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Garden Q&A

Frequently asked question: I just found some daffodil bulbs that I forgot to plant in the fall. Can I save them for next year or what?

Frequently asked question:

I just found some daffodil bulbs that I forgot to plant in the fall. Can I save them for next year or what?

Answer: The only way to save them for next year is to plant them. This presumes they are still firm, neither mushy with rot nor crinkly and shriveled from desiccation.

Find any well-drained site in your yard where you would like to see a bouquet of daffodils (or tulips) bloom next spring - including smack in the middle of the lawn. It cannot be a low spot where water or ice collect. Buy three or four bags of commercial topsoil.

Decide whether this is to be a one-time-only siting or a permanent planting. If the latter, you'll need an area large enough to accommodate the bulbs spaced at least 6 inches apart. For a one-shot affair, the bulbs can be bunched together. Spread a layer of topsoil 2 inches deep. Place the bulbs on top. Cover with a 4-inch or thicker layer of topsoil. To maintain this lump-in-the-lawn's shape through the winter, line the perimeter with firewood or bricks or some such.

For the temporary setup, lift and permanently plant the bulbs promptly after they finish blooming, taking care to retain as much foliage as possible.

Q: What is the best time to trim/prune trees, specifically red maple and sweetbay magnolia? Can you use a lopper, or is it best to use a saw? Is there an angle to cut? - N.P.

A: Red maple (Acer rubrum) may be pruned in late winter. Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginianum) should be pruned promptly after its June blossoming.

If your trees are relatively young, you may reasonably prune them yourself. Mature trees should be handled by trained arborists (not just someone who goes around cutting down trees, but a person who has taken arboriculture courses or apprenticed under a master).

Most pruning of trees should be thought of not as trimming, rather thinning. These species cannot be treated like hedges. A maple is not something that can be downsized by trimming. (Magnolias actually can be cut to the ground to produce a smaller multi-stem specimen, though few are willing to be so radical.)

Substantial books have been written about tree pruning and thinning, and the training of young specimens. Here there is room for the merest basics.

Do not cut a branch just anywhere. It should be removed where it emerges from a larger branch or the trunk. The location of the cut is critical for the health of the tree. On almost all trees, a branch has what is known as a collar. At the base of the branch, there is a larger ring of growth. In pruning, the collar should be undisturbed, not even nicked, but neither should there be a stub protruding from it. With a proper cut, the collar will, relatively quickly, grow over the cut and eliminate the wound. If there is a stub, it can't grow over, and if the collar itself is cut it simply can't grow. The collar will show you exactly what angle to cut.

If the branch to be removed has much weight, you should first cut it a foot or more from the location of the final cut. It is infinitely easier to make the deft, important final cut with only 12 inches of branch fighting you. To prevent the bark from stripping off below the cut, first cut the underside, 75 to 90 degrees of the branch's circumference. Then, cut from above.

And that gets to the lopper/saw question. Loppers are crude. It takes a lot of practice (and sharpening) to get good cuts from them. Far, far better is a good pruning saw. Some have a blade that folds into the handle, others (such as Felco) are rigid. These saws cut only on the pull (unlike a carpenter's saw, which cuts pushing and pulling). They make excellent clean cuts and do the work in surprisingly little time. The $35 to $50 investment is definitely worth the expenditure.

- Michael Martin Mills