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Mulching seedlings should help during winter

Q. “Looking for advice in overwintering yellow Mexican bird of paradise seedlings. Planted seeds three weeks ago in flower bed, and they have sprouted. We’d like to protect them through the winter in the bed, if possible. The bed gets sun throughout winter and is somewhat protected from the wind by surrounding block walls. What would be the best for these baby plants?” – B&L, Albuquerque

A. I’m guessing that you planted the seed so late in the season, thinking that they’d lie dormant and pop up next spring. Surprise. So the first thing I’d suggest since you are aiming to keep them in the flower bed would be mulching the area they are planted in thickly and never allowing the soil surrounding the youngsters to dry out. Straw, small bark, or anything sold as mulch, put down in a stout 3- to 4-inch layer should offer just enough protection, especially because your area is sheltered, so to speak. Stab a marking stake close to each baby so you can tell where they are so in the spring you’ll know where to be extra gentle when moving the mulch back in preparation for the growing season.

Next, you could dig up and plant the seedlings in 3-gallon growers’ containers (the ugly black pots) and overwinter them as a nursery would. Again, the containers need be kept dampened, clustered into the warmest spot in the garden and worried over. Hopefully, you kept back some of the seed you had and if these youngsters succumb to the weather this winter you’ll be able to plant in the spring, giving a new crop a full growing season to be ready for the following dormant season. I think that if they are left in the ground, mulch and water will be the best chance these babies have to make it until next spring. Good luck!

Q. I’m bound & determined to get my Christmas cactus to come into bloom this year. Remind me of the processes, please. – G.R., Albuquerque

A. There are three things you’re going to want to do to “trigger” or startle your Christmas cactus to set bloom. First, you’ll want to back off a wee bit as to how much and often you usually water. I won’t say abuse the plant, just don’t be consistent in its care. Next, you’ll want to offer 12 hours of darkness for every 24 hours for the next three to four weeks. If you have a room that is naturally darker and less lived-in that would be the spot.

If moving the plant isn’t easy, then cover it with a cardboard box – one that will allow plenty of room and not injure the plant – every evening – at, let’s say, 7 p.m. and uncover it every morning at 7 a.m. The covering/uncovering process needs to happen for at least three weeks, better four. I know it’s an investment of effort on your part, but it should happen.

Last, if you can cool off the plant, that’s going to ensure the triggering. If it lives in a happy, temperate location in the home, I’d definitely suggest a move to a cooler spot. Then after you’ve completed the three- to four-week dedicated regime get the cactus back to its usual home, bump up the watering to the rate it was at and within 10 days to two weeks you should notice little nubbins start to show. That’ll be the flower buds coming on. Even though dedication is required, it’s an easy process to get your Christmas cactus startled enough to want to bloom for you.

Have Fun Diggin’ In!

Tracey Fitzgibbon is a certified nurseryman. Send your garden-related questions to Digging In, Albuquerque Journal, 7777 Jefferson St. NE, Albuquerque, NM 87109, or to