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Blooming plants likely will survive spring's leap

I just saw a crab apple tree in full blossom. How is this freaky weather going to affect our spring blooming plants and trees? Is it going to be extra hot this summer?

Most plants that bloom earlier than usual are tough and easily ride out a cold spell or two. This includes the spring bulbs, witch hazel, and winter jasmine. The biggest problem may be for ornamental or orchard fruit trees. If they are lured into early bloom, and then hit with a hard freeze, the blooms will be killed. The early magnolias, too, such as star magnolia or tulip magnolia, are tender and easily zapped by a warm spring with a freeze. That's why it is wise not to plant these where they are too sheltered. When they grow in a warm microclimate, they are fooled into blooming too early.

As for the weather ahead, we at the Home and Garden Information Center are not qualified to say. It's true that warm winters sometimes lead to warmer-than-usual summers, but the operative word is "sometimes." Maryland weather is quite variable. To protect your plants, always plant healthy stock, matching growth requirements with what your site has to offer, i.e. shade plants in shade, sun-loving plants in sun, drought-tolerant plants in dry conditions, etc.

My lawn has never had moss like this before. Can I kill it in an environmentally safe way?

We're getting lots of "moss calls." Moss seemed to love all that rain last fall. Rain also leaches nutrients out of soil, and moss will grow happily in soil too infertile for turf.

The best approach with moss is to rake it out, then change the conditions that encouraged moss and discouraged turf: shade and low-pH, compacted, low-fertility and wet soil.

These conditions can develop slowly over time so that we don't realize the site has substantially changed until it's covered with moss. Start with a soil test, then lime accordingly to the results. Don't just sprinkle on a bit of lime. If the pH has gotten really low, the soil may need a surprisingly heavy lime application. Where tree shade has increased, calculate whether your lawn is getting the minimum three to four hours of daily sunlight demanded by fescue. If not, increase sunlight or replace turf with mulch, other beds or ground cover. (Moss is a ground cover.)

After many years of foot traffic and running mowers over lawns, especially wet ones, soils compact so much that nutrients, water and delicate grass roots cannot penetrate. Aerate in the fall. Fall is also the time to fertilize (according to needs indicated by the soil test) and thicken up sparse turf by overseeding.

We can't afford to remove a fallen tree from our back lot. If we don't remove it, how bad are the consequences?

You can let it be, unless it died of an insect or disease problem you know could spread to nearby trees. Dead trees enhance the environment, creating homes for scores of wildlife species. The tiny insects and creatures that decompose the tree are eaten by other wildlife. (Don't worry about borers that make tunnels after the tree died. Those insects are benign -- not the same borers that damage live trees.) When your tree finally becomes compost, it will enrich the soil for future plants, completing the cycle of life right there in your backyard. If the fallen tree is taking up a lot of space, you may be able to remove a few of the side branches.

University of Maryland Extension's Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information. Call 800-342-2507 or send a question to the website at

Plant of the week Shamrock

Oxalis regnellii

Faith and begorra! What could be more appropriate for St. Patrick's Day than a nice shamrock houseplant? Oxalis species occur in many forms, some of which are lawn weeds, and even the real shamrock is a type of clover. Oxalis regnellii displays stunning trifoliate leaves and delicate white flowers. Provide the plant with bright, indirect light, even full sun in winter if it is actively growing. As luck would have it, normal indoor temperatures are fine, though cooler nights will prolong the growing and blooming season. Like most houseplants, keep moisture levels even when it's growing but reduce watering after it finishes blooming and allow it to rest. During the next one to three months it may even lose its foliage, but be patient; store the bulbs in a cool, dry place, then return it to the sunny area when green shoots reappear. If you're lucky, the plant will regain its former glory. If allowed to dry out when actively growing, the plant may suffer from spider mite damage. It's appropriate to mist the plant occasionally, since leprechauns prefer moist conditions (and bring good luck). — Lew Shell

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