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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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Water worries for houseplants

Question: I use tap water to water all my houseplants, but I’ve heard that’s not always a good idea. What difference does it make?

peace-lily-2Most 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 may 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, over “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. Continue reading

Longer life for poinsettias

Question: How long do poinsettias last? The plant I brought home early in December still looks nice, and I hate to throw it out. Will it keep growing?

poinsettiaThe length of a poinsettia’s life generally depends on how much care you’re willing to give it. Some people bring it home to display for a few days, and without any attention at all it dries out and begins to drop its leaves within a couple of weeks.

If yours is still doing well, you’ve given it at least the minimum amount of TLC: indirect light in a room that’s not too warm, enough water to keep the soil moist but not soggy. If you continue to care for it, the plant should last well beyond the holidays. Continue reading

Low-maintenance houseplants for a novice gardener

QUESTION: I’m looking for a low-maintenance houseplant to give to a friend who says she kills everything she tries to grow. What’s the best choice for a person like that?

All houseplants need some care, but there are a few that can survive a fair amount of neglect. Here are three:

Snake plant (Sanseveria trifasciata): If you have ever had one of these, it can seem like it lives for years with no care whatsoever. With only a little care, it grows tall, sturdy, sword-shaped dark green leaves with yellow or white edges. It will survive in dim light, but in my experience a little filtered light keeps it growing happily. Water it enough to keep the soil slightly moist, but take comfort in knowing that if you forget to water it for a time, it’ll be okay. I’ve read that plants that grow to old age sometimes produce clusters of white flowers in winter, but I’ve never seen that happen.

Peace lily (Spathiphyllum): There’s a reason you see these things in offices and shopping malls everywhere. They are easy to grow, they don’t need a lot of sun to thrive, and they are not fussy about humidity. Plus, when they’re treated with a modicum of attention, they sometimes surprise you with their elegant, spoon-shaped white flowers. The soil should be kept slightly moist, but if they do dry out too much, they’ll let you know by wilting so dramatically that you run to the faucet to get them a quick drink. They spring back in a few hours.

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum): This one looks more delicate than many other houseplants, but it’s tougher than you think, and “an excellent houseplant for beginners,” says houseplant specialist Barbara Pleasant. The mass of strappy leaves grows from a central crown, and the plan soon begins producing small, white flowers on the tips of stems that produce more plantlets. It’s happy in a room with moderate to bright light, appreciates lightly moist soil in spring and summer but can tolerate dry-soil conditions for a time, especially in winter.

Plant parsley to grow indoors

The parsley in our garden is beautiful, and we’d like to dig some of it up to plant in pots and grow it indoors this winter. What’s the best way to do that, and when is the best time?

parsleyThere are several herbs that you can transplant into pots successfully to bring in for the winter, but parsley is different. The plant, which is a biennial, grows a long taproot, which makes it difficult to transplant. (Parsley is in the same family as carrots, by the way.)

To grow parsley indoors, it’s best to purchase transplants or grow your own from seeds.

Indoors, parsley needs plenty of light to grow well — about six hours of direct sun, so if you have a window that receives that much, that’s the best place for it. Otherwise, grow it under artificial light, about 14 hours a day. Keep the light about six inches above the plant.

Plant seedlings in a good-quality potting mix, and keep the soil evenly moist. Feed the plants regularly with a balanced fertilizer.

If you grow parsley from seeds, know that it can be a slow process. Parsley seeds germinate slowly; soaking them in warm water for a few hours before planting can speed the process, but they may still take up to three weeks to germinate.

Keep parsley in the garden, as well. In my experience, during mild winters here in Middle Tennessee, parsley stays green well after many other things are frozen, especially if it’s planted in a protected area.

What’s blooming indoors? Meyer lemon

I have a Meyer lemon tree that I keep indoors. It’s often full of blooms and the flowers smell wonderful. I’m always looking for lemons to start growing, but the flowers dry up and fall off and I never get any fruit.

meyer lemon flower closeup 3As long as the tree is indoors where the air is still and there aren’t any insects flying around, your Meyer lemon will most likely continue to be a delightfully fragrant but non-fruit-bearing plant. What the flowers need to produce fruit is the process of pollination.

You’ve heard of the birds and the bees, right? Outdoors, flying insects (bees and other pollinators) go from flower to flower, dipping into the pollen on the stamens – the cluster of thin filaments — and spreading it to the stigma at the center of the flower.

Indoors, if you want fruit, you’ll have to take care of that little detail yourself. Lemon trees are self-pollinating, meaning that the flowers shed pollen directly onto the stigma, but they still may rely on wind or insects — or human intervention, if necessary — to shake things up.

Here’s how you can help: As the flowers open, use a cotton swab or a small artist’s paintbrush to collect pollen from the anthers (the tips of the stamens), then rub the stigma with the swab to transfer the pollen. It’s a slow process, but the tree should begin to produce lemons (which grow fairly slowly, by the way).

Meyer lemons growing indoors where winters are cold need a lot of sunlight, and they also benefit from time spent outside when the weather warms up. Place a lemon tree in a protected spot outdoors, moving it gradually into full sun, when nighttime temperatures stay above about 50 degrees. Outdoors, the bees will do the job of pollinating the flowers, of course.

In general, Meyer lemon trees thrive in good potting mix in a container that drains well. Make sure the soil doesn’t dry out completely, but don’t overwater it, either. Fertilize regularly with an organic fertilizer designed for citrus, following directions on the label. (I’ve used Espoma’s Organic Citrus-tone citrus and avocado food, with good results).

For houseplants, go easy on the water

Question: I’m told I’ve been over-watering our houseplants, yet we have sprigs of plants rooting in jars in nothing but water. How can a plant be over-watered when it can also be rooted and flourish in water? And how do you know when you’re watering too much?

Snake plant

Snake plant – Sansevieria trifasciata

Houseplant experts agree that over-watering can have a detrimental effect on houseplants. Soil that stays too wet causes the plant’s roots to rot, and invites fungi that thrive in moist conditions. That’s why it’s important to grow houseplants in pots with adequate drainage, and to allow the soil of most plants to dry between waterings.Different houseplants also have different water requirements, and many need less water in winter when they are growing more slowly. Before you add water, poke a finger into the soil, and only water the plant if it feels dry. Or push a wooden chopstick into the soil, and if it’s not damp when you pull it out, water the plant. It is better for a plant to have too little water than too much, but you also want to make sure it doesn’t wilt.

As for plants rooting in water: many fleshy plants will quickly develop roots in plain water and can later be planted in soil. Ideally, as the roots develop, the water is kept clean by being changed frequently. But if they are kept in water long enough, even those plants that seem to thrive for awhile will eventually lose vigor and may rot, too.

What’s blooming indoors? Cyclamen

I received a cyclamen as a Valentine’s Day gift. It’s very pretty with its heart-shaped leaves and delicate flowers, but how long will the flowers last? How should I take care of it?

CyclamenFlorists cyclamen – the potted blooming plant that you likely will find in grocery stores or a home improvement store’s garden center – provides a nice stroke of blooming color indoors in midwinter. Flowers can be snowy white, or shades of pink, lilac or bright red. Under the best conditions, the plant will continue to send up those delicate blooms for several weeks.

Keep the plant in a place where it receives bright light (up to an hour or two of direct sun), but where the temperature is cool. Keep the soil slightly moist; if the roots dry out, the plant will wilt. Houseplant expert Barbara Pleasant (The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual) suggests watering it by placing the pot in a shallow container of tepid water for about 15 to 30 minutes. If you do water from the top, she cautions to avoid getting water in the plant’s crown.

Cyclamen (sometimes called Persian violet) is generally considered a sweet but temporary visitor, and after several weeks of blooming, the entire plant begins to deteriorate – at which point most people toss it out. Pleasant says they can be brought back into bloom.

She writes: “Allow the foliage to dry until it withers in late spring, and then clip off the old foliage. Place the dormant plant in a cool, dark place for up to 3 months, providing just enough water to keep the roots from drying out completely. In late summer, return the container to a bright location, and repot the plant in fresh soil as soon as new growth appears. Resume watering and feeding, and blooms should emerge 2 to 3 months later.”

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.

Amaryllis start-up time

When should I start new amaryllis bulbs in pots to have them on display through the winter?

'Flamenco Queen' amaryllis is from Colorblends.

‘Flamenco Queen’ amaryllis is from Colorblends.

Start potting them up now! The big, luxuriant amaryllis flowers generally begin to bloom six to eight weeks after the bulb is placed in potting mix and watered. Start several bulbs at weekly intervals, and you can have those tropical blooms on display from the December holidays on through winter.

An amaryllis is a large bulb, so select a pot that is a little larger and has a drainage hole. Add good quality potting mix to the container along with the bulb (pointed end up, of course), leaving about a quarter to a third of the bulb exposed. Water it well and place it in a spot that’s warm and sunny. You probably won’t need to water again until the soil feels dry, or when you begin to see growth from the top of the bulb.

Amaryllis comes in a range of colors, from white to soft pink to blazing red, bi-colors, giants and miniatures, some with double flowers — sure to brighten up any winter day. The  amaryllis pictured here is ‘Flamenco Queen’ from Colorblends, a Connecticut-based flower bulb wholesaler that sells direct to home gardeners.