House Plants are Living Things: Beware of Using Them as “Decorations”

I know that there are whole blogs devoted to “garden ranting” but you can tell when something has set me off, can’t you? This time it’s an article in a style magazine called something like “Decorating with House Plants.”

So many things were wrong about the article that I scarcely know where to begin. The first is that almost no proper names for plants were used, only common names. Now, I am not such a stuffy person that I think we have to go around only referring to plants by their proper botanical names–but I also think that if I am recommending a plant for a space, I want to make sure that the person buys the right plant. Common names too often lead to confusion. At least reference the botanical name in parentheses so that they person can acquire the right plant!

Next, far too many ficus plants were recommended as “decorations.” Seriously? As a lover of anything and all things ficus, I can tell you that many are not particularly easy to grow. The one recommended in particular was ficus triangularis, which was described as “extremely rare.” I don’t find it to be “extremely rare,” but I do find it to be at least as finicky as the plain old benjaminii type. It seems that if I blink the wrong way, mine starts dropping leaves. Not a good recommendation, especially for a “decoration,” unless you find dead leaves decorative.

In fact, in the above photo, you will see 2 of my many ficus. The “extremely rare” triangularis is the plant in the middle–the one in the pot with the fluted edge. Since its repotting last week, it has lost 8 leaves. The variegated benjaminii type to its left hasn’t lost a single leaf–and they are reputed to be very finicky. Hmm…

Finally, and this is my favorite crazy recommendation–oxalis triangularis! Oh yes, please, if you like to pull dead leaves and flowers off the plant at least every couple of weeks. Otherwise, once again, maybe you find all those stringy dead parts, “decorative.”

Clearly these decorators don’t know a thing about house plants and their growth habits over time. And that’s where we all suffer. People are going to read these sorts of articles and take these recommendations and then feel that somehow, they can’t grow plants, or there is something wrong with their conditions. And that’s wrong.

I am not sure how we solve the problems of bad advice articles like this because I think they do more harm than good. Luckily there is lots of good advice out there. With any luck, most people will not be discouraged by losing a plant or two.

After all, there are so many beautiful plants in the world. If you don’t succeed with one, try something else that’s better for your light conditions!

Let’s Talk About No-Mow May

For those who may not yet have heard about it, No-Mow May is an initiative begun a few years ago in Wisconsin, I believe to help pollinators. The idea is simple: people don’t mow their lawn in May so that pollinators have some early blooming wildflowers to get nectar from.

I think it’s been 3 years since the first “No-Mow” and predictably the pushback has started. So I am going to try to provide some common sense ideas so that we can all get along AND help pollinators because that’s the goal.

Now I think we can all agree that while this lawn might be the suburban ideal of the perfect lawn, it does nothing for pollinators.

But let’s take a look at the “no-mow” lawn photo, which interestingly enough, is across the street from this house. I am not sure that they are actually trying for “no-mow;” the house is empty and being renovated so it may just be the result. But it provides a nice discussion point.

What I see in the unmown lawn is really nothing much helping pollinators at this point. The dandelions have gone to seed and there’s really nothing else blooming for them.

This lawn, which is a little further along down the street, is much more diverse. In fact, there’s hardly any grass in the foreground of this photo. There’s a field of chickweed, and in the middle of that, some blue Veronica. Further out are dandelions gone by and I know there’s some henbit too. It’s a really diverse lawn, great for pollinators. And yes, this lawn IS mowed and it doesn’t affect these weeds (with the exception of the dandelion flowers) in any way because they are so low to the ground. So there’s no reason to avoid mowing here.

We have a similar situation with lots of low growing violets, clover and ground ivy. When they flower, the flowers are so low to the ground that mowing has no effect on them. So they are preserved for our pollinators.

I love the idea that we are always thinking about the pollinators and new and creative ways to garden for them. But if you are feeling bad about mowing your lawn, maybe it’s not the worst thing. If I had to choose between mowing the lawn or avoiding pesticides, there’s no choice: always choose to avoid the pesticides. That will help in a far greater way.

Who Planted These Here?

You can see that these cracks at the base of our stone wall and in our driveway are just prime spots for all sorts of “vegetation,” to put the best possible spin on it. Weeds love them, but so do opportunistic bits of other little plants.

There are always little bits of some sort of sedum growing here. I keep hoping that the sedum will out-compete the weeds, like the chickweed that you can see already sprouting. But they have different growth cycles and the sedum don’t really get going until later in the season, while this is prime chickweed time.

If you’re wondering how the grape hyacinths got here, it was my buddies the ants 🐜. Muscari have a special little structure called an eliaisome that ants love. They bring that back to their colonies and spread plants around that way. It’s not exactly pollinization–it’s mechanical movement.

My lawn is filled with grape hyacinths that I haven’t planted, courtesy of my buddies, the ants. So I am always very careful to leave them alone, so long as they are away from the house. In my kitchen, well, it’s a different story. But luckily that happens pretty rarely.

It’s yet another benefit of being pesticide free in the yard!

With Lawn Applications, It’s All About Timing

Unfortunately, this is a very common sight in my neighborhood. Some weeks, it so bad that until it rains or gets watered in by sprinklers I either need to walk my dog in the middle of the road or keep her on my own property.

Generally, I choose the option of keeping her on my property, but even that’s not perfect. The topography of my neighborhood is sloping gently, so any runoff from my neighbor’s yard will bring his pesticides right down onto mine. But it’s better than nothing.

What you can’t really see in the above photo (since I didn’t really want to trespass too much when taking it) is the dusting of snow on the lawn.

Here are the forsythia bushes on the edge of the same property (taken from the driveway, so again, I am not trespassing too much–and by the way, notice the body of water–the lake–in the background. This guy is lakefront!)

Proper timing in my frozen part of the world for pre-emergent application should be before the forsythia stops blooming. It’s not before the forsythia starts blooming!

Even if we–for the sake of argument–say that this IS proper application, let’s remember what a “pre-emergent” is supposed to do. It’s supposed to suppress weeds.

So what are we suppressing? Chickweed? No, I don’t think so, that’s already up and blooming. Violets? They’re perennials–pre-emergents don’t work very well on those. Dandelions? Forget about it. And crabgrass for us doesn’t get going until much warmer weather, when this “pre-emergent” will be gone–they’re usually only effective for a period of about 3 months at best.

I understand that it’s been a long winter and the lawn guys are anxious to work–but this is just wrong and a waste of the homeowner’s money. The application is too early.

Further, here on the lakefront, it’s just contributing to lake pollution. Needless to say, I am not amused!

Ants Are Like Weeds–And Us!

About a week or so ago, we had a little bit of rain and some ants came in. It’s been a very dry spring–as our springs have been, sadly.

But instead of being grateful that we had 3/10ths of an inch or rain instead of the predicted 1/10, I was dealing with The Spoiler, who was demanding that I put down traps for the ants! (For the record, as you may already remember, we don’t use traps–we use those nice ant repellent packets).

So this is why I say that ants are like weeds. When they’re outside, they’re fine and nobody much notices them unless they are ruining your picnic, or biting you, or perhaps, if they are carpenter ants, you might notice if they are menacing a tree.

But inside, they are like weeds, which are sometimes defined as a plant in the wrong place–they are an insect in the wrong place. Spiders are much the same–they are a “good” bug out of place and we want them gone!!

But how are they like us? Well, if you know even a little bit about ant biology and social structure you know that ants live in community and have defined roles. Without going so far as to anthropomorphize these small insects, they do have “jobs,” and they do them well. There are the “scout” ants that find their way into your homes to search out food, the “nurse” ants that tend to the eggs and young that hatch from the Queen, and in some types of ants that we thankfully don’t have here in Connecticut, there are even soldier ants that fight other colonies.

What most astounded me about our recent little infestation–which lasted only so long as it took me to move my repellent packets, mostly–was the behavior. I am guessing that it was scout ants that came inside.

Unfortunately, The Spoiler was kicking up such a fuss that we wound up stepping on some of them–more so that I could keep him quiet rather than out of any dislike for the ants. I knew that they would go back to where they came from–I just didn’t want to listen to the whining and ranting after a long day at work.

I did not pick up the little carcasses, however. I figured that could wait for another day. So imagine my shock when I got up the next morning and they were all gone! Not only had the ants vacated the premises but they took their dead with them! This is why I say that ants are so like us–they take their dead away.

Now, again, I am not presuming that they took them for a proper burial. They may have been taking them to feed them to their young. But they dead were gone from my house. It was just astonishing.

So next time you have ants in your home, I ask two things of you. First, please give your repellent or trap(s) time to work. It is NOT instantaneous.

Next, do remember that these little insects do have a social structure–and try to be as gentle with your pest control methods as you can.

The Stress Less Lawn

The less than perfect lawn

We used to call this the “Freedom Lawn”–as in “free” from pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. But these days, that almost sounds like a political statement, so in the interest of maintaining political neutrality, I am renaming it the “stress-less lawn.”

What am I really talking about? A lawn that doesn’t look like a perfectly manicured golf course or estate lawn–because let’s face it, those lawns are ridiculously difficult to maintain. Most of us do not live in climates–or have the soil–to have acres of lush rolling green grass. That sort of monoculture is problematic at best.

Why? Well, first, it is a monoculture, and any sort of monoculture requires that everything look the same. Since soil (and subsoil) varies over your property, it’s difficult to maintain grass well.

Then there are those pesky trees! You know those lovely things that you planted for shade? Well, darn it, now they’re shading out your grass! And their roots are competing with the grass’ roots! The nerve!

And if you have island flower beds, it gets even worse–so you see my point. You really have to struggle to get all that grass to grow under conditions that are not the same, even on your own property.

Or, you could just let whatever grows there, flourish. It will be different in every season. Right now in my yard, I have some lovely white and purple (and a few solid purple) violets.


Then there are these sweet ferns that come up here and there. They’re not terribly bothered even when their tops get mowed down every couple of weeks. They just come back again. If I need a fern for the garden, I’ll transplant one.

Fern in the lawn

Around the edges–and even in some low spots in the middle–I have some moss. This stays low enough that it never gets mowed down–the mower just goes right over it.


And while it’s a little early for clover, I have that to look forward to–as well as a sweet, low-growing St. John’s wort that blooms with a pretty yellow flower.

Speaking of yellow flowers, I do have some dandelions, which are very welcome to the bees. I generally do not weed them out until after the first flowering. They are very cheery after a long winter.

And that is how you grow a “stress less” lawn. We don’t irrigate at all and of course, being completely organic, we don’t use any of the “cides:” pest, herb or fung at all, ever. A little hand weeding and some mowing is about the extent of the “hard” work.

Our pollinators are happy–and we have more free time as well!

Generational? Or Something Else?

I was checking one of my favorite sites (yes, it was the National Garden Bureau ([] again, because they had articles on seed starting) when I came upon a new app there for something. And I can’t even tell you what’s it’s for because I clicked right off the the whole site so fast that I didn’t have time to look.

Clearly, I have no trouble with web sites. I have no trouble with computers. I consume all my media electronically, I am embarrassed to admit. The Spoiler reads actual newspapers and I sit in the same room with him and read the same papers on my tablet. I much prefer reading on my Kindle to reading a paper book.

But, when it comes to gardening, I do not want to use apps, phones, meters, tablets, or anything like that. I want to go outside–or during the 6 months of the year when it’s too cold for that, to actually touch my house plants and their soil–with my hands. I don’t want a moisture meter telling me when to water, some light meter giving me foot candle readings or anything of the sort. I have eyes (albeit compromised ones) and hands and gardening is my escape from all the technology that I use in the rest of my life.

A survey conducted by Axiom Marketing in November 2020 said that gardeners 56+ (their categories were 18-28, 29-39, 40-55, and 56+) do not use gardening apps. Only 8% of the 56+ category used any apps at all. I am definitely not in that 8%.

And it’s not that I don’t think that apps aren’t useful. It’s more that I want time away from technology. For a long time, I didn’t even take my phone when I went outside. I didn’t want to hear it ring (perish the thought!) and I surely didn’t want to ever check email.

And while there might be useful functions–planners, graphs, etc.–that the phone can do–I have kept a paper garden journal for literally decades. It’s no hardship to write things down at the end of the day for me. It cements them into my brain. And the physical book is useful for storing garden receipts and notes about what I might need to buy for next year too.

So am I an old gardening lady? Maybe–and that’s fine. But for me, my garden is a place to decompress and unwind. And I am keeping it that way.

Walled Off


This post is another example of a situation where “garden management” left undone has become a huge asset.

Mind you, I am not advocating for this sort of thing. But for a few years, I had unfortunate surgeries that kept me from doing just about anything in the garden–certainly anything as major as pruning large hibiscus syriacus shrubs after they bloom and before they go to seed, as should be done.

And so they self sowed everywhere. As with all weedy plants, I am still dealing with that unfortunate problem.

But in this one instance, the hibiscus actually solved a problem that I had been battling for 20 years in this garden.

This great wall of hibiscus hedge now keeps my neighbor’s riding mower from throwing all sorts of grass and weed seeds into this garden.

I even lost a viburnum to pesticide drift from their property–because of course we don’t spray at all. So there will be no more of that. If anything, some of the great wall of hibiscus might get hit with their toxins–but there’s plenty more where that came from!

Now I just need to keep the “mother plants” pruned after flowering or it will become one great garden of hibiscus!

Leave the Leaves–Some Places


You probably will be seeing scenes like this shortly all over people’s posts. You’ll see a montage of nice colorful scenes here on Wednesday. Autumn is one of the nicest times to live where I live.

And for the most part, I do try to garden sustainably on the land that I have (although I read something the other day that suggested that the way I garden is “ecologically” not sustainably. That’s something for another post–maybe).

What I try to do is to leave most of the leaves where they fall. But of course, there are limits to this.


This is one afternoon’s worth of maple leaves. They had been cleared the day before. Obviously, they can’t remain on the driveway. Not only do they become a hazard to driving, but at some point, the drift would become so deep we would have to leave our home by the back entrance.

And they can’t remain on the lawn either. They kill the grass. If you get them early enough, you can chop them with a mower and mulch them into the lawn–but when this much is falling every day, that doesn’t work.

They can–and do–remain in my garden beds. Thankfully there are lots of garden beds to absorb them.

The rest are moved to the curb where the town collects them. Only the leaves from the lawn and the driveway get collected. The rest stay on site for us–either mulching the beds in place, or blowing–or being blown–into our woods.

A Tale of Two Lawns


This is my front lawn right now. You know that we are completely organic and that we don’t irrigate at all–the only water this lawn has gotten all summer it got when it rained–and this is a slope, obviously (this abuts the ski slope driveway that I occasionally reference or photograph).

Obviously because we are organic there have been no pesticides used at all. Occasionally we use a corn meal gluten fertilizer in the spring. I don’t recall if we did this year but we certainly don’t do so yearly.


Not all parts of the lawn look so fabulous but they’re all equally lush. This section, as you might be able to tell, is right next to the road. It’s got lots of clover for the bees, some plantain, and some creeping Charlie (or Jenny, depending on which common name you prefer).


Now, not to engage in neighbor shaming but this is just one of several of my neighbor’s lawns that looks like this. What do they all have in common?

First, supplemental irrigation. This lawn gets watered twice a day, whether it needs it or not. Mushrooms are growing here, and I have seen the sprinklers going in the rain.

Next, this lawn gets cut religiously once a week, again whether it needs it or not–although with all that watering, it sure needs cutting a lot more than ours!

Finally pesticides. It seems that I regularly have to avoid the street in front of this house because of some sort of pesticide treatment. I used to think there was a “4-step” lawn care program. In my neighborhood, I think pesticides are applied every 2 weeks–& I am not kidding! And yet–this.

Whenever I lecture and say I am an organic gardener, I will get asked about weeds, to which I shrug and say that many of our so-called lawn weeds are actually nectar sources for bees and butterflies.

Then I am asked about grubs and I am genuinely mystified. It’s not that we don’t have grubs–I will find larva in our gardens when I am planting.

It’s just that we don’t have them in any quantity to do damage. I attribute that to our organic property. Birds come and feast on the grub larva before they can do any damage. They won’t eat from poisoned lawns–would you?