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Originally published December 28, 2011 at 3:01 PM | Page modified December 28, 2011 at 6:09 PM

In the Garden

Repot rootbound houseplants in March; Keep junipers from growing into giants

Ciscoe Morris, Seattle Times garden writer, offers tips on keeping rootbound houseplants alive until you can transplant them in March; transplanting deciduous trees in January and pruning shrub junipers before they take over the landscape.

Special to The Seattle Times

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If one of your houseplants tends to wilt, even after you water, it could be a sign that it's pot bound. To tell for sure, give it a drink and check to see if the water runs right through into the saucer. If that's the case, the roots are so tightly bound, the water can't soak in and runs down the sides of the rootball. Even if you water regularly, the plant could still dry out and die.

It's necessary to wash the soil from the roots and repot. Unfortunately, the middle of winter is not the time to do this operation because semi-dormant plants don't recover well from root damage that could occur in the process. It's better to wait to repot until growth begins again in March. To keep the plant alive until then, occasionally submerge the entire pot in a pail full of warm water. Allow the roots to soak up water until the bubbles stop, then pick the plant up and allow the excess moisture to run out. That should keep the patient stable until the time for major surgery in spring.

Transplant deciduous trees, shrubs

I'll never forget one January several years ago when I dug out an apple tree that had grown too large for my garden. Not planning to keep it, I dug it out with little care, and even knocked all of the soil off the rootball with my shovel. My neighbor asked for the tree, and despite my warnings that it would never live, took it home and planted it. It's now a spectacular 25-foot tall, highly productive tree!

January is a great time to move deciduous plants as long as the temperatures are above freezing and the soil is moist but not sopping wet. Even larger plants that would be too heavy to move with a rootball can be transplanted successfully by washing the soil off the roots with a gentle spray of water.

However, if the plant you are moving isn't overly large, it's safest to move it with the soil rootball intact. Dig a rootball that is 10 inches wide for every inch of diameter of the trunk, measured at ground level. Cut any roots damaged in the digging process back to healthy tissue using sharp pruners. Replant at the same depth in the soil as it was previously growing, and if possible water the transplanted tree or shrub and fill in any air pockets in the rootzone.

Finally, keep the soil evenly moist during the first season after transplanting, and your tree or shrub should thrive in its new home for years to come.

Keep junipers from turning into giants!

I noticed a warning in the Sunset Garden Book stating that in time many shrub junipers can become trees. That's the understatement of the year. Most shrub junipers are giant Sequoia wannabes!

The worst offender is the pfitzer juniper (Juniperus chinensis 'Pfitzeriana'). The tags say they will reach 5-6 feet tall and 8-10 feet wide, but practically every one you see is at least 12 feet tall and wide. Don't let one of these monsters take over your garden.

They can be pruned most any time and there are only a few rules to follow: Cut only to where there is live growth; try not to remove more than 1/3 of the foliage in one shot; and don't use shears unless you are a topiary expert. Otherwise your juniper will inevitably end up looking like a ball or doughnut!

Ciscoe Morris: ciscoe@ciscoe.com; "Gardening with Ciscoe" airs at 10 a.m. Saturdays on KING-TV

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