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.

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!

Finicky Ficuses

Finicky ficuses

One thing that I realized as I was bringing in the house plants and trying to get them placed around in various windows, was that I tend to collect groups of plants.

I suspect most of us with room for a good number of plants will do this. We start out with just lots of house plants and over time decide to add more of certain kinds that we like deliberately.

My two biggest collections have to be either snake plants or “holiday” cacti in the schlumbergera genus. I have about a dozen of each–nothing crazy.

I do have about 6 or 7 different types of ficus though as well. Some, like ficus elastica–the well known rubber plant–are very easy. Even my old ficus benjaminii–the weeping fig–doesn’t give me issues.

But the 3 pictured above–you see ficus lyrata, the fiddle leaf fig, most prominent–are very finicky. I find it to be finicky about everything! It’s fussy about temperature, which you can’t be as a plant in my house. It can’t be overwatered or it rots (not usually a problem for me). And spider mites are a perpetual problem. I need to keep it showered–which doesn’t help with the “don’t over water” issue in my cold house.

Ficus Audrey

But the fiddle leaf fig looks good compared to ficus Audrey. This is one of my “OMG, this plant was over $30 so it can’t die!” plants. But from the moment I got it a year ago, it’s been nothing but trouble! In addition to all the issues that the fiddle leaf fig has, (you can actually see the spider mite damage on the lower leaves–yuck!) It also gets mealy bugs. Great. If I weren’t so “invested ” it would be compost.

Variegated saber leaf fig

This plant is actually fairly trouble free–it just doesn’t grow much. I know variegated plants are slow but this is an 18 month old plant for me. It actually doubled in size over the summer, which is good or it would have become compost. I was getting very discouraged. Obviously nothing will happen now until next summer–and I have moved it away from its 2 pest prone friends to try to safeguard it. The last thing I need is another finicky ficus!

“Come See Our Amazing Blooming Snake Plants!”

Earlier this summer, one of our local garden centers had this headline in an Instagram post. And I just smiled.

The posted photo looked great with a whole cluster of blooming snake plants (I hesitate to call them by a botanic name at the moment because what we have known as sansevieria for years has been subsumed into the dracena genus. And when plants get muddled up botanically–or cleared up, but it seems muddy at first–the good old fashioned “common” name seems pretty good all of a sudden!!)

Snake plant flowers

But as anyone who has been around a blooming snake plant knows, those small flowers pack a powerful fragrance! They are especially fragrant in the evening. That’s generally how I know one of mine is blooming–I will smell it first when I walk into the room–then I look over to the windowsill and see it. You’ll notice my photo was taken at night, when it was the most fragrant, of course.

What I am trying to say is while the garden center had a great marketing headline, anyone with enough light can make a snake plant bloom. Just about all of mine in this west window have.

The conditions they need are higher light (many people grow then in dark northern exposures because they tolerate it–but this is a western exposure and I have grown then in an eastern exposure too.) They also like to be tightly potted so don’t keep increasing the pot size.

If you notice the right side of this cheap plastic nursery pot, this plant has actually broken through it twice! Heaven help me when I go to re-pot it! At this point, it’s almost all plant and roots–I will need to cut the pot off to re-pot it. And it’s a little overdue. But I can’t go much larger or I literally won’t be able to lift it. This is one heavy plant. That’s why I chose the cheap plastic to start with–I had to get it upstairs and into the window somehow.

So I will enjoy the blooming–and try to ignore the re-potting issue.

But if you would like to get your snake plant to bloom, try giving it a bit more light. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Blooming Snake plant

Summer Vacation for the House Plants is Over

Aglaeonema grouping

I am always stunned when I bring my house plants back in after their very brief time outdoors. In my climate, they really are house plants–they are inside from early September through the middle of May each year.

So it wouldn’t seem that a brief few months outside would make so much difference. And yet it does.

In certain plants, like my giant medinilla, it promotes flowering, almost immediately. In others, like the aglaeonema, above, it enhances the colors, even though they summered in the deep shade of a dogwood tree.

Tropical pitcher plant

Then there is this, my nepenthes. It went outside as a single strand of pathetic looking ropey leaves, and no pitchers. This is how it came back in. By next May, we’ll be back to a single strand of ropey leaves, I suspect.

I would say that it was the natural rainwater that helped it, but we had too little this summer for that to be a factor. Maybe it liked all the heat.

In any event, not everything did well. My citrus went outside with lots of lemons and came back with one. The drought and tropical storm winds were not kind to them. Critters thought that lemons might be a good moisture source.

Still, on the whole, my plants almost always come in far better than they went out. This year, the house plants had a better vacation than a lot of people, sadly.

House Plants–To Compost or Not?

I mentioned on Monday that this is about the time when I cast a critical eye on the house plant collection and decide what’s coming back inside and what’s becoming compost.

Windowsill space is always an issue and there’s no reason to look at plants that I don’t love. Several of the windows are already nicely filled and no plants have come inside yet.

Many of you may wonder why I take the plants in so early. As a general rule, I try to begin transitioning them in on Labor Day weekend. It doesn’t have so much to do with temperature as it does with light.

If I leave them out a few weeks later–as I have on occasion– when I bring them in, they drop a lot more leaves. So I try to avoid that.

Ruella

This ruellia may not make the cut. There’s nothing really wrong with the plant, but it does nothing for me and the drooping habit is depressing. Who needs depressing plants right now?

Dracena

It’s a good bet this one is gone. Again, the problems speak for themselves (I think). I could try to salvage and root the top, I suppose but why? It’s such a common plant.

Aglaeonema

This is the one I am not sure about. Something–chipmunks? Squirrels? Keeps making a mess and using the pot to cache their nuts. In the process, pieces of the plant are broken and uprooted. I may try to salvage it just before I bring it in. We’ll see.

And there may be others. Because after all, I will need room to aquire a few new plants too.