It’s House Plant Moving Time

The east bay window–before

Yes, it’s that annual ritual–the migration of the house plants. For me, it’s as regular as the return of the catbirds, and it occurs just about the same time–early to mid-May. In my frozen part of the world, the catbirds return right around Mother’s Day (which is the second Sunday in May) and I begin transitioning the house plants outside shortly thereafter.

What are my requirements? The main requirement is that evening temperatures have to be above 50 degrees. I have already mentioned that for plants that might live as perennials in other parts of the world but be just a bit too tender for me to leave outdoors year-round–things like bay, rosemary, gardenia, citrus–if I choose, I can put them out a bit earlier. Sometimes I do and other years not.

But most true tropical plants will really get set back if the temperatures fall below 50 degrees at night. So you want to watch the 10 day forecast to ensure that predicted temperatures are well within your safe range.

Something else that folks don’t realize is that the actual “moving” of the plants is just the beginning of the work. First the plants have to go outside, of course.

And the East bay window–after

And then I usually take this opportunity to transplant them to new containers. I may have transplanted a few during the year, but the majority will get new homes either during this move or shortly thereafter.

Just some of the saucers that need cleaning

Finally, all of the saucers and cachepots need to be cleaned for the season and for the next time they will be used. This can be almost as big a job as moving the plants!

What’s left behind when the plants are gone

And sometimes cleaning off the windowsills can also be an undertaking. This is the window where the yellow flowering maple was. You may remember seeing a photo of that plant about a week ago. I mentioned it was a messy plant. This is some of the detritus it left behind. This windowsill–and the floor beneath it–got a good vacuuming!

And by the way, the surface of this windowsill was not primarily damaged by the plants. This window used to be a little “schnauzer stage,” used by our first two rescue dogs, Buffi and Trixie. Once I cleared the plants out, they would jump into the windows to bark at passers-by. Thankfully none of my other dogs have done this–but the scraped-up finish was caused by their paws!

This whole plant move took well over a week this year. I am trying to work smarter as I get older–or perhaps as I acquire more plants. Still, all the work is worth it. The plants definitely benefit–and I enjoy seeing them outside. And I save on buying annuals as well.

The Only House Plants That You Can’t Kill Are Plastic or Silk

Dying ZZ Plant

I recently have read a few articles about house plants that are hard or impossible to kill.

A few things: first, no plant is impossible to kill, not even an air plant. Trust me on this. I can tell you this from experience. I have done it. I have even managed to kill air plants. And of course, for further evidence, see the above.

The next recommendation is cactus. Surprisingly, for a beginner, these plants can also be quite easy to kill. Why? Because the way most plants are killed is by over-watering and so cactus are generally watered too much and are drowned. I too have killed cactus, although not by over-watering. I have done the opposite: I haven’t watered them enough. The plant literally was powder when I went back to touch it. Oopsie. So believe me, yes, cactus can be killed and more easily than you think. The best thing to do with cactus, generally (and this doesn’t hold true for succulents, necessarily) is to keep them in a sunny window and to water them sparingly every 3-4 weeks, depending on how warm it is in your home.

The next recommendation is that crazy ZZ plant. I’ve already killed 1 of those and am well on my way to killing a second. I suspect they don’t like my cold house. But I am sure not going to call them easy, needless to say! The photo at the top of the post is my second ZZ plant, wasting away. Sad, very sad.

Succulents, as a group, are generally supposed to be easy. Some are very easy. And some are not. It pays to know what type of succulent you have and how it should be treated. Some like full sun, others do not. Some will put up with weekly watering, others will rot with this kind of treatment. So again, to just recommend a whole group of plants as “easy,” is quite frankly, irresponsible.

I have seen ferns recommended as easy. Don’t go there unless you live in a greenhouse.

I have seen fiddle leaf figs recommended as easy. They are not. They are finicky about temperature, light and water. If you can satisfy them, then they are easy. Otherwise, they are going to lose leaves and be prone to insects. They’re not worth that heartache.

The upshot of all of this, I guess, is do not believe what you read in “lifestyle” publications. You need to go to reliable plant sources to get the true facts about plants and their needs. Once you have that information, you can decide what plants will do best for you in your home, apartment or condo.

Let’s Try to Avoid Confusing Similar Plants

A monstera variety–see more below

I get it–there are times when plant ID can be confusing. I admit that I have done it once or twice myself. However, what is not good–and what I have seen happen in nationally syndicated publications (which I have not done, thank goodness!) is where the so-called experts have confused plant names and IDs and even run photos of the wrong plants.

That’s the point at which I say, “hello folks! Is there no fact checking out there anymore? Beginners–and maybe even more than beginning gardeners–are relying on you for this information. Please try to get it right if you are claiming to be an authority.”

The most egregious thing I have seen lately was the confusion of monstera delicious and split leafed philodendron. The reason I say that this is so egregious is because monstera has been the “it” plant for at least a couple of years now. Babies and toddlers can probably pick out a monstera leaf! (Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not much!) I mean, that plant is everywhere! It’s on jewelry, fabric, housewares, clothing, the cut leaves are sold in just about every floral department. If you can’t ID a monstera leaf, you haven’t been paying attention.

And yet, just a week or two ago, I read in a nationally syndicated publication, something to the effect of, “monstera, also called split leafed philodendron….” That’s the kind of thing that just wants to make me rip my head off! I don’t know if it’s lazy–or worse!

There’s even a national catalog selling a “philodendron monstera. ” What? Pray tell which plant do you get? Growers choice? Whichever they have at the moment? The photo is of a monstera deliciosa but with that description, one can never be sure.

There are all sorts of wonderful articles out there about how to distinguish the two different plants. This is just one of those articles. It’s thorough, has lots of great photos, and one wishes that the author of the publication who can’t tell the two apart had taken the time to do a simple internet search to see what these plants were about.

And my photo above. It’s of a monstera adansonii, a different, smaller version of monstera commonly called Swiss cheese plant because the holes in the leaves are all contained–there are no “split” leaves like on monstera deliciosa. I guess it might resemble a giant Swiss cheese with a little imagination.

There are many different varieties of monstera, including a lovely variegated one. And I am sure they will continue to be confused. So please be aware of this ongoing problem.

Perhaps that’s why they say a “little” knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Fall Containers

Heuchera, viola and dusty miller

There’s such a difference between container gardening in spring and in the fall–at least in my climate.

And yes, there are perfectly lovely combinations that are possible with cabbages, ornamental kale, asters and mums–but somehow, I just can’t bring myself to do those. I am not quite sure why. I like asters and the ornamental cruciferous stuff. But I think that they all (with the exception of asters) seem to have too short a season.

Autumn (or fall, if you prefer) can be very finicky in New England. This year it has been long and lovely–so much so that our impatiens and geraniums (pelargoniums) are blooming with the pumpkins!

But many years, I remember frosts and even freezes by this time. And I am not one to go running out with bedsheets or towels to cover up everything. When things are done, they’re done. We move on–isn’t that why we have seasons?

So if I am asked to give a container garden lecture–as I have been the last two falls –it’s a challenge to decide what to bring. First of all, as in any garden club, not everyone has a garden (something that has always amused me, but of course, there are flower arrangers and conservationists, and people who have been members since they once had gardens–you get the idea). So I try to bring something that appeals to those who may have smaller gardens or indoor gardens or patio gardens as well.

Golden sage, silver thyme, rosemary

And while it’s not immediately intuitive, fall is a great time for an herb planter, because this is something that can be moved closer to the house for soups and stews and roasts–or perhaps even brought indoors.

Begonia, croton, ornamental pepper
Alocasia, calathea, anthurium

Fall is also a great time for house plant planters, whether you are just refreshing your own planters, combining plants to save space on your windowsills, or trying out new combinations. Just try to ensure that whatever you plant together needs the same cultural requirements of sun and water.

Notice also in my first photo, above, that I tucked an annual–or maybe you’d consider it an edible–into that “house plant” container. Those small “ornamental” peppers that are sold this time of year grow quite nicely indoors–just be sure to watch them later in the season for insects–as you should with all house plants!

Our Prized “House” Plants Are Actually Tropical Plants in Disguise

Ficus leaves on carpet

You may not have thought about this, but our indoor plants behave quite a bit like plants in nature. Many of them are, after all, tropical plants that have been conditioned to grow in our homes. It’s quite something to take a trip and see some of them growing “in the wild” as I like to call it.

I have seen things like my ficus benjaminii, shown above, growing in warm places–they’re actual trees like the maples growing outside my house here in Connecticut. It’s amazing. The closest we come to seeing something like that here is in a mall and it’s a paltry comparison.

I have seen poinsettias growing in Mexico and hibiscus growing in Hawaii and I am always amazed at what these plants look like compared to the puny specimens that I have at home in containers. They’re large shrubs–and sometimes even hedges.

And I am not sure that I will ever get over the 8-10′ laurus nobilis that I saw in Texas! We struggle to get those to a couple of feet in containers here in the northeast–and we buy them, if we are lucky, as very pricy small plants! How can something like get so huge out of doors?

What is my point in ranting about all this? After all, this blog isn’t a travelogue and I am not posting photos of any of these things that I am talking about (alas, they only live on only in my mind–I don’t have them on film, or digitized.)

Late summer rose garden

These random thoughts came to me as I was walking the dog up the driveway the other day and I noticed how much my roses were “slowing down” in growth and preparing to defoliate and go dormant for winter. Some already had bright orange hips while others were changing their green growth for a sort of yellowish color before they lost their leaves.

I noticed this and thought about my ficus shedding its leaves in my living room and mused, “hmm. They’re really not all that different after all.”

I know enough to stop feeding my roses (if I ever feed them) in August so that they can begin this process of “going to sleep” for winter. And our house plants, too, as I mentioned on Monday, also slow down their growth, use less water, and don’t want any additional fertilizer this time of year as they go into this quieter time of year (although I am not sure most of them are as dramatic as the ficus and lose a lot of leaves!)

Take time to notice the seasonal changes in your plants. While it can be sad, there are always those plants, like the zygocactus, that respond to lower light levels and cooler temperatures and begin to bloom. So there are always the “silver lining” plants, as I like to think of them!

Aglaeonemas are Like Stained Glass Windows

These are some of my favorite house plants. I got my first one five years ago at a box store that I happened to pop into when I was in Pennsylvania for a friend’s wedding. Little did I know at the time that I would become a bit obsessed by these plants!!

Aglaeonema collection

I still have that plant and I have acquired a few more, most from garden centers, although it is all I can do not to obsessively collect them from sites like Etsy, where I have seen some fabulous specimens (there are some fabulous plant people on Etsy–I need to stay off there or I would run out of windows very fast!)

These plants are very easy care–much easier than the calatheas that I discussed last week. About the only thing that they object to is direct sunlight. Most of mine are in either shaded east or northwest windows. The shaded east windows never get direct sun. The northwest windows may see some direct sun very late in the day–about 5 pm or so. And even then, the sun is only there for a very brief time–probably less than 30 minutes.

The reason I describe them as being like stained glass windows is that their leaves are so lovely that when light shines through them, they do look like stained glass–abstract stained glass, of course, but stained glass nonetheless. At least that’s how I think of it. Perhaps I have an overactive imagination.

But again, as we get into the darker days of fall and winter, it’s going to be nice to have these brighter plants to enliven our homes.

Red stemmed aglaeonema–the plant that started my love affair

As we get nearer to Christmas, you’ll probably see me describe the red-stemmed aglaeonema as the “anti-poinsettia.” It’s a perfect stand-in if you want a cheery plant that’s not quite as garishly red as a traditional poinsettia (or if your house is too cold, as mine is).

But whether you choose to grow these plants for the holidays, or just as lovely year-round foliage plants, you’ll be sure to appreciate their gorgeous patterned leaves, and their easy-care habits!

Foliage is Forever

Calathea Rattlesnake

Calatheas are one of my favorite houseplants for interesting, unusual foliage, but I must tell you that in my cooler, New England home, they struggle a little. Basically these are rainforest understory plants and my dry, cold house is about as far from a rainforest as you can get in say, February.

So, occasionally I give up and toss the sadder looking of my plants. But I find that if I start with large, robust specimens going into the fall, most of them will get through the winter just fine. You don’t want to see many of these plants when I first bring them outside for their “summer vacation.”

Calathea Zebrina

Luckily, they don’t need much of a summer vacation to revive and grow new leaves. This year I tucked them underneath a Japanese maple. Last year they summered underneath a dogwood–you know, typical rainforest plants, right? But the deep shade and humid conditions seemed to be what they needed to re-foliate to get through another long New England winter.

Calathea ornata

When I bring them inside, I do sit them on a humidity tray, altogether in one spot. I think that helps them somewhat. And of course they look lovely for a couple of months, until it really starts to get dry in my house and gray outside–but by then, I have forced bulbs for color to tide me over.

Calathea Maui Queen

There’s a significant discrepancy about growing instructions for these plants. Some growers say to let them dry a bit before watering while others suggest consistent moisture will lead to success.

Maui Queen’s leaves–the “other” side

As for light, bright indirect light is best, however you manage to achieve that. Last year, that meant that I grew these below a south window–on the floor. This year, I will bring them inside to a different room–I am hoping for more natural humidity–and I will set them on a table about 3 feet back from a west window. We’ll see how that goes.

I have seen the recommendation to grow them in the kitchen, again for the humidity. My kitchen faces east, but I think it would be too much sun. Perhaps if the other room doesn’t work out, I will try the kitchen. It’s nice to have options.

Memorial Plants?

On Monday I posted about the dish garden that was given to me to commemorate–or commiserate over–a loss.

A few weeks ago I posted about my ‘Snow Fountain’ weeping cherry which we planted to honor my Dad’s passing.

So all this posting about “memorial” plants has got me thinking about plants as a way of remembering people. It’s not unusual, of course, to plant a tree to remember someone. But what really got me thinking was a comment I made in response to a comment on my “Dish Garden” post.

If you recall, the second part of that post was about a “deconstructed” dish garden that a neighbor had given me. What I really didn’t say in that post was that she received that garden when her husband passed away–so I was sort of the repository of plants given in his memory–and that was fine because I knew him well and liked him very much.

In my comment I said that eventually my neighbor would move away or pass away as well and all I would have as a memory would be those plants, making them true “memorial” plants.

I wonder how other people feel about this. Do you find it creepy or comforting? I know that out in the garden I have lots of plants from folks that are “no longer with me” in one sense or another. Many have just moved away. Others I have lost touch with, for whatever reason. But whenever I see those plants, I think of the various people with fondness.

So why should it be any different with house plants? For many years, my longest lived house plant was a begonia that was a cutting from a neighbor. That neighbor is long gone, but I still referred to the begonia as “Mr. So-and So’s” begonia.

Now my longest lived house plant is a ficus that I refer to as “Grandma’s ficus,” for obvious reasons (I hope). It was given to my Grandmother on her 90th birthday in 1988. It is now mine (Gram wasn’t really into plants. I inherited it shortly thereafter, probably no later than early 1989).

Obviously I do not find this creepy at all. Then again, I work in a job where part of it is helping people who have just lost a loved one plan their funeral. So during the pandemic, especially, I have talked about death a lot to a lot of people. It’s been gut wrenching.

Sometimes, we are blessed that we do have plants to help us return to normalcy.