, Salem, MA

March 28, 2014

North Shore Gardener: A natural root growth stimulant

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — Q: I think I read in your column last year something about being able to stimulate root in water that pussy willows have been standing in — I tried it, and it probably worked about as well as any rooting hormone I’ve used — and is certainly cheap! I saved the clipping, but now I’ve lost it — help, please!

A: Sure! Willow water not only can be used to start rooting new plants from settings but also stimulate root growth of older plants — and you can do both. The name of the natural hormone substance that makes a plant root better is auxin.

To make the willow water, cut fresh branches — not fallen ones — less than a half-inch in diameter into two-inch pieces and soak them overnight. Drain; send the sticks to the compost. Store the remaining willow water in tightly closed bottles. Dip cutting ends into willow water for an hour or two and plant. I think you’ll see the difference in root growth. Pour any extra willow water onto plants where it will also promote root growth.

Q: My boyfriend gave me two big pink cyclamen for Valentine’s Day. One has finished blooming, and the other is in bloom now. Is it possible to plant them outside in the spring? If so, is there anything I have to do now to prepare them? I’ve never had one before, and I don’t know what to do with it.

A: What a lovely gift! I assume you have the large cyclamen persicum, a houseplant also known as the florist’s cyclamen. It’s not easy to get them to rebloom, but it’s worth the effort.

Florist cyclamens cannot survive outdoors all winter in our climate. They are native to the warmer Mediterranean areas where nights are cool but not below 50 degrees. There, they bloom during the cool spring months and go dormant during the heat, which is what your florist-bought plants will do.

Cyclamen grow from a tuber which is half-buried in the soil. It will bloom for several months if carefully watered from the bottom or from the side of the pot. The plant should be kept moist, but if you overwater it, the tubers will rot. Carefully groom the plant by gently pulling out dead or dying flowers and leaves as they turn yellow. Remove them carefully and completely so they don’t rot near the tuber level.

When the tuber has stopped growing leaves and buds, reduce water and allow it to dry out slightly and rest. Turn the pot on its side so you remember not to water it too much during dormancy. Water it just enough to keep it slightly damp. New growth will begin as the weather gets cooler in the fall.

When buying a cyclamen, look under the leaves for lots of small, pointed buds. With proper care and cool temperatures, your plant will remain in bloom for weeks.

You can prolong the bloom period by keeping your plants in the coolest place in the house — about 50 degrees at night, if possible. They appreciate a bright window and bright diffused light, not direct sunlight.

There are small, “baby” varieties of perennial cyclamen (cyclamen hederifolium), which will survive the winter here. They require a slightly moist, shady area.

Don’t tell your boyfriend — I hate to tell you, but in “The Language of Flowers,” a cyclamen means “resignation and goodbye” — I hope your boyfriend hasn’t read the book.

Q: I’ve decided to put a ring of pachysandra around a tree and along a walk in a shady area where I can’t seem to grow anything else. A neighbor who’s a really good gardener has offered to let me cut some pachysandra from her huge area of it, and she says it will be really easy to start cuttings for my garden. How do I do it? I need a lot of plants, but I don’t have the space to root as many as I think I will need. I’ve seen them grown in pots and flats at nurseries. I don’t have room for hundreds of pots. What do I do at home to root them in the smallest space possible?

A: Pachysandra is a splendid choice for a shady area, and it’s easy to propagate. Your neighbor is most generous, and your clipping won’t hurt her plants at all.

Pots of soil and flats are often used when starting pachysandra, but the easiest way is to clip a bunch of a half-dozen tips about eight inches long, bunch them together with a string or rubber band, and root them in water. At this time of year, you’ll have strong roots in about eight weeks. Then, they can be planted directly in their permanent place in the garden. Plant about 10 inches apart, and in a few years, they will fill the space. If you have enough plants, you can plant closer to fill the space sooner.

Q: I saved all my big, beautiful tuberose begonia bulbs last fall. When would be the best time to plant them? (They really got big!)

A: In order for them to bloom before late summer, tuberose begonias should be started indoors about now. They will need two months of lead time before they are put outside in containers or gardens.

Unpack your bulbs and pot them individually in a rich composted soil or peat moss. Gently press each bulb into the soil so they are barely covered. If you have dozens of bulbs, it is faster to plant them in a flat of peat.

The most often-asked question about tuberous begonias: When you plant, which end goes up?

Sometimes, you can see tiny pink sprouts already growing as you take the bulbs out of storage, and sometimes, you can’t. Here’s an easy way to remember: Plant them “cup up.” If you happen to make a mistake, the smart little bulb will send the sprout around the bulb and to the surface. As the sprouts grow, fertilize on a regular schedule.

Don’t be in too much of a hurry to plant these begonias outdoors. Wait until the soil warms up, and you’ll be on the way to a beautiful display.

This week’s dirt: Spring Proverbs

“March comes in like a lion, but goes out like a lamb...”

“When deer reappear, spring is near...”

“When maple syrup fire’s smoke goes straight up, weather will be mild...”

“When pine needles sweat, spring’s an early bet...”

“If the snowdrifts face north, spring will come early...”

“Trees split their bark, it will be a warm, dry spring...”

“Spring has come when you can put your foot on three daisies...”

North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday’s Lifestyles section. Reach Barbara by email at or write to her c/o The Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at