Q: Can I plant cucumber seeds now, to give them plenty of time for a good crop?

A: You would actually be making it harder for a cucumber plant, not easier, by sprouting the seeds this early. All members of the cucumber family, including squash and gourds, have fragile roots. Transplanting them always breaks some roots; even having roots push against the sides of a container can cause injury.

The best way to start cucumbers and squash is to give them only a brief time in a small container, then  move them to a permanent location in warm soil. One system for avoiding transplanting stress is to plant the seeds indoors, in a plantable container made of pressed paper or newspaper. If the container disintegrates within a few weeks, so much the better.

Plant about eight seeds in each container on or about the first of May. (Eventually the seeds should be thinned to two plants, but only later, when the strongest, fastest growing plants have made themselves known.) On seed planting day, cover their future garden location with a square of plastic to warm the soil. Clear plastic will give the fastest rise in soil temperature, but black plastic will do.

As soon as the first true leaf appears above the seed leaves, prepare to transplant the cucumbers to the garden. Meanwhile, keep them warm and give them bright light. Check daily to be sure that no root tip is trying to push out of the pot. Three weeks after the seeds were planted, the plants should be big enough for the outside world, the plastic covered soil should be warm, and the weather should have settled. To aid in their transition, loosely cover the plants for a week with a scrap of row cover or a Wall of Water. In exchange for your work, you should have the biggest and earliest crop of cucumbers possible.

Q: I know that it is really too late to prune my bushes this year, but I keep putting it off because I have no idea what to do. Are there any easy instructions for a beginner?

A: The instructions are very easy, whether you are a beginner or an old hand. Forget everything that seems logical. Instead, find the biggest branches – they will probably be the longest also – and cut them off as close to the ground as you can. Cut about a quarter of the total number of stems. That's all there is to pruning shrubs, or bushes. Those are two words for the same thing.

Shrubs with many stems are not like trees. The young stems are the most healthy and have the most flowers. Pruning aims to get rid of old stems and encourage the continual growth of new ones. If a bush is pruned once a year by this method, no other trimming should be necessary, and it should have a long lifespan. Furthermore, it is not too late to prune now. If leaves are opening it may be harder to see inside the bush, but it is better to prune late than not at all.

Q: Can I prune my roses now?

A: Save rose pruning until you see the daffodils in flower. All pruning cuts encourage new shoots to start growing, and new shoots on roses are very tender to cold weather. I have found that we rarely have an extremely cold night after daffodil time, although that is not guaranteed. Should a late freeze threaten, be prepared to cover the new growth on roses.

Q: I heard that I was not supposed to fertilize my house plants during the winter, so I stopped in October. My Christmas cactus has not bloomed this year. Could there be a connection?

A: There could be. There are surely a variety of reasons why it may not have bloomed. One of mine is only blooming now. But if you are going to stop fertilizing for winter, I would not quit until later in the year. My house plants like a little winter fertilizer – about a quarter as much as during the rest of the year. I cut them to winter rations only in November, December, and January, and I never cut off all their food.

Master gardener Molly Hackett, whose motto is “Never trust a gardener with clean fingernails,” welcomes your questions. Send them to 1384 Meridian Road, Victor, MT 59875; call 406-961-4614; or email mhackett@centric.net. Please include a garden-related subject line in emails. Hackett writes a twice-monthly Dirty Fingernails opinion piece for the Missoulian.