given a replacement tree because the nursery couldn’t explain why this is happening. Is there something I could try to kick-start the growth of the tree so that I can avoid digging it up and killing a healthy tree? Thank you for any assistance you can provide. (email reference)

A: I’m not sure I can explain this, either. It usually turns out to be a dumb thing that can cause this to happen. For example, a nametag that remained on the branch and partially girdled the branch. The problem also could be bark beetles, borers or cankers that partially or completely girdled the stem. I suggest cutting the branch or branches out that are not cooperating with the rest of the tree to see what might happen. If nothing, then you have the healthy and vigorous part of the tree to work with. Sorry that I cannot be more definitive with my answer.


Q: I have a major problem with my lily plant. I need to know what I can do to help it thrive. I live in my house four days a week. The other days, the heat is at 50 degrees. I make sure I water it once a week before I leave. When I am home, the temperature is about 65 degrees. I had to cut out a lot of the plant because it withered. Some of the plant was so bad that when I touched it, the stalk came out and the bottom was slimy. I added some potting soil and fertilizer, hoping it would help. I decided to repot it and hope it will root and grow, but I am not sure because the stalk is withered at the bottom. Please help because I miss the beauty of my plant. (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

A: You won’t like my advice, but I have to say it anyway. Dump the plant and start over with a new one. From what I could see in the photos, this plant is beyond help. The stem you stuck in the soil is never going to root. I suspect the crown has rotted, which isn’t something the plant can recover from. Go to www.ext.nodak.edu/extnews/hortiscope/flowers/lily.htm to review what I’ve said to others with lily problems.


Q: We have an older pink dogwood tree that was here when we bought the house four years ago. For the first couple of years, the blossoms were beautiful. Two years ago, I noticed the blossoms were sparse. Last year, I saw blue jays eating the young buds, and we had even fewer blossoms. How do I keep the blue jays out of the tree? (email reference)

A: Blue jays are aggressive characters. Try scare balloons that are sold in garden retail outlets. That might do the trick. Also, you can buy aluminum pie tins and hang them randomly in the tree or try a combination of both.


Q: I came across the NDSU website today and have a question for you. I live in Michigan and have a pool. We have a line of about 30 arborvitaes that run north to south along our fence. The arborvitaes were planted nine years ago. About three to four years ago, our neighbor started having standing water issues. Many of my arborvitaes are now dead and the rest seem to be stunted and thinning. I need to replace them but am concerned the standing water is the culprit. I had the soil checked and it was a little too alkaline, but nothing major. Do you think that if I install some black corrugated drainage pipe the length of the arborvitaes and also elevate the new plants that I could safely assume things would be OK? What type of arborvitaes should I buy? I think that 20 of the original 30 are salvageable. (email reference)

A: Standing water will kill these evergreens. Installing drain tile to carry the water off and replanting a little higher would help the remaining plants recover and help the new plantings become established, so your thinking is sound.


Q: We planted tomatoes and strawberries last summer at our cabin south of Hawley, Minn. The fruit that touched the ground was attacked by small black worms or bugs. Is there a powder, spray or anything else that will kill the worms but still allow us to eat the fruit? My description is vague because it has been several months since this occurred. (email reference)

A: Hardly an apt description for identification. Turn your soil over and make it as clean as possible this spring prior to planting. After that, sprinkle Sevin insecticide dust on the area and work it into the upper 2 to 3 inches of soil.

That should take care of any critters that might decide to feast on your plants.

If it doesn’t kill them, pickle some in alcohol when they show up and get them to me at NDSU. Somehow, we’ll figure out what they are and how to control them.


Q: Last year about this time, I planted six evergreen trees about 5 feet away from each other. They are planted in the grassy space between the street and concrete. I live in Texas and went through extreme temperatures ranging from a high of 110 degrees down to 10 degrees. Before December, I started to see brown needles on all the trees. Each tree has about 50 percent browning. I was wondering if these will die or if I need to give them more or less water, a fungicide treatment or fertilizer. Is there anything I can do to save them?

Thank you very much and I appreciate your time. (email reference)

A: Browning of the internal needles of pines, spruce and arborvitae is normal when the trees are drought- or heat-stressed. I cannot give you an accurate diagnosis or recommendation based on what I have been told, so I advise you to contact the Extension Service in your county. Go to http://county-tx.tamu.edu/ to find the Web address of your county office.


Q: Greetings from Zone 8 in Dallas. I wish I had come across your website before I decided to plant our chokecherry tree. I purchased a small chokecherry from a very reputable local nursery last summer. The reason I purchased the tree was seeing the abundance of these beautiful trees through our trips to the northern Plains and Canada during the summer months. The tree is growing beautifully. However, I have two questions. Is black knot fungus more prevalent in a particular zone or can it occur anywhere? During the winter, I pulled off what appeared to be a bagworm sack on a branch. Can chokecherries have bagworms?

I enjoy reading your Hortiscope column. (email reference)

A: Black knot is a regional disease. However, it can exist anywhere that has the Prunus species, but usually it is not a big problem unless the species is overplanted or there are many wild trees in surrounding shelterbelts. If that is not the case in your area, then you should not have to worry. Being vigilant, like you were by discovering the bagworm sack and pulling it off, will go a long way in keeping your new tree vigorous and healthy.


Q: Last fall, you told me to apply a pre-emergent in the spring when the forsythia bloom. When is that? (email reference)

A: That depends on where you live. Certainly not yet if you live in North Dakota. If you have no forsythia around to observe, then use lilacs that are just starting to bloom as a guide. Crabgrass comes out of dormancy around the time forsythia shrubs are flowering and continues through August. Being a warm-season grassy weed, the seed needs a minimum soil temperature of 60 degrees to begin germination. Consequently, northern exposures will warm later than southern. That is why we have local recommendations for these flowering shrubs.


To contact Ron Smith for answers to your questions, write to Ron Smith, NDSU Department of Plant Sciences, Dept. 7670, Box 6050, Fargo, ND 58108-6050 or email ronald.smith@ndsu.edu.

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