Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: Don't toss your Easter lily, plant it outdoors

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"Now what?"

Many, many years ago that was a question my mother would ask whenever one of the neighbors called to inquire about my whereabouts. The answer was never good.

Today, there are still people who ask that question, but fortunately it is rarely about me; rather, it is about their Easter lilies. "The flowers of my Easter lily have withered. Now what?" Unfortunately, a common answer is: "Toss it!" But what challenge is that?

Though Easter lilies are not the hardiest of bulbs (hardiness varies with the lily variety), they may be planted outdoors and, with some care, will flower again, the usual flowering time being mid-summer. Since outdoor planting should not be done until late May or early June, the plant must be well cared for while indoors. The first step is to remove the blossoms as they fade. Place the leafy plant(s) in a sunny window and water whenever the top inch of soil feels dry. When ready to transplant outdoors, remove the plant from its pot, untangle any pot-bound roots and set the plant in the ground with the top of the bulb six inches below the soil surface. The planting site, most likely the flower border, should receive morning sun or partial sun through the day. With respect to placement in the border, keep in mind that Easter lilies may grow to three feet or more in height. Continue to water and occasionally fertilize the plant with a general purpose garden fertilizer. (Note: If the plant should wither after transplanting, just cut it back. A new shoot should soon emerge and may even flower before summer's end.) In fall, when the leaves begin to wither, cut the stem back to just above soil level. Place a six-inch deep layer of loose-textured mulch of straw or pine needles over the plant just as the ground begins to freeze.

There are other options for keeping your Easter lily from being deposited atop the compost heap. Continue to grow the lily as a houseplant, but move it outdoors for the summer. After the shoot withers, cut it back, bring the pot back indoors and place it in a cool location until ready to force back into bloom late next winter. Another choice it to simply remove the bulb from the pot after the stem withers and store the bulb in a cool, dry location until winter when it can be potted and forced back into bloom. Neither of these options is as successful as planting the bulbs outdoors in the garden.



CHALLENGES TO TACKLE

Now what? How about tackling these challenges:

- Start seeds of tomatoes. No, it is not too late. This is the ideal time to do so, as studies have shown that six- to eight-week-old tomato seedlings establish more quickly when transplanted than do older seedlings.

- As soon as garden soils have dried enough to be workable, till under winter cover crops and any undecomposed organic matter, such as leaves or straw, resting atop the soil. Allow at least two weeks for the organic matter to breakdown before planting any crops. This instruction does not apply to the addition of finished compost to soil.

- Sow seed of peas, root crops and leafy vegetables whenever weather and soil conditions allow over the next few weeks. Plant a good assortment of leafy greens, so you can add a little character to dull lettuce-based salads. Character-building greens include corn salad, arugula, radicchio, mustard greens, endive and Asian greens.

- Don't remove winter mulch from strawberry plants until the growth of new shoots is about an inch or two long. The plants will look a little pale under the mulch, but removing mulch too soon can cause injury to flower buds and result in a poor crop. Leave the mulch between the rows so that it can be quickly spread over the plants whenever frosts threaten.

- Examine the branches of flowering cherry and crabapple trees for the shiny, blackish-brown egg masses of Eastern tent caterpillar. These egg masses, which have a Styrofoam-like texture, encircle thin twigs of these trees. Before the eggs hatch, typically around the time Callery pear and shadbush begin to bloom, prune out such twigs.

- Thin out some of the crowded branches of dense lilacs to improve air movement through the plants. Also, be careful not to apply too much high nitrogen fertilizer nor excessive amounts of horse or cow poop (technical term for manure). Too much fertilizer and dense branching helps promote bacterial blight, a serious disease of lilac that often occurs during wet spring weather.


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