Houseplants


winter landscape January

Frozen lake in January

“Feeling a little blue in January is normal”

  • Marilu Henner

The one thing I like about January is that at least the days are getting a teeny bit longer. We still have the cold weather and probably a bunch of snows will fall, but the nights are shorter and I am fooled into thinking spring will soon be here. While I like to escape into the wilds in the warmer, more colorful months, it can be a more difficult enterprise now. Snows may not allow an easy walk in the woods, but the roads are clear, and they will have to do as a means of checking out the January happenings outdoors.

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A winter stream and beech trees still holding onto their leaves

Although cold, the air is nice and clean (it seems!) and crisp, providing a refreshing change to an extended existence in an indoor environment. And there is still much to see in the winter. Bird species may not be as abundant, but the ones that are still here provide a nicer experience for me than watching fish in a tank would.

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Coot sporting its ivory bill

Pileated woodpeckers may be elusive, but they are quite vocal, and so they often give away their location as they gad about in the woods. Water birds are still around- a kingfisher is still finding stuff to eat in areas of open water- and mallards and Canada geese are, too. Coots may be seen in open water near the shore, and merganzers and ruddy ducks can be found in small or large flocks in the coastal areas. And Cooper’s hawks, as well as sharp-shinned hawks, small accipiters that prey on birds, can be seen buzzing bird feeders for easy pickings on a winter’s day.

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Cooper’s hawk waiting near a bird feeder

In my town, there is a large population of black vultures now, which is a remarkable development as just a few years ago avid birders would ‘flock’ to an area where a black vultures was reported to be. During the 1990’s, black vultures were considered very rare visitors to Connecticut, but in the last few years, they are definitely staying year- round and breeding here. You can tell black vultures from turkey vultures in flight by the white bands on wing tips, versus the half silver wing undersides of the turkey vultures.  Up close, the gray faces of black vultures are readily distinguishable from the bald, red faces of turkey vultures. Black vultures will often congregate on chimneys on cold days.

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Black vulture on a 5 degree January day

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Turkey vulture spreading wings- black vultures in the foreground

We had very cold weather the last two weeks- down in single digits on a few mornings and not much above the teens the rest of the time. Today, it is raining and fifty two degrees. If warm conditions keep up for a few days, fireflies may come out from their winter hiding spots in bark crevices, Look for them on sunny sides of trees in wooded areas. They will not fly, too logy for that, and will return to their resting places as the weather gets cold again.

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Fireflies out on a warm winter day

When we have snow cover, that presents an opportunity to check out animal tracks in the snow. Deer tracks require no great hunter-like skills to figure out, but others may be tricky. I get a kick out of mouse tracks- don’t’ know why- maybe because they are one of the few animals that leave a tail print between the footprints.

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Two sets of mice tracks leading to a tree

 

Two of my favorite native plants that give interest to the monotone winter landscape are the redosier dogwood, Cornus sericea and winterberry, Ilex veticillata. Both plants offer a splash or red to a snowy landscape, and winterberries offer a food source for many birds and some small animals. Winterberry is found in the wild along edges of woods and swamps, and redosier also prefers similar areas in the wild.

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redosier dogwoods in winter

Even though it is not a native plant, I do love the Norway spruces when they have established mature stands. Red squirrels, at least, also appreciate the seeds that are one of their important food sources in the winter. You may come across piles of the spruce cone scales where the little pissant red squirrels take off the scales to access the seeds inside.

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Stand of Norway Spruce in the winter

Indoors, though, it is warm, as well- lit as you may desire, and a better relaxing environment in January. Until the warm weather comes, perhaps an orchid in flower may providing a charming blush of living color, while we wait for nature to do the same.

Pamm Cooper

orchids in January

 

 

 

 

Every growing season brings a variety of inquiries into the UConn Home & Garden Education office, either by snail mail, email, or in person. This year was no exception and I would like to share some that I found particularly interesting.

As we are entering the Christmas season I will start with an image of a Christmas cactus with raised bumps on its leaves. Although they were the same color as the leaf they had a translucent appearance when viewed with the light from behind. These blisters are edema (oedema)are the result of a disruption in the plant’s water balance that causes the leaf cells to enlarge and plug pores and stomatal openings. Moving the plant to a location with more light and watering only when the soil is dry can control edema.

Edema on Christmas cactus

Christmas cactus with edema symptoms

The cold of winter can cause problems that sometimes aren’t apparent until later in the year. Tree trunks that are exposed to southern light during the winter can suffer from sunscald and frost cracks. Sunshine and warm daytime temperatures can warm a tree enough so that the sap begins to run but the nighttime temps will cause the sap to freeze and expand, weakening the bark and resulting in vertical cracks. Dogwood with sunscald (on left) and willow with frost crack (on right) are among the susceptible species.

 

There were several incidences of huge populations of black cutworm larvae emerging in the spring including a group that appeared to be taking over a driveway! The Noctuidae moth can lay hundreds of eggs in low-growing plants, weeds, or plant residue.

The wet spring weather that helped to alleviate the drought of the past two years also had an effect on the proliferation of slime molds, those vomitus-looking masses that are entirely innocuous. The dog stinkhorn (Mutinus caninus) is another fungus that made several appearances this year.

Hosta plants exhibited several different symptoms on its foliage this year and the explanations were quite varied, from natural to man-made. The afore-mentioned wet spring and summer or overhead watering systems can cause Hosta to have the large, irregular, water-soaked looking spots with dark borders that may be a sign of anthracnose (the below left and center images). In the image below on the right the insect damage that shows up as holes that have been chewed in foliage may be caused by one of Hosta’s main pests, slugs.

But one of the more enigmatic Hosta problems presented itself as areas of white that appeared randomly on the foliage. Several questions and answers later it was determined that the Hosta in question was very close to a deck that had been power washed with a bleach solution! Yeah, that will definitely give you white spots.

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That bleach bath also affected a nearby coleus (below on left). Coleus downy mildew (Peronospora sp.) also likes the cool the cool temperatures and humidity of spring (below on right). The gray-purple angular blotches of this fungal disease were first observed in New York in 2005. Fungicides can be helpful if used early and thoroughly, and overcrowding and overhead watering should be minimized.

The grounds of the residence where my in-laws live have a lot of flowering plants in the landscape and as we walked one evening I noticed that the white roses had spots of red on them. These small, red rings are indicative of Gray mold (Botrytis cinerea), a necrotrophic fungal disease that is also a common problem in grapes called botrytis bunch rot. The disease is a parasitic organism that lives off of the dead plant tissues of its host.

The fungus Gymnosporangium clavipes, cedar-quince rust, on Serviceberry warranted several calls to the center due to its odd appearance. The serviceberry fruit gets heavily covered with the aecia tubes of the rust which will release the aeciospores that infect nearby members of the Juniper family, the alternate host that is needed to complete the cycle of the infection.

Two other samples that came in, goldenrod (below on left) and sunflower (below on right), shared unusual growths of foliage. Sometimes plant aberrations can be the result of a virus (such as rose rosette disease), fungus (such as corn smut fungus), or, like these samples, phytoplasma. Phytoplasma is the result of bacterial parasites in the plant’s phloem tissue and can result in leaf-like structures in place of flowers (phyllody) or the loss of pigment in flower petals that results in green flowers (virescence). Phytoplasma parasites are vectored by insects.

A frequent question revolves around ‘growths’ of a different kind, in particular the white projections that can cover a tomato hornworm. These are the pupal cocoons of the parasitic braconid wasp. The female wasp lays its eggs just under the skin of the hornworm and the newly hatched larvae will literally eat the hornworm to death. As the larvae mature they will chew their way to the outside where they will spin their cocoons along the back and pupate. As the hornworm is effectively a goner at this point they should be left undisturbed so that the next generation of wasps will emerge to continue to help us by naturally controlling this tomato pest.

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Tomato hornworm with braconid wasp pupal cocoons

 

Another wasp that was caught in the act was the cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus), a large, solitary, digger wasp. Cicada killers, also called cicada hawks, are so called because they hunt cicadas to provision their nests. It is the female cicada killer that paralyzes the cicada and flies it back to her ground nest. The male cicada killer has no stinger and although its aggressive nature can seem threatening to humans, the male spends most of its time grappling with other males for breeding rights and investigating anything that moves near them.

Cicada killer wasp

A cicada killer wasp paralyzes a cicada

 

Speaking of noticing what’s going on around you, as my husband was walking past a False indigo (Baptisia australis) in July he heard a strange cracking sound and called it to my attention. The plant in question was outside of a gym on the Hofstra University campus where our son’s powerlifting meet had just ended. As many lifters exited the building amid much music and commotion we stood their staring at the Baptisia, heads tilted in that pose that is more often found on a puzzled dog. The bush was indeed popping and cracking as the dried seed pods split open!

 

But none of our inquiries approach the level of oddity reported by a retiree in Karlsruh, Germany, who thought that he had found an unexploded bomb in his garden in September. Police officers called to the scene discovered not a bomb but in fact an extra-large zucchini (11 lbs.!) that had been thrown over the garden hedge.

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This is not an unexploded ordnance!

 

I look forward to next year’s growing season with great anticipation!

Susan Pelton

One of the joys of the return to warm weather is seeing the plethora of flowering plants that suddenly spring up. From early flowering shrubs such as forsythia and azalea to the daffodils, tulips, hyacinth, and crocus it seems that we are suddenly inundated with color. I love to fill my window boxes and planters with the happy pansies and petunias that are able to withstand some of the cool temperatures that we can expect at this time of year.

 

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Pansies

 

These first selections of annuals are just the beginning of the possibilities that lay before us when it comes to choosing varieties for window boxes, planters and hanging baskets. Container plantings allow us select plants that may not be native to our location due to the severity of our winters, to try out new varieties and combinations, and to easily relocate colorful blooms from one spot to another in our yard.

It is not unusual for the window box planting to be delayed as we are compelled to allow nature to take its course. Female doves often set up their nests in our window boxes or empty hanging planters and what can you do other than wait it out?

 

Mourning dove

If you have containers that are family-free you can certainly get them ready for the season. Any planters that did not over-winter well, such as cracked or split pots, should be disposed of and replaced. Empty out any plant debris or soil that is left from last year and sanitize the containers with a 10% bleach solution. Rinse them thoroughly and allow to dry in the sun. I find that coco fiber coir liners do not last more than a season or two so this is a good time to assess and replace those also. Although this spring I have spotted sparrows and mourning doves pulling out the fibers for use in their nests so I may leave one or two liners where they can get to them.

 

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Vinca, evolvulus, lobularia

When selecting new containers keep their location in mind. Larger containers that contain a fig tree, a wisteria and a bi-color buddleia are placed on our ground level patio where it is easier to bring them into the garage for the winter. These plants don’t require much attention through the winter although I will water them every few weeks. Ok, I say that I water them but what I mean is I will dump the ice cubes from a depleted iced coffee into them as I walk by! They have started to show emerging greenery so I have pulled them into a shady area outside and will slowly bring them back into the full sun where they will spend the rest of the season.

 

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Bee visiting a bicolor buddleia

 

Hanging planters and railing planters can bring color and interest while not taking up valuable floor space on decks. Dining outside in the early evening is great when the hummingbirds and pollinators are so close by that we hold our breath lest we disturb them as they visit the flowers!

 

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Hummingbird moth on a petunia

Selecting the plants that will go into your containers is limited only by your personal preferences and by the sun requirements for the given plant. Containers give us an opportunity to bring some non-native plants into our yard, especially those that are not suited to our winters. I find mandevilla to be a lovely container plant. As a tropical species it loves the full sun location of our front porch, produces striking blossoms all summer long, and will overwinter in the house.

 

These plants are about as large as I will choose but there are so many options for really large planters. I love seeing what the landscapers on the UConn campus come up with each season. Coleus, Vinca, sweet potato vine, geranium and petunias will profusely fill out many containers.

Of course, most of us don’t have a team of landscapers at our beck and call so once you have made your container and plant selections the next step is maintenance. The sun and wind will dry out most container plantings more quickly than if the same plants were in the ground, especially when in porous containers such as clay pots. Plastic vessels will retain water a bit better but its best to check all pots on a daily basis.

It’s no longer recommended that rocks or stones be placed in the bottom of containers for drainage. This procedure actually prevents excess water from draining from the soil layer and may keep the roots too wet. A piece of screen or a coffee filter placed in the bottom of the planter is sufficient to prevent soil from washing out.

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Removing spent blooms and pinching back leggy plants will encourage plants to produce more flowers. Also, their fertilizer needs are different from the same plant in the landscape. Using a teaspoon of fertilizer to a gallon of water will help prevent the buildup of excess salt that can afflict container plantings (you know when you see that white crust forming on the surface of the soil or on the rims of clay pots). If it does appear just flush water through the soil until it drains out the bottom.

Container grown plants don’t have to be limited to flowering annuals. Using them for vegetables and herbs is a great option. A planter of herbs near the kitchen door provides really fresh additions to our meals and beverages in the form of rosemary, thyme and mint. It’s also a great way to contain mint which can easily take over a garden bed.

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Another edible planting from last year included mint in a container which had eggplant and the non-edible tourenia. The purple flowers and the deep aubergine of the mature eggplant complimented the stems and leaves of the mint and the purple of the tourenia.

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I have also grown the typical patio tomato plants and the not-so-typical potato plants in containers. It’s a great way to easily harvest the potatoes as you just dump the whole container out onto a tarp and ‘pick’ the potatoes. Controlling the insects and diseases that plague these plants is aided by the fact that you start out with a sanitized container and fresh soil each year. So, as you can see, there is no reason to contain yourself when it comes to container gardening.

Susan Pelton

Winter finally hit us with measurable snow and cold, real cold that hurts breathing, skin and arthritic joints. Winter weather can also affect us psychologically, putting us in a ‘down’ mood. Well a cure can be had by visiting a warm, indoor plant growing facility. Nothing lifts my spirits more than basking among foliage and flowering plants, and soaking up the heat and sun. They can found locally just about wherever you live or seek them out when traveling. Plant conservatories are living museums of plant material on view, usually not for sale. Garden centers with heated greenhouses are a lovely substitute, and you might just find something to purchase and enjoy at home.

I visited Rawlings Conservatory & Botanic Gardens in Baltimore last weekend while visiting my daughter and new grandson. The baby seemed to enjoyed the outing, as much as a two month old can. He didn’t cry anyway, and he did watch the orange koi fish in the water feature. Rawlings was a great escape outing for the new mom.

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Plants growing vertically to cover the wall.

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Turtle and Koi fish make unusual playmates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rawlings Conservatory has five separate environments suitable to the corresponding plants they hold. The Mediterranean House, the Tropical House, the Desert House, the Orchid Room, and the Palm House all showcase plants from around the world.

The Mediterranean House held citrus trees of various types, lavender, rosemary and scented geraniums to name a few among the many plants in this glass house.

I spotted insect feeding damage on an citrus leaf, but could not find the pest. Even well managed garden settings must deal with some offending creatures. After all, they are part of the environment, too.

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Insect feeding damage on a citrus leaf.

The Tropical House held rain forest plants over our heads and below our feet.

The Desert House contained cacti of many different species. Its  air was warm and dry, perfect for growing succulents.

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The Palm House contained plants typically collected during the Victorian era, 1838-1901. Some palm trees were very large with orchids growing up and into their canopy.

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sago palm, cycas

Sago Palm

The Orchid Room is filled with different types of orchids. The scent was incredible and intoxicating, radiating from the multitude of pots mounted on a metal grid walls to elevate and allow light exposure to the plants within this incredible room. I didn’t want to leave.

 

Find your own escape from the cold at indoor plant venues available around our State of Connecticut at the links below. Let us know in the comment section of ones you would like to share with other readers here.

UConn EEB Greenhouses – http://florawww.eeb.uconn.edu/visiting.html

CT Flower and Garden Show – Feb.18 though 21, 2016. http://www.ctflowershow.com/

Elizabeth Park in Hartford, http://elizabethparkct.org/greenhouses.html

 

-Carol Quish

 

 

 

 

Through the Macro Lens

As the first month of 2016 nears its end it would appear that we are finally getting some true winter weather in the form of arctic cold and snow that will keep even the most ardent green thumb inside. Is it any wonder that January is a popular time for perusing seed catalogs and forcing paperwhite and amaryllis bulbs to bloom indoor? It also presents a great time to pay a bit more attention to our houseplants: cleaning the foliage, repotting specimens that have outgrown their current containers, and doing a visual inspection for insects. This year, however, checking for unwanted visitors took on a whole new meaning.

Poinsettia Flowers

I received a great present from my husband this Christmas in the form of a macro lens that clips over the camera lens of a smartphone (he knows how much I enjoy getting close-up images of insects and flowers). This tiny tool increases the magnification power of the ordinary camera lens by 10X allowing for some really incredible images from a phone camera. The first thing that I did with it was to start snapping pictures of just anything that was around such as the true flowers of a poinsettia that are usually insignificant, the new blooms of a paperwhite, and some fuzzy, cotton-like areas on a dieffenbachia.

What I saw in the lens was amazing. It was not just a cobweb substance on the dieffenbachia but a group of tiny insects that turned out to be the nymphs of the mealybug.

Mealybug nymphs 3

These tiny insects, along with scale and aphids, are a common pest of houseplants. They feed on the sap of the plant by piercing the outer layer of plant tissue with their long, slender beak. As a by-product they secrete a sweet honeydew that provides a base for the black fungus called sooty mold. Plant tissue that has been fed upon will be stunted, yellowed or malformed. A severe infestation can weaken a plant to the point of death.  I found that many of the mealybugs were in the crevices of the leaf axils or in the unfurled new leaf growth.

Mealybug nymphs 1

A bit of research showed me that one of the easiest remedies was to wipe the affected areas with an isopropyl alcohol soaked cotton ball. I did this, making sure to get both sides of the leaves as there were many nymphs on the undersides.

 

There are also many products such as insecticidal soaps and neem that can be used to control nymphs, scale, spider mites and aphids. These should be used with caution and always according to the label directions. A few more non-chemical approaches include spraying the plant with a forceful stream of lukewarm water, placing it near a cold window (only if the plant can tolerate the cold) so that the nymphs migrate to the leaf that is furthest from the cold and will therefore be easy to wipe off, or introducing a natural predator such as a ladybeetle (probably a good idea for greenhouse specimens, not plants in a home environment).

It is important to check for new generations of any insect pest that may not have been controlled with the first application. I have been scouting my houseplants every few days but I have not seen a recurrence. I can see, however, the results of the initial infestation. There are areas of foliage that are devoid of green, have turned brown and thin and almost appear like water spots. These areas are not much bigger than a quarter so I may leave that foliage on the plant and wait to see how it does.

I am really looking forward to getting outside in the upcoming seasons and getting some incredible close-up shots of flowers and insects, many of which will be shared with you in my blog posts. Happy New Year!

Susan Pelton

All images by Susan Pelton

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January can be a disappointing month for vegetable gardeners if they are used to eating fresh food they produce. An unusual crop to get us through this  lean growing time can be mushrooms. I received an exciting Christmas gift of a home mushroom farm making it possible to grow a crop or several crops of mushrooms in my home. These kits are readily available online and sometimes at better garden centers. The one I received is sold by Backtotheroots.com. This is not an endorsement of any one product, just reporting on the one I am using. Other companies also have different varieties of edible mushrooms available. Mine grows oyster mushrooms, comes with several recipes and enough growing medium impregnated with spores for at least four consecutive crops.

Directions said to remove the front cardboard panel revealing the plastic bag filled with growing medium and mushroom spores. After cutting an X in the plastic, I removed the bag from the box, placing it in a bucket of warm water, cut side down, for eight hours. This is to moisten the growing medium. At the end of allotted time, I replaced the bag into the box, cut plastic side exposed through the hole in the cardboard. It said to scrape the exposed surface of the medium, which I did. Included in the kit was a small water misting bottle for spraying the area twice per day to keep the medium and spore well hydrated.

Mushroom Farm in a box, Day 1, photo C. Quish

Mushroom Farm in a box, Day 1, photo C. Quish

The newly formed mushrooms were growing fast. By day four, grey tips and white stems could be recognized as future oyster mushrooms. And I envisioned mushroom risotto, mushroom and pasta toss, and mushroom soup. I was not sure of the overall numbers and weight I could expect from this one foot tall box of a ‘garden’, but I had hope.

Day 4 spore germination.

Day 4 spore germination.

Day 4

Day 4

 

By day seven, the shape of the oyster mushroom was clear. I kept misting with water, kept the box on the kitchen counter pointed away from the west-facing window, and things seemed to be going well.

Day 7

Day 7

On day ten the mushrooms had grown so much the box opening was crowded to point harvest was needed. Picking was easy by just cutting off the stem at the base. New mushrooms should sprout to give another crop in 10 more days.

Day 10

Day 10

Oyster mushrooms are kind of airy, light in weight, but flavorful. After all that dreaming of incorporating my mushroom crop into many different recipes, I decided to just saute them in a little butter and olive oil, low and slow in a cast iron pan. We savored every one of them, enjoying my little harvest during January from the kitchen counter.

Mushrooms in pan

Adventures in mushrooms will continue as I keep misting and monitoring. After a second crop on this side of the bag, directions instruct to open the other side of the bag with an X and begin again to keep the ‘shrooms’ coming. I may get more adventuresome by trying other varieties sold in kits and others already grown and being sold at markets.

Mushrooms for sale at Farmer's Market, photo by C.Quish

Mushrooms for sale at Farmer’s Market, photo by C.Quish

-Carol Quish

 

 

 

It’s that time of year when we want to show our love and appreciation for our family and friends. If you have an avid gardener on your gift-giving list then here are a few ideas for last-minute gifts or stocking stuffers (most the following images are just of things that were available at local garden shops and a big box store and are not meant to be endorsements of any specific brand).

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The easiest and most common gift is gardening gloves. Although they may seem to be the horticultural equivalent of a tie I find that I am continually in need of work gloves each season. There are so many styles and fabrics to choose from that you want to keep in mind the type of gardening that your recipient does. Are they fond of roses? Then you want to get some heavy-duty gloves such as suede that will cover the forearm. If a lot of pruning is in the future then a pair of gloves that has reinforced stress points and padding will be appreciated. Weeding and planting require dexterous gloves and those that have the palms and fingers coated with nitrile are great and most of them are machine-washable.

Speaking of pruning and planting, there are many great tools that will make gardening chores easier. One of my favorites is a folding pruning saw. It can be carried around without the teeth getting damaged and can handle a wide variety of pruning jobs, cutting quickly through branches up to 4” in diameter. Lopping pruners also work well for pruning small branches where the saw can’t be easily used. Some hand tools that would slip easily into a stocking or gift basket are floral shears, pruning snips and bypass or anvil pruners.

Is your gardener fond of potting up planters and hanging baskets? How about a vertical gardening kit that is both decorative and functional? Or a selection of planters in coordinating colors and sizes? Include a bag of good-quality potting soil and a gift certificate to a local garden center and let your gardener dream of spring.

Want to keep them busy until then? There are many indoor projects that will keep their green thumb busy. A grow-your-own mushroom farm provides food and entertainment. A glass terrarium kit will provide years of pleasure.

Houseplants are always a welcome gift, from bromeliad to orchid there is something for every taste and style. Keep in mind if your gift recipient is also a pet owner as many houseplants can be toxic to pets. For a compilation of toxic and non-toxic plants visit the ASPCA site.

Some other fun gifts that are more outdoorsy than gardening-specific are hummingbird feeders, rain gauges and barometers. And a very practical and yet still awesome gift would be a rain barrel.

Consider making a donation in their name to a non-profit organization. Community Gardens As Appleseeds is a group that provides help and equipment to community gardens all over the US. The Hudson Valley Seed Library is a source for heirloom and open-pollinated seeds and each seed packet is a work of art.

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Happy Holidays!

Susan Pelton

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