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Ask Dr. Hort: Patients pays with milkweed bugs, hedges and caladiums

Getting ride of bugs will require hunting and picking

Q: Milkweed bugs are killing my butterfly milkweed plants and as a result leaving nothing for my monarch caterpillars to eat. How do I get rid of them? Ann Browne

A: In the wild, milkweed bugs (right) would be considered beneficial because they damage the seed, which cuts down their spread. On your milkweed they are a pest, competing with your monarch caterpillars. There's probably enough food for both, as the bugs suck plant juices and the caterpillars eat the plant. You could also hand-pick the bugs or as a last resort scout vigilantly and spray them with insecticidal soap or neem oil, when caterpillars aren't present. Happy hunting!

With patience, caladiums will make a comeback

Q: I planted caladiums last year, some as tubers and others as plants. Shouldn't they come back again this year? I keep watching the area but, so far, nothing. Robin Murphy

A: Caladium tubers or plants will die back to the ground each winter. Then, in the spring, when the night temperature is consistently in the upper 60s, they will begin sprouting. Make sure to pull back any mulch to hasten the process.

University of Florida has wisdom to share

Q: I am looking for a reference on fertilizing and pruning plants in Florida. Thanks.

Bob Ballard, Tampa

A: The University of Florida has a website,, with a wealth of information. Gardeners can enter a variety of subject or topic words in the search box to access many articles. As to your specific request, search CIR853, for "Pruning Landscape Trees and Shrubs," and search ENH858 for "Fertilizer Recommendations For Landscape Plants."

Cold weather can spell doom for foxtail palms

Q: I have been researching some info about my foxtail palm. I live in Orlando, and I think the cold last winter and this winter got it. I haven't had any new growth in a year, and the final two fronds are brown. Can I cut the trunk maybe at the top and see if new growth will occur or just wait?

Mike Barefoot, Orlando

A: Mike, I'm afraid that you diagnosed the problem — cold damage. Foxtail palms are a little too tender for your area with the winters that we have had the last two years. You might want to go with a more cold-hardy species like European fan palm, Chamaerops humilis, or pindo palm, Butia capitata. Both would do well north of the Tampa Bay area.

Prune hedges by no more than a third

Q: I have a viburnum hedge growing around the perimeter of my back yard. It has grown to 15 to 20 feet but has become leggy on the bottom. The hedge is intended for privacy, so being able to see through the bottom defeats the purpose. Should I prune the hedge back drastically, say 8 to 10 feet, to encourage new branches and leaves below? Jim Nelson, Crystal Beach

A: Ideally, you shouldn't prune more than a third of the foliage at any one time. So this season cut it back 5 to 6 feet to let the bottom grow out, and next season another 5 to 6 feet. (Another pruning practice with hedges, seldom followed, is to let the bottom of the hedge grow wider than the top, resembling a spruce or a fir Christmas tree. That allows light to penetrate to the base of the planting.)

Need help? Dr. Hort (Greg Charles) answers questions about garden problems. E-mail him at or mail questions to HomeLink, Features Department, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. Describe problem in full, and include your name, city of residence and contact information. If possible, include a good-quality photo. Fuzzy ones won't do. Photos cannot be returned.

Ask Dr. Hort: Patients pays with milkweed bugs, hedges and caladiums 04/23/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 23, 2011 4:30am]
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