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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

How to care for a ponytail palm houseplant, when to prune roses and how to help frost-bitten hydrangeas

Nancy Labella's ponytail palm can grow by being

Nancy Labella's ponytail palm can grow by being repotted into a slightly larger container. Credit: Nancy Labella

DEAR JESSICA: I am wondering if you can help me out with some information on this plant. I received it about three years ago, and it has hardly grown. I don’t know what kind of plant it is or how to care for it. I did have it in my office, out of direct sun, but now it is in my home. Please help, as this plant has a special meaning to me.

— Nancy Labella,


DEAR NANCY: What you have is a Beaucarnea recurvata, commonly known as ponytail palm. Despite its moniker, your plant isn’t a palm at all; it’s in the asparagus family.

Ponytail palms are commonly grown as house or office plants in small pots, oftentimes in shallow pebble-topped dishes, such as yours. However, if allowed adequate outdoor space and time (and the right climate), they will develop into full-grown trees.

If you chose to keep your plant small, I would advise you to keep it in a small, shallow pot, which would ensure it remained stunted. But because you point out that it hasn’t grown in three years, my assumption is that you’d like for it to be full-sized, which, as a house plant, would be about 6 feet tall. Still, you should know that this is a slow-growing plant and that it will take many years to reach maturity.

In spring, repot the plant into a slightly larger container using rich, well-draining, fresh potting mix. Avoid the temptation to jump straight to a large pot, which would deliver too much water at a time to the drought-loving plant. Ponytail palms benefit from being a bit root-bound, and thrive when repotted every spring (or every other spring) into a pot that’s only 1 or 2 inches wider than its current container.

Provide the brightest light available, but take care not to overwater. Plunge your finger knuckle-deep into the soil to check for dryness at root level and water only when needed, roughly once every 7 to 14 days during the growing season and about once a month over winter. Apply a slow-release fertilizer once in spring, or feed with a liquid product regularly during the growing season, according to package directions.

DEAR JESSICA: I have four Knockout rose bushes, which seem to be growing wild. When is the best time to trim them or shape them? I also have a rambling rose bush that I would like to trim down. Any advice?

— Violet Sardo,


DEAR VIOLET: Knockout roses are pretty tough and can typically handle a light trimming any time during spring or summer, but extensive pruning should be done only in late winter or very early spring, just before the plants come out of dormancy. You can reduce the length of each cane all the way down to 12 inches, if necessary, making cuts at 45-degree angles, one-quarter inch above buds. To further control their height, you can cut them back again — by one-third their size — immediately after the first bloom.

Rambling roses can be tidied up in late summer, but, again, full prunings should be reserved for late winter or very early spring. Completely remove one-third of the oldest stems, and cut side shoots back by two-thirds of their length. If the plant is severely overgrown and requires a complete overhaul — called a rejuvenation pruning — cut most of the branches down to ground level, leaving just six strong, healthy stems. Cut down those remaining stems by half, which will encourage branching and result in a fuller plant, then tie them to supports.

Fertilize and mulch pruned plants in spring, as soon as they begin to come out of dormancy.

DEAR JESSICA: I have two Hydrangea macrophylla plants that were attacked by the early frost before the leaves had a chance to dry up and fall off naturally. The leaves are dark and limp, and I don’t think they will fall off. I’m not sure if I should remove the leaves or let nature take its course. I tried removing a couple of them, and part of the leaf started to peel down the stalk. Any suggestions?

— Patricia Beck,

North Babylon

DEAR PATRICIA: Let nature take its course. In spring, when new growth begins, you can remove any dead plant matter.

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