Saturday, November 27, 2010

Please Take Me In

In most parts of the country, Fall is almost over and old man Winter has started taking his icy grip. Here in Charleston, we have had some frost on the vehicles, but have not had that real killer frost yet. So around here, there is still time to bring in your houseplants. You know, that Spider Plant that has been hanging on the back porch all Summer. The Snake Plant that is sitting in the corner over there by your BBQ grill. There are a few things you probably should do before you bring them back into the comfort of your home, unless you like creepy, crawly visitors.
To start off with, almost all houseplants are considered Tropical or at least Sub-Tropical, which means areas adjacent to Tropical areas.....Think of it as the tropical suburbs.
Ideally, the plants will want to be moved when the inside and outside temperatures are about the same. That means 70's during the day and mid 60's or so at night. I don't know about you, but that seems like a very short window of opportunity to me. I usually wait until the night time temperatures are forecast to be in the upper 30's. Now to be fair, I have a greenhouse and it is easier to move them in there on the spur of the moment than it would be to bring them into the house. So, you can decide for yourself when would be a good time to get started.
First off, it is important to get rid of pests on the plant or in the soil. This is especially important for those plants that have been sitting on the ground. You first want to look all around the leaves, on top, underneath, and in the leaf crevices. Pay special attention to where the leaf or stem is attached to the trunk. Then, if at all possible, take them out of their pots to see if anything has crawled in through the drainage holes. You would be amazed at what you might find down there. I am not trying to scare you, but, I did see a plant taken out of a three gallon pot to be planted and in the bottom was a baby snake. Probably would have been a bad thing if he/she made it indoors.
If there are any insects on the leaves, you can do one of a couple of things. Spray the plant with the hose and knock the little guys off, being careful not to remove too much of the soil or knocking the leaves off themselves. The other possibility is to use an insecticidal soap, it is safe for pets and humans. Some plants tend to hold the soap solution on their leaf surfaces. This may cause burning. Before using any insecticide, check the label to see if the plant is listed. If not, test a small area on your plant for sensitivity. It may take anywhere from seven to ten days for symptoms to appear.
Okay, you have the critters taken care of. You noticed when you took the pot out of its container, it was a tad rootbound. Again, there are a couple of options here. First, you could just leave it until Spring. The plant is not going to grow much during the Winter months indoors. The problem with this is, the plant, if it is too terribly rootbound, will not be able to take up any water. The roots will basically repel it and there is not enough soil to absorb any water for later use. There is also the possibility that it will grow some during the Winter and just make matters worse. So, as long as it is already out of the pot, why not repot now?
You will want to use a good potting mix. What is a good potting mix? Well, it will have these basic elements: Dense enough to support the plant, Good nutrient-holding capacity, Allows water and air to pass through readily, yet retains adequate moisture, Free of insects, diseases and weed seeds. I will start with the last item because I seem to get the question "Why can't I just use dirt from my yard?"
Garden soils contain too many bacteria and are generally not recommended for plants grown in containers. Unlike artificial mixes, which can be used right from the bag, native soil mixes must first be sterilized to kill disease organisms, insects and weed seeds. An artificial mix which includes commercially prepared mixes are "soilless" or "artificial," which means they contain no soil. Most contain a combination of organic matter, such as peat moss or ground pine bark, and an inorganic material, such as washed sand, perlite or vermiculite. Yes, you can make your own artificial potting mix, no you can not use sand from the will contain too much salt. Any decent combination of the above ingredients will make a good potting mix, the best one out there is in your imagination. Experiment and find one that works for you. Just remember the above basic elements that I mentioned which are required and you will be fine. I should also mention that many commercial potting mixes contain a slow release fertilizer. Most of the time during the Winter, the plants go into a resting or dormant phase and will not need the food. You do not have to go out of your way to find one with a certain amount of food in it. The rules change come Spring, so with it in there you will have somewhat of a head start to an early feeding should you forget.
Okay,I am going to assume you have the plant out of its pot. Gently disturb the root system so that roots are not in a tight rootball or as we like to say "Tickle the roots a little". If the roots are too tight to loosen, slice through the rootball slightly with a knife to loosen them. The next item I am going to mention has been discussed to great lengths by many gardeners. I have actually been in some of these "discussions". The general rule of thumb is: Select a pot that is 1 or 2 inches larger in diameter than the current pot. For a houseplant this is fine, because many times there is not room for anything much larger. I am under the belief that what ever size pot you can manage and will fit in the space is fine. Of course, this can also be taken with a grain of salt. I am not expecting to put a four inch plant into a 30 gallon container, there are some things that common sense should be applied to. I AM suggesting that if you take a plant out of a six inch pot and you have room for a ten inch pot, go for it! You will not, or should not, have to repot anytime soon.
You can put some wire mesh or broken shards of clay pot in the bottom to help retard soil from coming out of the drainage holes. You will want to plant the plant in the pot at the same level or even slightly higher than the original pot. This will help prevent foot rot.
The main cause of death of potted indoor plants is over-watering. Roots need both water and oxygen, and when surrounded by water, they cannot take up any oxygen. These roots will rot and eventually the whole plant may die. The symptoms of over watering and under watering are very similar. The plant will appear wilted.
When I am doing my Citrus lectures, I get asked a question that is relevant to this topic: "How often should I water my plant?" While there are a couple of minor differences, basically the answer will be the same...When it needs it! Okay, after the laughter dies down, I usually go into the variables that apply to this question.
What kind of plant is it? A cactus is not going to need as much as a philodendron.
What kind of soil are you using? One with lots of sand will need more than one that has lots of peat in it.
What kind of pot is it in? A clay pot will dry out much faster than a plastic pot.
How much sun is it getting/how close to a heat vent is it? This one is kind of self explanatory.
The best rule of thumb is, stick your finger in the soil. If it is dry to the first knuckle, water.....unless it is a Cactus. Then all bets are off and unless you only water it every six months or so, I doubt you will be able to under water any kind of Cactus. You will eventually get the feel for when your plants need a drink. Another good way to tell is by the weight of the pot, if it is very light, it probably needs a drink. I mentioned earlier that over and under watering have the same symptoms. If you have been watering every other day and it is wilted, stop! If you haven't watered in three weeks and it is wilted, water! See, simple as that. Remember to have some kind of dish under the plant to catch runoff and empty it when it is done draning to prevent root rot.
The amount of light inside can be a difficult hurdle to cross. If you have the time, over a period of about a week, gradually reduce light levels by moving plants from sun to light shade to heavy shade, and finally indoors. Once indoors, the plant may develop leaf yellowing or drop as it adjusts to lower light. Most of the time this is not a major problem, unless you just HATE leaf litter on your new carpet. Here again, I will give you a couple of options. You can put the plant in a different window. The ideal side is a southern exposure, followed by East then West. North just absolutely is the worst, unless of course you are reading this in Australia, then reverse the whole North/South thing. Another option is grow lights. They are relatively inexpensive and can be placed on a timer. Do some research on how much light the particular plant you are growing requires and set the timer for that amount. There are many plants that require less Winter light than they do in the Summer for their dormant stage, again, research will tell you if your plant falls under this category.
Most people prefer a tidy house and think their plants should be also. Indoor plants may collect dust or greasy films that dull their appearance, making them less attractive. Clean leaves are also favorable for healthy growth. There are products on the market to clean and shine leaves, they are generally not recommended because the waxy coating residue may interfere with air exchange. Basically, they prohibit your plant from breathing. Never, NEVER use these products on plants that have hairy leaves, such as African Violets, you are really asking for problems here. The best way to clean leaves that are not hairy is to dampen a soft cloth with water and wipe the lower and upper surfaces of each leaf. An alternative is to place the entire plant in the shower to rinse it off. Plants with hairy leaves should not be dusted with a wet cloth but with a soft cosmetic brush. I remember either my mother or grandmother using mayonnaise to clean the plants leaves, I don't recommend this either because it too can clog the plants breathing.
I didn't mention types of containers because they are a personal choice. Many types of containers can be used for growing plants. Most pots with bottom drainage holes are made of plastic, ceramic or clay. Decorative containers without drainage holes can be made of clay, ceramic, plastic, wood, copper, brass and various other materials and should only be used as the outside vessel of a pot in a pot system. This way you can drain the water out and not remove the soil.
Well, I hope that helps you in bringing your beloved plant friends indoors. I read an interesting saying about indoor plants once, it goes something like this: They (plants) help us stay in touch with nature and, in a sense, "bring the outside indoors." I like that, Spring is way too far away right now.
Happy Growing!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

How Sweet, or is it?

If you have ever been to the Lowcountry of South Carolina around this time of year, you will recognize what I am about to describe.
You are driving down the interstate or pretty much anywhere around the area and up ahead you see a purple haze in the median. Kind of looks like a fog or sometimes even smoke. You wonder if there is a problem. Should I slow down? Will it spread across the road?
As you get closer you begin to realize it is nothing of the sort.
It is just some Muhlenbergia capillaris, also known as Sweetgrass and Gulf Muhly Grass. Muhlenbergia, one of the largest genera in this family, is named in honor of Giotthilf  H.E. Muhlengerg (1753-1815), a minister, as well a a pioneer American botanist of German extraction whose family brought the Lutheran religion to Pennsylvania in the early part of the 18th century.
Sweet Grass is a showy clump forming type of grass that can get to 3 feet tall and just as wide. It does not produce runners, as it originates from the base clump.
That purplish or sometimes pink haze that you see is the flower or inflorescence. That flower can be 18 inches long and as much as 10 inches wide. It stands well above the wiry leaves. Appearing in late Summer, it will persist for 6-8 weeks.
Muhlenbergia capillaris is a variety of Muhlenbergia filipes, which is used in the making of Sweet Grass Baskets. Both of these grasses are native to South Carolina and they grow on the barrier islands along the coast, such as, Kiawah, Seabrook, Fripp, and Hilton Head. All together there are some 60 species of Mulenbergia.
Their growing range extends from Zone 5 all the way down to Zone 10. Full sun to light shade is the light requirement. This is an excellent plant for just about any type of soil you might have, it tolerates conditions from moist to dry, acidic to alkaline, and sandy to clay. It even tolerates salt spray. Being that it is tolerant of such poor conditions, it makes a good groundcover for those hard to fill areas. If you have a friend that is growing it or if you have had it a long time and want to have more in another part of the yard, the clumps can be dug up and hacked apart easily. This is best done in the Fall or early Spring. There is little to no problem with pests or diseases.
I am not a big fan of grasses, but I can tolerate Sweet Grass. It does have a pretty showing in the Fall, especially if you can find the rare white form (Muhlenbergia capillaris 'White Cloud') and mix the two together.
Happy Growing!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter?

The holidays are fast approaching, as if you needed me to remind you of that!!
With the holidays come the ever present "Holiday Cactus". This is one of those questions that have been plaguing mankind for years, Do I have a Thanksgiving Cactus or an Easter Cactus or is the darn thing a Christmas Cactus?
Let's see if we can answer this.
The main difference between the Christmas, the Thanksgiving, and the Easter Cactus is the time of bloom. As their common names suggest, a Thanksgiving cactus can bloom in late Fall, one month before the Christmas cactus. The Easter cactus starts producing flower buds in February.
Now, what if your Cacti can't read a calendar? I know, they should have learned that at an early age. But if they never did learn, they are probably relying on the Day/Night length and Temperatures. Let's say that you are keeping them as houseplants and they can't see outside through the drapes?
There is another way to tell the different Cacti apart.
photo courtesy of Paul J. Brunelle
The true Christmas Cactus does not have the points on the sides, but are still bumpy. The "Christmas Cactus" is Schlumbergera x buckleyi, a hybrid produced in the late 1840s by William Buckley at the Rollisson Nurseries in England.

The actual Thanksgiving Cactus, the plants most often sold as "Christmas Cacti" (by which name they sell best) are Schlumbergera truncata cultivars. These are clones selected for their colors, growth habit and given cultivar names. They bloom about a full month or more before the true Christmas cactus, given the same treatment, and so are more easily made to bloom at the best time for Christmas sales. The flowers might not last until Christmas though. They are also known by many popular names such as "Link Cactus", and "Grandmother's Cactus". Like I mentioned, these clones have been selected and bred for their many colors. They can come in Lavender, White, Fuschia, Red, Orange, and all shades in between.

photo courtesy of Paul J. Brunelle
As you can see, there are a little bit more defined "points" on the sides.

The Easter Cactus is Rhipsalidopsis gaertneri . In some respects it is very similar to the Schlumbergera. However, it blooms in April (about Easter) and its flower is very different. It is not nearly as popular as the Thanksgiving or Christmas Cactus because it is a little bit more difficult to grow well, and it has the nasty habit of shedding its phylloclades (stem segments) at the slightest drought, or whenever over watered. It may also refuse to bloom for no apparent reason.

photo courtesy of Paul J. Brunelle
As you can see, the edges are almost smooth and the flowers are very different.

Flower bud initiation in Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti start in response to cool temperatures and shortened day length so they should be left outdoors, away from artificial light until night temperatures dip into the 40s. At this time, they do best at temperatures between 50 and 65 degrees.
The Easter Cactus requires a dry period. From October to November, very little water is required for flower bud initiation. Easter cactus can be placed in the same cool area as the Thanksgiving and Christmas Cactus. In December, raise the temperature to about 65 degrees and water sparingly.
All three Holiday cacti can be propagated quite easily by removing a single segment and planting it a quarter of its length deep in a pot filled with slightly sandy soil. It helps to put some kind of rooting hormone on the base of the cutting. Place the pot in a well lit area (but not in direct sunlight) and keep the soil moist. The cutting should begin showing signs of growth after two or three weeks.
When it comes to overall care, they all have the same basic needs.
The soil should be evenly moist for best growth, but they are intolerant to constantly wet soil. They will do best in bright indirect light. Long term direct sunlight can burn the leaves and stunt growth. A well balanced general fertilizer applied once or twice a year is usually all that is needed.
Unless the plants outgrow their containers, you can usually get away with repotting every 2-3 years. The flowering can actually be encouraged by the plant being somewhat pot bound. If soil quality deteriorates rapidly, you might consider repotting more often. One of the best soil mediums to use is African Violet soil.
There are not many pests that bother Holiday cacti, other than Mealy Bugs. One easy solution is to touch each insect with an artist's brush or Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol. Heavier infestations can be treated with a strong spray of water or Insecticidal Soap, repeated at about weekly intervals. If this doesn't work, a Malathion spray should do the trick. Be careful with the strong spray of water however, the joints of the plants are quite fragile and can break apart if the plant is handled too roughly.
My Mother and Grandmother always had the most beautiful "Christmas Cactus" when I was growing up. I remember marveling at the pretty flowers. Well, I think I learned a little bit about growing them.
Take a look:

I hope you all receive a Thanksgiving or Christmas Cactus as a hostess gift, if not, go out and buy yourself one. You deserve it!
Happy Growing!