Category Archives: houseplants

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.


Fall Tips for Gardeners

Halloween is just around the corner and besides deciding what your or the kids are going to be this year, it’s time to bring in any plants that you plan to overwinter in the house. Whether they’re the houseplants that you put out on the patio for the summer or frost tender plants that you want to save, this is the .

 Although our nights are still well above freezing,  plants need to acclimate to the indoor environment before you start turning on the heater regularly. Be sure to wash them thoroughly and inspect them for any insects that may have taken up residence while they were vacationing outside. Usually you can dislodge any hitchhikers with a strong spray of water but if that doesn’t do the trick, spray them with a mild insecticidal soap or one of the other mild organic herbal sprays like oil of thyme.

If you want to decorate for Halloween there is a lot of plant material you can harvest from your own garden or nearby woods. Manzanita branches can often be found on the ground and make great arrangements combined with nandina or other berries. Some of the trees have started to turn color and their leaves can also be used for wreaths.  The leaves of New Zealand flax last a long time and add fall color in bouquets.

Mums are the classic fall flower.  They come in nearly every color except blue and the flowers have many shapes from daisy to spider mums.  They are perennials and make good additions to the garden. Best of all they make excellent cut flowers.

This October has had the perfect weather  allowing fall color to develop in our trees, shrubs and perennials.  Warm days, cool nights, not a lot of wind or heavy rain all help plants to attain and keep those bright reds, oranges and yellow colors we love. Here’s a short list of small plants that you can easily find space for even in the smaller garden.

Japanese barberry turn yellow, orange or red. They get red berries and are deer resistant.
Blueberries not only are good for you and their foliage turns beautiful yellow-orange in the fall.
Oakleaf hydrangea leaves take on burgundy hues.
Crape myrtle shrubs explode with brilliant red and orange color.
Pomegranate bushes turn bright yellow
Spirea foliage varies from red, orange to yellow.

Squirrel wars
If you are at odds like me with squirrels that dig up everything while burying acorns for the winter, delay planting your bulbs until Thanksgiving when they’ve finished stocking the pantry.  Store you bulbs in the frig or a cool place until then.  If you just have to plant some on a beautiful autumn day, cover the area with flat stones or chicken wire.

Don’t prune now
One last thing and you’ll be happy to hear this.   Fall is not a good time to prune.  Wounds heal slowly, leaving them more susceptible to disease.  As a general rule, don’t prune when leaves are falling or forming.  Wait to prune most trees until late in the dormant season or  late spring after leaves and needles form.  To avoid sap flow on birches and maples, prune after leaves mature. 

Houseplants that are Good for You

As summer comes to a close, students are back in school and all of us are spending more time indoors. Time to spruce up our homes with houseplants. Whether you have a home office, small desk for studying or just a chair where you like to read, adding a few houseplants to clean the air and bring a touch of nature inside is a great idea. There are plants that thrive with little care and are   I know, my house is quite dark and my plants are happy and healthy.

Plain green leafy types do best where the light is low.   My favorite upright plants include schefflera, Hawaiian arboricola,  philodendrons like selloum and split-leafed, Chinese evergreen, spathiphyllum (peace lily),cast iron plant (aspidistra), parlor palm, snake plant and ferns .  They are native to the jungle understory, under the canopy,  and grow naturally in low-light areas.   Hanging plants that I grow in these same conditions are heart-shaped philodrendron, pathos, and grape ivy. 

Many common houseplants  help fight pollution indoors.  They’re reportedly able to scrub significant amounts of harmful gases out of the air, through the everyday processes of photosynthesis. Some pollutants are also absorbed and rendered harmless in the soil.  Plant physiologists already knew that plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen as part of the photosynthetic process. Researchers have found many common houseplants absorb benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene, as well.

Most of the plants  evolved in tropical or sub-tropical forests, where they received light filtered through the branches of taller trees. Because of this, their leaf composition allows them to photosynthesize efficiently under relatively low light conditions, which in turn allows them to process gasses in the air efficiently.

Some houseplants are better at removing formaldehyde from the air, while others do a better job on benzene; none is much help when it comes to tobacco smoke. But there are enough known plants that do a good job of removing pollutants from the air we breathe to cause us to view houseplants as more than just an attractive feature to decorate our homes.

One is the common succulent, Aloe vera (now renamed Aloe barbadensis), also known as "medicine plant." Many people already have one in a bright kitchen window because of the soothing, healing properties its viscous inner tissue has on burns, bites and skin irritations.

Soil and roots were also found to play an important role in removing air-borne pollutants. Micro-organisms in the soil become more adept at using trace amounts of these materials as a food source, as they were exposed to them for longer periods of time. Their effectiveness is increased if lower leaves that cover the soil surface are removed, so there is as much soil contact with the air as possible.

NASA studies generated the recommendation that you use 15 to 18 good-sized houseplants in 6 to 8-inch diameter containers to improve air quality in an average 1,800 square foot house. The more vigorously they grow, the better job they’ll do for you.

The best indoor pollution fighters are:

    * Hedera helix  – English ivy
    * Chlorophytum comosum  – spider plant
    * Epipiremnum aureum  – golden pothos
    * Spathiphyllum `Mauna Loa’  –  peace lily
    * Aglaonema modestum  – Chinese evergreen
    * Chamaedorea sefritzii  – bamboo or reed palm
    * Sansevieria trifasciata   – snake plant
    * Philodendron scandens `oxycardium’ –  heartleaf philodendron
    * Philodendron selloum  – selloum philodendron
    * Philodendron domesticum  –  elephant ear philodendron
    * Dracaena marginata –  red-edged dracaena
    * Dracaena fragrans `Massangeana’  – cornstalk dracaena
    * Dracaena deremensis `Janet Craig’   -Janet Craig dracaena
    * Dracaena deremensis `Warneckii’ –  Warneck dracaena
    * Ficus benjamina – weeping fig    


Christmas cactus

Every year I’m amazed how many flowers appear almost overnight on my They bloom their heads off despite little care on my part. The show will continue for a month or more. They are the perfect plant in my opinion.

What’s my secret? Well, I don’t do any heroic moves some garden books recommend like giving them 12-14 hours of total darkness each night from September through November. Nor do I lower the temperature of my house to a brisk 55 degrees or lower each evening.  I do fertilize them every couple of weeks during the summer with a liquid fertilizer high in phosphorus ( the middle number ).  I use one of those fertilizers with a dropper. It’s easy and I don’t have to drag out a spoon to measure.  I’m all for convenience.

I grow mine under a small florescent plant light but a bright window would also be good.  Let the soil dry a bit between waterings from spring though September. They thrive on neglect.

Christmas cactus and their relatives, Thanksgiving and Easter cactus, live in trees in their native Brazil.  They are true cactus but the spine are so tiny and soft you never notice them. They prefer rich, porous soil like what may accumulate in the crevices of tree branches. Repotting is only necessary if plants become top heavy. Use a course, fast draining mix, such as one that’s suitable for orchids. I haven’t transplanted any of mine for many years. Nearly every outer leaf makes a flowers, so the bigger the plant, the heavier the bloom. Next spring I’m going to transplant mine to the next size pot, I promise.

Now that the plants have set flower buds, though, I don’t let them get too dry. This could cause them to drop their buds. Use room temperature water for all your houseplants.  Don’t put Christmas cactus near ripening fruit, the ethylene gas could cause bud drop.

Christmas cactus are incredibly forgiving. They can live for 25 years or more. Pick one up this season an you’ll see why gardeners often treat them like a favorite pet.


Fall Gardening Tips

Someone asked me the other day  " What’s good to plant this time of year "?  It’s a good question.  I often receive emails asking for advice or ideas for solving all sorts of gardening problems and landscaping situations.  You may be wondering about some of these yourself.  Hopefully, they will solve your problem, too.

What is good to plant at this time of year ?
Fall is a good time to plant just about anything in this area. If you want an ornamental tree with spring flowers or a shade tree to keep the house cool in the summer, now is the time to plant.  The ground is moist now so digging is much easier and the warm soil will encourage root growth.  Shrubs of all types as well as perennials settle in nicely when planted in October and November.  Don’t have color in your garden from fall foliage like you see in other yards when driving around?  Take advantage of fall sales at local nurseries.  There are tons of plants now in fall color to choose from.

Why do trees turn colors in the fall?
The shorter days and cooler temperatures of autumn cause trees to switch into energy-storage mode, at which point their leaves stop producing chlorophyll.  For the few weeks before the leave fall to the ground, they are colored only by their natural pigments.  It’s these colors – red and purple anthocyanins,  yellow  and orange carotenoids –  that make fall foliage  so glorious. Some years the show is more dramatic than others.  The best conditions for intense leaf color to develop are dry sunny days followed by cool ( but not freezing ) nights. 
A warm, wet autumn will almost surely result in less-than-spectacular foliage because the process of chlorophyll loss will be less consistent.   Freezing temperature, meanwhile can cause leaves to drop suddenly, denying the opportunity to enter their slow, colorful dormancy. 


When do we usually get the first frost here? 
I have kept a weather calendar since 1992 and based on my records there was a light frost on Oct. 29, 2002.  I’ve seen an early hard frost as early as November 7th but more commonly, frost comes later in November.   In "97-’99 frost didn’t occur until the first week of December.  Be prepared.

How long can I leave my houseplants outside? 
Halloween is a good time to bring them in.  We don’t have the heater on full blast usually this early so they don’t suffer  shock going from a cold environment to a heated one.  Be sure to inspect them for insect pests and wash them off before bringing them inside. I have to confess, I roll the dice and leave spider plants, wandering jew, Hawaiian shefflera and creeping charleys outside under the overhang. I’ve been pretty lucky most winters.

Some winters my tree ferns and bananas suffer.  How can I protect them if we have a really cold spell?  
Many subtropical plants benefit from extra mulch to help them survive a hard frost.  People from the east coast know all about this.  Just be sure to take it away from the stem or trunk come spring or the mulch can cause rotting.