A Buggy Time of Year

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I mentioned on Monday that we had had the house power washed recently. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Of course I had to move many of the over 100 house plants that I had brought outside so that they too wouldn’t be “power washed” or damaged in the process.

As I was doing so, I discovered that somehow the mealybug infestation that I had indoors had returned and had spread to several other plants.

Now, one of the reasons why I “summer” the plants outdoors is because a lot of these pesky plant issues have natural predators that are kept in check.

Scale, for instance, is nicely handled by wasps and ants.

And the hose washes off spider mites.

But apparently nothing likes mealy bugs. Doesn’t that figure?

Anyway, I found the problem, isolated the infected plants again, and we’ll see. I have one troublesome ficus that may just become compost at the end of the season.

So I definitely got much more than a power wash from this adventure!

Old versus New Plants

I am old enough to remember–and to have been gardening since before– the first house plant craze in the mid-1970s. If you can believe it, house plants were popular back in the age of disco! Somehow we don’t associate them with the Bee Gees and Donna Summer, though.

One of the fun things that I usually do when I lecture on house plants is to bring “old” and “new” versions of the same genus:the old plant would have been popular in the 1970s and the new plant is popular today.

So here’s what that looks like.

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We all know this one–in fact, we still see it occasionally in commercial settings. This is ficus benjaminii, or the weeping fig. Most folks gave up on them at home because they’re so finicky.

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So they decided on this trendy thing, ficus lyrica, the fiddle leaf fig, which is just slightly less demanding. But at least it doesn’t drop its leaves every time you look at it cross eyed (and believe me, with my double vision issue, I should know!)

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Here’s a plant you may not be familiar with. This is pilea involucrata moon valley. It’s just starting to get its color after a dismal winter of too little light.

This was a hugely popular plant back in “the old days,” particularly for terrariums. Now it’s just retro and old school (and still good for terrariums).

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This, of course, is the hugely popular pilea of today. It’s pilea peperomioides, which has about 10 common names or so.

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Finally there is the spider plant, chlorophytum comosum. I don’t even have a photo of that 1970s version because I don’t think they sell them anymore. Suffice it to say that they were all green, with no variegation. Today’s variety are all variegated.

So it’s easy to say that a lot of things have changed, but they haven’t really. I am as crazy about plants as I was in the 70s. And if the plants look a little different, that’s fine. That just gives me new reasons to seek them out!

Sneaky Little Devils

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One benefit of some extra time on my hands is that I managed to catch a very strange mites infestation. You can see the freshly showered plants here.

I am not sure if you can distinguish it, but all these plants are in the ficus genus. What’s interesting is that they are scattered around a rather large room with other plants in between that are not affected.

Some of the unaffected plants are a large ficus elastica, one of those very trendy pilea peperomoides, and 4 snake plants.

What’s especially unusual is that the plant in the upper left–ficus ‘Audrey’–has been deliberately segregated all winter because it’s had mealy bugs. Some plants can’t win for trying. But it was way away from everything. How do these mites travel?

I have to conclude that it’s me. They must hitch a ride on my clothing or hands and travel from plant to plant. But at least I have the time to catch this sort of thing right now.

Great Bloomin’ Aloe

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Remember my trip to Oklahoma City back at the end of January? Me either. That might as well have been in another century.

I bring it up again because I remember remarking when I was showing pictures of the Land Run Centennial Park that I hadn’t seen a lot of plants (well, yes, it was January) but I could identify an aloe that I had at home that blooms for me in a container.

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And here’s my blooming aloe. Now I can no more identify it (by variety or species) here than I can in Oklahoma. My recollection is that it came in a container of mixed succulents–and not necessarily the one I currently have it in.

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But clearly it’s happy at my house. That’s all that matters to me.

Sun’s Out–Time to Check for Bugs

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If your plants look like this, take a closer look. I did, and by accident discovered the beginning infestation of spider mites.

Luckily this plant is on a plant stand away from most of my plants. I took it to the sink, gave it a good rinse, and put it back on the plant stand.

I do expect re-infestation for a couple of reasons. First, mites breed on a 3 day cycle, and just because I cleaned the plant doesn’t mean that I got every single mite off.

Nor did I get every inch of the stand, or every crevice of the decorative pot clean. You begin to see the issue with something that breeds so quickly.

So since we all have a little more time on our hands, (or at least are spending a little more time at home with our plants), take some care to make sure insects don’t get out of hand.

Who needs one more issue right now?

Sun’s Out–Time to Water More

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It’s hard to believe how warm the late March sun is. But plants that are in south windows–and even some that are in east windows–need more water now.

How much am I talking about? Well, plants that were getting watered once a week–or, occasionally in the darkest, coldest part of winter, every 2 weeks–are now getting watered every 4 days, and if I weren’t so lazy I could do it every 3 days.

All the other plants–in the western and north windows–definitely need water every week. In winter, it wasn’t that way. Many weeks I went 2 weeks between watering.

So if you haven’t checked your plants lately and changed up your watering, maybe you want to think about that.

The Joy of Tiny Plants

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One thing that I don’t see talked about a lot are tiny plants. I see a lot of folks growing them–you just have to scroll through some house plant feeds on Instagram and there are lots of tiny plants (although the giant plants seem to be all the rage at the moment).

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And of course, as I mentioned last week, I like my plants to be interesting. So even most of my tiny plants have variegated leaves.

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This African violet is an exception. No interesting leaves. But I put the small pruner next to it so you could get a sense of size. This plant is probably 10 years old and may be 3-4″ wide. The leaves may be dime sized–if they’re that big.

Another fun thing to do is to find truly small cachepots for these plants.

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This is the pot that the tiny orchid is in–and yes, I brought it home from Aruba.

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This is a pretty hand-painted Italian pot. I am not sure where I got it but I love it. It holds the Asian violet.

So if you have the opportunity to grow some truly tiny plants, take it. They are a joy!

Yes, There Will Be Lemons

I talked last Friday about lecturing on house plants and how I always talk about the importance of interesting leaves in a house plant collection.

Another thing I mention–although it’s not as important as colorful leaves–and it’s much more elusive–is fragrance.

Fragrance can be tricky. The classic example of this is paperwhite narcissus. I’ve mentioned that I like the smell of those, but many people don’t. In fact, many people find the scent downright objectionable.

Jasmine is another one (Jasminum officinale). In small doses, it’s a heavenly scent. But once the whole plant starts blooming, it can be so overwhelming, it can actually give me a headache.

There’s a whole science to what goes on behind scent–I won’t get into it because I am not qualified and would make a muddle of it. I’ll simply repeat what I said at the beginning–scent is probably our most visceral sense. We know immediately what we like and what we don’t.

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One of these small flowers–a lemon blossom, but it’s true for other blossoms in the citrus family as well–perfumes a whole room in my home. I need only to walk into a room and I can tell when this plant–or my other citrus–is in bloom.

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This plant has bloomed quite a bit this winter–winter is the normal bloom time for many citrus–and already you can see small lemons beginning to form at the end of the branches. So long as I transition this plant gently outside in the spring–and gently back inside this fall–by next winder I should have edible lemons.

All of this is accomplished with no additional pollination from me. I have heard of folks who hand-pollinate their citrus with paintbrushes and I have seen small mechanized devices sold for such purpose.

As I have repeated many a time, in my house, it’s every plant for itself–and clearly this lemon is doing just fine. Bring on the lemonade.

Trendy House Plants

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It’s garden lecture season for me. One of my topics is “Hot Garden Trends.” And while house plants have been a hot trend for awhile, that’s really not what this post is about.

In the lecture, I say that an up and coming trend is “patterned gardening.” I don’t limit it to just plants; I talk about paving materials and even those houses for insects that have now gone mainstream.

It started as mason bee houses, but folks have now expanded that into whole apartments for bees, butterflies, ladybugs, lacewings and other beneficial insects. I guess they work–I have no idea. I prefer to let all those things just live and nest in my yard. But I am spoiled. I have a lot of property and can set aside brush piles and other places for them to do that.

Suddenly, however, I am getting articles about how “trendy” patterned house plants are. I guess that I had better change up my lecture to add this as a genuine trend.

Plants with interesting leaves are no stranger to me. In fact, as part of my house plant lecture, I always talk about growing plants with interesting leaves so that when they’re not in flower (if they flower at all) there’s something interesting to look at the rest of the year.

It’s a principle shade gardeners know well. Many shade garden plants are grown primarily for foliage (hostas, ferns, coral bells, etc.) But the leaves of many of those same plants are so stunning that you don’t care if they flower.

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Here are a few rhizamatous begonia. These leaves are so pretty that I don’t care if they bloom.

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This is an interesting plant called ruellia. It happens to be in bloom. But even when it’s not, the leaves are lovely enough that you don’t care.

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Then of course there’s the croton. Does anyone care that this doesn’t bloom?

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And speaking of patterns, remember these from Monday? They do bloom, but it’s so insignificant that I scarcely notice.

Obviously I didn’t acquire all these plants overnight. I have been collecting “patterned” plants for quite some time. I actually have lots more–but there’s no point in overkill. You can clearly see what a difference patterns make in a plant collection.

Houseplants Welcome Spring

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As of yesterday, March 1, we welcomed spring in the northern hemisphere. For those of you scratching your heads because you thought spring began with the vernal equinox on March 19, you’re not mistaken. We’re just talking about 2 different ways to measure when “spring” begins.

Most folks think it begins on the vernal equinox, which is somewhere between March 19–22 each year.

I use the meteorological way of calculating and thus spring begins March 1, summer begins June 1, autumn begins September 1 and winter begins December 1.

In any event, your house plants aren’t waiting for mid-March to know that spring has arrived. They are already responding to the longer daylight and warmer sun.

What does this mean for you? First, you will need to check your plants more frequently to see if they need water, particularly those in bright southern windows.

Next, you will want to make sure that plants that have been fine all winter in an east or west window are suddenly not getting too much sun. This happens to me every year (and unfortunately I don’t have the luxury of moving many of those plants–they just have to tough it out until my trees leaf out).

Finally, as your plants start to wake up, so do little insects. Be alert for this and catch infestations early, before they spread beyond the infested plant.

If you live in a cold climate–even in one that hasn’t had a particularly bad winter–it may be tempting to get outside as soon as you get a nice day. There’s nothing wrong with that. But don’t forget to check on your house plants too. They need you more than ever this time of year.