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A gardener's work is never done, even in winter

Even though gardeners, much like their plants, go dormant this time of year, there are a few questions that keep popping up. Let's take a look at the most common among them.

How can I get my poinsettia to bloom again next Christmas?

Poinsettias grow rapidly. If you live in a frost-free area and plant it outdoors in the next few weeks when the colors have faded, it could easily be up to your eaves by next fall. The plants that we buy in bloom in December were unrooted cuttings just four months ago. So you're going to have to suppress that active growth while keeping the plant healthy and vigorous. Replant it into progressively larger pots in late winter, again in late spring and perhaps once more by midsummer. Keep it moist, and use a diluted, high-nitrogen, water-soluble plant food each time you water it. Pinch out its growing tips to keep it compact. Starting Oct. 1, give it total darkness for 14 hours each night and full sunlight during the daytime. The long nights trigger the formation of the floral bracts.

Will my bulbs that have started to sprout from the soil survive freezing weather between now and spring?

Absolutely! They are completely winter-hardy to any cold that we have here, at least until their buds begin to show color in late February or early March. Unless you have the more tropical paperwhite narcissus, you'll be fine.

What plants need to be pruned during the winter, and which should I save for another season?

Prune peach and plum trees during the winter to maintain their low and spreading, bowl-shaped branching. Remove strongly vertical shoots from apples. Prune grapes by 75-85 percent. Thin canes so that you can maintain growth along the wire supports. This severe pruning results in better fruit size and quality. Winter is also the pruning season for shade trees, evergreen shrubs and summer-flowering shrubs and vines. (Remember never to "top" crape myrtles for any reason.) Wait to prune spring-flowering shrubs and vines until after they finish flowering. Wait to prune blackberry canes until after they have finished producing fruit in late spring/early summer. All fruit in spring 2011 will come from canes that grew in 2010. Once a cane bears fruit, it never will again.

When is the best time to transplant an established tree or shrub?

Woody plants, including all trees and shrubs, should be moved while they're completely dormant. Late December, January and early February are the only really good times to do so. Dig carefully, holding the soil ball in place to minimize root damage. Have the new planting site ready. Set the transplant at the same depth at which it had been growing. Fill the hole with the loose soil, but compact it with a hoe handle as you fill. When the hole is two-thirds refilled, run water slowly to the surface. That will settle the soil and eliminate pockets of drying air. Finish refilling, and use the excess soil to form a basin around the plant. Prune the top growth by 30 to 40 percent to compensate for roots that are lost in the digging. Stake and guy the plant if it's top-heavy enough to be in danger of leaning.

How often should I water during the winter?

It sounds like an easy question, but the fact is, there is no perfect answer. There are way too many variables involved. Soil type, wind, sun/shade, temperature and species, among other variables, all enter the picture. However, in most cases, it's safe to water if it has been more than a week since there has been rain or irrigation. It's better for plants to be a little too moist than a little too dry.

Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts Texas Gardening on WBAP AM/FM noon-1 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m.-noon Sundays. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.

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