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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Garden Detective: Winter care for evergreens, and cyclamen houseplants

Eileen Vogel, of West Hempstead, is seeking help

Eileen Vogel, of West Hempstead, is seeking help to care for this plant which she received as a gift. Credit: Eileen Vogel

DEAR JESSICA: I received this plant as a gift, but I don't know what it is or how to care for it. Please help. — Eileen Vogel, West Hempstead

DEAR EILEEN: You've been gifted a cyclamen. The stout, flowering plants with pretty green-and-silver swirled leaves reach about 8 inches tall and thrive in cool, humid environments. Their active growing and blooming phase is during winter, and they tend to go dormant (or partially dormant) during summer. Available with white, pink or red blooms, cyclamen, which should be planted in a soil-less potting mix with the top of its tuber exposed, requires temperatures between 50 and 68 degrees. As soon as soil becomes dry, water the plant, but only from below to avoid rot. Do this by setting the pot, which should have drainage holes in the bottom, in a tray or pan and add water to the pan. Let the pot sit in the water until the soil is soaked, dump the remaining water from the pan and allow the pot to drain. This lets the roots to take up water through the pot's holes without wetting stems, leaves or the plant's crown. 

Provide water, bright, indirect light and biweekly low-nitrogen fertilizer applications during the plant's growing phase. When the last of its flowers have faded and foliage begins to yellow and die, probably in early summer, move the plant into a darker area, and stop watering and feeding it. During this dormant phase, the plant may appear dead, but new growth should resume around September. At that time, soak the pot as above for at least an hour to ensure saturation of soil, then return it to its growing spot and resume water and fertilizer applications.  

DEAR JESSICA: If it's above 40 degrees in winter, can I water my evergreens? — Donna Smith, Selden 

DEAR DONNA: Because evergreens do not shed their leaves or go dormant, they require water year-round. Some years, that need is met by a steady blanket of melting snow cover in addition to rainfall. But there are dry spells during winter that can stress or even kill trees.

My own winter neglect a few years ago resulted in the browning of multiple branches in a row of mature Leyland cypresses that needed to be pruned — and those trees are still recovering.

Strong sunlight (especially from southern exposures), dry air and strong winds, coupled with frozen soil that does not absorb or release water, often result in desiccation, or the dehydration of leaves. All evergreens are at risk, but those planted during the prior growing season — especially those planted in fall — are particularly susceptible because their roots are not fully established or able to meet the trees' water needs by the time winter gets underway. In addition, bright sunlight can trigger photosynthesis during the day, and when temperatures drop to below freezing at night, chlorophyll becomes damaged, resulting in yellowing of trees.

For these reasons, yes, water should be a concern for evergreens during winter. Give shrubs and trees a few extra thorough soakings in late fall to help sustain them, then leave a hose handy for use during dry spells. As you pointed out, however, they should only be watered when the temperature rises above 40 degrees. In addition, be sure to provide water for shrubs that are growing under evergreen trees or roof eaves where rain might not reach them.

You can also provide a little extra protection by applying an antidesiccant to evergreens when temperatures rise above 40 degrees. This will help prevent moisture loss during winter.

DEAR JESSICA: I have had a Japanese maple tree for many years. For the past 10 years, the trunk has had a thick gel-like substance oozing from it, and the bark is being destroyed. It started out as a small area, but each year it gets worse, eating away more and more of the bark. A local nursery could not identify the cause. It doesn't seem to be affecting the leaves since the tree blooms each year without any problems. Hopefully you can suggest a solution. — Rosemarie DeFalco, Massapequa

DEAR ROSEMARIE: It appears that your tree suffered an injury, perhaps from an altercation with a lawn mower years ago, that opened a wound that allowed a pathogen to enter its system. This dead area of trunk is called a canker and is evidenced by sunken, dark lesion that is making its way up your tree. The sap that is oozing is a sign of disease, potentially fungal in nature. 

If the canker were on a branch, the remedy would be to prune it. But you can't prune away the trunk. If the injury were fresh, my advice would be to trace it with a sterile, sharp blade to create a smooth outline and remove damaged bark to allow for better and more complete healing. At this point, however, the best thing you can do for your tree is to water it slowly and thoroughly during dry spells and provide a late-winter (or early-spring) application of a fertilizer that is low in nitrogen and high in potassium. These measures will support the tree's health and help it to better withstand stress caused by the canker.

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