Gardening Q&A: Helping mums survive winter a difficult task

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Q. I bought some lovely mums this fall for containers on my porch. Although they are starting to go downhill, they have been beautiful for at least two months. Because they have lasted so long, I hate to just throw them away. Can I plant them in the ground?

A. While you can plant them in the ground, there is a good chance that they will not survive winter unless it stays as mild as it has been. The mums we purchase in fall have been forced into bloom under ideal conditions in a greenhouse -- optimum water, fertilizer, pest control and heat. They are tender and succulent from this treatment and unprepared for cold weather when it hits. While mums are generally hardy in our climate, they require time to acclimate. It is too late for that now.

You could try to hold them over in an attached garage, and then plant them in the ground next spring. Water very sparingly over the winter, just enough to keep them from totally drying out; too much water will cause the roots to rot. If the pots are in decorative foil, be sure to remove the foil so it does not hold water around the roots.

By planting them out in spring, they will have plenty of time to become acclimated. To create the bushy plants with numerous flowers you have now, you must pinch them back a few times in spring and early summer. This simply means pruning the stems back a few inches. Begin pinching them back shortly after they come up in the spring and repeat at least twice before the Fourth of July. Pinching after July 4 can delay flowering until it is too cold, then the flowers may be spoiled by a heavy frost.

Q. I always enjoy poinsettias in my home over the Christmas holidays, but I recently got a kitten. I am concerned about him being poisoned if he eats the leaves -- He has been pretty tough on my other houseplants.

A. Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are one of the most tested consumer plants on the market, but we have never been able to put the myth of their toxicity to rest. It started with the death of a child whose father was stationed in Hawaii in 1919 -- the 2-year-old's death was mistakenly attributed to eating poinsettia leaves.

In 1971, Ohio State University tested all parts of the plant, including leaves and sap, and found it to be non-toxic to people and pets. POISINDEX, the national information center for poison control centers, says that a 50-pound child would have to eat 500-600 leaves to exceed the experimental doses in the Ohio State study that found no toxicity. Children and pets would be unlikely to eat more than a leaf or two due to the astringent nature of the sap and the unpleasant taste. The milky sap can cause skin irritation in sensitive individuals, and can inflame the more sensitive tissues in the mouth and esophagus. Those who consume enough of the plant may experience nausea and vomiting but nothing life-threatening.

In a study by Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, there was no toxicity of any kind in 22,793 poinsettia exposures. The study was based on data collected nationwide by the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Nevertheless, a 1995 survey by the Society of American Florists found that 66 percent of adult participants believed poinsettias to be toxic.

You should be more concerned about the other houseplants your kitten has been after. Many common houseplants are toxic to cats, including asparagus fern (Asparagus aethiopicus), jade plant (Crassula argentea), dumbcane (Dieffenbachia), corn plant (Dracaena fragrans), pothos (Epipremnum aureum), amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.), lilies (Lilium spp.), heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron spp.) and peace lily (Spathiphyllum spp.). While this is not an exhaustive list, it hits some of the most common houseplants known to be toxic to cats.


Send questions to Sandy Feather by e-mail at or by regular mail c/o Penn State Extension, 400 N. Lexington Ave., Pittsburgh 15208.


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