Gardening Q & A: Winter Bonsai Care and more

Paul James answers questions on easy houseplants, hose repair, overwintering bonsai, cleaning birdhouses and more.

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Figure A

Q. Should I leave my bonsai out all winter or bring it in and treat it as a houseplant?

A. Tropical bonsai candidates, such as the desert rose (Adenium obesum), can be treated as houseplants, but the vast majority of bonsai are temperate plants — not tropical — and they definitely need to be left outdoors.

The most familiar bonsai specimens are hardy trees — either evergreen or deciduous. These rarely should be treated as houseplants in the winter--and then only in areas where the winters are extremely severe — because they have the same growing requirements as their full-size counterparts, and they need the same seasonal growth cycles. So leave them outside. Heel them in by burying their pots in the ground in an area where they are protected from snow cover and covered with a protective layer of mulch. If the temperatures drop well below that which the plants are hardy to, move them into an unheated garage for two or three days or into the house for up to a week or two, provided they receive adequate light and temperatures are cool (60 to 65 degrees).

Figure B
Figure C
Figure D
Figure E
Figure F
Figure G

Q. My hose has a tiny but annoying hole in it. Any suggestions short of buying a new hose?

A. If the hole is relatively small, stick a round, wooden toothpick in it (figure E) and break it off so it is flush to the hose (figure F).

Q. How can I attract earthworms to my garden?

A. The surest way to attract worms is to make your garden soil hospitable to them. That means routinely adding organic matter to the soil in the form of leaves, grass clippings, compost — whatever you can get your hands on. Earthworms feed on decaying organic matter; it's the only thing they eat. And believe it or not, you can now buy specially-made earthworm food to keep worms fat and happy. Just sprinkle it in the soil, work it into the top two inches or so, and the worms will wiggle their way into an easy meal.

Q. Can bamboo be grown as a houseplant?

A. Absolutely! Bamboos make dynamite houseplants, assuming you pick the right varieties. My favorites are those in the genus Bambusa, specifically Bambusa multiplex (figure A), which includes several named varieties. These are hardy to about 18 degrees F so they can be grown outdoors until the first really hard freeze and then brought indoors, or they can be grown indoors all year round. What makes Bambusa such great houseplants is that they don't spread. Bamboos that do spread don't make good candidates for houseplants because in time, they'll literally bust out of their pots!

Q. I have a brown thumb. What's the easiest houseplant to grow, especially in low light?

A. There are at least two houseplants that are about as easy to grow as fake plants. Chinese evergreen isn't the least bit fussy (figure B). It adapts well to the home environment and thrives in low light. All you really need to do to keep it healthy is make sure the soil doesn't dry out. The other is the ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia).

It has attractive, fleshy leaves and can grow to three feet (figure C). It's as foolproof as houseplants get, and it actually thrives on neglect. In fact, it can grow in a dark corner of the house and go for weeks without water.

Q. Should I clean my birdhouses every year?

A. Only if you want to. Most experts agree that cleaning your birdhouses every year really isn't necessary, but if you have time on your hands, it can't do any harm. Just remove the nest and use a small brush to tidy up a bit. Cleaning your birdhouses gives you a chance to examine the nests and see not only how they are made, but what they are made of, which can be very interesting. This nest has the usual mix of sticks and twigs, but it also has a piece of black plastic, lots of lint from the dryer vent and some dog hair (figure D). Most birds scavenge what they need for nest building, but it's also fun to give them a hand. All you have to do is place various materials in and around the yard--such things as short pieces of yarn or twine, dog hair, a pile of small twigs. And a spot of mud, which many birds use for nest building, would be a big help.

Then wrap it with waterproof tape (figure G). As the water flows through the hose, the toothpick will swell, effectively sealing the hose.

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