Garden Detective: rhododendron blooming in December a possibility

A rhododendron blooming in December in reader Steven

A rhododendron blooming in December in reader Steven Korn's Merrick garden. (Credit: Handout)

DEAR JESSICA I am a regular reader of your column and monthly calendars in Newsday. I just finished my final fall cleanup of my backyard and found a blooming rhododendron. Is this normal in December, especially after Sandy and the nor'easter snow? I know this is late fall, and I've been on LI since I was a kid in the 1950s, but this is weird. -- Steve Korn, Merrick

DEAR STEVE Weird, indeed, but not unheard of, especially because of the nor'easter snow. Sometimes when plants experience a frost followed by warmer weather, they are tricked into thinking winter has come and gone. As far as your rhodie is concerned, spring has arrived! The good news is you get to enjoy some unseasonal blossoms before the cold nips at the plant again. The downside, unfortunately, is that the plant is spending its blooming energy now and so won't be able to put on as good a show as you've come to expect in spring.

DEAR JESSICA I am hoping you can give me some advice regarding several Nandina (heavenly bamboo) shrubs in front of my house. They were planted a couple of years ago and have been doing well, with consistent growth and red berries in the fall. The shrubs started losing their leaves (one is practically bare) but still have beautiful bright red berries. This did not happen last winter, as the shrubs maintained their foliage all season long. Are the shrubs in distress? Is there anything I can do now, or should I just cross my fingers and hope for the best in spring? -- Ivan Prafder, Massapequa

DEAR IVAN Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) is a beautiful plant that offers four seasons of interest. In spring, bronze-tinted green foliage precedes cream-colored flowers. By summer, the leaves turn bluish-gray, and the flowers give way to green berries, which turn orange in autumn as the leaves turn yellow, then orange, then red. By winter the berries are bright red. Typically, this is an evergreen plant that holds onto its foliage down to about 10 degrees. It hasn't been that cold this year, but gusts of cold wind also can cause leaf drop, and my guess is that the double-whammy of superstorm Sandy and the nor'easter is to blame. I suspect they will be just fine next year.

DEAR JESSICA Last fall I rescued four mums from various neighbors who were tossing them into the garbage, and this spring I planted two in my garden and transplanted the other two into larger pots. They all did very well and bloomed beautifully this fall. This year I have rescued five mums and one kale plant and am hoping for the same success. However, I am wondering if I should plant the mums now, before the weather gets bad, to lessen the risk of losing any of them to possible harsh winter weather. Also, how far apart should they be planted and, with regard to the kale plant, does that need a sunny or shady area? -- Alayne Boehm via email

DEAR ALAYNE I'm glad you had the foresight to plant those discarded chrysanthemums; many people don't realize they're perennial and will return year after year. You certainly can plant them now, but waiting until spring is fine, too, as long as they're potted in a suitably sized planter (if the pot is too small, there might not be enough soil within to properly insulate the roots over the winter). Spacing depends on the mature size of the variety of mum you have. Some grow to be very, very large, and naturally they would need more spacing than smaller ones. Use your judgment; mums are pretty tough and you can always reposition them later.

Ornamental kale, however, is a biennial, which produces a flower in its second year before dying. Problem is you don't know whether the plants you rescue or buy at the nursery are in their first or second year. They also turn into a mushy mess over the winter, so these are best treated as annuals in our region.