Ask the Master Gardener: Caring for your air plants

Trendy and unique houseplants, air plants attach to other plants as a means of support and do not grow in soil.

An example of an air plant. Photo by Jennifer Knutson

Dear Master Gardener: A friend gave me an air plant as a gift. How do I care for it?

Answer: Air plants (Tillandsia) are unique and trendy houseplants. In nature they are epiphytes (they attach to other plants as a means of support). Their roots are used for attachment rather than absorbing water or nutrients -- they do not grow in soil. They rely on moisture in the air to grow and thrive; accordingly, you will need to water your plant by misting, rinsing, or soaking it. If using the misting method, gently spray your air plant to the point of run-off several times per week. Rinsing is the easiest watering technique -- just hold it under a faucet twice a week, soaking it thoroughly with tepid water, then lay it face down on a paper towel for a few seconds to absorb excess water. Another method is to submerge the plant for 20 to 60 minutes weekly in a bowl of tepid water, then let it drain well. Clemson University Extension recommends diluting liquid fertilizer to 1/4 the recommended rate and adding it monthly to your regular watering regimen. Place your air plant in bright, indirect light (a west or east-facing window).

Dear Master Gardener: I love helping the birds with nest-building material, but my neighbor says I shouldn’t leave yarn or string or dryer lint for them. True or False?

Answer: Many of us enjoy helping our feathered friends, so it’s important to provide them with appropriate nest-building material rather than unintentionally putting them at risk. Most ornithology experts agree that anything synthetic should be avoided and only natural materials provided. Natural materials that are beneficial and safe for birds to use as nest building material include twigs and small sticks, dead leaves, dry grass (as long as it hasn’t been treated with any fertilizer or pesticides), chicken feathers, plant fluff or down (milkweed and cattail fluff, cottonwood down), moss, pieces of bark, straw, hay, and pine needles.

Some materials that seem useful can have adverse effects. Birds often use animal fur to build their nests, but pet fur could be dangerous if it has been treated for fleas and ticks. Human hair could also be harmful due to the products we use such as dye, perfumed shampoo and conditioner, hair gel, and hair spray. Human hair, which is strong and thin, can entangle or even sever a bird’s legs or wings. String, yarn, or thread may have toxic dyes and can create a hazard by tangling a bird’s feet, legs, or wings causing it injury or death. Dryer lint can be detrimental for nesting birds because it falls apart easily and doesn’t give enough structure for a safe, well-built nest. When dryer lint gets wet it gets sticky and can coat a bird’s feet, legs, and feathers. The dust from dryer lint, which can have chemicals from detergents and fabric softener, can damage baby birds’ lungs. Stick to nature’s materials!


April Gardening Tips

  • Summer flowering shrubs such as Spirea and Annabelle Hydrangea may be cut back to the ground. These plants bloom on new wood and will grow back quickly and bloom in mid-summer.

  • If we get an April snow shower, don’t worry about daffodils or other early blooming bulbs. Usually the snow is not cold enough to damage the plants.

  • Cool season vegetables such as leaf lettuce, spinach, kale, radishes, onions, and peas may be planted outdoors as soon as the soil is workable. Snapdragons, bachelor buttons and sweet pea seeds can also be planted outside in April.

  • Remove protective cover in stages from bulb beds, non-hardy roses, and perennials. Don’t hurry to uncover tender plants because mulch helps prevent them from coming out of dormancy too early when damaging cold is still a possibility. Rose canes will be fine as long as temperatures don’t go below 20 degrees.

  • If you are planning on starting a new vegetable or flower bed, it would be beneficial to have your soil tested at the University of Minnesota’s Soil Testing Lab. The lab will analyze your soil and recommend amendments based on reliable data. You can find information and download instructions from its website: .

  • Pansies, violas, and Johnny jump-ups can be planted outside toward the end of April. They do well in cool weather and can withstand light frost with no problem.

  • Stay off your lawn as much as possible until the soil no longer feels soft and spongy. When the soil is dry enough, lightly rake leaves, dead weeds, and debris that could interfere with mowing. Don’t fertilize until the grass is actively growing and you’ve mowed a few times!

  • Typically, conifers require little pruning. If needed, spruce and fir can be pruned in spring before growth begins. Prune stem tips back to a healthy bud making cuts at a slight angle just above the bud. Don’t leave stubs because it creates an entryway for health problems. Always avoid topping a tree.

  • Plant flowers for pollinators! Pollinators are critical to the health of our landscapes and food supply! Native perennials that attract birds, bees, and butterflies include: New England and Woods Series Aster, Rudbeckia hirta or fulgida (black-eyed Susan), Joe pye weed, Liatris, wild lupine, Echinacea angustifolia (purple coneflower native to Minnesota) or Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower native to Wisconsin and Iowa).

University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. All information given in this column is based on university research. To ask a question, call the Master Gardener Help Line at 218-454-GROW (4769) and leave a recorded message. A Master Gardener will return your call.

An example of an air plant. Photo by Jennifer Knutson

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