Ask a Master Gardener

We had a thaw earlier this winter, I noticed some foliage from my spring bulbs coming up through the soil. Is it going to harm them to come up so early, before we really get the cold weather? Can I do anything about it?

With milder temperatures and more unpredictably variable winter weather, it’s not surprising that some spring bloomers, especially bulbs, start to come up long before they should emerge. Most of the time, there’s nothing to worry about. Any premature leaf tips will likely turn yellow or brown and die off during the winter, but the rest of the leaf will be fine. The bulb itself will not be affected, and the flowers will emerge as they should in the spring.

In the future, you can slow or prevent early emergence by making sure the bulbs are planted deeply enough (three times the bulb’s diameter is usual), and putting a good layer of mulch over them after the ground freezes. Both planting methods will keep your bulbs colder, so a temporary warm spell will be less likely to trigger growth. As well, any leaves that do emerge will be better protected from subsequent cold spells under the mulch.

I have a hibiscus plant that I bring inside for the winter, and it’s doing well – maybe too well. It’s getting pretty big. How and when should I prune it?

Tropical hibiscus are best pruned in late winter or early spring, although you can prune later when they’re in active growth. As to how you should prune it, think about the following points. Most of this applies to pruning any shrub. Cuts should be made at a 45° angle, with a clean sharp pruner, about 6 mm (1/4”) above a node (point where new buds, leaves, or shoots emerge) or just above a branch collar (the slight swelling you see at the base of a branch).

• Branches that should be cut back or removed include any that are damaged or diseased, or rubbing on another branch and damaging the bark.

• If the plant’s branches are getting too dense or crowded, you will want to thin it. Cut back selected branches to where they join a stem.

• After removing damaged, weak, or crowded branches, look at the whole plant to decide where you need to cut back for shape and size.

Hibiscus bloom on new growth. Pinching or cutting back branches/shoots partway will remove current buds, but encourage new shoots. This results in a bushier plant, and more blooms later on. If the plant is blooming and you don’t want to lose all the flowers, you can stagger your pruning. Do one or two branches at a time, and wait until they re-grow before cutting other branches back.

I'm looking for a guide to local native plants that will provide habitat and food for wild birds.

A useful reference for any gardener is the Birds Canada website at: Just type in your postal code or address and a list of bird-friendly plants will appear. However, keep in mind that what you plant should be based on any plant’s soil, light and space requirements.

In the past, we have asked one thing of our gardens: that they be pretty.
Now they have to support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators and manage water.”

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