Ques­tions pop up like com­post vol­un­teers

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The Post's gar­den­ing colum­nist Adrian Hig­gins an­swered ques­tions re­cently in an on­line chat. Here is an edited ex­cerpt.

Q: I love com­post­ing, but my prob­lem is that seeds of yore (toma­toes, pump­kins, squash) come up in the beds. None of them grow that big, but they seem to take over. Any­thing to do ex­cept pull them? I keep hop­ing that we'd get a com­post sur­prise and leave them be, but then the veg­gies them­selves are mini.

A: I think some com­post seeds are fine and oth­ers are not. Veg­gie seedlings are gen­er­ally large and eas­ily con­trolled (i.e. pulled), as op­posed to hor­rors such as galin­soga. This is re­lated to whether you have an ac­tive, hot pile that kills most seeds or, like the rest of us, fa­vor a pas­sive one that takes longer and doesn't do as good a job with killing seeds. As a rule, I re­sist the temp­ta­tion to trans­plant com­post bear­ing veg­gie seeds be­cause you can't count on the qual­ity of the seedling. If I am go­ing to the con­sid­er­able ef­fort of rais­ing a tomato or a squash over many weeks, I want to know that it will be a va­ri­ety I will like at har­vest time.

Q: I've emp­tied out my pots on the front steps and was won­der­ing what to plant now that might look good through De­cem­ber. I like chrysan­the­mums, but they are so common. I was hop­ing to put some­thing else in, but is there re­ally any­thing else (and not pan­sies and not or­na­men­tal cab­bage)?

A: I might try some win­ter-flow­er­ing heaths with some trail­ing ivy. Rec­og­nize that the heaths are not per­ma­nent plants in our (mid-Atal­ntic) cli­mate, and nor should you re­gard the Al­berta spruce as per­ma­nent, ei­ther. Again, that would make a nice piece of top­i­ary for the sea­son. Make sure your pots are freeze-proof.

Q: Is there any way to thaw/de­frost com­post?

A: Once it is prop­erly hy­drated for the win­ter, you could cover it with a tarp. If we get a week or two of 20-de­gree weather, it will prob­a­bly freeze. The larger the pile, the less the prospects of it freez­ing, but freez­ing alone isn't go­ing to ruin the com­post.

Q: I know I missed the prime sea­son to over-seed the lawn, but can I still throw down some seed in the early spring?

A: Yes. March is the sec­ond-best month for this. How­ever, I would add some now. It may well ger­mi­nate be­fore Jan­uary and be ready to go in the spring.

Q: I kept the in­struc­tions for a lay­ered bulb plant­ing in a pot from BBC's "Gar­dener's World" and bought the bulbs and pot­ting soil. Now I re­al­ize that win­ters here are much colder than in the United King­dom. Is it still pos­si­ble to plant daf­fodils, tulips and cro­cus in a pot left out­doors? It's plas­tic and wide-mouthed. How do I wa­ter it?

A: Follow the in­struc­tions, but sink the pot in a bed of well-worked soil or com­post. Just wa­ter it well at first and do make sure you have some sort of net­ting for the first month to keep the squir­rels off.

Q: Do you need to cut the bot­tom of your Christ­mas tree on a slant?

A: No, that's not nec­es­sary. I make a straight cut; eas­ier for se­cur­ing in the con­tainer.

Q: Do I need to ap­ply a win­ter mulch to my land­scape plants?

A: Some mar­ginal plants will ben­e­fit from a mulch. There's a school of thought that you should wait un­til the ground freezes to avoid the freeze-thaw cy­cle. But you need only mulch plants you think will per­ish in the win­ter, which is more of a con­cern in North­ern states. Some peo­ple lost a lot of roses last win­ter, along with camel­lias and figs.

Q: I have a climb­ing rose that has beau­ti­ful blos­soms, but not that many and lots of very spindly bits (with a small clus­ter of leaves at the top). Should I just prune it back?

A: Climb­ing roses pro­duce more blooms from hor­i­zon­tal stems than up­right ones, so the key is to get lat­eral branches grow­ing and trained as part of its care. Once you have th­ese laterals,

their canes that grew this year should be cut back to about four buds. Next year's flow­er­ing will follow from th­ese buds. You can do this now, or wait un­til Fe­bru­ary be­fore bud break.

Q: Any good vegetables to plant in the next cou­ple weeks? I un­der­stand that most things planted now won't be har­vestable un­til spring.

A: In a word, no. Any veg­gies you are nur­tur­ing now will have been sown be tween Au­gust and Oc­to­ber. There may still be time to plant garlic and shal­lot bulbs, but it's get­ting late. Some peo­ple try sow­ing fava beans and peas in the fall; this might be worth a try, though in many years they don't ger­mi­nate and rot. Next month you can start onions, leeks, ar­ti­chokes and celer y in­doors. You should start cab­bages and other bras­si­cas to­ward the end of Jan­uary (in­doors un­der lights). Now would be an ex­cel­lent time to build or ac­quire seed-start­ing ap­pa­ra­tus.

Q: We de-turfed and made a raised bed gar­den in a sunny spot on our yard, and for the first few years had great suc­cess with toma­toes. But for the past two years we have lost a few plants to wilt (prob­a­bly fusar­ium, but maybe ver­ti­cil­lium), de­spite tr ying to buy resistant plants. Is there any­thing we can do now that will help? Do we just have to lose a whole sum­mer and solarize the bed?

A: You have a buildup of th­ese dis­eases i n the soil, and it would be bet­ter to avoid any night­shade plants there for three years, if you can man­age that. This in­cludes egg­plant, pep­pers, pota­toes and ground cher­ries, as well as toma­toes. Per­haps you should con­sider con­vert­ing that bed into a peren­nial ed­i­bles bed, such as asparagus or straw­berry.

Q: Which tree does best inside? I've heard firs and pines do.

A : For Christ­mas trees, firs are less prone to dry­ing out be­cause of their heavy waxy cu­ti­cles and short nee­dles. Pines are fine, if you keep that col­umn of wa­ter go­ing. Dou­glas fir is not na­tive to th­ese (mid-At­lantic) parts, so any tree of that species is go­ing to be pretty old by the time you get it.

Q: Have you ever planted a live Christ­mas tree out­side?

A: If I lived in t he coun­try with 20 acres or more, I might con­sider that. The fit­ness of a given tree in the land­scape should drive this, not the idea that you are sav­ing a tree for Christ­mas. (Christ­mas trees are farmed and har­vested after six to 10 years, or so, so you are not de­for­est­ing any ar­eas by buy­ing a cut tree.) Live trees also are heavy, be­cause of the root­ball, and will be­come stressed by be­ing in­doors for too long. Also, the hole that you will place it in must be dug now be­fore the ground freezes and the ex­ca­vated soil cov­ered against frost. In short, it's not worth it in my book.

Q: Do you need to keep snow off your gar­den ev­ery time it falls ? I as­sume five, six inches won't hur t any­thing. What about heavy snow?

A: Snow is good; it pro­vides a blan­ket against freez­ing. Heavy, wet snow can be a prob­lem, and some­times you just have to live with it. I have had the leader bro­ken twice in one South­ern mag­no­lia, but it has come back. If I had a prized old box­wood, I might con­sider truss­ing it for the win­ter.

Q: How do you build a good wind break for shrubs (hy­drangeas)? I've read us­ing burlap is good.

A: This used to be done more around here when win­ters were fiercer. It's an aw­ful lot of ef­fort and re­quires main­tain­ing. Burlap is good be­cause it is some­what por­ous and with­stands strong winds bet­ter than some­thing that is not, such as a tarp. The best wind­break is an ex­ist­ing fea­ture, such as a wall, a fence, a hill or a line of other shrubs and trees . The pre­vail­ing win­ter winds are from the north and the west; you should site more ten­der things in the lee of their pro­tec­tors.

Q: Are there any trees and shrubs suit­able for forc­ing in­doors in the win­ter?

A: Cer­tain late-win­ter/ early-spring-flow­er­ing wood­ies can be forced, but it is too early; you have to wait for more bud de­vel­op­ment. Can­di­dates in­clude mag­no­lias, apri­cots, cher­ries, for­sythia, pussy wil­low, cory­lop­sis and cor­nelian cherr y. You would want to cut branches no sooner than mid-Fe­bru­ary and then bring them in for forc­ing, mak­ing sure they are wa­tered, of course.

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