WINTER RX FOR HOUSEPLANTS

A happy Peace Lily

Sometimes I don’t follow my own advice. Take caring for houseplants during the dark days of winter, for instance. Some of mine aren’t looking that spiffy. I may just have to give up on having a plant in the corner in the TV room. None of the very low light plants make it over the winter in that spot. The other plants are looking pretty good. Here are some tips to help your indoor plants thrive at this time of year while they get ready for spring growth.

A typical houseplant lives in the understory of a tropical rain forest where it gets filtered light. They’re used to warm rain and perfect drainage. We put them in pots inside our homes where they have much different conditions to contend with. Most houseplants will tolerate darker conditions if you adjust your watering to accommodate the slower growth rate.

Water just enough to keep the soil from going totally dry allowing oxygen to move back into the root zone. Let the soil in a 4-6 inch pot dry half an inch down between waterings then water with room temperature water. Don’t let the pot sit in a saucer of water or the roots will rot. If your plant is in a larger pot let the soil dry a couple inches between waterings. A moisture meter is very helpful for larger plants.

Move plants into the best light you have. Even a table lamp will provide light for a plant growing underneath. Remove dust with a moist cloth or place the entire plant under lukewarm water in the sink. Dust blocks light from getting to leaves.

Fertilize less often skipping December and January and starting up again with half strength fertilizer in mid-February. Houseplants are essentially dormant in winter needing fertilizer only when active growth resumes.

Don’t repot a plant in winter when they are slow to grow new roots. Replant when the growing season resumes in March or April. Choose a pot only two inches bigger than the old pot each time you transplant. Most plants grow happily for years in the same pot and soil with proper fertilizing and watering during the growing season.

Avoid placing plants in cold drafts near high-traffic areas such as a foyer or hallway. Ficus trees are notorious for dropping leaves when exposed to temperature changes.

Sanseviera- Mother-in-Law-Tongue- can tolerate low light

If you have medium to low light conditions in your house some of the best upright plants are philodendron, peace lIly, Chinese evergreen, cast-iron plant, schefflera, arboricola, ferns and palms. Hanging plants that grow well in low light are heart-shaped philodendron, pothos and grape ivy. Most of these houseplants grow naturally in low light areas of the jungle. Don’t overwater and they’ll be happy.

If you do find insects on your plants, a spray of mild insecticidal soap for houseplants usually does the trick if you do a follow up spraying a week later. Horticultural oil works well, too, by smothering insects and their eggs. If you have tiny black fungus gnats flying over the soil, you are watering too frequently. They feed on the algae growing on moist soil. Scrape off the surface, spray with insecticidal soap and let the soil dry out.

Dark corner= not so happy plant. This one declined slowly but surely.

I’ve been known to advise fellow plant lovers and clients to “do as I say, not as I do.” but I’m turning over a new leaf this year -no pun intended.

Adding Color to the Garden

Seems there’s a rumble between Pantone Color Institute who has designated Living Coral as their 2019 Color of the Year and Sherman Williams who has chosen Cavern Clay. Benjamin Moore also chose a gray color they describe as “stylish and understated.” While I’m not pushing any paint company over another I do have to say that I’ll be incorporating more coral and other warm colors in gardens I design this year. Gray and silver foliage complement bright colors so I’m not really ignoring them.

A while back when all things were growing under warm sunshine I came across a garden filled with coral, apricot, papaya and orange toned flowers along with various shades of blue and violet. We all dream of a garden consisting of just 2 or 3 colors and this palette of strong colors pulled it off beautifully.

Don’t be afraid to play with color even if you don’t get it right the first time. Just learn from your mistakes and make adjustments. Whether it’s a pastel Monet garden or a hot Samba garden you want to create, here’s how your own garden can draw oohs and aahs in every season.

Warm colors tend to be more stimulating, dynamic and noticeable from afar than cool hues which are more calming and understated. Warm colors advance visually, cool ones recede. So to make a small garden appear larger use cool blues and lavenders in the back with just a touch of scarlet, orange or yellow up close for contrast. Do the opposite to make a large space more intimate – position warm colors at the back, cool colors in front.

Garden colors aren’t static either. They vary with time of day, the season, the weather and the distance from which we view them. Also color perception varies among people and not all people with normal vision see color the same way. Since color and light are inseparable, white, yellow and pastels seem more vivid in low light. In overcast or fog, soft colors like pink, creamy yellow, pale blue and lavender come alive. As night approaches and the earth is bathed in blues and violets, those colors are the first to fade from view.

Have fun with color. Try new combinations. I often hear people say “I like all the colors except orange”. Orange naturally combines with blue as these ‘sunset’ colors are opposite each other on the color wheel. Think how nice bright orange California poppies look with blue marguerites or peach poppies with blue violas. You might not think of linking orange with pink but it’s a pleasing combination. It works because pink is analogous with purple. Try combining orange calibrachoa in a planter with pink arctotis and lavender Silver Sky bacopa to harmonize with the pink and contrast with the orange.

Foliage is a rich source or garden color. You can find plants with yellow, red, purple, blue or gray foliage as well as shades of green with variegated, marbled or streaked leaves. Rose Glow barberry has rich marbled bronzy red and pinkish hew foliage and looks sensational next to coral Grosser Sorten pelargoniums.

And don’t forget white, cream and silver flowers and foliage to brighten up the night garden. White combines nicely with both warm and cool colors so it’s easy to place. It’s an effective peacemaker between colors that would clash if placed side by side. In shady gardens, plants like white bleeding heart, wavy cream-edged hosta, white browallia, white hydrangea, lamium and white calla lily pop at night. Gardens in more sun can plant Holly’s White penstemon, silvery bush morning glory, dichondra Silver Falls, fragrant Iceberg roses, white sweet alyssum and Whirling Butterflies gaura for the butterflies.

Plants grow and gardens change over time. Realize that you’re embarking on a journey that may take many years. Have fun getting there.

Thoughts for 2019 from the Mountain Gardener

It’s always hard to me to get my head around the fact that not only has the calendar turned over to 2019 but with days getting longer a new gardening season is upon us. I’ve already seen magnolia soulangeana blooming. Those huge tulip shaped purplish flowers would get anyone’s attention.

I did fulfill a few goals I had for last year by adding more pollen-producing flowering plants to attract beneficial insects. They’ll keep the good guys around longer to eat the bad bugs. And I learned what quite a few of the good guys look like. I’m going to count this as two resolutions.

I sat in my garden and enjoyed it– not jumping up to rearrange containers or deadhead. This one was easy.

I accepted a few holes in my plants and walked around the garden regularly to identify if a problem was getting out of control and I needed to break out an organic pesticide.

You, fellow gardeners, are unique. I can’t imagine any group of people more diverse and feisty and independent than gardeners. Yet we have such a connection. We love and are fascinated with nature. We find our deepest satisfaction in coaxing plants from the earth, in nurturing their growth. We are enduring pragmatists.

Enjoy your garden. Set realistic goals. After all, who cares if there are a few weeds here and there when you’re sitting under a shade tree next July? Enjoy a beverage of some kind often in your garden. That clean up or transplanting will still be there tomorrow.

Allow some empty places for new plants, transplants or garden art. It makes a garden your own. Add whatever makes you happy and your heart soar when you’re in your garden. Pay attention to the size that a plant will attain. It will save you lots of problems later. Weed often but not when you’re enjoying a beverage.

Dreaming is more than an idle pursuit. It’s good for you and improves the quality of your life over the long haul. We gardeners are eternal optimists. Why else would we plant a tree, a seed or a garden?

New Years resolutions for gardeners should be mere suggestions. Don’t worry if you don’t get to everything you hoped to accomplish. It’s all in the baby steps. Your wish list will serve you well during the cold, wet days of winter even if you don’t get them implemented. Sure planning a landscape that conserves water will benefit the environment and your budget and ordering seeds for the spring garden is great therapy for winter blues but there’s always next year or next month or the summer after next.

Learn something new every day. Whether it’s something new in the garden or elsewhere, keep learning.

Plant more edibles if you can. Edibles in the garden feed both the body and the soul. More than just vegetables and fruit, growing food connects us to the earth and to each other.

When you grow something you are being a good steward of the land as you enrich the topsoil using sustainable organic techniques. You connect with neighbors by trading your extra pumpkins for their persimmons. Knowledge of how and what to grow can be exchanged, seeds swapped. Do your best even if you only have a few containers to grow an Early Girl tomato or some Rainbow chard.

Enjoy the simple things. Laugh often. Life is not measured by the breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away. Everyday is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.

Happy New Year to all of my fellow gardeners from The Mountain Gardener. May your tomatoes be sweet and your roses as fragrant as a summer’s eve.

Twas the Night before Christmas – A Poem for Gardeners

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the garden,
The creatures were stirring, the deer got a pardon.
The hummingbird feeders were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that the Anna’s soon would be there.

The flowering cherries were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of spring glory danced in their heads.
The summer vegetables were harvested and beds put to nap,
The compost’s a brewing so next year’s a snap.

When out on the lawn there rose such a clatter,
I ran into the garden to see what was the matter.
And what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a big flock of chickadees and eight black-tailed deer.

They spoke not a word, but went straight to their work,
The chickadees devouring aphids with amazing teamwork.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the deck,
Prancing and pawing, the deer making a wreck.

A hydrangea here, an abutilon there, this garden’s a feast,
With edibles and perennials at the very least.
We love this garden, they whispered to themselves,
With any luck, they’ll think we’re the elves !

Beautiful flowers and nectar and fragrance abounds,
We’ll include this forever on one of our rounds.
The birds can sing and fly in the skies
But we have the charm with huge brown doe-eyes.

We get a bad rap, it’s not all our fault,
Most of our feeding grounds are covered with asphalt.
Just give us a sleigh and we’ll make you proud,
We’re good for more than eating roses, they vowed.

Call us Dasher and Dancer and Comet and Vixen,
Or Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen,
Then maybe you’ll forgive us for our past mistakes,
We can’t help that we eat plants, we don’t eat steaks.

Now if you’ve been good this year, do make a wish,
And then when you see us- welcome, don’t banish.
All of us creatures will give our best shot,
To nourish your garden with nary a thought.

So everybody listen carefully on Christmas Eve,
And maybe you’ll hear and then you’ll believe.
You may even hear us exclaim as we prance out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

My thanks to Clement Clark Moore who wrote the original poem in 1822 in New York. I’d like to believe that he would enjoy my version for gardeners everywhere. Happy Holidays from the The Mountain Gardener.

Sherman & The Mountain Gardener in front of their Christmas tree

Holiday Traditions & Customs

We all celebrate the holidays in different ways. Each family has their own traditions and warm memories from years gone by. Some of us celebrate Christmas, some Hanukkah, some Kwanzaa. Many of our traditional Christmas customs originate from Winter Solstice celebrations. The plants associated with each are an important part of tradition and symbolism.

Winter solstice is the 21st of December. Solstice literally means “Sun Stands Still’ and for a few days around this time of year the sun appears to stand still in the sky. Nearly all cultures and faiths have some sort of winter solstice celebration. They have been with us for thousands of years starting at the beginning of agriculture among people who depended on the return of the sun. We have incorporated many of the plants from traditional winter solstice celebrations into our own- holly, ivy, evergreens, rosemary and mistletoe. How did this come about?

A holiday wreath made with holly and evergreens welcomes visitors

Holly remains green throughout the year when deciduous trees like the oak shed their leaves. Decorating with it throughout the home has long been believed to bring protection and good luck. Placing a ring of holly on doors originated in Ireland since holly was one of the main plants that was green and beautiful with its red berries at this time of year. Norseman and Celts planted a holly tree near their homes to ward off lightning strikes. The crooked lines of holly leaves gave rise to its association with lightning and in fact holly does conduct lighting into the ground better than most trees.

Holiday wreath made with hydrangea, camelia, berries, tea tree blossoms, variegated pittosporum 

Like other evergreens, ivy symbolizes immortality and eternal life. In England it is traditionally used in kissing balls with holly and mistletoe. It has also stood for fidelity, healing and marriage. Ancient Romans thought it brought good luck and joy. It was worn as a crown or fashioned into wreaths or garland.

Evergreen trees play a role in solstice celebrations. Early Romans and Christians considered the evergreen a symbol of the continuity of life. Fir, cedar, pine boughs and wreaths were used to decorate homes. Small gifts were hung from the branches in groves. This may have been where the Christian tradition of decorating an evergreen tree or Yule tree in December originated. Other sacred trees of the solstice are yew, birch, arborvitae and ash.

We often see rosemary plants trained into a Christmas tree shape. Rosemary is evergreen in the winter and blooms at the same time making it the perfect plant for the holidays. Traditionally rosemary was spread on floors at Christmas as people walked over the herb releasing the fragrant scent and filling the home with blessings and protection.

How did our enduring fascination with mistletoe get started? From earliest times it has been one of the most magical, mysterious and sacred plants of Greeks, Celts, Scandinavia, England and European folklore in general.The Druids believed the mistletoe’s magical powers extended beyond fertility. It was believed to cure almost any disease and was know as the “all healer”. Sprigs fixed above doorways of homes were said to keep away lightning and other types of evil. Because the plant has no roots it was believed that it grew from heaven.

Kissing under the mistletoe probably came from the Greek/Roman belief that it bestowed fertility and had life-giving power. In Scandinavia it was considered a plant of peace under which enemies could declare a truce or fighting spouses could kiss and make up. However this tradition originated it’s a good one.

Traditional plants symbolic of Hanukkah are the citron, myrtle twigs, willow twigs and palm fronds. The Four Species are waved together along with special blessings as part of the synagogue service or at home.
Kwanzaa, another celebration of light, features the harvest foods of Africa: ears of corn, fruit and nuts. It is a secular celebration observed during the last week of December to celebrate the “fruit” or accomplishments coming out of the year of labor.

Around the world, holiday celebrations have their own special meaning. With friends and family, embrace your traditions and have a wondrous holiday.

Toxic Holiday Plants

With the holiday season upon us I enjoy colorful plants on my tabletop and window sill. How safe are holiday plants for pets and small children?

I already have a beautiful poinsettia on my table and soon I’ll be getting other holiday plants such as cyclamen, paperwhite narcissus, maybe a pink jasmine wreath or one with holly, ivy and evergreens. I also like those rosemary topiaries that are trained in the shape of a Christmas tree and have already started one of those huge showy amaryllis bulbs. Christmas cactus grow in several locations. Some of these plants that may be toxic.

Poinsettia

Poinsettia hold up well either as a cut flower or a living plant. This is the classic plant to decorate our homes at this time of year. Mostly it’s too cold here in the mountains for poinsettia to survive outside at night but being native to Mexico they thrive in the warmth of the house. They need a bright spot and the soil should be allowed to dry slightly, but not completely, between watering. Deprive them of either of these requirements and the lower leaves will yellow and drop. Also be sure they aren’t sitting in water at the bottom of the container. Poinsettia are brittle but if you break off a branch sear the end of the stem with a flame and it will hold up quite well in a vase or arrangement.

Are poinsettia poisonous? Ohio State University conducted extensive research and concluded that although poinsettia sap from leaves and flowers that might give you a stomach ache if you ate them they won’t seriously hurt you. The sap may cause a rash if it comes in contact with the skin on some people. With this in mind, you should keep poinsettia plants out of the reach of curious pets and small children.

There are two pets in my household– a cat named Archer and Sherman, the Welch springer spaniel. I usually put a couple red and white cyclamen on a table in the house. Are cyclamen safe around them?

Cyclamen

According to the Pet Poison Helpline cyclamen are mild to moderately toxic to dogs and cats if ingested but it’s the root or corm that is especially toxic if ingested in large quantities. Pets and people react differently and it is unlikely that children) would eat the corm and be affected.

Amaryllis

My beautiful amaryllis flower and leaves are safe but the bulb is toxic. Amaryllis bulbs contain the same alkaloid that is found in narcissus and daffodil and is the reason deer know to leave them alone. Ingesting a small amount will produce few or no symptoms, however.

Azalea leaves and Christmas cactus are toxic and should be kept away from pets and small children. Holly berries are toxic if eaten in large quantities. Same for mistletoe and ivy.

While serious complications aren’t likely with holiday plants it’s still best to keep them away from small children and out of your pet’s reach.

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