Ask the Master Gardener: Caring for colorful cyclamen plants

Cyclamens are found at grocery stores, florists and garden centers right now because it blooms in the winter.

A cyclamen plant. Contributed / Jennifer Knutson

Dear Master Gardener: I just purchased a cyclamen, but it didn’t come with instructions. How do I care for it and how long will it last as a houseplant?

Answer: Cyclamen is a colorful plant found at grocery stores, florists and garden centers right now because it blooms in the winter. You will find them in white, all shades of pink, lavender and red. They typically bloom for about three months. They are fairly easy to grow; however, it can be difficult to get them to rebloom. Some people treat them as a short-lived, temporary plant but I’ve been able to get mine to rebloom and last for several years. A cyclamen will bloom longer in a cool, bright location. Make sure it isn’t exposed to cold or hot drafts, as this could cause the flowers to drop. Removing spent blossoms by twisting the stem and pulling it up from the base of the plant will encourage more flowering. Keep the soil moist when the plant is blooming. Water it thoroughly when the soil looks and feels dry on the surface. Allow the soil to almost dry out before watering the plant again. Avoid watering the crown or center of the plant. I water my cyclamen (and African violet) from the bottom by having it sit in a bowl of water for 15-20 minutes. Use a low-nitrogen fertilizer or houseplant food at half-strength about every two weeks while the plant is blooming.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: The rewards of feeding birds in the winter

Dear Master Gardener: Witchgrass — or at least I think that’s what it is — has taken over my front yard and much of the neighborhood. What can we do to get rid of it?

Answer: Witchgrass (Panicum capillare) is a common summer annual weed, much like crabgrass. It’s too late to do anything now, but in the spring when soil temperatures are 55 degrees (when the lilacs bloom), apply a pre-emergent to prevent the seeds from this fall from sprouting. If you see the weed later on, on a calm day, spray the affected areas with an annual weed herbicide (the same kind you would use for crabgrass).


Related: Ask the Master Gardener: There are good reasons to not cut down hardy plants for winter

Dear Master Gardener: I didn’t get mulch down yet and now it has snowed. Is it too late?

Answer: No, it’s not too late. In Minnesota, snow is an excellent insulator, but we never know how much we will get and if it will stay. Without snow or mulch for protection, plants may experience heaving and thawing, which could damage their root systems. So go ahead and put down winter mulch now because the very best time to do it is just after the ground has frozen. According to Jeff Gillman, former University of Minnesota horticulture professor, by putting mulch down at this time, you will help stabilize the temperature of the soil right around freezing. Although it’s tempting to mulch on a warm fall day, applying it too soon may delay freezing and encourage the heaving and thawing. Straw, chopped leaves, pine needles, or wood chips about four to 6 inches deep all work well. Most perennials will pop through the mulch in spring, unless they were newly planted this fall. In that case you may have to push aside the mulch to help them get going.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Timing is critical for dormant seeding of a lawn

Dear Master Gardener: My husband and I disagree on whether tomatoes should be stored in the refrigerator or on the counter. Where should they be stored?

Answer: Not in the refrigerator! They will lose color, firmness and flavor if stored below 40 degrees. If you only use part of a tomato, then keep the unused portion in the refrigerator.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: With the right care, orchids can rebloom for decades The Phalaenopsis orchid typically blooms for two to three months then goes into a rest period. Unfortunately, many people throw them out when they’re done blooming.
Dear Master Gardener: My ponytail palm has brown tips. What am I doing wrong?

Answer: The ponytail palm is an easy, low-maintenance houseplant. It is a desert plant, so it needs a well-drained soil mix (the type for cactus). Overwatering is the most common cause of this plant’s demise. Brown tips are usually the result of over or under-watering. If the leaves are brown and crispy, it is not getting enough water. If the leaf tips are brown with distinct yellowing, it is getting too much water. Fluoride in water also causes brown tips. Use rain water or melted snow, dehumidifier water or the reverse osmosis water at the grocery store when watering. Water your plant deeply, but infrequently, allowing it to dry out completely between watering sessions. Ponytail palms can go for weeks without water. Reduce watering significantly during the winter to avoid root rot.


Related: Ask the Master Gardener: A few tips for overwintering geraniums Bright light is critical for geraniums — low light results in spindly plants.
Dear Master Gardener: Are poinsettias poisonous?

Answer: No. That is a very common misconception. The sap of the poinsettia is mildly irritating, but that is the extent of it.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Pumpkins, gourds used for holiday decorations are generally not edible

You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A master gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at and I will answer you in the column if space allows.
University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.
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