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    Save the Date: Perennial Plant Society’s 30th Plant Sale is April 4, 2020, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. at the new Expo 3 Building at The Fairgrounds Nashville. Here’s where you can find the newest varieties of perennials, shrubs, vines and annuals from local growers, along with long-time, never-fail favorites, ready for spring planting. Learn more at the PPS website.

     

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What’s blooming indoors? Gloxinia

QUESTION: A friend gave me a gloxinia with purple and white flowers as a Christmas gift, and told me it’s a houseplant that’s easy to grow. How should I take care of it?

Sinningia ‘Peridots Darth Vader’ . Photo courtesy Tennessee Gesneriad Society

Sinningia ‘Peridots Darth Vader’ . Photo courtesy Tennessee Gesneriad Society

Gloxinia is in the plant family of gesneriads, a family that includes hundreds of tropical blooming plants. Many of them have found favor as houseplants – including their more familiar cousins, African violets.Florist gloxinias (Sinningia is the botanical name) are favored for their showy, trumpet-shaped flowers and velvety leaves. They need sufficient light to grow and bloom well, says Julie Mavity-Hudson of the Tennessee Gesneriad Society, so placing them near a south-facing window with filtered light (not direct sun) is ideal. If that’s not an option in your home, you may be able to provide the light they require to bloom by placing them under a two-tube fluorescent fixture. Gloxinias do best in average room temperature, with the soil kept moderately moist.

While they have been grown as perennial plants that die back and return after a period of dormancy, it’s good to know that most gloxinias from florists and retailers are hybrids that are grown as annuals, bred to be showy for awhile but not long-lived – a brief but lovely life. The bloom period may last about two months, then the plant will begin to fade, so don’t be disappointed that it may soon look ready for the compost bin.

And if you want to explore more about the family of gesneriads, check out the Gesneriad Society web site to learn more about these beautiful and unusual plants.

 

Houseplants’ soft water secrets

Question: Our home has a central water purification/softening system. Is this water good to use on houseplants? Or is it better to use water not connected to the system?

heart leaf philodendronMost people don’t think about the water they use to water houseplants —  just turn on the tap and fill the watering can. But what’s in your tap water can make a difference in how your plants grow.

Garden author Barbara Pleasant talks about water problems in her book, The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual. She says most plants prefer “soft” water, which contains low amounts of calcium and magnesium salts, instead of “hard” water, which contains high amounts of these elements. Water softeners remove the mineral salts through filtration or magnetization, but the water still contains high levels of salt, she says. This could lead to problems when it is used to water plants.

Pleasant suggests using rainwater or bottled distilled water, which are naturally soft, on your indoor plants.

The mineral salts in tap water are only one thing to consider. Plants may also be sensitive to too much chlorine, which is added to tap water to prevent bacteria, and some plants, including palms and dracaenas, are sensitive to fluoride.

To solve the problem of too much chlorine, allow the water to sit out overnight, so that chlorine and other chemicals escape into the air. If you suspect fluoride may be causing a problem (browing leaf tips on plants may be a clue), it may help to add a pinch of lime on the surface of the pot every few months, Pleasant advises. “This helps raise the pH of the soil, which makes the fluoride more soluble in water.

One other watering tip: whatever the source of the water, make sure it’s at room temperature when you water your plants. Drenching a houseplant in icy water chills the roots, which can cause them to rot, Pleasant says.

Time to bring houseplants back indoors

We have had some of our houseplants outdoors for summer, but now that it’s time to bring them back in, how do we get rid of the bugs and insects that are on the plants and in the pots? 

philodendron outdoorsIndoor plants that spend the summer outdoors should be brought back inside well before nights begin to get too cool. Start the process early so you won’t be hustling your plants into a warm area on the evening before the first predicted frost, and so you’ll have time to deal with insects that may try to hitchhike into your home.

In the book Month-By-Month Gardening in Tennessee & Kentucky, garden author Judy Lowe provides this advice on getting houseplants ready to return indoors:

“Remove all yellowed or damaged leaves and faded flowers. Clean all foliage, top and bottom. Clean splattered dirt off the pots. If containers can’t be scrubbed clean, consider new pots or hide the pots in a plastic-lined basket or a decorative container.”

Here’s how Lowe suggests you make sure there are no unwelcome visitors coming in with the returning houseplants:

“Mix up a tub or bucket of 5 parts warm water and 1 part insecticidal soap. Remove plants from their pots, place them in the mixture, and let the plants stand for an hour.” Lowe says that even after doing this, it’s a good idea to keep plants that spent summer outdoors isolated for a few weeks from plants that stayed inside. “Sometimes a stray insect manages to get in anyway, or insect eggs hatch,” she writes. “The problem will be easier to deal with when you can keep the infestation confined to one or two plants.”

Learn to love a lemon

My friends gave me a small Meyer lemon tree in a pot for my birthday. It already has a few tiny lemons growing! How should I take care of it?
Meyer lemon
As you probably already know, Meyer lemon (or any citrus) must be grown in a container anywhere the temperature gets to the freezing point in winter, because it will have to come indoors. With that in mind, plan to treat it as you would any high-maintenance houseplant – give it the right soil, lots of light, enough (but not too much) water, a little fertilizer, and plenty of TLC.

Use a container with adequate drainage, and a good potting mix. Some sources recommend placing a layer of gravel in the bottom of the pot for additional drainage. Choose a soilless potting mix that contains vermiculite or perlite; never use garden soil for your Meyer lemon in a container.

The tree can spend the summer outdoors where it can get plenty of sunlight (the recommended amount is at least 8 hours a day). In fact, if you want lemons, place the plant outdoors before it blooms, so the bees and other pollinators can do their job when the flowers emerge; otherwise, you’ll need to fertilize the flowers by hand in order for lemons to form.

Be sure to water the plant regularly. A layer of mulch on top of the soil will help retain moisture, but don’t smother the trunk of the tree with mulch, and allow the soil to dry between waterings.

Meyer lemon (and other citrus plants) benefits from regular applications of plant food. I use Espoma Organic Citrus-tone, but there are other choices available. Follow the instructions on the package. Citrus-tone’s recommended fertilizing schedule suggests feeding in late winter (before the plant blooms), late spring (after it blooms) and in fall.

As the weather begins to cool down, prepare the tree to come indoors. Begin to bring it into the shade well before the first frost date, so that it can begin to acclimate to lower light conditions. When you bring the plant indoors, place it in a south- or southwest-facing window – or as sunny a spot as you can find – and provide supplemental light if necessary. Regular, light misting with water from a spray bottle helps provide the humidity citrus plants need.

Watch for aphids, spider mites, mealybugs and scale, all of which may be attracted to your Meyer lemon. If you find signs of insect infestation (webs, speckled leaves, sticky residue) treat the plant with insecticidal soap.
Lemons generally ripen in six to nine months. It takes a bit of care and attention to produce fruit, but the flavor of Meyer lemons, which is somewhat sweeter than other lemons, is worth the extra work.

Sparking interest in Fireflash

QUESTION: I have a new houseplant known as a Fireflash. How should I take care of it?

Fireflash. Photo by Maja Dumat - flickr.com

Fireflash. Photo by Maja Dumat – flickr.com

Fireflash (Chlorophytum orchidastrum is the botanical name) is a houseplant that you don’t see often, but sounds like it would be a nice addition to any indoor garden. It’s a striking plant, with large, green pointed-oval leaves and bright orange stems. The Flowers & Plants Association, based in the UK, describes it as “a very easy plant.”
Fireflash is related to the more familiar spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) and enjoys similar growing conditions: it’s tolerant of a range of light conditions (but will probably do better in low light than spider plant) and normal room temperatures. Water Fireflash sparingly about once a week during warm weather, less in winter; don’t allow the soil to dry out completely, but don’t let the plant sit in water, either. The Flowers & Plants Association suggests feeding it every two weeks during the growing season and not at all during winter.

Jade plant rejuvenation

QUESTION: I have a jade plant that has grown well for several years, but the stems are tall and bare and all the leaves are at the top. I admit there are times I forget to water it. Can this be fixed?

Jade plantGiven the right conditions, a jade plant (Crassula ovate) should be an easy-care houseplant. It’s shiny, fleshy leaves make it an interesting addition to your décor. If it has been neglected, it can probably be rejuvenated as long as there is still healthy growth.

You can take stem cuttings of the old plant and root them in new soil. Houseplant expert Barbara Pleasant suggests this method: Cut the stems just below a node, and allow the cuttings to dry for about five days, then plant them in a mixture of damp sand and peat moss. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Each cutting should grow roots and form a new plant. You may also have some success if you root the cutting in water, and plant the rooted cutting in potting mix.

That doesn’t address the problem of neglect, though. Jade plants can be forgiving, yes, but they do need a little attention.  The plants become leggy when they receive too little light. They need about four hours of filtered sun each day, and average room temperature. Allow the soil to dry slightly between waterings. Spring through fall, feed every few weeks with a balanced houseplant fertilizer at half the normal strength, Barbara Pleasant suggests. It is not necessary to fertilize in winter. A jade plant may enjoy the summer outdoors as long as you can provide a shady, protected spot.

The cure for overgrown pothos

QUESTION: My pothos in a hanging basket spent the summer outdoors in the shade this summer. When I brought it in, I discovered the stems had grown very long but most of the leaves are near the ends, and the stems are bare in the middle. Will it hurt to cut the stems back?

pothos 2Pothos is a popular, easy-to-grow houseplant. It won’t hurt to cut the stems back; in fact, houseplant experts recommend giving them a trim every now and then to keep the plants bushy and full.

Pothos may be the perfect houseplant for anyone who says they can’t keep a houseplant alive. It does best in moderate to bright light and a moderate amount of water, but is tolerant if you forget to water it. In fact, it prefers soil that is on the dry side over soggy soil. If it stays too wet, the leaves may turn yellow and drop off. Houseplant expert and author Barbara Pleasant notes that if pothos grows in very low light, the stems grow longer with more space between the leaves.

To help the plants fill out again, cut the bare stems to within 2 inches of the soil, or cut stems above a leaf node (where the leaf emerges from the stem). These cut-off stem tips can be rooted in water, and the rooted cuttings can be potted in regular potting soil.

 

Give porch ferns a place indoors

QUESTION: Is there a way to save Boston ferns over the winter without bringing them into the house? The ferns I had on my porch this year were large and beautiful. Indoors, they drop leaves and make a mess. Can I keep them in the garage?

Most experts suggest the best way to keep Boston ferns over the winter is to bring them in and treat them like house plants. Unless your garage has a window that allows bright light to enter, it’s probably not the best option.

Southern Living Garden Book provides a method that may minimize leaf drop: “In fall, use sharp scissors to cut back all side fronds to the rim of the pot, leaving the top growth about 10 inches high. Place the pot indoors next to your brightest window and keep the soil fairly moist. By spring, your plant should be bushy again and ready for its return to the porch.”

Houseplant expert Barbara Pleasant (The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual) adds that Boston ferns need high humidity in addition to bright, filtered light, so daily misting is helpful. A light dose of balanced houseplant fertilizer every couple of weeks keeps them healthy.

It’s normal for them to shed leaves, she says, so keep scissors handy for clipping broken or brown fronds.

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Bring bay indoors

I bought a bay laurel seedling this past spring that was about six inches tall and set it out in a pot in the herb garden because I heard you may have to bring it indoors in the winter. It’s now about a foot tall. Could it survive outdoors? How do you harvest and use the leaves?

Bay laurel, or sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) is generally considered hardy to Zone 8 (well to the south of us here in Middle Tennessee), so it will need to come indoors before it gets too cold.

Place the plant where it gets as much sun as you can give it, in a south or west-facing window, if possible, and don’t let it get too dry (keep the soil evenly moist but not overly wet, the experts at the Herb Society of America suggest). It may also appreciate occasional misting if the air in your house is very dry. Take it back outdoors when the weather is consistently above freezing in the spring.

Bay leaves can be used dried or fresh; they’re usually added to long-cooking soups and stews. Snip them from the plant and use them as needed, or dry them to save for later. Use them whole (crumbled leaves have very sharp edges, which could be an unpleasant surprise to diners), and be sure to remove them before you serve. A bay leaf is a key ingredient in a bouquet garni (tied in a bundle along with thyme, parsley and other herbs), which would be added to a dish while it’s cooking and removed before serving.

By the way, there have been reports of bay laurel surviving the winter in colder climates, provided it is in a protected area. But to be on the safe side, find a sunny spot for it indoors.

 

Good luck with ‘bamboo’

QUESTION: I have a “lucky bamboo” plant in a pot of water with pebbles that looked great for awhile, but now it has grown big shoots out of each of the stalks. Can I cut off these shoots and re-pot them?

The first thing you need to know about lucky bamboo that it’s not bamboo at all, but a plant in the genus Dracaena (specifically, D. Sanderiana). Its close kin includes two other popular houseplants: corn plant andMadagascar dragon tree.

Growers of this easy-care plant suggest not cutting it from the top, but you can remove the extra shoots from the stalk with a sharp knife. Cut it flush with the stalk if you don’t want another shoot to grow in the same place. If you do want a shoot to re-emerge, cut it about 1/8-inch out from the stalk. You can try to root the cut-off shoots in water: Dip the ends in rooting hormone powder and let them dry overnight, then place the shoots in water. Eventually, new roots may grow. You can grow lucky bamboo in water or in soil.

These are relatively low-maintenance plants, but you do need to pay attention to the water they’re in, and add water as it evaporates so the roots don’t dry out. Every week or so, pour out the old water and add fresh, preferably filtered water, or tap water that you have allowed to sit out overnight.

Keep lucky bamboo out of direct light and away from extreme heat or cold, and feed it every couple of months with a very dilute solution of plant food (about 1/10 the recommended strength, plant care specialists suggest).