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Answers to this Week's Questions

From this week’s mail: spring-flowering bulbs not planted last fall; passionflower vines and golden bamboo in containers; weeping fig as a hedge (!); and problems with rose bushes!
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

May 2, 2004

On Tuesday last week we experienced the strongest wind storm, at least while we were at home, since we purchased the property in June 2002. My little weather station showed gusts upwards of 56 km/hour. We had to go out and tie up one of our (newly planted last summer) weeping giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum ‘Pendulum’) as we feared it might break off. While doing that I took the accompanying photo of the Darwin Hybrid tulips ‘American Dream’ as they all blew sideways. The photo on the right is how they looked two days later, just a little the worse for wear! During the storm, I also noted a nearby windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) and other trees including a native Pacific serviceberry (Amelanchier florida) seeming to be adversely affected. The next day that exotic palm looked poor, but it now seems to be recuperating. The same cannot be said of the native serviceberry. The photos here show its flowers as they appeared before the wind, and, on the right, how parts of the leaves and flowers look now. A good 60 percent of one side of the tree has dried foliage and flowers that will definitely not recuperate. Author photos.

This week’s mail included a number of interesting questions--even one from a reader (on who hopefully was writing from a southern destination, because he writes about a hedge he is planning that is to be weeping figs (Ficus)!

Let’s start though, with this from Fran Hammond in Richmond Hill: “My neighbour gave me a bag of tulip bulbs she dug out of her garden last fall. I forgot about them and found the bag in my garage. Can I still plant them this coming November or should I throw them away?”

Fran said she hoped I would have good news for her, but unfortunately, I do not! The bulbs given to her from her neighbour’s garden last fall are no different from any she or other gardeners purchased from garden centres or retail stores in the fall. They absolutely must be planted and be in the ground (or a cooler indoors) for several months over the winter. If they are not, generally they dry up and are not viable. Fran could check the bulbs, but I am sure she will find they have dried totally within. Slicing one bulb in half will reveal whether or not the growing point is still green and alive, or brown and dry. I am certain it will be the latter. Sorry Fran!

Markus Sawatzki of Toronto wrote about one of my favourite plants: “I recently bought a beautiful Passiflora x belotti, it is extremely vigorous and is latching on to anything and everything in my apartment! I want to use it as a container plant on my balcony and am wondering if it is too early to place it outdoors. I am on the fourth floor, facing south and protected on the east side. I have sun from about sunrise until about 5:30 PM. I also have a bamboo plant (Phyllostachys aurea) out there which seems to be thriving and doing well at this time.”

Over the years I have grown five or six different passionflower vines and love them all. For two decades or more we had a ‘Belotti’ in a large container, which, each fall, we brought in from the deck and kept over winter in a cold room with very low light. As to Markus’ question, I think he could put it outdoors now, but if there is the threat of a below-freezing night, I would certainly bring it back in until the next morning. If he fertilizes it well, I think he’ll find it is a mass of what some call the most beautifully-structured flowers in the world, all season long.

I would suggest that his golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) might also be a good candidate for a cold room (again with at least low light in the daytime) since it may well not survive a Toronto winter, particularly in a container.

Adrian James is the questioner who apparently lives in the southern US--or at least I hope he does. He asked, “I am having a pool (rectangle) built at my home and around the pool, approximately 5 feet from the pools edge, I am planning to plant a Ficus hedge on three sides. Now I know that a Ficus tree has serious roots that could damage the pool, but this is going to be a hedge that will be kept manicured and to the height of about 10 feet high. My question for you is, will the roots of this hedge damage the pool? I would appreciate your advice...I look forward to hearing from you.”

Well, the simple answer to that question is: yes, entirely possible! My experience with the roots of Ficus trees is limited to their growth in containers, which is the only way we can grow them here. However, Adrian’s theory that because he is going to be maintaining them at a medium height of 3 metres (10 ft.), the roots will not grow large is absolutely without foundation (pardon the pun). Let’s take Chinese elm (Ulmus parviflolia) that is often used as a fast-growing hedge in the Ontario climate. Folks generally think that because they keep it at a set height, say 3 m, the roots will not spread. Wrong! The roots from Chinese elm hedges are often traced 6 - 12 m (20 to 40 ft) away from the plants. A tree is a tree, and you do not necessarily control the root spread by controlling the branch growth. My knowledge would lead me to suggest to Adrian that either he more than double the distance of the hedge from the pool, or choose plants with more of a tap root, such as, for example, English oaks.

Just in conclusion this week, I want to comment on the amazing number of reports I am getting this spring about rose bushes that apparently did not make it over the heavy winter experienced in southern Ontario.

In talks during the early spring (with horticulturists such as Keith Squires and Tom Thomson) we thought this would be a good spring for rose bushes because in most areas there was little frost in the ground. In addition, there was an abundant snow cover through most of the winter.

Well, we were wrong! Many friends with widely varying numbers of rose bushes are reporting heavy losses of bushes. My comment to that is: do not be too hasty in pulling out the bushes. They may still be alive. The suggestion is to apply a liquid fertilizer, such as 20-20-20 (or really any concentrate will do), to all of the ‘slow’ bushes, and do that every four or five days over the next two weeks, following the directions on the container. That remedy worked well last year for many deciduous trees and even grape vines that showed no or poor numbers of breaks (buds) in the spring. It, like many others, is an old idea, but it still works.

There is also a counter theory! Some rosarians will tell you that if you have a weak-growing bush, you may as well pull it up and replace it early in the season, rather than prod it as I have suggested. That theory says that once a weak bush, always a weak bush, and while you may be able to get it to come along, it will not again be a strong bush.

Take your pick of those theories!


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