Hortiscope: Pill bugs could indicate soil too moist

Q: I have a jade plant that seems to be doing very well. I've had it for about four months. However, I am finding bugs in the dirt around the base of the plant. What are these light- to medium-brown insects that are less than an inch in length an...

Q: I have a jade plant that seems to be doing very well. I've had it for about four months. However, I am finding bugs in the dirt around the base of the plant. What are these light- to medium-brown insects that are less than an inch in length and curl up like a snail when I touch them? How do I get rid of them without damaging the plant? (email reference)

A: These are commonly called pill bugs or roly-polys. They are easily recognized by their flattened or round-backed profile, seven pairs of legs, sharply angled antennae and ability to curl into a ball. There are about a dozen or so in these genera, but only one or two that curl when disturbed. Don't worry about the bugs hurting your jade plant, because they feed on decaying organic matter in the soil. They prefer moist sites, which may be an indication that you might be keeping your soil too moist. Being a succulent, jade plants have the ability to store water better than most houseplants. However, during the winter months, the need for water is reduced in contrast to the summer months, when there is more growth taking place. If the bugs are too repugnant for you to tolerate, then I would suggest a complete repotting using fresh potting soil and a good rinsing of the container.

Q: I live on a farm in west-central Minnesota. We have some blue spruce trees that are losing needles starting at the trunk. Some of the branches only have a few needles left at the tips. Meanwhile, our Ponderosa pine trees have white spots that look almost like bird droppings. I think you wrote about this in one of your articles last fall. If I recall correctly, you said it was a copper deficiency or something similar. Any help is appreciated, and I enjoy your column. (email reference)

A: This sounds like it is a needle cast disease attacking your spruce and possibly a scale infestation on your pine trees. The symptoms need verification through an on-site visit or lab analysis by the University of Minnesota diagnostic lab. Do it as soon as you can so that corrective action can be taken to save these trees.

Q: I've just found your website while looking for help. We have a large, old lilac tree at the front of our house. Unfortunately, it fell over during a storm. The trunk is not split or broken, so we want to try to rescue it. Do you think this is possible? It flowers so beautifully in the spring, so we don't want to lose it. (United Kingdom)


A: The tree should be dormant because it is winter in your part of the world. There is at least a 50 percent chance of the lilac surviving. I would advise attempting it because a replacement would take way too long to provide the majestic beauty this mature one is able to give you.

Q: We have a row of blue spruce and other pines that have grown to about 60 feet tall. The power company pruned and topped them. Is this an acceptable practice? It was not acceptable to me. What will happen to them in the next year or so? Any suggestions? I am sending along some photos. Thank you very much for your help. (email reference)

A: From the photos, it was a bad topping job. Of course, there really is no good job when it comes to topping trees. I hope what will happen is that one of the lateral branches will begin to move to become the dominant leader. However, the trees may die from having pruning wounds that are too large. The architecture of the trees has been permanently altered. If regrowth does take place, the utility company will come back to repeat the process. It would be better to remove the trees and replant with a species that will not interfere with the overhead wiring.

Q: I received an Italian stone pine as a gift. From my research, it is not hardy enough for my area. Is it worth a try? Is it an invasive tree? (South Dakota)

A: Italian stone pines are what one would see in the Arizona and California deserts, not in the Dakotas. Enjoy it as a houseplant and then move it outdoors for the summer. Unless you possess the patience of Job, I would suggest simply dumping it.

Q: I was listening to you on the radio, but I missed the name of the tree you were talking about. You said it was drought-tolerant, gets yellow leaves in the fall and the leaves disintegrate after they fall. Could you please share with me what type of tree you were referring to? Can you tell me the life expectancy of this species? Also, the area where we want to plant a tree has sandy clay soil. Do you have recommendations for this type of soil? I wish I could have caught the whole program. (Pierre, S.D.)

A: The tree I mentioned on the air was the northern acclaim honeylocust. It is seedless, hardy and drought-tolerant. The tree also has a yellow fall color and grows fast. Another one you might consider is the prairie reflection laurel willow. Both should be available at local garden centers. Thanks for listening and calling in.

Q: I live in Ottawa, Canada. For a number of years, I have had good luck growing geraniums from cuttings. However, I would like to start some geraniums from seed in order to have more color choices. I have limited experience with seeds. Should the seeds be kept in the dark? (email reference)


A: Growing geraniums from seeds is fun, and you will have a wide variety of color combinations to enjoy. The seeds will germinate best if kept in the dark. Once plant emergence is noted, the plants will need all the direct sun or artificial light you can provide. Enjoy.

Q: I heard you on the "What's on Your Mind" radio talk show. A caller from Minot asked you about a rapid-growing shade tree that is hardy enough for the extreme temperatures we have in North Dakota. You answered him, but I can't remember the kind of tree you recommended. You mentioned that the leaves disappear without having to pick them up. We have a lake cabin near Ashley. I would like to plant some shade trees close to the cabin but wouldn't want to have the roots damage the foundation. (email reference)

A: The tree is a northern acclaim honeylocust. It grows fast, provides dappled shade and has pinnately compound leaves that break up when the tree defoliates, which removes the necessity of raking as one would with birch, lindens, oaks or maples. This cultivar of honeylocust has a dependable yellow fall color, is drought-tolerant and adapts to various soils. Thanks for being a listener and calling in.

Q: I bought a grafted rose online that has one cane. What is its prognosis? I couldn't find an answer on your Web page. (email reference)

A: Your comment is exactly the reason why I don't like purchasing plant material on the Web. Obviously, your specimen is not something you would have selected from a local retail garden center, nor would a high-quality garden center even have something like that for sale. If the plant is alive (green cambium), plant it in a pot. Under good lighting conditions, there is a good chance that it will survive. At first, the plant will be weak. However, with good care, it may develop into a flower-producing plant. It will take skill and patience on your part to be successful.

To contact 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 .

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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