Use straw in garden to protect berries from roly-polies

There’s no shortage of questions from gardeners this time of year. Here are some common ones. I hope the answers will help your gardening:

Q: What is the most effective way to get rid of roly-polies eating my strawberries?

A: Have you ever wondered why strawberries are called “strawberries”? In earlier times, gardeners placed straw under plants creating a barrier between the two. Here is the beauty of this practice: The roly-polies — also known as pill bugs — fed on the straw, breaking it down into organic matter and other microorganisms. The byproducts are taken into the root zone and improve your berries.

Q: Can I grow a quince tree in Las Vegas?

A: The quince is not a popular tree but grows here. Contact your nursery and order it. If the nursery can only get bare root stock, have it sent next spring, as it is too hot to plant bare root now.

Q: Why are some leaves on my rose bush molted? I fed it but it’s still the same.

A: If you and I are on the same page, it is a disease called mosaic virus. It doesn’t hurt the bush and there is nothing you can do about it. Just enjoy the variegated leaf colors.

Q: Do you recommend gypsum to open up tight soils?

A: No, unless a soil test indicates you have a severe sodium problem. Our soils are loaded with gypsum and get a lot of undeserving credit. Here is why I say this: I once worked gypsum in the soil and compared it to just working the soil. Both plots did equally well, so it was the working of the soil that did the job. It was the elbow grease making the difference.

Q: What is the white bug causing my ash leaves to curl?

A: It is the ash aphid that injects a virus in leaves, causing them to curl. The curling becomes a defense mechanism, making it almost impossible to get at them with an insecticide and to wash off.

Q: My peach tree has clusters of small leaves at the end of twigs, and just behind those clusters are twigs bare of leaves. Do you have any idea what is going on?

A: You described zinc deficiency in your tree. For quicker results, spray zinc on the foliage. It takes a long time to correct the problem when applied to roots. Use chelated zinc for best results.

Q: My neighbor’s century plant is sending up a flowering stalk. Can you tell me about it?

A: This is a new phenomenon to those seeing it for the first time. It is an awesome sight. A century plant blooms sometime within five to 50 years; it got its name because it takes so long to bloom. When a plant starts flowering, death of the plant happens soon thereafter. The stalk, which looks like an asparagus spear, grows about a foot a day until it gets around 30 feet tall, then develops a candelabra to form yellow flowers lining the structure. From this comes scores of new starts. Let them mature to give away. It takes a couple of months for the candelabra to start to mature. In the meantime, new pups emerge at the base of the dying plant. Dig them up and plant elsewhere.

Q: Can we grow jojoba beans here? I understand they produce oil similar to whale oil.

A: Yes, Ethel M Botanical Cactus Garden has jojoba beans, but they are frost sensitive and if we get frost like this year, it will kill the blooms so you’ll miss out on a crop for that year. It has small insignificant yellowish flowers that produce acornlike nuts. The nuts produce a wax capable of replacing oil of endangered sperm whales.

Q: There use to be a beautiful sugar bush at the garden and I heard that once established you can almost forget about watering it, but I don’t find it at the nurseries.

A: I believe it would be the No. 1 shrub in Las Vegas if it wasn’t so hard to propagate. I love its crisp, leathery and deep green leaves, even when stressed for water. Attractive red stems support the leaves and red buds stay on the bush through winter and open into small creamy flowers in spring that — you guessed it — taste like sugar.

Q: Last fall I planted some junipers and now they are dead. Do you know why?

A: After quizzing the caller, I found they were planted about 3 inches below the soil surface. The extra soil literally suffocates the roots. Also the deep plantings cause crown rot, which plugs up the vascular system. Always place plants at the same depth you found them in containers.

Q: What is causing the brown discoloration of the older leaves on my pyracantha?

A: You have a spider mite infestation that removes the leaf surface, causing leaves to turn brown. Wash plants off with a strong jet of water or use insecticidal soap.

Q: How do I keep birds out of my peaches so I don’t lose them when they ripen?

A: Wrap netting — sold at your nursery — entirely around the tree and tie it to the trunk. Any openings and birds move in for the feast. I’ve seen birds almost go crazy trying to get out of the trap.

Q: What is causing my tomato leaves to twist and gnarl?

A: Someone nearby most likely used a chemical to kill dandelions in their lawn. The chemical is volatile and the slightest wind will carry it to susceptible plants. In most cases, the plant will grow out of it.

Q: Why are all the needles falling off my mondel pine I used as a Christmas tree last year?

A: It is a normal thing at this time of year. The tree farm heavily sheared the plant to create the Christmas tree shape. The needles packed within the tree are now shedding, so it’s OK.

Q: Are there some palms we can plant that will not overpower our home?

A: Consider Mediterranean, windmill, Mexican blue, Pindo and Guadeloupe palms.

Q: Will marigolds get rid of nematodes?

A: I wish the answer was yes, as so many people want them to. But the University of California found marigolds didn’t do the job. They found summer fallowing — deep cultivation several times through summer to kill them by heat — to help. Or, solarization — prepare soil as if to plant and cover with clear polyethylene for six weeks — also works. Now here is the important finding of the study: Composting materials stimulated microbial activity that limited nematode populations.

Q: I had a beautiful crop of grapes and now they are dropping. What happened?

A: This is a frequently asked question. It is known as fruit blasting — a result of your grapes exposure to winds. The developing fruit dehydrates and drops from clusters. Protect the fruit from the blasts of hot air. Give your plants a deep irrigation weekly. If possible, plant a row of shrubs or place a screen on the upwind side to reduce wind.

Linn Mills writes a garden column each Thursday. You can reach him at or at the Gardens at the Springs Preserve, 822-8325.

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