Houseplants


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

Phalaenopsis orchid in bud, photo by C. Quish

Phalaenopsis orchid in bud, photo by C. Quish

Happy Sap, C. Quish Photo

Happy Sap, C. Quish Photo

January is the month my couple of Phalaenopsis orchids send up a spike with flower buds on them. The buds usually open during the last weeks of the month. I discovered one orchid stem and buds looked a bit shiny. Upon closer inspections, I saw a droplet of an amber-colored thick liquid. The stuff was sticky! It appeared to be maple syrup. I gently washed it off under tepid water. The next day it was back. I checked for insect feeding that might have caused damage and weeping, or insect excrement. None. After watching for several days, more sticky stuff appeared, almost coating the buds. After a bit of internet hunting on University researched sites on orchids, I found nothing indicating this as a problem. An informal search of ‘Sticky Stuff on my Orchid’ returned several answers. It is normal for some varieties. They called it ‘Happy Sap’. If the orchid is happy with its environment, temperature and humidity, it will produce this high sugar sap emitted from the stem surrounding the buds to entice pollinating insects to visit the plant. Once the buds open into the flower containing the pollen, the insects will be present to land on the flower and ensure pollination. The orchid has developed this appetizer to the main meal of the flower, just enough sweet sap to entice the insects to hang around for the real show and nectar.

Another plant that emit sweet, sticky gel is the sundew, botanically named Drosera . These plants attract the insects to the sweet sap, which then get stuck in the sap on the leaf. The plant then eats the insect, absorbing the insects nutrients as it decomposes. These plants are carnivorous. Still another carnivorous plant is the Pitcher Plant which lures insects down its throat where it becomes trapped in a pool of gooey sap, never to make its way back out. I took a cold walk to the UConn Ecology and Evolutionary Biology’s greenhouse to snap a few pictures of plants with happy sap and enticing sweet liquid emitters. EEB greenhouses are open to the public and a great way to beat the winter cold. http://florawww.eeb.uconn.edu/visiting.html

-Carol Quish

Sundew, Carol Quish photo

Sundew, Carol Quish photo

Small Sundew, Carol Quish photo

Small Sundew, Carol Quish photo

Pitcher Plant, photo by C.Quish

Pitcher Plant, photo by C.Quish

Bench waiting for you to visit and enjoy the greenhouses. C.Quish photo

Bench waiting for you to visit and enjoy the greenhouses. C.Quish photo