Category Archives: houseplants

Holiday Plant Safety for Pets and Small Children

pointsettia_colors.2048Throughout the year we enjoy many types of plants in the house but it’s during the winter as we spend more time inside that we really come to appreciate them. My cat, Sam Spade, likes to sit on my drafting table and look at the bird feeder in the tree outside the window. Next to the table is a houseplant that I never gave a second thought to until he started nibbling on it recently.

The plant is a Tricolor dracaena marginata and I should have checked for toxicity when I first got it. Thankfully, he didn’t become nauseous or developed any other symptoms. Now I have a beautiful poinsettia on the 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. I have already started one of those huge showy amaryllis bulbs and have Christmas cactus in several locations. How safe are these plants for Sam?

The classic plant to decorate our homes at this time of year is the poinsettia. I pointsettia_closeup.1920used to live in Pismo Beach where this plant grows tall in the mild winter weather. In Hawaii where my sister used to live they are used as hedges. Unfortunately, it’s too cold here in the mountains for poinsettia to survive outside at night.

The poinsettia is native to Mexico. In the 1820’s President Andrew Jackson appointed Joel Roberts Poinsettia as the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. In 1828 he found a beautiful shrub with large red “flowers” growing next to a road. He took cuttings and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. Because the leaves turn bright red around Christmas time they have been used as decorations for the holidays ever since.

Poinsettia hold up well inside either as a cut flower or a living plant. They need a bright spot in the house 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.

cyclamen_red_white.2048There are other pets in my household including another 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?

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. . Keep in mind that pets and people differ in which plants are toxic and to what agree. According to Dr. Leonard Perry of the University of Vermont, it’s the corm or tuber of the cyclamen that contains triterpenoid saponins and it is unlikely that humans (including children) would eat the thickened roots and be affected.amaryllis_white

My beautiful amaryllis flower and leaves are safe but it’s the bulb which is toxic. Amaryllis contain the same alkaloid that is found in narcissus and daffodil and is the reason wild animals like deer know to leave them alone. Keep them away from pets and small children although ingesting a small amount will produce few or no symptoms.

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 like with other holiday plants it’s still best to keep them away from small children and out of your pet’s reach.

Gardening Projects and Ideas for a Rainy Day

As I looked out the window at the rain coming down I thought of all the things I should be doing in the garden. “Where does the time go”, I thought to myself. “Why did you frolic in all that sunshine last month instead of transplanting and moving plants to better spots”?  I could tell from the conversation going on in my head that I needed some inspiration so off I went to visit a local garden store. I knew I was in trouble as I explored and wanted to buy nearly every cool plant I saw. Here are some of the plants that really caught my eye.

tillandsia_on_apple_branchLast month for my birthday a friend gave me a collection of tillandsia attached to an gnarled, mossy apple branch that had fallen from a tree in her garden. There are many kinds of these bromeliads or air plants as they are sometimes called and they can be displayed in lots of ways. At the garden store, I saw miniature hanging terrariums that looked awesome with several tiny tillandsia specimens, glossy pebbles and moss bits arranged inside. The humidity inside the glass as well as the bright light from a window is just what they like.

Other tillandsia were mounted on bark, some on driftwood, some in table top terrariums and some displayed in beautiful baskets. Tillandsia, like their relatives, Spanish moss and pineapple, have tiny scales on their leaves called trichomes which serve as very efficient absorption systems to gather water. They are very tolerant of drought conditions and will grow with just a spritzing of water although I like to run mine under lukewarm water to mimic the showers they might get where they normally grow in tropical tree limbs. They prefer the light from bright window but not direct sunlight and are among the easiest of indoor plants to grow and maintain.

I’m always on the lookout for ideas for landscape plants that might be perfect in an edgeworthia_chrysanthaupcoming design. Often what is needed to complement a house or view from a window is a plant with interesting foliage color or  branching pattern and bark in the dormant season. Showy, fragrant flowers make a welcome addition to the front entry at any time of year but I found one new to me and it’s blooming now.

Tucked among other plants with soft yellow and green foliage I saw my first Edgeworthia or Chinese Paper Bush. Also called yellow daphne, this daphne relative is grown mainly for its flowers. Tubular, bright yellow flower clusters fade to creamy white. The showy display is memorable. They definitely possess that weird appeal that collectors love. In China this plant is used to make paper and medicine.

Edgeworthia chyrsantha are hardy to 10 degrees and prefer half day sun or afternoon shade during the hot summer sun. They grow to about 6 feet tall and a bit wider. The tropical looking foliage is attractive during the summer but it’s the overwhelmingly fragrant display of pendent, golden yellow flowers that will make you want to grow this shrub in your garden. I’m looking forward to planting it next to a fragrant daphne.

pittosporum_tenuifolium_Irene_PattersonAnother plant that caught my eye was an Irene Patterson pittosporum tenuifolium. With speckled frosty green leaves this shrub will really light up a dark area. It can take full sun but it’s the shady areas I have in mind. Hardy to 15-20 degrees it will survive our winters and is adaptable to most soils. I think it would look great paired with the variegated huge green and white leaves of ligularia argentea.

I was also inspired to plant up my own succulent garden after seeing the display planted in recycled wooden boxes, old tins, antique cheese boxes and weathered boots. Whatever you have on hand with a drainage hole will look   succulent_garden2great with a succulent or two planted inside. Succulents in containers can be moved out of winter frost and rain which increases the variety that can survive in our area. I have a vintage Swift’s Silverleaf pure lard tin that’s just waiting to provide a home for some new succulents.  I’m looking forward to going back to the garden store to choose just the right specimens for his special container.

It’s fun to have some gardening projects that I can do indoors. There’s lots of time to plant those new landscape plants that caught my eye on a rainy day.

Winter Houseplant Care

sansevieriaI miss the Christmas tree and decorations that bring color to the house over the holidays.  After they’re packed away for another year and the tree recycled it looks a bit bare around here. The houseplants get their favorite places back now near the windows. This an important month for them when the garden is asleep. I want them to look great but Mother Nature delivers darker skies and less daylight hours. Even though they are still green they are taking a break and don’t grow much over the dark days of winter. Don’t become a clueless houseplant killer. Remember houseplants clean the air. We need them.

Light and water are the two main factors that cause a houseplant to go south.  A typical houseplant lives in the understory of a tropical rain forest where it gets filtered light until it grows big enough to reach up into the canopy for brighter light.  They’re used to lots of warm rain but perfect drainage, tooWe put them into pots inside our homes where they have much different conditions to contend with.  Most houseplants would like bright filtered morning sun by an east window but many will tolerate darker locations if you adjust your watering to accommodate the slower growth rate.

pathosWater just enough to keep the soil from going totally dry. Poke your finger into the soil. As a rule of thumb, if your plant is in a 4-6″ pot let the soil dry half an inch down between waterings then water thoroughly with room temperature water. Don’t let the pot sit in a saucer with water for over an hour or the roots will rot. If your plant is in an 8-12″ pot let the soil dry to 1-2″ down before watering and if you have a bigger specimen the soil should be dry  2-3″ down before watering.  Don’t panic if this takes 2-3 wks before the soil has dried sufficiently for a plant in a big pot.  A moisture meter is very helpful for your larger plants.

I’m like the cobbler who has holes in his shoes when it comes to plants.  I love to have lots of them around cymbidiumbut they have to be tough and easy to care for. If you have have medium to low light conditions like me in your house some of my favorite upright plants are split-leaf  philodendron or philodendron selloum,  spathiphylum ( peace lily), Chinese evergreen, cast-iron plant, schefflera, arboricola and parlor palm.  The low-light hanging plants that I love are the heart-shaped philodendron, pathos and grape ivy. Most of these houseplants grow naturally in low light areas of the jungle.
Houseplants don’t like to be transplanted during their dormant period in the winter.  They are slow to grow new roots at this time.  You can transfer a plant to a new pot that is about the same size or a just a little bit bigger if you need to but it’s better to put off any major potting projects until spring.  Remember to choose a pot only  2″ bigger than the old pot each time you transplant.  The soil can dry between waterings this way allowing oxygen to move into the root zone.

Fertilize less often.  Some houseplant growers skip fertilizing in December and January, starting up again with half strength fertilizer in mid-February.  Think of your houseplants as essentially dormant in winter.  They need fertilizer only when active growth resumes.

Avoid cold drafts.  Most houseplants can handle slightly cooler temperatures at night but detest blasts of chilly air.  Avoid placing most plants near drafty, high-traffic areas such as a foyer or hallway.  Ficus trees are famous for dropping leaves when exposed to temperature changes.

Plants get dusty decreasing the amount of light they can use to photosynthesize.  Insects such as spider mites actually thrive in dusty conditions.  Take your plants to the kitchen sink or tub every few months and wash them off with luke warm water or use a moist cloth or paper towel to wipe the dust off the leaves.  In the summer when it’s warm you can wash them off outside with the hose in the shade but it’s too cold now for this.  How would you like to have a cold hose turned on you these days?

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 the insects and its eggs.  If you have little 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.

Many common houseplants  help fight pollution indoors. They are able to scrub significant amounts of harmful gases out of the air through the everyday processes of photosynthesis and I’ll tell you which ones are the most effective in an upcoming column.

Colorful Houseplants

My birthday falls in February and Valentine's Day does, too. The weather this month can be a bit gloomy some years. That's why I'm always thrilled to receive a flowering indoor plant to brighten things up. Many bloom for a very long time making them a good investment. They are easier than you think to take care. Color inside the house is like seeing a rainbow. Flowering plants make you smile.

My mother used to love anthuriums so I always think of her whenever I see them. Found in wet tropical mountain forests of Central and South America some varieties have the unique ability to swivel their leaves toward the sun. Anthurium andraeanum is the common variety grown mainly in Florida and the Netherlands as an indoor house plant.

anthurium_closeup_rrAnthuriums are durable and will survive for a remarkable period of time, even under adverse conditions. The beautiful waxy flowers along with large, heart-shaped glossy leaves are able to handle dryness around the root ball but then need to be watered thoroughly and allowed to dry slightly between waterings. They can take as much indirect light as you can provide. Lower levels of light will slow down flower production but the plant will survive just about anything. They make me think I'm in Hawaii again.

The amazing bromeliad family includes Spanish moss and the edible pineapple. Bromeliads are commonly called "air plants" but really they are epiphytes growing up in the air on tree limbs and crotches or in rock crevices, free of any connection to the ground. There are just a few species which grow on the ground and are rooted in soil. Bromeliads are distinctive as they have so many forms, textures, colorful leaves and long-lasting blooms. That's why I like them. They are among the easiest of indoor plants to grow and maintain.

I have a collection of tillandsias also in the bromeliad family. Some grow in shells, some on drift wood, some in terrariums. These are what most people think of as air plants but really they do need a lukewarm shower now and again like they would get in the tropics.

Then there are the bromeliads with bright, colorful bracts or modified leaves surrounding a tiny bromeliad_rflower. Bromeliads flower only once, then send out new young offsets. All bromeliads share a common characteristic: trichomes which are tiny scales on their leaves. These scales serve as a very efficient absorption system. Bromeliads are very tolerant of drought conditions. In a normal house, it's not necessary to keep the central cup filled with water. If your plant is growing in a lot of light and you do fill the cup with water, make sure to flush it every so often to remove any salt build up.

Bromeliads are not heavy feeders and normally live on the scanty nutrients their roots obtain from rotting leaves. During the growing season you can use a liquid fertilizer at half or quarter strength. There are so many types of bromeliads to choose from. All are beautiful and provide color for a very long time.

There a several other blooming houseplants that are also personal favorites. We all have a couple of African violets happily blooming in a windowsill. Phalaenopsis orchids are pretty easy to bring into bloom in the average house. And one of the best houseplants for a hanging basket that takes lower light levels and dry conditions is the Lipstick plant. Free-flowering in shades of orange or red, the Lipstick plant is a relative of African violet and Streptocarpus. With showy flowers they are also related to "Goldfish plants". They prefer a well-drained potting mix since they are accustomed to surviving on rainwater running off the trees in the wild.

Remember that hanging plants that are closer to the ceiling where the air is warmer will dry out faster and need to be watered more frequently.

Living plants bring the outside in, clean the air and provide color when the sky is grey.

March Gardening Tips

The rain last week was welcomed by all of us who like to watch things grow. There's a patch of grass growing beside a creek where I live that is the brightest neon green I've ever seen. Whether you call it apple green or lime green or chartreuse it shouts spring officially started on March 20th, the vernal equinox.

Spring weather here in the Santa Cruz Mountains can be warm and sunny one day, gray and rainy the next. Strong winds often blow last years crop of oak leaves all over the deck you've just swept but none of us would  live anywhere else.

Now that daylight savings time has started we have more time to spend out in the garden. One simple addition that makes being outside in the cooler evenings more enjoyable is a fire pit. For ideas search Google images to be inspired. You can install a simple metal fire pit for burning wood or get fancy with a stone pit surrounded with gravel and stone seat walls. I guarantee you'll be happy you set aside a space for this addition to your garden.

What other to-do's are there in the garden in March?

Fertilize – Take advantage of the moist soil to fertilize your garden.  Lawns and groundcovers are beginning their spring growth spurt and new leaves on trees, shrubs and perennials are starting to emerge. Spread compost, manure, or organic fertilizer to help plants get off to a strong start. Your citrus may be looking yellow from lack of nitrogen which has leached out of the soil through the rainy season and they may be lacking in iron.  Feed them with citrus and fruit tree fertilizer. I like to put out a granular or time release fetilizer before a storm and let the rains water it in for me.  Make sure you keep fertilizer off the foliage and crown of the plants. Wait to feed azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons until after they bloom.

Prune – Clean up winter damage on perennials, vines and shrubs.

Transplant –  If you need to move any plants in the garden, now is a good time.  Plants are full of growth hormones and recover quickly from transplant shock.

Divide perennials –  To increase your plantings, lift and divide black-eyed Susan, gaillardia, catmint, coreopsis, daylily, diascia, geranium, ground morning glory, lamb's ears, penstemon, shasta daisy, society garlic and yarrow.  Also I see my hostas are just beginning to come up so dividing them or transplanting them at this time is easy and you don't risk ruining their georgous leaves later after they unfurl.

Weed – Pull weeds regularly before they set seed. They pull out easily from moist soil. Think of weeding as free gym time.

Houseplants – Now that the days are getting longer and temperatures are inching up your houseplants can be repotted if roots are poking out of the bottom or are matted on the surface.  Houseplants rest in the winter and don't require much fertilizing.  You can resume feeding now with a balanced fertilizer. Your plants will benefit also from leaching the accumulated salts from the soil. Take them to the sink and run room temperature water through them several times.  Houseplants clean the air.

Our last estimated hard frost of the season is approximately March 15th. Sometimes we get light frosts into April so have frost blankets or any blanket or towel ready to protect seedlings. Even a cardboard box over frost tender new growth will work fine.

Happy Holidays in the Santa Cruz Mountains

If my plants could talk they’d have a long list of requests for Christmas. A lot of people tell me they talk to their plants but I don’t. Hopefully we are in sync without any words spoken by either of us.  I  do know they have some needs and wants so here are few of what made it to their .

From the fruit trees:  All I want for Christmas are my two prunings per year, my two prunings per year, my two prunings per year. Gee, if I could have one each summer and winter, I’d produce lots of fruit each year. And Santa, I’d also like some nitrogen from composted manure or an organic fertilizer in March, then after I’ve set fruit in June and again after harvest. Also don’t forget to water me regularly and deeply during the dry months.

From the California native plants:  All I want for Christmas is a place in the landscape. Here in California we are blessed with thousands of plant species, many found nowhere else on Earth, that have evolved with our unique climates, soils and fauna. Renew and rediscover the value we provide to conservation and habitats. Plant some of us to connect you to the land. And remember we need water and pruning, too, just on our own schedule.

From the houseplants:  All I want for Christmas is a little light in the winter, not much fertilizer, if any and to dry out a bit between waterings. Also who likes cold drafts from the front door? Dust my leaves occasionally and don’t repot me during the winter and in return I’ll keep your indoor air cleaner and healthier.

From the birds in the garden: Please Santa, send me some berries to eat.  I like redtwig dogwood fruits and also elderberries, toyon, wax myrtle, mahonia and coffeeberries. My hummingbird friends would like some flowering currants, manzanita blossoms and any salvias you happen to have in the workshop.

From the perennials: All I want for Christmas is the right growing conditions for me. If I’m a sun lover don’t try to grow me under the trees and if I like it cool and moist put me where I’ll be happy winter and summer. I’ll thrive and bloom and be happy and healthy and you won’t waste valuable time and money. If I could talk I’d also ask for some fresh compost in the spring and a light haircut would be nice, too.

From the spiders among the plants: We’re in all healthy gardens and we’re good for them.  As important predators of pests we reduce insect damage on plants.  We eat more insects and other invertebrates annually than the weight of all humans combined. All we want for Christmas is a pesticide-free garden so we can do our work.

From me to you: All I want for Christmas is for everyone to have a Happy Holiday.