Ask the gardening expert

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My houseplants are not looking too great. I notice some brown tips on some leaves. I try not to over-water them, I put about a cup of lukewarm water on each plant's soil every week to ten days. The landlord told us that we have nice, soft water. Can you tell me why this is happening?

Without seeing it, I can only give you some guesses and tell you why some plants get brown tips, and hope we can hit on the correct thing to do for them.

When houseplants get brown tips on their leaves, it's generally an indication of poor watering habits. The best way to water a houseplant is to thoroughly flush it until water runs freely out the drainage holes. Light watering can cause brown tips on the leaves. But brown tips are also an indication of lack of humidity. Most of our houseplants are native to tropical conditions, so if your home is very dry, you'll need to mist your plants and give them a shower every few days, or you could set them on a bed of small rocks, in a saucer of water. Brown leaf tips can also indicate a buildup of salts from too much fertilizer or softened water. Don't fertilize your houseplants with water from the home supply source if you use softened water; buy distilled water to keep your plants away from water-softening chemicals. By the way, don't start fertilizing in the spring until you see some new growth beginning.

We lived in Mexico for several years and noticed that poinsettias don't really bloom at Christmastime. So I wonder if the Easter lilies blooming at Easter are blooming at the correct time? I wonder if the flower growers do something to make them bloom when they want them to, like a certain fertilizer or something.

It's a matter of manipulation alright, or what the greenhouse trade calls "forcing." It's not done with a chemical; it's done with light. They have learned to add or decrease light by certain degrees, making the plants bloom right on time. I can tell you that the greenhouse operator is always looking ahead. Never is this more so than in the raising of poinsettias and Easter lilies. The summer's heat has barely ended when poinsettia season begins once again. And Easter lily season begins before consumers have even thought about buying a poinsettia for the Christmas holiday.

Why do all the stores have boring plants such as pansies everywhere? I know lots of people like them, but they are so common. I wish they would have plants such as trillium, lily of the valley, pulmonaria; there are nearly too many to name, but we can grow such a huge variety of early perennials here in the Pacific Northwest. Garden centers would be better off displaying the early diversity.

The fact that most garden centers are flooded with pansies and their relatives is undeniable, but there is a reason: They can be brought into a bloom earlier, and have a longer shelf life, plus their bloom period lasts longer than nearly any other early perennial. Well, they are just cuter! There are so many reasons to love the lowly pansy as you call it. Not only are they some of the first spring color each year, and great companions to primroses and cousins to violets, but they are without a doubt the easiest and most forgiving early plant. I can't think of a spot that would not be enhanced by a pot or bed of pansies. I have huge planters on my deck that look pretty dull after winter. I add 6 or 8 plants to a dull container, and believe me that's all folks will notice, not the weather-beaten perennial or shrub. It's the spots of bright color you've added. I buy a flat of my own favorites, violas. I just poke a few in everywhere. Violas are rather in between pansy and violet in size, but have all the pansy flexibility in color combinations while being smaller and tougher so they don't become floppy in the rain. I find them charming; they last long in a planter or even a tiny vase. I cannot say enough good things about these harbingers of spring.

Celeste Lindsay is a WSU-certified master gardener. Send questions to mslindsay8@gmail.com.