End of year gardening questions answered

January 2, 2013 

This week’s column reaches into the reader mail bag for questions about hellebores, pets and poinsettias and what to do about those roses a reader never pruned back.

But first, here’s a practical tip on how to recycle that cut Christmas tree that you need to remove from your house. Sweep up fallen needles and spread them around your rhododendrons and azaleas as a light mulch. You also can trim off boughs from a cut tree and use the branches to protect tender perennials from the winter cold. Just be sure to remove all traces of tinsel and ornament from trees before you recycle them. Crows and jays are attracted to all that is shiny, so it is best to not leave any metal on the petal or bows on the boughs when you compost or recycle.

Here are reader questions:

Q. I was given a gift plant with white flowers called a Hellebore ‘Jacob’ and now the lower leaves are turning yellow. The tag says I should move it outdoors after a few weeks but I do not have a perennial garden or much space in my yard. Would it be OK to plant this under some tall rhododendrons? It would get only a few hours of sun a day. C.H., Olympia

A. Congratulations on owning one of the most popular gift plants in Europe. In some countries, hellebores outsell poinsettias as gifts plants for Christmas.

When the foliage begins to yellow indoors, remove all wrapping from around the pot as it can trap drainage water and cause root rot. Hellebores will thrive in the shade of your rhododendrons as long as the soil drains well and the roots do not dry out in the summer.

If you want to create heaven for your hellebore, dig a hole that is twice as wide as the pot and loosen the soil to a depth of at least one foot. Add compost, half-rotted bark mulch or peat moss to the loose soil and mix well. Now remove the hellebore from the pot and do not bury it any deeper than it was originally growing it the container.

Your hellebore will grace you with blooms each winter — which is how these plants earned the nickname “Christmas rose.”

Are you a procrastinator? At least place the potted plant outdoors in a protected area and keep the soil moist until you get around to planting it into the ground. Hellebores will pout if forced to spend more than a week or two indoors.

Q. My vet told me that poinsettia plants are poisonous to pets. Should I be concerned about adding a poinsettia plant to the compost pile? I use my compost on the vegetable garden. G.R., Tacoma

A. No worries, as the persistent rumor that poinsettias are poisonous needs to be taken to the trash like last week’s Christmas wrappings. Poinsettias are members of the euphorbia family, so the milky white sap that can flow from cut stems might irritate the skin of some people and perhaps some pets. However, a compost pile is the perfect place to dispose of any potted plant past its prime.

Q. I never did prune back my roses. When was I supposed to do that? Believe it or not my rose plants were still blooming in December. T., Email

A. Roses in Western Washington can be pruned in early spring or late winter, but there is no exact date. You can wait until the weather is mild in February or March, then cut your rose plant back by at least one half their height.

The goal is to stimulate healthy new growth in the spring by taking out rose canes that are thin, weak, crossing or diseased. I like to use daffodils in bloom as a reminder to cut back the roses, ornamental grasses and to start pulling winter weeds.

Blooming daffodils also are the colorful reminder that slugs are waking up — so you can get snippy with both your roses and your slugs in early spring.

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