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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Winter-damaged hollies, bloomless lilacs and fig tree flowers

Reader Lisa Buchler's holly trees, which appear to

Reader Lisa Buchler's holly trees, which appear to be suffering from winter desiccation.

DEAR JESSICA: I have three big holly trees that are about five years old. As you can see in the photo, they did not fare well after our long, cold winter. I have noticed other large hollies on different properties that look the same. Will they come back?-- Lisa Buchler, Rocky Point

DEAR LISA: You are correct: Your hollies appear to have suffered winter injury, as many broadleaf evergreens did this past winter. Desiccation occurs when trees are exposed to cold, dry wind, causing them to release moisture from their foliage in an attempt at self-preservation. This results in cell damage and the grayish brown leaf color you're observing.

Your first course of action should be to prune out any dead or damaged branches. If bark also has been damaged, carefully trim it away with a sharp knife. This will facilitate healing. Install a soaker hose around each tree, and ensure they get 1 to 11/2 inches of water per week, adjusting for rainfall. Continue to water throughout autumn and during dry winter spells.

Spread 2 inches of compost over the root zone, and cover it with 2 inches of mulch. Keep mulch 4-6 inches away from trunks and extending out as far as the canopies above. The compost will provide much-needed nutrients, and the mulch will help retain soil moisture and reduce weeds, which would compete with the tree for water and nutrients.

As a rule, do not fertilize trees after July. Doing so stimulates tender, new growth, which would not have sufficient time to mature before the arrival of damaging winter conditions.

Apply an antidesiccant to foliage (follow label directions) or install burlap wind barriers around trees in late November to prevent future damage. I'd also recommend testing the soil pH to ensure conditions are right for recovery. Hollies thrive in slightly acidic pH, between 5.0 and 6.0. Apply lime to raise the pH, following label directions for precise amounts. It's a bit more difficult to lower the pH (and keep it lowered). To achieve that, apply sulfur, again following directions carefully.

DEAR JESSICA: We have a lilac bush that is six years old. Although it leafs out regularly, it has never bloomed. It is supposed to be self-pollinating. The nursery we bought it from doesn't know why it isn't blooming. Do you have any ideas?-- Paul and Phyllis Schmutz, Nesconset

DEAR PAUL AND PHYLLIS: There is nothing more disappointing than waiting an entire year for a guest who visits for only two weeks and ends up being a no-show. And six years of disappointment is enough to stop future invitations, or in your case, it could make you want to rip that shrub right out of the ground and start over. But I'm glad you wrote. There has to be a reason, and together we might find it.

Extreme temperatures these past two winters have led to delayed dormancy for some lilacs (and butterfly bushes and hydrangeas) -- and buds very well could have been killed off, but that does nothing to explain your experience during the four previous growing seasons.

You don't say how big the bush was when you planted it. If it was a tiny seedling, it could, indeed, take three to four years to produce blooms. Six is a bit extreme, however, so let's move on to other possibilities.

Have you been pruning the plant? Lilacs set buds for next year's flowers soon after blooming. If you need to prune your shrub, do so immediately after the flowers fade to avoid cutting away buds that would become next year's blooms.

Have you been applying nitrogen fertilizer? Or is the plant situated in a fertilized lawn? Nitrogen forces plants to direct their energy to green growth, sometimes at the expense of flowers, which require phosphorus. If youare fertilizing, check the package to ensure there isnat more nitrogen than phosphorus in the product youare using. And if youare fertilizing a nearby lawn, nitrogen could be leeching over to your lilac unintentionally. Since the plant appears otherwise healthy, a dose of phosphorus couldnat hurt (follow package directions.)

Is the plant situated in the shade? Lilacs require full sun -- at least six hours of direct sunlight daily -- to bloom properly.

If none of these conditions is to blame, test the soil pH. Lilacs perform best in neutral to slightly acidic soil with a range of 6.5-7.0.

DEAR JESSICA: I have a fig tree that I planted last spring. As of yet, I haven't seen any budding on the tree. I covered it with burlap for the winter. What is the normal time for a young fig tree to start blooming?-- Vito Panzarino, via email

DEAR VITO: Fig trees don't bloom -- as least not in the way you'd expect. Although there may be some tiny flowers present, they're green and difficult to notice. Most of the flowers actually are contained within walnut-sized syncomiums, which are the precursors of fruit. You should be noticing some small, hard masses on branches. For all intents and purposes, you can consider those your blooms because they house them. Later, they'll develop into figs.

It can take a few years for new fig trees to develop a crop, however, so don't be too surprised if those syncomiums remain hard and you don't have edible fruit right away.

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