The second week of January may feel like the dark days of winter, but the days are getting longer and spring is on the way — which means you can still keep busy.
Study seed and plant catalogs either online or from your mailbox so you can place your order early. If evergreen boughs fall from trees during a winter storm, lay them on top of tender perennial plants for added protection from the wind and cold.
Here are a few questions from readers, with answers.
Q. I enjoyed my wonderful potted succulents this past summer, and because I know that these are the tender Echeveria succulents they will not survive our cold winters. Following your advice in the newspaper I moved my pot of mixed Echerias indoors. Now they seem to be stretching for the light with long stems. I have them in the brightest light. Anything else I should be doing? – J., Puyallup
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A. Force them to go to sleep. Overwintering tender plants indoors works best if they are kept in a cold location with no food and no water. An unheated garage or frost-free shed is often better for desert-type plants than a sunny window.
The longer stems you notice are a sign that the sedums are not dormant and reaching for more light. It is not too late to move your Echeverias to a colder location and let the soil dry out. In late spring you can shorten the sedum plants by taking cuttings off the top. New leaves will sprout from the stump left behind and new roots will form on the long stem you cut from the mother plant.
Q. My poinsettia plant still looks lovely. I have heard I can place this potted plant in a dark closet and it will bloom again next Christmas. Is that true? – S.C., North Pole
A. It is possible to keep a poinsettia alive as a blooming houseplant but only if you love a challenge. Using the closet treatment it might be possible to force a poinsettia into blooming next Christmas.
You must provide total night darkness for a specific number of hours for 6 to 8 weeks. Even a reading light or street light can keep poinsettias from creating colorful new growth next Christmas. The best place for an old poinsettia is outdoors. One night of cold or freezing temperatures will kill the plant quickly, and then you won’t feel so guilty about dumping it into the compost pile where poinsettias past their prime belong.
Q. I am going to start my own seeds this spring and have been doing some research on this topic. What is your opinion of using heating mats to get the seedlings started? Is bottom heat that important? – T.R., Tacoma
A. Your seedlings will love any heat that comes from below. Heating mats or heating cables are used by professional growers because they really do encourage more roots and quicker seed germination. A dirt-cheap alternative is to place your seed flats on top of the refrigerator or dryer or another appliance that gives off heat.
When starting seeds in Western Washington it is more important to have a good source of light, a quick-draining seed-starting medium and the right planting date. Most gardeners in our area make the mistake of starting seeds indoors too soon. Then the seedlings grow tall and leggy waiting for the weather to warm up so they can go outdoors. Read the planting instructions for each seed type. Many say to wait until 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date. In our climate the last frost can arrive as late as mid-May. Gather your seeds and supplies now, but be patient.
Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of several books. Reach her at binettigarden.com.