Even the most skilled gardener encounters a planting problem every now and then. Put plants back on the right track with simple solutions from Martha.
Hanging plants are especially attractive to nesting birds. Because pots are often hung under eaves, they offer a measure of shelter from the elements and provide protection from predators and pets. The best way to deter them is with a barrier such as garden netting, which you can cut to size. To prevent birds from becoming tangled, keep the netting as taut as possible, secure it tightly around the pot and its hanger, and trim the edges. Birds typically build nests in spring -- the farther north you live, the later the nesting season. By mid-July, you should be able to remove the netting. If you find a bird has settled in despite your efforts, do not disturb it; it's against federal law to move nests or tamper with the eggs of migratory birds.
These are fungus gnats, which don't harm people, pets, or most plants, but they are annoying and unpleasant. These insects lay eggs in moist potting soil. To deter them, let the top inch of dirt dry between watering; your plant will become far less hospitable to the bugs.
If you still see gnats after a couple of weeks, set a half-inch-thick potato slice on the soil to lure the larvae. Stake a yellow sticky trap (sold at garden centers) in the soil -- the color attracts the adults. After a few days, toss the potato and, if the gnats have disappeared, the trap. Some plants, such as maidenhair ferns, need wet soil. For these, seal the pot and soil with plastic wrap. A little unsightly, yes, but less so than those teeny critters.
Unfortunately, no. Many magnolias flower from late February to April, so there's always the chance that frost will harm the fleshy, watery petals. Protect shrub-size specimens with burlap or a blanket until the threat of frost passes. If a deep chill is looming and the buds are about to unfurl, cut a few branches to enjoy indoors and hope that Mother Nature will be more forgiving next year. You can also hedge your bets by adding a magnolia that will bloom a little later to your garden. Varieties including yellow-hued 'Amber,' 'Sun Spire,' and 'Yellow Bird'; coral-pink 'Rose Marie'; and fragrant white 'Oyama' flower as late as May or June.
This issue occurs with bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla), which includes mophead and lacecap varieties. These bloom in July and August and then set buds for the next summer. Prune at the wrong time and you're in for a blossomless summer. The easy solution: Don't cut it. If the shrub is too large, move it to a roomier spot. A hydrangea that still doesn't flower may be losing its buds to cold winters or an unexpected freeze. You can replant it in a sheltered area or wrap it in burlap during chilly months. Another option: plant a newer cultivar, such as 'Endless Summer.' These form buds after blooming and again in spring. If the first set falls victim to errant pruning or harsh weather, the shrub will still flower.
Christmas cacti (Schlumbergera sp.) are easy to grow under the right conditions, but their buds often fall off before the orchidlike flowers bloom. Exposure to heat or cold from a radiator or drafty window is a major culprit. In cold areas, damage may occur between the store and your home as the plant moves through a broad range of temperature in a short period of time. Watering too much or too little also causes bud drop, as does fertilizing the plant as it buds and flowers. Finally, gas from ripening fruit can knock off the buds. For best results, place cacti in a cool (64 to 68 degrees), draft- and produce-free location, with evenly moist soil and bright, indirect light. Once the blooms fade, you can move the plant to a warmer location.
Think of bonsai in two categories: indoor and outdoor. Your plant is probably a Juniperus procumbens, one of the most common species sold as a bonsai -- and a species that prefers to be grown outside. Well-intentioned gardeners think they have an instant bonsai to display in their homes, but the plants die within a couple of months. That's how bonsai get their reputation as being difficult to maintain. Junipers and other outdoor bonsai thrive on adequate sun, fresh air, and moisture. Many require a cool dormant period, and if deciduous they will lose their leaves in winter. An outdoor bonsai needs to be overwintered in a space that stays below 55 degrees. Alternately, you can seek out tropical and subtropical plants, which thrive indoors and are some of the easier bonsai to care for.