Dear Master Gardener: Are there any unusual flowering house plants I can try other than the typical ones?

Answer: Local availability could be an issue, but here are three striking flowering houseplants. Bird of Paradise is a relative of the banana and one of the most exotic, easy to grow potted plants. It not only has showy fans of blue-green leaves that are attractive all the time, but mature plants send up stalks topped with fascinating birdlike flowers that combine colors of golden orange and peacock blue during the warm seasons. Clivia, a member of the lily family, is easier to grow than an orchid and more unusual than an amaryllis. It has dark, evergreen, leathery leaves that provide a perfect backdrop for the dense clusters of orange flowers that appear. There are some yellow cultivars; however, they are quite rare and consequently expensive. A zebra plant is another option. Not only does it have dark leaves with striking, light-colored veins, making it a beautiful houseplant when it is not in bloom, it also sends up spikes of waxy bright yellow-bracted flowers that are long-lasting. Zebra plants do have a reputation for being somewhat difficult to grow because they require high humidity and consistent moisture.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Resurgence in home gardening leads to demand on seeds

Dear Master Gardener: I purchased a Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema) eight weeks ago and some of the bottom leaves seem to be rotting. Am I underwatering or overwatering it? Should I cut off the dead leaves?

Answer: Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema) is a wonderful, tropical-looking house plant that performs well in low-light conditions. If the bottom leaves seem to be rotting, you are probably overwatering the plant. Allow the potting medium to dry out slightly between watering sessions and avoid using cold water. If you have city water, let the water stand for at least 24 hours to let the chlorine dissipate. You may want to collect melted snow or rain water or use distilled water to prevent brown tips from fluoride and salt build up. Don’t use softened water because it has a high salt content and most plants cannot tolerate large amounts of salt. Yes, you should cut off any brown or dying leaves.

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Dear Master Gardener: I am going to plant my first vegetable garden this year. What are some easy vegetables for beginners?

Answer: First, let me say that growing your own food is a rewarding experience! It can be fun trying out different vegetables and varieties you might not find in the grocery store, but if you have limited space in your new garden, my advice is to only plant vegetables that you know your family likes to eat.

You can start out by planting cool season crops in the spring such as arugula, lettuce, kale, spinach, cabbage, radishes, carrots, beets, peas, or broccoli. After the last frost date (depending on the weather, you may want to wait until June 1) you can plant cucumbers, green beans, peppers, squash, zucchini, and tomatoes (cherry tomatoes may be the easiest for a beginner gardener). Broccoli, cabbage, peppers, tomatoes, and many herbs are usually grown from transplants rather than directly sown into the garden.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Protect your garden by rotating your crops

Dear Master Gardener: Are black cherry trees native to Minnesota? Would it be a good ornamental tree for me to plant in my yard?

Answer: The black cherry tree (Prunus serotina) is the largest native cherry in Minnesota and North America. It is long-lived and can grow to be 50-80 feet tall. In late spring the tree bears an abundance of small white flowers that produce small edible (but bitter) cherries.

With its showy fragrant flowers, black cherry can be used as an ornamental tree. The bark on young trees is smooth and gray, but as the tree matures it takes on the appearance of burnt potato chips. In fact, it has the nickname “potato chip tree.” Fall color is spectacular and among the best of any tree in the Midwest. The leaves turn a golden yellow to apricot and scarlet, sometimes on the same tree. A potential drawback is the falling fruit, especially if it is near a sidewalk. It is also highly susceptible to ice damage and black knot fungal disease, which can be managed with pruning. Although it doesn’t sucker from the roots as much as other native cherry trees, without proper management it can be aggressive and become weedy.

Plant it in moist, well-drained soil in part to full sun. Choose its permanent home because it has a long taproot and does not transplant well. Like river birch, you can also plant them in clumps.

Related: Ask the master gardener: Winter sowing and growing in small spaces

Dear Master Gardener: I’ve been told that to improve drainage, gravel or broken pieces of terra cotta should be put in the bottom of the container? Does it really help?

Answer: It is common knowledge that plants like good drainage and roots sitting in water can severely damage or kill a plant. According to Jeff Gillman, Ph.D., former horticulture professor at the University of Minnesota, water drainage is actually better if you just fill your container all the way with potting media. His advice, “Don’t use gravel or other nonabsorbent materials at the bottom of your container to increase drainage. If you feel you need better drainage simply buy better-draining media from your local garden center.” (The Truth about Garden Remedies, 2008). To keep the potting medium from escaping out the holes at the bottom of your container, place a piece of landscape fabric or an unbleached coffee filter on the bottom of your container before adding the potting soil.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Squirrels are the likely culprit in stripped tree bark

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 umnmastergardener@gmail.com 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.