Well, That Escalated Quickly

Whenever I lecture about house plants, I get questions about insects. And I always joke that we know Stephen King isn’t a gardener–and the way we know this is because some of our common garden and house plant insects are so scary that he could write novels about them alone.

I will never forget one of the original X-Files shows. It was about a giant flatworm. The concept doesn’t sound scary but it was enough to make me stop watching the series forever. I said to The Spoiler–nope. I have to garden with those things.

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I was a little appalled when I saw this. I had been closely monitoring this plant. I had seen these flowers wilting one day.

On the second day, the whole plant was wilted. So I gave it lots of water and it revived. Today when I re-visited it to check it for dryness, this is what I found–the entire flower stem covered in webs and spider mites–visible spider mites.

Spider mites are funny creatures. They love warmth, dryness (lack of humidity) and they reproduce every three days. They’re members of the arachnid family–true little spiders.

Some make webs and others don’t. You’re lucky if they make webs–you stand a chance of spotting them quickly.

Still, these are on a plant that’s just a seasonal-type plant that I would quickly discard if it were mine. It’s in my office hallway with several other mums–so no real loss if anything else there gets infected. But I moved them out of the way just to be sure until I have permission to discard them.

What does this tell us? Check your plants–even at times when it seems as if they are not actively growing. Plant pests can become active and get out of hand very quickly–and if you’re not careful, you’ll lose a plant you care about!

Are House Plants the New Puppies?

About 10 days or so ago, the New York Times published an article about houseplants. You can read that article here.here.here.

The article wasn’t really about comparing house plants to puppies–that was just its last line which read, “It’s living things,” Ms. Offolter said. “It’s not puppies, but it’s still living things.”

The person quoted was a well-known house plant propagator and seller who sells rare plants through Instagram. And the article in the Times was about a house plant auction of aroids, some of which fetched 5 figure sums.

But in its amazement that anyone would pay that much for a plant (cuttings really, according to the article) the article tried to figure out the reasons for the latest house plant “craze.”

I am not sure I understand it, but as someone who’s been gardening with house plants since the last “craze” in the 70s (and who, until last year, still had a plant from that era!), I certainly understand the attraction of house plants and even the need to “collect” some of a particular genus.

I haven’t even come close to paying 3 figures for a plant, though. I just don’t take the time to nurture plants the way some of today’s house plant devotees do–if I killed something so costly, it would make me sad.

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In fact this little monstera adansonii cost me more than I normally pay for a plant. When 3 leaves yellowed in quick succession, I knew I had an issue on my hands. Sure enough, spider mites. Did it come that way or did I acquire them somewhere else? Who knows? But I caught it quickly, isolated the plant and now all seems well.

For me, house plants will never replace my dog. But even I care about them and spend a good deal of time nurturing them. It’s a great indoor hobby since I live in the “frozen north,” as I call it!

Don’t Mist Your Plants–Try This Instead

So it’s getting colder by the week–and indoors, it’s getting drier too. We feel it and our plants feel it.

Common wisdom has been to mist your plants if they need extra moisture, but that’s always seemed pretty silly to me. Let’s think about this for a moment.

If you’ve ever been to a dermatologist, they tell you to put on lotion to seal the moisture into your skin within 5 minutes of getting out of the shower. I’m not sure about you, but that 5 minutes goes by pretty fast, if you think about it–I never get lotion on me in time.

But if you keep your bathroom door closed (and don’t run a fan) that room seems pretty steamy compared to the rest of your house as soon as you open the door. But once you open the door, that “steamy” feeling goes away pretty quickly–by the time you go back after getting dressed, it’s usually gone, pretty much.

So think about the effects of a mister on your house plant’s leaves. You can drench the thing–and your table or rug–but how long will that last in your dry home? Perhaps as long as the effects of a steamy shower in your bathroom–several minutes or so.

I used to put bowls of water out next to my most vulnerable plants. This would allow the water to evaporate around the plants and to humidify the air on a full time basis.

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Then another blogger suggested this brilliant idea to me. This is a boot tray. It was originally suggested to me as a way to protect windowsills. But I use it as a giant humidity tray.

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You can see that I don’t take a chance that I might over-fill the tray and drown the plants by having their roots sit in water. I fill the tray with lots of water–and I have each plant either in a separate saucer or a decorative pot so that there’s no chance that it’s going to be sitting in the water in the boot tray.

So far this is working really well for all these marantas and calatheas that love humidity. What I am going to do about the fact that they love temperatures in the 70s and I only heat my home to the low 60s? That I haven’t figured out yet.

While We’re On The Subject of Misunderstood Plants….

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Okay, this isn’t the most glorious looking poinsettia you’ve ever seen but what if I told you this is its third year blooming–and it’s blooming here in July?

So what does that say about these plants? First, that you don’t have to put them in dark closets or under a box to get them to bloom–you can see that this one is sitting on a file cabinet in my office.

Next, that they are so much more than the finicky plants that we buy at the holidays and then discard. They actually grow into shrubs in tropical countries like Mexico and central America (so, no putting them in closets or putting boxes over them there, clearly).

So that’s myth number one–that poinsettias need to be kept in artificial darkness to rebloom.

The next myth gets us toxicity–a subject I touched on with respect to children and pets on Monday. While it’s just never a good idea to eat any plant unless you’re sure of its consumability (there are a few truly toxic plants out there–I even own some!) poinsettias are not toxic. They may give you a stomach ache–but they won’t kill you.

And despite all sorts of articles all over the web from completely reputable sources (here ite all sorts of articles all over the web from completely repurable sources (here ite all sorts of articles all over the web from completely repurable sources (here is one from the Poison Control Center, for example) this myth persists.

In fact, I would have to say that it is second only to hydrangea questions for me. Again, if I had a nickel for every time someone said to me, “Oh, I can’t have a poinsettia, because I have a dog/cat/child,” I wouldn’t be posting about this, I would own a place on a warm sunny island where I would no longer worry about poinsettias or winter!

If fact, if you don’t want to believe the poison control center, perhaps you’d prefer what doctors at the Mayo Clinic have to say about poinsettias. Again, they can cause mild irritation, some stomach upset, a skin rash–but then again, so can any plant in the euphorbia family.

And as we know, lots of plants, such as the dreaded poison ivy, can do far worse to those susceptible to its oils.

So please, people, let us stop the craziness. And if you like these plants, please buy them and enjoy.

Stripes, or….

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If you have read this blog for a long time, you know that I am a huge fan of the genus sanseveria. Call these plants what you like–I usually call them snake plants but I know Mother in laws tongue is pretty common too–these plants are having their “moment” right now.

And they should. They always travel with me to lectures. I use them as examples of plants that will “almost grow in a closet.” In other words, they will grow in a very dark corner, completely neglected, and un-watered for weeks. Isn’t that where most of us encountered our first one, maybe in childhood or in a commercial building?

However, while they will grow in dark corners, these plants will also grow in east or west exposures–at least in my northern climate. And that’s where they really begin to shine and look glorious. They will bloom for you–mine bloom every year. And they will take on interesting coloring, even in the so-called boring green varieties.

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Here’s one of the variegated varieties with the bloom stalk about to open.

Incidentally, they also make great container plants for outdoors. I generally plant them with plants that tend to like it on the drier side–succulents, heuchera or even annual pelargonium (geranium) would work. But I wouldn’t plant them with something that’s going need a lot of water.

Snake plants are some of my favorites. Their interesting shapes and colorful leaves brighten a room year round. The fact that mine bloom is just an added bonus.

A Surprising Gift Plant

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This collection of plants was part of a dish garden that my neighbor received a little over a year ago when her husband passed away. She has nurtured it quite beautifully, but she professed to be “no good with plants” and passed it along to me for transplanting and safekeeping.

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What you might be able to tell from this photo is how pot-bound it was. Look at the tangle of roots where I have already cut out one of the plants. Despite that, the little dish garden was really thriving. I only had to remove a little bit of decay from the palm and some die back on the maranta (prayer plant–and they can be a little finicky anyway) and the rest of the plants were in really good shape.

What’s also very interesting about the collection of plants in this dish garden is that with the exception of the maranta, they are all known to be great plants for cleaning the air.

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Perhaps it’s not easy to see what’s in the dish garden from these photos. There was the little palm that I previously mentioned, and the prayer plant. There were 2 dracaenas, a variegated one and a variety called ‘Janet Craig,’ which is smaller. There was a philodendron and a peace lily (spathophilum). It’s really a nice little collection of plants.

And this is the end result once the plants were all separated and potted up. I asked my neighbor if there was at least one that she would like to keep but she said no. So my house plant collection has been significantly enriched by this!

Practicing What I Preach–Sort Of

One of the things I always talk about when I lecture is the importance of foliage in garden design. Even when I am talking about house plants, foliage is the star–I will often bring 20 or 30 plants to display–and after everyone is done “oohing and aahing,” I will remark that it’s important to notice a couple of things about my display: first, how colorful it is and second, that there are maybe only one or perhaps two at most flowering plants int he whole thing (and if there are, I guarantee you one is a phalaenopsis orchid so that I can talk about proper watering technique–not the “ice cube” method.)

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For example, here’s a grouping of plants from my living room. There’s not a flowering plant among them but the grouping is vibrant and colorful. This photo is from last year so it’s changed up a little bit, but it’s still substantially similar–and still no flowers in this low-light area beneath a window.

The same results can be achieved outdoors as well. In fact, when I have the time and energy, I find that it’s almost more fun to create all foliage containers. I have not created anything at all this year–as I type, I am nursing a 3″ scar across the my arm–and I am right handed–that is preventing me from doing anything outside at all, including watering. That’s where the Spoiler comes in handy. But I knew this was coming so I didn’t make this an intensive gardening year. There’s always next year.

For inspiration, however, check out these lovely, mostly foliage containers at Avant Gardens. And then plan for your foliage containers in the future!

Ways of Seeing

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I had this photo of my clivia miniata up just a little over a week ago on a “Wordless Wednesday.”

I’m posting it again today for a different reason. As we begin to fully enter spring in the northern hemisphere, I want to remind everyone to take time to really look at flowers. (So I guess you can tell that while I am a little too young to have been a “hippie,” I definitely believe in that stopping to smell the flowers–and to look closely at them–is a good thing!)

I remember distinctly a time when I said to someone how much I loved tulips because there were so many colors held within just one flower.The person looked at me as if I had 3 heads. But I would say the same thing about this lovely clivia flower.

Of course it’s a screaming orange color at first glance. That’s what attracts our gaze. But I am willing to believe that is what attracts pollinators to this beautiful flower (in its natural habitat, of course–not in my living room!)

Once the pollinators notice, I suspect they are lured in by the other coloration. I have read that bees don’t see red very well–they see it as a muddy dark color–and that’s why hummingbirds know that red flowers will have nectar left, for example.

There are some fabulous internet videos of the way bees see color–if you’re interested, take a look!

But the yellow throat of this clivia probably shows up as screaming, shocking fuschia to a bee!

And I adore the three delicate white scallops leading to the yellow throats of each petal.

Next time you have a flowering plant in bloom, take a closer look. Who knows what you’ll see?