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Some small but key tasks at midwinter

Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey writes about gardening for The Charlotte Observer's weekly Home & Garden section.

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    Ask Nancy

    Q. Can you suggest what to about a Christmas cactus that was so pretty but now is just green leaves?

    A. This is worth saving, unlike other winter-flowering house plants that I could mention (meaning poinsettia). Your plant must stay indoors through the cold of winter. Keep it in a warmish, sunny window. Water it carefully when the top half of the soil in the pot feels dry. Don’t let it be caught in chilly drafts. When warm weather arrives, you may set it outdoors in a semi-shady spot. Hot direct sun may burn the leaves.

    The plant requires specific temperatures and stretches of darkness in the fall. Because the autumn temperature of 50 to 55 degrees at night is good, you should keep it outside, well away from light, to encourage fresh bloom in the early winter. This can be tricky but not too tricky.

Despite the cold weather we’ve suffered this winter in the Piedmont and the warnings that it isn’t over yet, I look forward to February. The sun is getting close, and thus brighter, and the afternoons last longer. That makes for an ideal time in the garden if the weather cooperates with a temperature above 40, a gentle breeze and sunshine.

Delights await: the first crocuses and daffodils, a flowering tree such as Japanese flowering apricot and other early signs of a new year in the garden.

While watching for these, think about some minor tasks that are important to do in late winter.

These include trimming monkey grass and cutting back Lenten roses, two not-so-hard tasks well-suited for a nice February afternoon.

Already I see fresh shearing of monkey grass, the ubiquitous evergreen used widely as ground cover or edger of shrub beds, driveways and sidewalks. Like most evergreens, its narrow leaves may decline in appearance by weather beatings and wayward footsteps.

But monkey grass starts to grow early, so any pruning should be done before that happens in early spring. It is a simple task that can be done with a long-bladed tool such as hedge shears or even a string trimmer.

This type of pruning is called shearing, meaning you aim to create an even, straight line across the top of the plants, a few inches above the ground. If you remember flat-top haircuts, this is it.

This low shearing will allow for new growth, which is down low, awaiting its appearance.

The disadvantage of waiting for spring to do this is that new, highly desirable foliage comes up early and it is a very tedious business – I would say nearly impossible – to do this well and easily once new growth begins. You will cut off the new while trying to get at the old.

A second important plant in Piedmont landscapes that benefits from pruning during winter dormancy is the Lenten rose. Thousands of these beautiful perennials grow in the Piedmont and, like monkey grass, they are essentially evergreens.

However, they benefit greatly by removal of the previous year’s growth so that it will not compete with the new stuff that will soon emerge.

This is not a job for hedge shears and certainly not for string trimmers. It is a bit tedious and time-consuming, but worth it. What you need are hand pruners that enable you to cut off one or two or three stems at a time. Another help is a lightweight, low stool that enables you to sit down while pruning.

If you are interested in growing more plants of Lenten rose, check to see that the seed pods have opened and distributed seed onto the ground. The center of the plant with the seed pod will be wide open with no sign of seeds left there.

That should have happened by now, and you can cut off the old flower stems. Such seeds can produce many new plants that should be garden size in about three years. Watch for these seedlings as spring and summer progress and take care not to step on them. They are worth preserving.

While you do this, look closely at the base of the plant, where the first signs of new stems of foliage and flowers await. If some are already making their way north, take care not to cut or hurt them with your shears.

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