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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Garden Detective: Questions about hibiscus, fungus and oak trees

Although hibiscus is a tropical plant, it can

Although hibiscus is a tropical plant, it can survive the winter indoors and be moved back outdoors in May. Credit: Getty Images / iStockphoto/Bsheridan1959

DEAR JESSICA: My hibiscus is flowering in my house. How do I care for it all winter and keep it going until spring? Deborah Leone, Centereach

DEAR DEBBIE: To overwinter your hibiscus indoors, keep it in the brightest, warmest spot in your home, and continue watering it regularly. Unfortunately, it isn’t likely to continue to flourish and bloom all winter into spring, but have no fear: Although it may drop its leaves and look sickly at some point, it will be just fine if you continue to care for it.

Hibiscus are tropical plants, so even your sunniest window cannot meet its light requirements over winter. Still, it will survive this temporary condition. It may even bloom again in early spring, when sunlight increases.

Take it back outdoors in mid- to late May, but do so gradually to allow it acclimate to the new environment. Do this by placing it outdoors in a protected and shady or partly shady area for just one hour before bringing it back indoors. Repeat this, leaving it out for two, three and four hours each on the second, third and fourth days. Then it should be safe to move it to its permanent home for the summer and fertilize it.

DEAR JESSICA: Please look at what’s growing around my grandchildren’s swing set on the side of our house in an area under a pine tree. It looks like a fungus. Could it be hazardous? What should we do to get rid of it? — Mark Cilla, Commack

DEAR MARK: These interesting masses are fungi, as you suspected. Going by the common name “earthstar,” the puffball mushrooms begin as round or oval fruiting bodies that earn their name when their outer skin splits open into five to eight pointed segments.

The fungi sometimes are referred to as “barometer earthstars” because they react to moisture in the air. On dry days, they pull their "rays" closed to protect themselves from drying; on humid days, they unfurl.

They are commonly seen in forests, especially around conifers, such as your pine tree, and on tree stumps, as well as on rocks, as you’ve observed.

They aren’t notoriously harmful, but I recommend removing, bagging and discarding them in the trash if there is a risk your grandchildren or pets might eat them.

DEAR JESSICA: I have two big oak trees in front of my house. Recently, I noticed wood chips and bark chips on the ground, and when I looked up, I saw damage to one branch. What could be causing this? — Charlie Russo, Seaford

DEAR CHARLIE: That's clearly animal damage, and I would guess a squirrel is to blame. Although squirrels don't eat tree bark, they can get nutrients from the cadmium layer just under the bark, and when food is scarce they sometimes seek that. It’s also possible they are collecting bark as a nest material — or simply entertaining themselves. You just never know with squirrels.

Regardless of the motivation, there’s a substantial amount of bark missing from your tree’s branch. Overall, it’s not a lot in relation to the whole tree, but that branch is now vulnerable to viruses and bacterial and fungal infections, as well as opportunistic insect pests.

To discourage squirrels from climbing the tree and causing more damage, wrap the bottom five or six feet in metal flashing and secure tightly. You might have to readjust or replace after storms or windy weather, so check on it periodically. This won’t work, of course, if there is a fence or other structure (or tree) nearby that the little action heroes can use to access your tree, or if lower branches near the ground provide access.

More important, the tree likely was under stress to begin with, because we know both insect and animal pests are like schoolyard bullies that take advantage of perceived weaklings. How would they know? Trees that are under stress, either because of illness, injury or inhospitable growing conditions, try to relieve that stress or heal themselves, by building up sugars, which can be detected by predators. Eliminate the stress, and the tree will stop concentrating sugars that attract squirrels in the first place.

Check the root flare at the base of the tree. Is it covered by mulch or soil? Push it all away so the entire flare is exposed. There’s not much more you can do right now, but come spring, aerate the soil under the tree as far out as the longest branches reach overhead, then apply compost and water well. Be sure the tree is watered deeply (using a soaker hose spiraled around the root zone, not an automatic sprinkler system) during dry spells in the growing season. And keep an eye out for disease or other weakening of the damaged branch. If it doesn’t heal well over spring and summer, or if the damage encircles the entire branch, it should be removed before it falls, causing injury or damaging property.

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