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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Garden Detective: What's up with my prayer plant, pruning butterfly bushes

Mark Stine's well-cared-for prayer plant prepares to bloom

Mark Stine's well-cared-for prayer plant prepares to bloom in Oceanside. Credit: Mark Stine

DEAR JESSICA: My partner and I have had this supermarket-bought prayer plant in our living room for about 21/2 years. It is beautiful to look at and has thrived on benign neglect with the exception of one transplant about a year ago. It has grown to about 36 inches across and 30 inches high. Last week, we noticed a "growth" unlike the other leaves coming from the middle. Can it be flowering? — Mark Stine, Oceanside

DEAR MARK: Prayer plants flower regularly when growing outdoors in their native tropical climate. As you are witnessing, they put forth single white flowers atop long stems.

The fact that your indoor plant is blooming in Oceanside is testament to the quality of care and the environment you are providing. Prayer plants thrive best in a warm, humid environment, out of direct sunlight, with even, consistent soil moisture. My hunch is you also are fertilizing it regularly (roughly twice a month) during spring and summer. Well done!

DEAR JESSICA: When is the best time to prune butterfly bushes and ornamental grasses? — Warren Tackenberg, via email

DEAR WARREN: Ornamental grasses can be cut to the ground anytime between autumn, after they have gone dormant, and spring, before growth resumes. Cutting during spring is ideal, however, because if left in place, dormant top growth will serve as a bit of protection to roots over winter.

Butterfly bush, however, should only be cut down in late winter or early spring (February to March). You can, however, remove single stray branches or trim the length of stems, if unwieldy, during spring or summer.

DEAR JESSICA: A few squirrels enjoyed my tomatoes, both green and red, last summer! Is there any way to discourage them? — Nora Ehrling, Rockville Centre

DEAR NORA: Ugh, squirrels! Those little critters sabotaged my pear crop for so many years in a row that I gave up, cut the tree down and made the deck bigger to replace it. And the worst part is that with tomatoes — as well as pears — they seem to take just one bite before abandoning the fruit for another, like a small child with a box of chocolates. Unlike a child, though, you can hardly ever catch them in the act, so they keep repeating the behavior until your entire crop is ruined.

Squirrels typically show interest in ripe tomatoes, but they have been known to take green ones right off the plant. If you’re seeing bite or peck marks in tomatoes still on the plant, chances are you’re dealing with a bird problem. And the challenge with a bird or a squirrel problem is that it isn’t easily remedied.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard stories of folks applying hot chili powder or other repellents around plants, while others claim success by providing a food source nearby that squirrels prefer to tomatoes — but not so close that they’ll feast on both. You might try setting out a feeder full of sunflower or bird seeds about 20 feet from your patch in hopes they’ll fill up on that and leave your tomatoes alone.

The only surefire deterrent is a barrier, but it’s also the most labor intensive. Chicken wire works, as does bird netting (if wrapped around a support that surrounds entire plants or groups of plants, allowing enough space between net and plants to make it impossible for the little thieves to reach the fruit of your labor.)

Or you can get a dog.

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