IN THE GARDEN: Here’s how to tell whether crape myrtles are dead or still asleep

My crape myrtle tree does not seem to be doing well this year. It only has leaves from certain limbs and has not leafed out as it has in the past. How do I address this? Cut off the limbs (down to the ground) that appear to be dead and hope for the best or what? Please help.

A I was wondering when this question would be asked. I have seen crape myrtles all around town in various stages of growth. Crape myrtles are notorious for being one of the last plants to start growing in our landscapes, and I would not be surprised if we had some winter damage on some. It will come down to the variety of crape myrtle and its location. I have seen trees side by side with very diverse new growth. I still would be patient to see what grows, but a little thinning would not be a bad thing for your trees -- they have a lot of branching. I would not be too severe yet. Give them a little more time and see what happens.

What is your advice regarding these gardenias? Do you think they are salvageable?

A Winter recovery continues to be the question on many gardeners' minds. I have found life in all my gardenias, but it is coming slowly. My dwarf ones only have new growth at the base, but my standards are leafing out all along the stems. Yours have much larger leaves than mine do, but they could do with a little thinning. Take out some of the internal branches, which are thick and bare. Lightly cut off the tips of the other branches to encourage buds farther down the stems to start growing. Time and patience are needed to get a full, healthy bush, but it can happen. Lightly fertilize and water, if it ever gets dry again.

Q We live in Fayetteville and have had beautiful peonies for years. The plants are not showing any damage from our weather extremes and are covered with blossoms as in past years. Last year we had many buds but few if any, opened. We may be experiencing the same issue this year although it may be too soon to tell. I've heard that ants help the buds open. Is this true?

A For now, I would be patient (seems to be a theme in my answers these days). Peonies are opening nicely in Central Arkansas, but it has been cooler this spring, and you do live farther north. The ant theory is not worth bothering with. Peony flowers have an extra sweet gland inside the blooms and that is quite attractive to ants -- thus when you cut a bouquet of peonies, you often get a bouquet of ants along with it. It is not a symbiotic relationship and doesn't open the flowers. You might sacrifice one bloom on the back of the bush and cut into it. There are some fungal diseases that can affect peony flowers. These cause soft, brown discoloration inside a bud. Fungal diseases tend to be worse in cool, wet springs, which we have had. Keep your fingers crossed, that they are just taking their time this year. You can take a bud sample to your county extension office for the disease clinic to look at.

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 Gallery: Garden May 6

Q I have numerous Monarch caterpillars on my milkweed. Too many for the plants I have. Do I leave them alone or take some off?

What a problem to have! If you don't think there is enough sustenance for the number of caterpillars, talk to your gardening friends and share. Nature centers, along with many schools and Master Gardener programs, have butterfly gardens and would love to help you out. Reach out and share the love.

Q Just when I thought my azaleas had survived Armageddon they are now covered in thick whitish growths? What in the world is wrong and am I going to lose them after all?

A What you have is azalea leaf gall — a fungal disease which is worse in a cool, wet spring, which we have had. Hand-pick the galls off and put them in the trash. They look much worse than they are, but if you leave them on the plants, they will mature and create disease spores, which can reinfect the plants for next year. No sprays are needed, and the galls will disappear when warm weather arrives.

Retired after 38 years with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, Janet Carson ranks among Arkansas' best known horticulture experts. Her blog is at Write to her at P.O. Box 2221, Little Rock, AR 72203 or email