, Salem, MA

March 29, 2013

How do I get my Easter lily home safely?

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — To my dear readers: I’m back — and ready for your letters and notes anytime. I look forward to hearing from you as we begin our 30th year of gardening with North Shore Gardener.

Q: With Easter and Mother’s Day coming and the weather not exactly cooperating, how can I safely transport a fragile bunch of flowers or a delicate flowering plant like an Easter lily from store to home?

A: Treat a live plant just like a small child or a pet — never leave it in the car in any weather. Make the flower shop your last stop of the day and head for your warm home with your beautiful flowers.

Q: Why is there a ring of bare ground around the tree trunks after a snowstorm? Did someone shovel it so their dog can have a “bathroom”? I’ve wondered about this for years.

A: No, no one has shoveled for their pet. The dark bark of the trunk absorbs the warmth of the sun and melts the snow. Also, the sap rising in the tree at this time of the year comes from roots far underground, especially in the big, older trees. This warmth melts snow, too.

Q: What should I do about the spring bulbs that are sprouting — even blooming — early, through the snow and ice? Will they be all right? Should I at least cover them?

A: Many of the early sprouts you see are leaf sprouts, not flower sprouts — the flower bud is still to emerge. And a covering of snow won’t be harmful; in fact, snow can be an insulator and give some protection. Don’t bother to mulch them now. But it really depends on what kind of bulb is sprouting, too — crocus and snowdrops often bloom through the snow; tulips are chancier.

What could be more damaging than the snow is really dry, frigid, subzero weather after the bulbs are ready to flower — particularly if the snow cover has melted and the wind persists. Then, if it’s practical, you might want to put a lightweight cover over them, removing it as soon as you can. Be sure to elevate the cover above the flower buds so it won’t bend or break them down. But even a cover is not foolproof.

This summer, you’ll want to take extra-good care of the bulb foliage as it develops. Give the bulb area a little extra TLC: Water, if necessary, and fertilize well so the foliage makes good growth — and the flowers for the next season won’t be harmed.

Q: Can I tap my own trees, or is this for professionals? When is it done? Doesn’t taking sap from a tree kill it, or at least weaken it?

A: Tapping done properly doesn’t hurt trees. Freezing nights and daytime temperatures of about 40 degrees are ideal weather for tapping. Usually, that comes in March into April. Sugar maples are the usual trees for their superior flavor and greater concentration of sugar, but other trees have sweet sap, too.

Tap only healthy trees that are 30 years old at least 12 inches in diameter. Drill a tap hole, placing the tap 4 to 6 feet off the ground (keep the snow level in mind). Place new taps at least a few inches away from past years’ taps to avoid splitting damage to your tree. Slant the drilled hole slightly upward to avoid the freezing of sap in the drill hole, which can also cause splitting.

Tap the spout, also called a spile, into the hole — you can buy spiles at some lawn, garden and farm supply stores or online — and collect the dripping sap in a clean container, such as a clean plastic milk jug. You may need plastic tubing to direct the flow of sap from the spout into your container. Collect sap from your tree every day or two. Keep sap cold to avoid spoilage and bugs.

Now the fun begins: To make syrup from the sap, you must boil it. Sap from a sugar maple is about 2.5 percent sugar, so the water in the sap has to be evaporated to reduce it to syrup. Boil in a large, open pan on the stove — vent well if done indoors — or outdoors on a grill. It takes 30 to 50 gallons of evaporated sap to make one gallon of syrup.

Tap only maple trees on your own property — it is not legal or advisable to tap trees in the local cemetery or park.

Q: What are those beautiful dusky-colored flowers that I can see in my neighbor’s garden?

A: They must be hellebores or Lenten roses. They grow from thick roots and often bloom in the snow, looking like porcelain flowers. They bloom in white and shades of pale soft pinks and purple, and they are so perfect they don’t look real. They’re fairly expensive — about $10 per plant — but you’ll plant them once and they’ll return every year for decades. They can be divided every three years or so. Many of the species are poisonous, but they are also deer-proof.

Q: I bought an orchid plant at the supermarket. The directions say to water it with ice cubes several times a week or 1 1/2 teaspoons of water. Can ice cube watering be used on all my houseplants?

A: Ice cube watering is my least favorite method of watering any plant. Would you like a bath with ice cubes? I even go overboard in the opposite direction and warm my watering water or at least let it stand until it’s close to room temperature before dousing the plants. Let your water stand overnight, and it will also lose many of the chemicals and additives it carries.

Q: I’m getting ready to start my tomatoes this weekend. I figure if I start them now, about 21/2 months before they’re ready to transplant, I will easily have the first tomatoes in the neighborhood. Can you give me some advice?

A: Yes — don’t start them this early! Tomatoes are a lot like us — they’re happy to live indoors, but at the first breath of spring, they will want to spend all their time outside, not cooped up in the house no matter how sunny the windowsill. Early April is about the right time to start tomatoes indoors.


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