Garden Plot: Don’t salt your lawn

Frost is visible on the North Lawn of the White House, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015, in early morning light in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
WASHINGTON — Well, those of you who bought a supply of plant-safe ice melter (like calcium chloride) or a nice bag of all-purpose sand back when we suggested it in November should be pretty darn pleased with yourselves right about now.

If, however, you procrastinated and got stuck with regular old rock salt to melt your ice, try and protect your plants from its damaging effects.

  • Only apply ice melt after you’ve shoveled all of the snow off your walkways; don’t salt the snow first!
  • Don’t toss shoveled snow that may contain salt onto your lawn or near your plants.
  • But do pile on the salt-free snow. Snow cover is actually good for your plants.
  • And clean snow can help protect the edges of lawns and other plants near roadways from any salt spread by highway crews. Piling your clean snow in the affected areas will help dilute the salt; and the more you can dilute salt, the less damage it’ll do.
Keep your feet and Fiat off the fescue!

A lot of the lawn damage we see in the spring is caused by rock salt. But some of it was actually caused by your car tires — and even your big feet — over the winter.

The Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania warns that the lovely looking frost that forms on turf in cold weather is essentially a blanket of frozen daggers. Walk, drive or park on that grass, and the tiny daggers of ice will cause that section of lawn to “turn black, then brown as it dies a tortuous death.”

So do like the signs say and “Keep off the grass!”

 Tropical plant abuse

David in Fairfax, Virginia, sent an email last Saturday that should bring a smile to the faces of people who brought their outdoor plants back inside long ago. He wrote: “Oops! I still have a braided hibiscus plant on my deck; never brought it indoors. Can it survive the winter? Or should I bring it in? I also have a bird of paradise out there. It grew massive this year and attracted hummingbirds. Loved it. Should I dig the root up and bring it in?”

I explained to David that both his hibiscus and bird of paradise are (maybe “were” is the more correct word here) tropical plants that should have come inside months ago — before nighttime lows dropped into the 40s. I suggested he drag them indoors ASAP, even though they’re probably not just merely dead, but “really most sincerely dead.” (Heck — so are most nontropical plants still outside in pots).

Just leave the plants out in a nonfreezing room and give them a few weeks (or months) to show any signs of life. If either of them does show new green growth, water the plant lightly, take it outside in June, carefully prune off any dead parts… and bring it back inside in September.

 Can that bird of paradise become a phoenix?

David in Fairfax also asked if bird of paradise was a plant that grew out of “a summer blooming bulb” (like dahlias) that might regrow from its roots, adding that the appearance of his plant “was a real surprise” because it came to him as a set of dormant roots “in a package labeled ‘fancy peonies.’”

Well, it just turns out that I have had two birds of paradise in big pots since ‘97. It used to be one plant, but before I learned that they love to be pot bound, I “divided” it by splitting the root mass into two sections. It was hard work, and the new plants sulked for several months afterward, and then took another couple of years to start blooming again. But both are now big and beautiful (and in bloom as we speak).

Now, mine were never subjected to freezing cold, but my experience breaking them apart showed me that there is a lot of biomass in the soil under those big plants, and it’s possible that some of the roots closest to the center might still be alive.

I’d let the plant thaw out for a week or so and then turn the pot on its side and slide it all the way out. If the roots and tuber-like rhizomes are in good shape, put it all back in its pot and water it lightly. But if some parts of the root are black and slimy from being frozen, pull them off and trash those parts. (If it’s all like Jell-O, just toss the whole mess).

Replant anything that looks good and feels sound and you may get lucky with some new growth in the spring. Just be patient; it’ll take a good amount of time for the plant to regrow to blooming size.

 Celebrate the cultivation of coffee next Saturday

I certainly hope you’re stocked up with all your winter storm essentials: the legendary bread, milk, eggs and toilet paper; and if you’re like me — a good dark roast coffee. Heck — I’d pass on the makings for French toast if I had to choose between them and French roast!

The story of coffee, the cultivation of the trees that produce its green beans, and the intricate processes that those beans have to go through on the way to becoming our warm wake up are some of the most interesting in agriculture — and you can learn all about them for free next weekend!

This essential beverage and the tropical plants that produce it are the subject of a free lecture at 10:30 a.m. next Saturday, Jan. 30 at the U.S. Botanic Garden. Preregistration is required.

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