Q: I read your recent article on long-lived houseplants. Here’s a photo of my ficus that is over 50 years old. During its lifetime, it’s traveled from Michigan to Montreal to Vermont, and now back to Quebec. — Kathryn V.

A: Wow! That’s a high-mileage plant. I asked Kathryn to share the plant’s story and she added the following. “It was about 8 years old when I got it, and of course the trunk was much smaller. The plant has stayed in the same pot for much of its life. During the summer it sits under a big maple tree so it doesn’t get a lot of hot sun, which seems to burn the leaves outdoors.

“Every second year I shave off a couple of inches of soil from the sides and bottom of the root ball and add new potting soil. It doesn’t seem to mind being rootbound. I prune the top before moving indoors each fall to its sunny window. During the winter months I add a squirt of Schultz liquid plant food to the water and in the summer add a tree fertilizer spike to the pot.

“My ficus doesn’t seem to like drying out, so I keep it well-watered but never soggy. It does drop a few leaves in the winter, but not enough to worry about. Once in Montreal it did lose many leaves. My friend and I wheeled it down the street to her apartment to keep while I was on a monthlong sabbatical, but she nursed it back to health, and it seemed happy to get back to its own apartment when I returned. During this pandemic and the cold winter, it’s a pleasure to sit under the tree reading.”

Thanks, Kathryn, for a great story.

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This ficus is over 50 years old and has thrived in several different cities. Special to The Forum
This ficus is over 50 years old and has thrived in several different cities. Special to The Forum

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Q: I have four nice apple trees in my yard that are 10 years old and produce a good harvest. I'd like to net them somehow because the birds wreck so many of the apples before harvest. To do that, I'd like to cut off at least 2 feet of branches all the way around. What do you think? Will I kill the trees? Any advice on netting or what kind to get and when to put it on? — Catherine C.

A: You’re not alone, Catherine, as many apple growers struggle with the same problem, especially since birds enjoy sampling nearly every apple with a peck or two, instead of consuming what they start. Bird control falls into three categories: scare devices, providing alternate food sources close to the tree, and netting. Nearly all university fruit researchers recommend netting as the most effective method.

Any of the control methods, including netting, are best started before the fruits begin to ripen. Once birds taste ripe or nearly ripe fruit, they are driven to continue, and are more persistent.

Apple trees love pruning, so removing 2 feet of exterior growth is fine. Such pruning should be done in March or April, before buds begin to swell. Strive to achieve a pyramidal, Christmas tree shape, with the bottom branches being widest and tapering as you go up.

The lower branches will catch better sunshine, which increases fruit formation lower on the tree, instead of on the upper perimeter. Not only will fruit form where it’s easier to harvest, but covering the tree with netting should be easier. Netting is available at most garden centers and online.

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Q: How far should I cut down my ninebark shrub in the spring? — Dale W.

A: Ninebarks, both the green-leaved and purple-leaved cultivars, become very woody after a few years, and pruning promotes fresh, new branches. If left unpruned, they soon develop near-dead, overgrown branches in the shrub’s center.

To rejuvenate, cut the branches down to about 6 inches above ground level in April before they begin to leaf out. Once ninebarks are rejuvenated to eliminate old woody growth, yearly maintenance-type pruning can keep the shrub healthy by trimming branches back by about half. You can also selectively remove the woodiest branches down to ground level, allowing the younger, fresher branches to remain.

If you have a gardening or lawn care question, email Don Kinzler, NDSU Extension-Cass County, at donald.kinzler@ndsu.edu. Questions with broad appeal may be published, so please include your name, city and state for appropriate advice.