DEAR JESSICA: I have several gold dust plants, some of which have grown to 5 feet tall. Are they supposed to be cut down in the fall or early spring like other perennials, or left alone? If left alone, I find I get a ton of black leaves intermingled with the new growth, and it's quite a pain removing them. We also have butterfly bushes, which we did trim down in the fall, but these past winters have been so brutal that one never came back, possibly because the snow covering them never went away. Do you have any suggestions? -- Marc, via email
DEAR MARC: Butterfly bushes (Buddleia) should never be cut down during fall. It's OK to trim away an errant or broken branch, but cutting down should only be done in late winter/early spring or chances are high the plant will die.
Gold dust plants (Acuba japonica) are not perennials; they're low-maintenance evergreen shrubs with glossy, dense, gold-speckled foliage. They grow slowly to reach a maximum height of 10 feet, but can be kept shorter with annual pruning. They are commonly used to brighten up shady areas, and female plants produce berries if a male is located nearby.
My guess is that your gold dust plants are receiving too much sun, as they require part-shade to full-shade conditions. Too much sun will cause leaves to blacken, as you have experienced. They also can contract fungal diseases if subjected to overhead watering, so keep them away from automatic sprinkler systems.
DEAR JESSICA: My twin granddaughters had an apple seed project in nursery school last year. As a follow-up we planted Gala apple seeds, and to my surprise they germinated and grew in small pots on my windowsill. Josie and Vivi, now 4 years old, love to watch them grow. It's been over a year, and the two saplings are thriving. One is 15 inches tall and the other is about 8 inches tall. When should I put them outside in containers and when should we plant them in the ground? The girls and I are very protective of them.-- Connie Prestianni, Valley Stream
DEAR CONNIE: I'm always so happy to hear accounts of children growing plants and communing with nature. It's quite rare in this technological age, and gardening, alas, seems to be an aging pastime, which is a shame because it allows time for quiet contemplation and the joy of watching the miracle of a seed become a full-grown plant or tree. Studies also have shown that gardening is a wonderful stress release, something that is necessary for people of all ages, children included, more so these days than ever, I believe.
It's important to understand that most store-bought apples are propagated by grafting because they are hybrids, as Galas are, and so planting their seeds will have unpredictable results. In other words, you will not be growing Gala apples. In fact, the apples may or may not be edible, but that does not negate the experience of growing a tree from seed that you are providing for your granddaughters. If the fruit produced ends up being incredibly tart, Josie and Vivi can enjoy knowing their tree is feeding birds and squirrels.
Typically, saplings should not be planted in the garden until they are a year old, as yours are. Wait until mid-May, then set the pots in a shady area protected from wind for an hour and bring them back indoors, setting them near a sunny window. The next day, return them outdoors for two hours, and then for three, and so on for an entire week.
Be sure to continue watering during this time. You can then leave the pots outdoors -- in the same shady spot -- for another week, and then plant them in the garden in a spot where they will receive at least a half-day of sun and are protected from wind.
Keep in mind:
-- Apple trees require slightly acidic soil, with a pH range between 6.0 and 6.5. Test the soil and amend, if necessary.
-- Full-size apple trees can require up to 20 feet to spread their roots, so do not plant them near other trees, which will compete for nutrients and water.
-- Prepare a hole that's a bit wider and deeper than the pots, and create a small, loose mound of soil at the bottom of each hole. Then set the saplings (with pot soil still attached) atop the mound. It should sit at the same depth as it did when potted. Fill the hole halfway with soil, and firm the soil gently with your hands to remove air pockets. Then, fill the remainder of the hole and firm the soil again. Water immediately after planting and at least weekly during the first season, making adjustments for rainfall.
-- To protect the saplings from wildlife, surround them with 12-inch-tall chicken wire or protective cloth. This is typically done by installing two or three 2-foot-tall stakes into soil around each tree and fastening chicken wire or protective cloth to it with a staple gun, wire ties or twine.