Homegrown: Dwarf Alberta spruce, rhubarb

I have a dwarf Alberta spruce that I planted about 11 years ago. It is about 7 feet tall. It is planted on the north side of the house within 3 feet of the corner of our garage.

Last summer, it started to turn brown on the side away from the house, whereas the side next to the house is nice and green.

I have two neighbors who also have the same problem, although one faces south and the other east. In each case the side away from the house is turning brown and the side facing the house is green.

What could be the problem?

— Wayne

Though there are several possibilities out there, the most common reason for this is the spruce spider mite.

This spider mite is especially tiny — perhaps a bit bigger than the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Obviously, they’re hard to see with the naked eye.

You can check for them with a hand lens or by tapping an affected branch over a sheet of white paper. You’ll knock some off and some of those little tiny specks of “dust” will start moving around.

Spider mites damage plants by sucking sap from the foliage. They cause a yellowing, browning or bronzing of the foliage. In severe infestations, you’ll notice a gossamer fine webbing between the needles of your plant.

They will kill the foliage and often kill off smaller twigs. Unfortunately, these twigs usually don’t recover and you’re left with a bare, brown patch.

Growth from the surrounding branches will fill that hole in several years, depending on how big it is.

Most spider mites prefer hot, dry weather, but these are different. They are most active during cool weather, usually in late winter or early spring.

Once temperatures get much above 80 degrees, they go dormant and wait for cooler weather.

Like the rest of the spider mites, they also prefer it dry.

One of the most effective ways to control this pest is to spray your plant with a hard shower of cold water from the hose. Doing this two or three times a week works amazing well.

If you still have problems with them, then spraying with an insecticidal soap or a season long spray oil will do the trick. You’ll have to apply these sprays two or three times at one week intervals.

Last fall, I had an old rhubarb plant that I dug up, divided and transplanted all the pieces. This spring, I have a lot of rhubarb plants coming up.

Can I use the rhubarb from it or should I wait a year before harvesting any of it after having been transplanted?

— Elizabeth

You could harvest a little but don’t get carried away. You want to keep as much foliage on the plant as you can because the more leaves you have, the faster the plants will reestablish themselves and get on with the serious business of producing rhubarb.

Since the stalks tend to be thin the first year, most people don’t pick any, choosing instead to allow them to develop more fully.

I live in Delta and am looking for a pretty ground cover plant that is fairly xeric. I’ve been researching, and I was thinking about flowering thyme. Will this work in this area or is there something better?

— Julie

Regular flowering thyme (or mother of thyme) is a bit drought tolerant but the best thyme for what you’re talking about is wooly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus).

This plant is lower growing than flowering thyme, to only an inch or 2 tall with tiny leaves covered with fine hairs that give the plant a silvery-gray cast. It’s more drought tolerant than its taller cousin.

In addition, there are several other xeric groundcovers to consider. Check into hummingbird trumpet (Zauschneria garrettii), fringed sage (Artemesia frigida), pussytoes (Antennaria rosea), sun drops (Calylophus serrulatus), poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata), sulfur flower (Eriogonum umbellatum), little trudy catmint (Nepeta), iceplants (Delosperma varieties), silver carpet lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantica) and Greek yarrow (Achillea ageratifolia).

Some of these will perhaps get a bit taller than you’d like (up to 12 inches), but they’re all wonderful additions to the xeric garden.

Dennis Hill is the nursery manager at Bookcliff Gardens, http://www.bookcliffgardens.com. Send questions to Bookcliff Gardens, 755 26 Road, Grand Junction 81506; or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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