Safeguarding elephant ears during winter

Tropical elephant ears are a gamble if left Tropical elephant ears are a gamble if left in the ground over winter, but the tubers can be boxed in peat and stored in a cool, dark place. Photo Credit: Newsday / Tony Jerome

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Jessica Damiano Jessica Damiano, Newsday columnist

Jessica Damiano is a master gardener and journalist with more than 20 years experience in radio, television, print

DEAR JESSICA: If I heavily mulch elephant ears bulbs, will they come back in the spring? —Jim McCormick, East Northport

DEAR JIM: Most Colocasia (elephant ears) are labeled hardy to Zone 7. Long Island is in Zone 7, but because we are right on the cusp of the hardiness zone, and because I've tried unsuccessfully to overwinter these tropical plants myself, I don't recommend you leave them in the ground. If we have an unusually warm winter, or if the tubers are planted in very well-draining soil with full sun exposure, there's a chance you might get lucky. Still, considering their cost, I wouldn't take the gamble.

The good news is they are easy to overwinter indoors. If they are growing in the ground, leave them in the garden until the first light frost turns foliage brown, then cut plants down to 6 inches and dig them up.

Rinse the tuber(s) and allow to air dry completely, then place in peat moss or sawdust inside a box that you've cut ventilation holes in.

If you're storing several tubers, you can wrap each in newspaper and store in a single layer in a milk crate. Place in a cool, dark place, such as a crawl space or cellar, as it's vital to keep them in total darkness. Exposure to any light could cause them to sprout, and likely die.

Check monthly and spritz with water if they show early signs of shriveling. Discard rotted roots.

Plant outdoors around Memorial Day, or to give them a head start pot them up in potting mix in April and set them by your sunniest window or under grow lights, keeping the soil lightly moist.

If you are growing elephant ears in pots, you can skip this process; just bring them indoors and treat as houseplants near a sunny window until spring. Water often and fertilize occasionally with houseplant fertilizer diluted to half strength. Good luck.

DEAR JESSICA: Three years ago I started three lilac bushes from offshoots of a mature bush. I planted them in three locations: one facing southwest, another facing south with a roof drain near it and a third facing north. None of them have ever bloomed or even formed buds. All appear healthy and are growing well; the southwest-facing bush with less water is growing the fastest. I have fed them with Miracle-Gro and Dr. Earth starter fertilizer, and also added some coffee grinds around one of the bushes. —Mary, via email

DEAR MARY: It's not uncommon for transplanted lilac suckers to take three years or more to begin blooming. But let's take a look at all the details just to make sure we have all the bases covered.

Lilacs thrive best in slightly alkaline soil. The coffee grinds you added around one plant encourage acidity, so avoid using them around lilacs. They also contain phosphorus, potassium, nitrogen, copper and magnesium. You don't say how much you applied, but too much nitrogen could inhibit blooming in all flowering plants.

That brings us to the fertilizers you applied: The starter fertilizer should not have posed a problem, as long as you didn't apply too much or repeatedly, but if you used a Miracle-Gro product with a high concentration of nitrogen, that could inhibit blooming. Nitrogen, which is indicated by the first number of the three-number sequence on the package (10-5-5, for example), encourages plants to put their energy into growth instead of flower (or fruit or root) production.

Lilacs also perform best in ample sunlight. If planted in a shady area, blooming can be affected. And finally, the plant near the roof drain pipe could be getting too much water. Lilacs do not respond well to overwatering and may cease to bloom if roots are kept wet.

Still, because none of these conditions apply to all three of your plants, and because they are still young, I would not be quick to blame them. Lilacs typically don't require amendments, but if you want to fertilize next spring, use a low-nitrogen product containing mostly phosphorus and potassium, don't apply coffee grinds and redirect drainpipe water away from the plant.

You don't mention whether you've pruned your plants. Doing so at the wrong time may remove buds, so if your plants get unruly, prune only in spring, immediately after blooming ceases.

Give them a couple more years. If the plants do not bloom by their fifth year, have the soil tested for alkalinity and nutrients.

DEAR JESSICA: My backyard and front window box are plagued with red spider mites. I've been spraying them with a soapy water solution, which is tedious but seems to be helping. They're all over my garbage pails, house siding, picnic table, planting bench, etc. Is there a better solution or even a preventive measure I can take to get rid of these pests? My next-door neighbor has them as well. —Cecelia Henrich, Middle Village

DEAR CECELIA: Spider mites thrive in dry conditions, so your first course of action should be to hose down affected surfaces daily with a strong jet of water. Doing so will not only create an inhospitable wet environment, but also wash many of the mites away. Under normal circumstances, hosing repeatedly could eventually do the trick, but it sounds like you have a severe infestation.

If daily hosing doesn't alleviate the problem in a couple of weeks, you might consider buying spider mite predators, Phytoseiulus persimili, and sprinkling them wherever you see activity. And no worries: They seem to disappear along with the spider mites. Another effective predator is the Stethorus lady beetle species. Both can be purchased by the boxful online, in garden catalogs and at some local garden centers.

It's important to note that one reason spider mite infestations may occur is due to the overuse of pesticides that kill their natural predators. So if you or your neighbor have been treating the lawn or other areas against pests, it would be best to curtail that.

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