I Just Wet My Houseplants

In my book ‘I Just Wet My Plants’ I note that water is the number one killer of houseplants. Usually too much. We kill them with kindness. I took the following pictures to illustrate a couple of easy tips to improve your watering practices that maybe you haven’t considered. As an example it is a popular practice to put a houseplant in a coffee mug for desk, office or kitchen counter. Avoid planting directly into the coffee mug.

Use a cache pot with drainage holes inside the coffee mug

Coffee is hot. The coffee mug for obvious reasons has no drainage holes. Good for coffee but no so much for your plant.  A cache pot is a decorative container that holds a potted houseplant. Think of it as a  pot inside a pot. The cache pot does not have drainage. The “grower pot” inside the decorative pot has drainage holes. By using a cache pot combined with a grower pot with drainage holes the plant will be healthier and it will make both watering and maintenance easier for you. Everybody wins.

An additional watering tip is to avoid making the mistake I often see people make. They give up trying to figure out when and how much water to apply to their houseplant. What they end up with is what they believe is a compromise. They pour on a “little” water frequently. They meet their desire to water on a schedule (frequently aka kill it with kindness) and the end result is the soil in the upper half of the pot remains wet. The roots in the upper half of the pot rot while the roots at the lower portion of the pot dry out. The plant quickly displays its displeasure with browning leaf tips and decline. The sight of the plant suffering causes the owner to water even more which speeds up the decline. The appropriate way to water is when the plant needs it (indoor plants like outdoor plants have seasonal needs). In winter lack of light, day length and humidity causes the plants to “slow down” compared to their vigor in spring and summer.

For smaller pots you can tell if the plant needs water based on the weight of the pot. Pick it up. You can learn to tell when it’s time to water. Then when you water, water thoroughly so the water is available to the soil at the top, in the middle and at the bottom of the pot. Because you have provided for drainage with your cache pot grower pot technique, the excess can drain out the bottom. Now allow the soil to dry and wait until the plant needs water again. Remember in winter you will be watering far less frequently than when the days are longer and the light is bright in spring and summer.

Example of grower pots inside a decorative cache pot (click on image to enlarge)


Fall General

To be or not to be is really not a question

As October presses on, the leaves of the trees make their descent to the earth and the cycle of life continues. As you stand in the yard with leaf rake in hand it’s enough to make anyone wax philosophical. I think on the words of the famous writer William “Rake”-speare:

To be, or not to be: that is the question.
Whether tis nobler in the yard to suffer
The foliage piles of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of leaves,
And by opposing them.

Well to be or not to be is really not a question. You’re going to have to do something about those leaves. Or are you? You could wait for favorable winds to make the leaves your neighbor’s problem. You can’t burn them anymore. I remember those days as a kid when all the neighbors would rake their leaves to the curb and light them on fire. When it came to being groundbreaking hip my Dad would compost in the garden in fall when everyone else was burning leaves curbside. I remember the eerie smoky haze throughout that old neighborhood in late October as neighbors would rake leaves into the street to burn them against the curb. Piles of smoldering leaves looked like the wreckage of some urban battlefield conflict as we navigated our bikes through the acrid and dusky streets. The smoke would swirl blocking the sun at times and burn in your eyes. Evenings spent navigating those streets had to be equivalent to smoking a pack or two of non-filter cigarettes.

I instead say take the approach that money grows on trees. The foliage is nutrient rich and organic. On our lawns we blow, bag, tag and rake them until we have rid the “problem.” But the woodland floor is happy to receive them as the cycle of life continues. A considerable quantity of plant nutrients are taken up annually by tree roots and a proportion of this is returned to the soil as leaf fall each year. The dry weight of leaves in a forest stand is approximately 3,000 pounds per acre of richness including potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, manganese, phosphorus and nitrogen. That is why I tell people if you’re going to feed a deciduous tree do it when the leaves are falling off the tree. The soil stays warm even though the air temperature drops. The roots will be able to absorb supplement nutrients October through December. Not a bad idea to help out the trees in your yard considering we vacuum the turf of this natural available replenishment we call leaves.

Money does grow on trees! Leaves add organic matter and nutrients to your lawn and gardens including the colorful yellow leaves of this Ginkgo tree.

Leaves left matted under the cover of snow can damage a lawn. But do we need to rid ourselves of all the leaves? The answer is no. To be or not to be….well maybe. You see in the late 1990’s Michigan State University did a three year study on whether or not you could simply mow over the fallen leaves. Mowing the leaves finely back into the lawn proved beneficial for turf health. Lawn areas that received the organic goodness of pulverized leaves were healthier than those without the leaves. Research indicated that “mulching leaf litter into existing turf grass provides benefits for the soil and turf by adding nutrients, retaining soil moisture, loosening compaction and reducing weed growth.” The best time and way to do this is with multiple passes to pulverize the leaves when you can still see some green grass through the fallen leaves rather than letting leaves gather too quickly. In other words make sure to practice this over a period of weeks in October and November. Not just one time when you have to plow through a pile of leaves. Microorganisms will break down the leaves releasing nutrients and adding to the organic matter profile of your turf.

Leaf it to “Rake”-speare to create dramatic results.



Colorful Chaotic Coleus

Now that the weather is getting hot the colorful Coleus are about to put on a show in our containers. Coleus seems to take the approach the more chaotic the better! In hot weather they thrive. It used to be they were considered a shade only plant but with all the introductions in the past 10 years they love the spotlight and love the sun. Native to the tropics bordering the equator and with a botanical name like Solenostemon scutellarioides you’ve got to know they love summer time! Coleus were born to be in containers and put on a show. No waiting for buds and blooms these plants let the foliage do the talking. On a warm humid late June day I took my phone and snapped these random pictures of their response to heat basking in the sun. This is a Victorian parlor plant that has made a stunning comeback in popularity in the 21st century on decks and patios everywhere.


Two Plants with a lot of character

As always some stress will reveal character and in the case of plants show how well grounded they are. Plants with fibrous and shallow roots tend to be less adaptable or easy to grow than those with tuberous, thick or rhizomatous roots. When people complain of their vines not blooming or their houseplant’s demise the root of the problem is exactly that, the roots.
Take as an example a couple of houseplants that are the closest living thing to plastic known to man. The Zamioculcas zamifolia and the Sanseveria plant. Often seen in office environments or airport terminals these two seem to thrive on neglect. Both have thick waxy leaves and low rates of transpiration. You have to however look at the business end of these plants to see thick roots, in the case of a ZZ plant tubers allowing it to go long lengths without water.

The ZZ plant

Adaptable to harsh environments the ZZ plant is native to Africa and found from Kenya to Zimbabwe to South Africa. Considering its native environment you can see the plant adapted to long periods of drought in between wet seasons. For those restless, easily bored or with a great need to nurture this is not the plant for you. Unlike a vine this plant is slow growing and content to simply exist in a well lit corner. Pest resistant and a stable household friend, homeowners tend to kill it with kindness. Kindness as in water, too much of it. They feel they have to do something to demonstrate they care resulting in a permanent rainy season for the plant. I recommend talking to it or better yet get it a card and rotate it a quarter turn from time to time. You’ll both feel much better. It’s an expensive plant to kill because it is a slow grower. Because it takes time to get to size growers charge more for the plant. Similar to Aspidistra also known as Cast Iron plant, or Rhapis excelsa known as Lady Palm their methodical slow growth make them durable but expensive for the homeowner. If you’re just going to kill them with water they might not be the plant for you.
Sanseveria is a colorful character known for their diversity, usefulness and lasting quality. The genus Sanseveria consists of numerous species and varieties with flamboyant often variegated sword like foliage as flashy as the man they were named after.

Sanseveria Plant also known as Snake Plant

Raimondo di Sangro Prince of Sansevero was the world’s most interesting man long before the advent of beer marketing, or at least Raimondo would tell you that. It is said he dabbled with numerous inventions from super lightweight cannons to fireworks, hydraulics and water proof capes and other bizarre experiments. He was the Prince of Sansevero and lover of knowledge willing to testify of his prowess and fame. He would have been pleased that a Swedish botanist named the Sanseveria plant in his honor. A tough hard to kill houseplant it lives as long as the legacy of Raimondo provided you don’t kill it with “kindness.”

A renowned office plant ideal for indoor air purification qualities, its tough, dogged obstinance and resolve is reflected in its common names Snake Plant, Snake’s tongue, Devil’s tongue or Mother-in-laws tongue.
From ZZ plants to Sansveria and flowering vines, sometimes we have to show them who’s boss to get them to behave. Kindness is a virtue but sometimes too much just makes us soft.

General Spring

May Day

It is ironic that May Day is an emergency word used internationally as a distress signal in radio communications that we have seen used in the movies. It is ironic, because the arrival of the first day of May is a celebration of flowers and spring. May Day was celebrated on May 1 by some early European settlers to North America with May baskets. These are baskets that were filled with flowers or treats and left at someone’s doorstep. The giver rings the bell and runs away. The person receiving the basket tries to catch the fleeing giver; if caught, a kiss is exchanged. Good idea to wear your track shoes that day.
Today the arrival of May usually means the last frost days are passing and tender flowering plants can be enjoyed in our gardens and landscapes.

My Mom told me there would be “daisies” like this

Mother’s day is a weekend to give and receive flowers to celebrate both Mom and the promise of a new gardening season. Later in May as we celebrate the Memorial Day holiday, plants and flowers play a big role in remembrance as well as our home gardening enjoyment.

Tropical plants like Hibiscus make a great Mother’s Day gift idea.

I read recently that “a weed is a flower with an advertising budget”. Today plant breeders have developed flowering plants for our landscapes that bloom longer, brighter and more reliably than the blooms enjoyed years ago. Dahlias, Pansies, Gerbera Daisies, Calibrachoa, Coleus and Petunias are great examples of how we have come a long way baby. Container gardening popularity has driven the development of reliable, continuous blooming and colorful plants that you can enjoy all summer long in your little corner of the world.
An easy container to design is a mono-culture container. Choose a single variety for your container along with an attractive container. Next mono-color combinations use two different shades of a color, but because you are using the same color you don’t have to worry about the colors clashing…they blend in shades.

The versatile colorful Gerbera Daisy

Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel and mix together easily. These can be effective and very colorful combinations of pink and red, pink and orange (a favorite of mine) yellow and orange, orange and red, violet and red, blue and green, and blue-violet. My favorite approach is using complimentary colors. On a color wheel, complimentary colors are directly opposite of each other…like red and green, orange and blue, or yellow and violet. Finally you might want to try your hand at a three way combination color scheme.

Color Wheel

I call it a triple play, some people call it a triad. This combination uses 3 colors that are spaced equally on the color wheel – the points of a triangle. Examples would be a red-yellow-blue or violet-orange-green combination. Try a red-yellow-blue or pink-yellow-blue triangle combination.
Here are two quick pointers for your May Day combinations.

Colorful Crotons and other foliage plants add season long interest to plantings.

Remember that pink is a great color to include because it plays well with almost any color including orange and red. Also remember for best success plant your container working from the inside to the outside of the pot thinking “Focal, Filler, Edger, Trailer”.