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Garden Detective: Reader questions about dragon tree, hostas, western red cedars

Reader Gina Sarro's Madagascar dragon tree is outgrowing

Reader Gina Sarro's Madagascar dragon tree is outgrowing her home. The desired height should be considered carefully before pruning, writes the Garden Detective. Credit: Gina Sarro

DEAR JESSICA: My palm tree is too big for my ceiling. Can I cut it down? I don’t want to lose it. What can I do? — Gina Sarro, Floral Park

DEAR GINA: I’m glad you included a photo, because I can tell from looking at it that your plant is not, in fact, a palm tree. What you have is a Madagascar dragon tree (Dracaena marginata). And you’re in luck: Although most palm trees cannot be cut down to size, dragon trees can easily be shortened.

First, stand back and assess the plant and carefully consider the size you’d like it to be. Once you cut the top, it will not grow any taller, so keep that in mind. Using a clean, sharp knife, cut the trunk at the desired height.

In time, branches will grow outward from the cut, so the plant will become fuller.

DEAR JESSICA: I need to move some hosta plants that are planted too close to evergreen bushes. When can I safely move them? — Susan Ferretti, Copiague

DEAR SUSAN: The best times to move hostas are spring and early fall. At this point, you’re better off waiting until spring, after new growth emerges. In my experience, these tough-as-nails plants can even handle relocation in the middle of summer, as long as they’re watered regularly afterward.

DEAR JESSICA: I planted 35 western red cedar trees along the back perimeter of my property about 10 years ago, and they have done very well. Over this period, I’ve had them gently trimmed on the sides several times and topped once.

They are now in need of a more severe vertical side trim and topping. I have read several articles as to the optimum time to accomplish this, but there seems to be some inconsistency between those suggesting late autumn and others early spring.

I’m concerned a heavy snow over the winter months could do some damage to the branches. Do you have any insight? — Don Podesta, Bay Shore

DEAR DON: Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) is a giant tree native to the Pacific coast of North America that has been introduced in other areas, including ours. They typically grow to 50 to 75 feet tall, but under the right conditions in their natural habitat, they can reach 200 feet at maturity.

Rather than continually prune them to maintain a manageable size, I would have urged you to plant smaller trees, but it’s a bit late for that.

First and foremost, it’s important you remove any broken or weak branches that could prove dangerous during winter storms. This should be done immediately whenever you notice them — regardless of the time of year — because safety comes first.

To clarify the conflicting information you have received, I reached out to horticulturist and tree expert Vincent Simeone, who is the director of Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park in Oyster Bay.

“Actually, I am not a big fan of topping trees, as it can ruin their stature,” Simeone said. But “if light topping, or more like 'tipping' — just removing the growth on the very tips of the branches — then that should be OK.”

Simeone suggests pruning cedars while they are dormant, “in late winter or very early spring, February or March.”

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