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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Protecting hydrangea from frost, growing a palm from seed and identifying coleus

Determine which species of hydrangea you have to

Determine which species of hydrangea you have to know how best to care for it. Credit: Heather Walsh

DEAR JESSICA: I went outside and noticed that two of my hydrangeas already have buds. I had this same issue last year, and then the frost killed the early buds leaving me with no flowers on the bush. What should I do to prevent the frost from killing off the early buds? Should I cover with trash bags or burlap?

— Brian Duff,

via email

DEAR BRIAN: You don’t say what species of hydrangea you have, and that’s important because that would determine when it forms buds. Mopheads and lacecaps (both Hydrangea Macrophylla) and oakleafs (Hydrangea quercifolia) bloom on old wood, which means they form buds for the following year in late summer. If you had one of those, you wouldn’t be alarmed to see buds during winter, so I’ll assume you have a panicle (Hydrangea paniculata,) Endless Summer (Hydrangea Macrophylla ‘Endless Summer’) or Annabelle (Hydrangea arborescens) hydrangea.

Endless Summer blooms, as you might guess, all summer long, continually producing new buds on new growth as the season progresses. If you had one of those, there’d be no worries if some buds were killed. It will make more.

That leaves us with three possibilities: You either have a panicle, an Annabelle, or you have a Macrophylla and just didn’t notice the buds earlier.

Both panicle and Annabelle hydrangeas bloom on new growth. If that new growth occurred during one of this winter’s warm spells — and if it actually formed buds — a killing frost could mean a bloomless spring.

If you lived in a colder climate, outside your hydrangea’s hardiness zone (say, Minnesota,) the recommendation would be to protect the plant every fall. One way to do this would be to erect a chicken-wire “fence” around the entire plant and fill it with pine needles or leaves for insulation. But since you live on Long Island, this would be excessive, as hydrangeas typically are hardy down to horticultural zone 4. Most of Long Island is firmly planted in zone 7.

And if you happen to have a Macrophylla, an unusually cold winter that’s not typical of our zone could kill off those summer-formed buds that are supposed to be hardy here. When that happens, there’s nothing you can do to bring them back, but you certainly can try to minimize the damage with a little advanced planning.

If you’re concerned an impending cold snap may zap your precious blooms-to-be, you can protect plants with a frost blanket, which you can purchase online or at larger nurseries. They typically offer between 4 and 8 degrees of protection. I’ve heard gardeners report similar success using a few old bedsheets, but I haven’t tried this myself so can’t attest to positive results.

DEAR JESSICA: This plant is growing in my backyard. Could you identify it, please?

— Joseph Bruzzese,

Floral Park

DEAR JOSEPH: That’s a coleus. Prized for their eye-catching foliage, these shade-brightening annuals come in an array of sizes, shapes and hues. Newer varieties are being bred for sun tolerance, too, so gardeners now can use coleus for flowerless color practically anywhere.

Although not grown for its blooms, coleus does send up flower spikes toward the end of its life cycle, and those flowers produce seeds, which fall to the ground and lay dormant until conditions are right for them to grow into plants. That appears to be what led to your surprise “volunteer.”

Enjoy it!

DEAR JESSICA: I am not much of a gardener, but I always enjoy reading your column in Newsday, and I have a question for you. I have had a palm tree for more than 20 years (I believe that it is an Areca palm but I am not sure). Once or twice a year it produces clusters of tiny yellow seeds or seed-like growth. My question to you is are they seeds and is there any way to plant them and have them grow?

— Bruce Rinschler,

St. James

DEAR BRUCE: Yes, that is Areca palm’s (inedible) fruit, which contains seeds, and yes, you can use them to grow more plants. Remove the fruit-covered stems when the seedpods begin to split open but before seeds drop. Remove any seed pulp, as it serves as a germination inhibitor, rinsing and soaking if necessary. I recommend you wear gloves when handling because not only are the seeds poisonous if ingested, but you may acquire a tingling, numbing sensation or rash if your skin comes into contact with them.

Place them in a single layer on a tray for a few days to dry, then set them atop sterile seed-starting soil mix in a pot, ideally outdoors during summer. Gently press them into the soil so the bottom half of each seed is below the soil line. Water well, but let the soil dry completely between waterings. Seeds should root and sprout within a month, at which point you can pot them up individually.

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