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Ask the Master Gardener: Bromeliads can add a splash of color during winter

Bromeliads are tropical plants in the pineapple family. Photo by Jennifer Knutson

Dear Master Gardener: I bought a Bromeliad recently at a local store, but it didn't have any directions on how to care for it. When I unwrapped it, there was water in among the leaves at the base of the orange-colored flower. What is the best way to care for a Bromeliad and how long will the flower last?

Answer: Bromeliads are tropical plants in the pineapple family. The flower is actually a long-lasting, colorful bract. Bromeliads are easy, slow-growing houseplants that add a dramatic splash of color to our winter homes! In order to survive and grow well, bromeliads need warm temperatures (at least 60-70 degrees). Bromeliads that form a rosette-shaped reservoir at the base of the plant need to have the reservoir filled with water at all times, being careful not to let water soak the soil. Bromeliads are prone to root rot if the soil is kept wet, so make sure your plant drains well and never sits in water.

The colorful bracts will last anywhere from several weeks to several months. When the color fades, the bromeliad will slowly die. Don't worry! The plant will send up several "pups" alongside the plant. When the pups are about one-third the size of the parent plant, cut them apart and pot them up to form new plants. It will take about three to five years for them to show color.

Dear Master Gardener: I have some seeds left from last year and the previous year and was wondering if there is a way to tell if they are still usable?

Answer: Seed viability will depend on how the seeds were stored. A cool, dry storage condition is best for maintaining seeds. Some seeds only stay viable for a year or two, while others will last for four or more years. To test seeds, place ten seeds on a damp paper towel, making sure the paper towel isn't too wet or the seeds will rot. Fold the paper towel over the seeds and place it in a resealable plastic bag. Place the bag in a warm location (above 70 degrees) and check for germination over the next week. Once they have begun to germinate, carefully unwrap the paper towel to see what percentage of the seeds have sprouted. If fewer than seven (70 percent) germinated, you may want to buy new seed. The germinated seeds can be carefully removed from the paper towel and planted in pots. If the root has grown into the paper towel, just cut or tear around the seeds and plant them, paper towel and all to avoid damaging the roots.

Dear Master Gardener: The deer are relentless this winter and are eating plants I thought they didn't like. What can be done to protect plants from deer?

Answer: There have been many complaints this year (and last) about deer devouring landscape plants they haven't bothered in the past. Deer can cause severe damage to plants and when they are starving no plant is safe. A local Master Gardener was stunned when she discovered a deer eating the evergreen Christmas wreath on her front door! Although not attractive, the most effective method for protecting your trees and shrubs from deer browsing is to erect physical barriers to prevent them from getting to your plants.

For the past two years Kent Scheer, owner of Green Island Preserve in Wadena, with support from the U of M Extension, has been conducting research on micro-exclosures for keeping deer away from plants. A micro-exclosure is a small fenced area meant to exclude deer, based on the premise that deer avoid entering small spaces because they are afraid of getting trapped. In the trials, 16-foot long cattle panels were used and connected at the corners with cable clamps to form a 16-foot square, leaving one corner unconnected to serve as a gate. Scheer used four 6-foot steel T-posts with one wired to the center of each panel to increase rigidity. The top wire across the exclosures measured 50 inches from the ground. During the two-year trials micro-exclosures have shown a high success rate with only one deer breach occurring. Once Scheer reduced the size of the micro-exclosure by cutting it in half, no further breaches occurred. For those who are trying to grow fruit trees and other food, this may be a simple, low-cost way to protect plants from deer. The details of the research can be found at the following website:

Repellents are another option for deer control. During the summer months, commercial sprays can be effective, as well as homemade egg sprays, as long as they are applied diligently. Repellent sprays need to be reapplied every two weeks or after a heavy rain. Repellents work through a deer's sense of smell, so the solution is not effective over winter. In 1994, two University of Minnesota professors conducted a study comparing deer response to a variety of commercial repellents, methods of application and concentration levels. The study also included a homemade solution of eggs and water. Interestingly, they found the homemade solution of three chicken eggs blended thoroughly in a blender with 3.78 liters of water to be the most effective repellent. To apply the homemade mix, pour the egg mixture into a container and add water to reach one gallon, then strain it. Thoroughly spray the mixture onto new plant growth until the leaves are wet. In this same study it was found that adding other ingredients to the egg-water mixture may mask the egg odor enough to reduce the repellent spray's effectiveness. Commercial products may protect longer, but this homemade concoction can be a great substitution if you run out of commercial spray or want to save money.

March Garden Tips

• In honor of St. Patrick's Day, "shamrock" plants are often sold at grocery stores, florists and garden centers. These plants are actually a species of Oxalis. When selecting a plant, choose one with lush, healthy foliage and lots of new flower buds. Keep the plant in a bright, cool location and the soil moist.

• Sow onion seeds indoors at the beginning of March. Plant seeds ¾ inch deep, keep the soil evenly moist, and provide bright light for the seedlings as they emerge. Onions grown from seed will be ready to plant outdoors in May. They produce better bulbs and store better than onions started from sets.

• Finish pruning oak, apple and crabapple trees by the end of March.

• Prune grapes before new growth emerges.

• Evergreen branches are weighed down by all the snow we have received. Rather than hitting snow off the branches, which are brittle and prone to breaking at this time of year, try to let the snow melt off or gently scoop it off.

• In mid-March start seeds for coleus, dusty miller, dianthus, snapdragon and verbena. Seed alyssum, moss rose and salvia mid to late March. Keep moist until they sprout, then place under lights. Transplant to pots when the first set of true leaves appear.

• Start seeds for cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and head lettuce.

• In late March to early April, plant cannas, dahlias, and caladiums indoors. Place canna rhizomes with their eyes facing up and bury them so the upper half of the rhizome is just above the soil surface. Plant dahlia tuberous roots in small pots with the eye an inch below the soil surface. Place caladium tubers with the knobby side up in small pots, covering them with one to two inches of potting soil.

• If you stored geraniums or tuberous begonias over winter, now is the time to pot them up. After potting, put them in a bright window or under fluorescent lights. They should be healthy and ready to bloom when you put them out at the end of May.

• Now is a good time to repot overgrown houseplants. Use a fresh, clean pot with drainage holes that is one size larger than the previous one.

• Prune and destroy any infected branches while trees are still dormant. Look for black knot swellings on chokecherries and other cherry relatives. Remove branches killed by fireblight in apple, crabapple, pear and mountain ash, pruning several inches back to healthy wood. Do not use pruning paint or wound dressing.

• Do a fun gardening project with children during spring break by making plant labels for your garden. Children can draw pictures of the flower, vegetable and/or herb on an index card and laminate it (or use wide, clear packing tape), then tape or staple it to a popsicle stick. Painting rocks with the name of the plant is another option. The Gardener by Sarah Stewart is a beautiful book to check out at the library and read together.

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.