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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Garden Detective: Distracting robins from holly berries, and more

Red holly berries are so appealing to the

Red holly berries are so appealing to the robins in reader John Cordovano's yard that the birds are making a "disgusting mess." Credit: Daniel Brennan

DEAR JESSICA: We have holly trees with red berries in our yard. Our problem is that the robins are eating all the berries and making a disgusting mess in our yard! Any suggestions on how to keep the robins away would be appreciated. — John Cordovano, via email

DEAR JOHN: Unfortunately, the only surefire way to keep birds from eating your holly berries would be to net the trees. My understanding is that you’d like to enjoy the beauty of the trees, berries and all, and covering them would defeat the purpose.

There are other steps you can take, although none are guaranteed. Install a bird feeder nearby, but not so close that the birds assume the berries are part of the same buffet. With any luck, they’ll get their fill of the intended food and move on. A scarecrow might help, too, temporarily at least, until the robins catch on. Hanging reflective objects, such as CDs, from the tree also might frighten them away.

DEAR JESSICA: When is the best time to cut back rhododendrons? I have two that have gotten too big and need to be trimmed. — Bob Clark, Smithtown

DEAR BOB: Spring-flowering shrubs like rhododendrons should be pruned only immediately after they flower. That’s because they begin forming buds for next year’s blooms shortly after their current blossoms fade. Trimming at any other time risks removing new buds and diminishing future blooming.

DEAR JESSICA: My grandson, 2 years old, planted a pumpkin seed (with his father's help) in a small plastic cup. It is sitting on a windowsill and has sprouted 2 small stems, each about 2.5 inches long. One stem has a small leaf, and the other seems to have a leaflet engulfed by a dry pumpkin seed. What should be done at this point with the seed? — Lucy Karwoski, South Huntington

DEAR LUCY: I'm happy to hear you and your son have shared a love of growing things with your grandson, and that he's been able to see his seed sprout. Unfortunately, it isn't practical, or possible, to grow a pumpkin indoors. And, at this time of year, it can’t be grown outdoors, either.

The problem is that pumpkin plants require a lot of room to grow, and they need more sunlight (and water) than is possible or practical to provide to a houseplant.

The time to start a pumpkin seed would be mid-April, so that by the time it reaches the size it likely is now, you would be able to transplant it outdoors where it could sprawl and thrive.

Here’s how:

Place two to four pumpkin seeds about an inch deep in loosely packed soil in a cup that has drainage holes in its bottom or in a peat pot. Moisten the soil, but don't allow it to become soggy. For best germination results, place the container on a heating pad (there are special seed-starting heating pads available commercially, but the kind you use for a sore back works just as well; it isn’t necessary, but will increase your chances of success). Keep the container out of direct sunlight.

When the seeds have sprouted, compare them and determine which seedling seems the most sturdy (typically the stockiest, not the tallest), then gently pluck and discard the others. Move the container, which should have only the one strong seedling, to your sunniest windowsill (or place under fluorescent grow lights, if you have them). Continue to water moderately, taking care not to overwater.

In mid to late May, when the plant is 3 to 4 inches tall, place the pot outdoors in the shade for one hour and bring it back indoors. Repeat the next day, leaving it out for two hours, and the third day, for three hours. The process will help the tender plant become acclimated to the outdoors and reduce the risk of transplant shock.

On the fourth day, form a small hill from a mound of soil in a sunny spot in the garden where the plant will have a minimum of 50 square feet to sprawl (a 10-foot-by-5-foot bed, for example). Incorporating well-rotted manure or compost into the top 4 inches of soil will add nutrients and improve drainage to help the plant thrive.

Carefully remove the plant from its container and gently plant it on the hill, taking care to bury the roots at exactly the same depth as they were in the pot; if you used a peat pot, simply tear off the pot’s bottom and sink the whole thing into the soil. Gently firm the soil around the plant and water lightly but thoroughly, then apply mulch around the plant.

Pumpkins require at least an inch of water per week, so water thoroughly and deeply on a regular schedule, taking care to avoid wetting foliage, which can result in fungal or mildew diseases.

When plants are roughly 12 inches tall, apply a high-nitrogen fertilizer to support vine growth. When buds form, switch to a high-phosphorus fertilizer to promote fruit production.

With careful attention, by next Halloween, your grandson should have his own homegrown pumpkin — and a lifelong appreciation for the garden.

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