Saturday, February 16, 2002

Help hibiscus survive winter

By Tim Morehouse
Enquirer contributor

        Q: How should I care for a hibiscus in the winter?

        A: I assume you are asking about the potted hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-chinensis), the Chinese or tropical hibiscus. When you bring the plant indoors — before the first frost — root-prune if necessary and top-prune the plant to make it compact. Repot it in any ordinary potting mixture that drains well, and water frequently. Hibiscus need plenty of sunlight and will bloom if placed in a sunny exposure during the winter.

        In late May, take the hibiscus back outdoors to a shady place. Sink the pot in the garden soil to within 1 inch of the rim.

        Question: How can I start a sweet potato vine indoors? My grandmother had one in her kitchen that grew all around the window.

        Answer: Select a clean, firm sweet potato (Ipomoea batatus) with an undamaged end. Wash it in warm water. Insert four toothpicks in the tuber to keep it in place on the rim of the glass or jar of water. About 1/3 of the pointed end should be under water.

        Place the container in a warm, well-lighted location. Roots will develop first. When these roots are about 3 inches long, cut off all but three. The foliage will grow better if you prune the roots; continue to do so as the vine grows.

        Question: Are there some general rules for fertilizing houseplants? Every watering? Once a month? Once a week? I'm confused.

        Answer: Some houseplant growers apply very diluted fertilizers as often as every watering. Their theory is that this manner of feeding provides the container-grown plant with consistent nutrition. Other gardeners feed infrequently, perhaps only once a month.

        Keep in mind some basics: Never overfeed; an extra feeding harms, not helps a plant. Water a plant at least 12 hours before fertilizing, even when using a liquid fertilizer diluted in water (unless the plant is on a constant feeding schedule). Never feed a plant that is not putting out new growth (most houseplants do not require feeding during the winter months when they are normally dormant).

        Never feed a sick plant before finding out what is wrong with it. With newly potted plants, wait about one month between repotting and first feeding. Newly purchased plants will not need feeding for at least one month, often three.

        Question: When should American hollies be pruned? Is cutting boughs for Christmas good or bad for the plants?

        Answer: No harm is done to American holly (Ilex opaca) by cutting branches for Christmas. In fact, the best time to prune them is mid-December through March, when they are dormant. The branches can be pruned heavily during dormancy.
        Contact Tim Morehouse by Web site:; mail: c/o Cincinnati Enquirer. (If writing, enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.)


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