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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

How to prune an umbrella plant and repot a cast-iron plant

Judy Perduk holds a flower as her daughter

Judy Perduk holds a flower as her daughter Beatrice Cheval, of Fairlawn, N.J., takes a photo of it in the camelia greenhouse at the Planting Fields Arboretum, in Oyster Bay.  Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

DEAR JESSICA: My wife has a green thumb without even trying. People always give her dying plants, and she brings them back. We have one (I don’t know what it is) that we’d like to trim back as it’s over 6 feet tall. Can it be trimmed? If so, where and when should we cut it? — Henry Ashby, Riverhead

DEAR HENRY: You have a Schefflera, often referred to as an umbrella plant, and by the looks of it, I’d say your assessment of your wife’s green thumb is correct. The plants are native to the tropics, but here in Zone 7, they are often grown as houseplants. Indoor-grown umbrella plants should get plenty of indirect sunlight, such as by an east-, west- or south-facing window that’s covered with a sheer curtain. Overwatering can prove fatal, so soil should be allowed to dry completely before slowly and completely soaking soil until water runs out the pot’s drainage holes (saucers should be emptied afterward to avoid absorption of excess water).

Outdoors in their natural habitat, Schefflera trees can grow 40 feet tall; indoors they usually max out at about 8 feet and don’t require pruning to thrive. However, if you’d like to control its shape or size, this can be safely and easily done. Using sharp pruners, start by removing any unhealthy or leggy stems, cutting them to approximately three inches from the soil line. Then, to control the plant’s overall height and width, trim tall stalks to the desired length, cutting each about an inch above the next leaf.

DEAR JESSICA: I have a black thumb; every plant I touch dies. But I have a plant that I received from a friend at my mother’s funeral in 2017, so it’s very important to me. Through trial and error, and some research, I’ve been able to keep it alive. Now I want to put into a nice pot. How do I do it without killing it? Please help. — Desiree Dinkins, Deer Park

DEAR DESIREE: Your plant, Aspidistra elatior, is commonly called a cast-iron plant. Its name derives from the amount of neglect and (sometimes abuse) it can withstand. It doesn’t even like, much less need, sunlight. Varieties include those with waxy, glossy green, yellow-speckled or cream-striped leaves, but the green ones, such as yours, are the most vigorous. Water only when dry and fertilize with ordinary houseplant fertilizer twice a month in summer and fall, plus once over winter, and they will thrive.

Young plants, which tend to grow quickly, can be repotted, but no more than once a year. Larger, mature plants can be repotted every three years. Regardless, move them up only into the next-size container, typically one or two inches larger. Any bigger, and the extra soil will retain more water than the plant needs, placing it at risk of root rot, which is fatal.

Slip the plant out of its pot by tilting it on its side (or upside-down) using your hand to guide it gently out without tugging on its leaves.

Pour a couple inches of potting mix into the bottom of the new pot, and place the plant atop it. Add potting mix around the plant, patting it firmly with your fingers to remove air pockets as you go. Adjust the plant’s positioning, removing it and adding more soil (or removing some) from under the plant, if necessary, to ensure the top of its root ball lands about an inch from the top of the pot and at the same depth as it had been in the previous pot. Place the pot in the sink and fill with a gentle stream of water until water runs out of the drainage holes. Let it sit there until water no longer drains, empty the saucer of any water, return the plant to its growing spot — and Bob’s your uncle, as they say.

DEAR READERS: Last month I wrote about Rosemarie DeFalco’s ailing tree, which was oozing sap from an old wound, and provided advice for bolstering its health. Eagle-eyed readers Ed Martello of East Northport and Tony DeMayo of Massapequa Park wrote me to point out they believed the photo of DeFalco’s tree, which appeared in the column, clearly depicted a weeping cherry, not a Japanese maple, as the reader's question stated. DeFalco, who has both a weeping cherry and a Japanese maple growing on her property, confirmed that she inadvertently conflated the two in her email. As for me, I was homed in on the trunk canker, and the type of tree escaped my notice. My advice remains the same, however, regardless of the tree's species. Great catch!

3 ways to turn your winter blues green

Feb. 17: Camellia Festival at Planting Fields (1395 Planting Fields Rd, Oyster Bay)

Behold 150-plus camellia trees in full bloom and enjoy live music, a watercolor workshop for children and walking tours from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free, but there's a $10 fee to enter Coe Hall, where a children's tea party and magic show will take place. For information: plantingfields.org or 516-922-8600.

Monthly through December: Sundays in the Garden, Distinguished Speaker Series at Clark Botanic Garden (193 I.U. Willets Rd, Albertson)

Use the offseason to improve your game and learn directly from a dozen local horticultural experts — one per month all year long — who will cover a range of topics tailored for Long Island gardeners. All session begin at 1 p.m.; $12 per session ($10 for members). See a list of sessions and register at clarkbotanic.org or by calling 516-484-8603. 

April 13: Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County's Spring Gardening School (Riverhead Middle School, 600 Harrison Ave., Riverhead)

Spend the day with CCE master gardeners and local horticultural experts and get instruction, tips and advice to kick off the new season. There will be a plant sale, door prizes, educational exhibits, soil testing and a plant clinic, plus classroom workshops to help you raise your gardening to the next level. Registration and tuition payment ($70; $65 for registering before March 1) must be made in advance and includes four workshops, continental breakfast, boxed lunch, afternoon refreshments, giveaways and more. The event runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Register at ccesuffolk.org (call 631-591-2314 for instructions on how to bring soil samples and plant specimens).

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