Friday, January 29, 2016

Just Right for Low Light

Building on the earlier "Life Saving Houseplant Resolutions" post let's ensure a winning start in 2016.

Some of us go plant shopping with a specific site in mind. Some of us shop, fall in love with a particular plant ("It's talking to me" as one of my favorite clients says), buy it, and then put it in a spot where it will look good. Neither process is wrong, but we need to concede that houseplant success begins by matching the light in our desired site with getting a bead on the plant's light needs.

Think about it. If the tropical plant you're lusting after has evolved for hundreds of thousands of years on the jungle floor in the shade of its taller plant neighbors, it's probably not keen on direct sun. The converse is true, too. The cactus or succulent that loves to be bathed in sun is probably going to be sulky in a windowless room.

That being said the most challenging sites are the really low light ones: off to the side of a north window, an east exposure with heavy window treatments, an interior office with no natural light. You get the idea. So, assess the quality of light (direct, indirect, bright, really dark) in your room. Go for the worst case scenario. On a sunny day in our Chicago winter what are the light conditions? Is there direct sun? How long is it even bright? Thirty minutes, an hour, all afternoon? Be honest and don't fudge the answer. This reality check will determine your plant's future success.

So, what are some good candidates for a low light scenario? Below are five houseplants that will tolerate the dark corners and recesses of your home sweet home and still maintain an acceptable appearance.

Chinese Evergreen - Aglaonema
Sparkling Sarah
Aglaonema (Chinese Evergreen) - Hybridizers have done wonders taking the dark green leaves and developing wonderful splashes and blotches of cream, silver green, even rosy shades that really add interest to a dark room. Keep Chinese Evergreen away from cold drafts that accompany doors opening to the outside.
Mother-in-law's-tongue - Sansevieria
Sansevieria (Mother-in-law's Tongue) - Whether the cute compact rosette forms or the taller (to 24"+) upright varieties, this is an iron-clad standard of tolerance to almost any adverse condition you present. Just don't overwater and it will thrive.
Peace Lily - Spathiphyllum
Spathiphyllum (Peace Lily) - Foliage resembles the spear-like leaves of Chinese Evergreen, except the leaves are glossy green, rather than matte. It will provide a bonus of white sail-like flowers that last for weeks before turning pale green. No direct sun - ever. Prefers to be evenly moist. You may want to try 'Domino', a variety that has wonderful white splashes on the leaves.
Palms - Lady and Areca are best
Palms- Explore the world of palms and you'll find a number of species that will be quite happy in low light. I especially like Lady or Areca palms for those situations. These will generally be taller plants placed on the floor for height. They'll endure temperatures that are cooler than some other tropicals will tolerate.
ZZ plant - Zamioculcas
Zamioculcas (ZZ plant) - It looks prehistoric (in a good way) to me. After a year of growing it I'm a big fan! It's so easy. It's on the far side of a room away from an east window. It's in a 10" pot that I water once a month. My ZZ is producing lots of new stems. That's surprising to me as I tend to expect ultra-low maintenance plants to be slow growing.

So, if you're one of those people lacking strong light and the proverbial "green thumb" give some of these winners a chance. If they don't make the grade, it's time to think "silk".             


Monday, January 4, 2016

Life-Saving Houseplant Resolutions

I've been told confession is good for the soul. So, I'll admit I've made (and broken) New Year's resolutions at one time or another. The gym three times a week. Actually, I've never even considered that one. The low-carb, no sugar diet. Uh-huh. Quitting smoking (fortunately, not one I ever needed). What about resolutions that will ensure great results with your houseplants? No, it's not one you ever hear, is it?

I will choose the right plant. Hello ZZ
Resolution #1 - (Raise your right hand as you swear) I will not put an indoor plant requiring high light (like a Ficus) in a north window and then be shocked when it drops its leaves. Instead, I promise to get a plant that matches my true light conditions, dramatically increasing my plant's chances for survival. For those really low light areas in my home or office I will consider: Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema), Peace lily (Spathiphyllum), palms and the ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia). I'm really loving this low maintenance "camel" now that I'm growing it.

Resolution #2 - I will water completely, but at intervals that are appropriate for the plant's specific needs. Surprise! Watering once a week is not a universally correct answer to the question, "How often should I water?"
I will remember to empty the saucer
I understand "completely" means applying warm water (not hot, not cold) uniformly around the soil until water runs out the bottom of the container. After 30 minutes (no longer than that) I will empty all remaining water from the saucer. This will prevent the excess water from cutting off vital oxygen to roots and killing them. If I think it's time to water, but I'm not sure, I'll wait another day or two before I do. This reinforces the old maxim, "I can always add water, but if I've over-watered I can't remove the excess."

I will use a pebble tray and cluster plants in groups
Resolution #3 - I will try new ways to increase indoor humidity rather than just misting leaves with a spray bottle. Smart. More long term solutions would be: using the "buddy system" of grouping your plants together. As they give off water through their leaves (transpiration) they're increasing humidity around each other. Another solution would be to place plants on pebble-filled trays with water just below the pebble surface for evaporation. The bottoms of the pots should sit above the water, not in it, so they don't wick water into the soil. Right hand still up?

I will feed only when I see new leaves or flower buds
Resolution #4 - I will not fertilize year 'round if I don't see new growth. I'll fertilize when spring rolls around or when I see my plants actively producing bright green young leaves and/or new flower buds. The more light my plants receive, the more frequently I can fertilize them.

If my plants are in low light sites (north windows) I won't fertilize at all November through perhaps March when our day length and light intensity are so low that plants tend to "rest". I promise to use houseplant-specific fertilizers at the recommended rate.

I will upsize when needed
Resolution #5 - I will repot based on visible need, rather than some psychic sense that it's time. I will check root balls, looking for 40% or more roots in the soil mass before I consider up-potting. I understand most houseplants perform just fine when somewhat pot-bound. If it's determined that I need to move my plants to a larger pot I will increase the pot diameter in small increments, say, an inch at a time. I will not jump 2" or more in diameter at a time.

Your 2016 resolutions are now sworn and witnessed. You may now lower your hand and spend the New Year enjoying more beautiful houseplants and great chocolate desserts!              


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Holiday Gift Giving for Gardeners

A personal observation about gardeners - People that do their own: planting, pruning, weeding, edging, watering and mulching are an amicable lot. Translation: Easy to shop for. So, for those on your holiday gift list you know to be "gardeners" you might consider:

Look good banning the bad rays

Garden hats - The sun is not our skins' best friend, that's a given. There are some great outdoor hats that provide 50+ UPF sun protection and are fashionable, too. Who wouldn't feel good about giving (and receiving) the gift of health? Under $50.

Who isn't charmed by playful plantings?

Topiaries, miniature gardens - Seasonal or otherwise, themed topiaries and miniature gardens are meant to bring a smile and even provide an "out loud" laugh. I'm told the idea of these little gardens is especially intriguing to people who may have downsized and no longer have an outdoor garden. Not to be sexist, but many grandmothers tell me creating and maintaining these gardens is an activity they love to share with their grandchildren. Or, buy the components and challenge your personal creativity. Fun, with a wide range of prices.

Hers Shovel - An ergonomically correct tool that addresses the fact that women tend to use their lower body strength, rather than their torsos, like men. The blade is angled differently than standard shovels and has a large, non-slip step to allow women to maximize their leg strength. The handle is not only cushioned, but designed to allow the gardener to really use both hands and arms for maximum strength. Really smart, too, are sizes: small (less than 5'2"), medium (5'2"-5'7") and large (taller than 5'7"). Makes planting easier, under $90.

Stand back and watch the wonder unfold

Amaryllis - A jack-in-the-beanstalk among flowering plants. Once they're out of their fall dormancy their growth is measurable from one day to the next. Not only is their daily progress fun for all ages to watch, but the incredible trumpet-like flowers truly dazzle in a wide range of colors and forms! What a cool gift to interest kids about plants, too. Under $25.

Capture the best of your soil

Garden sieve - If you inherited a garden where a former owner used gravel mulch, or if your soil just has lots of junk in it, this is indispensable. When you're digging shovel the soil in the sieve and shake it back and forth like you're panning for gold. You are. The soil that falls through is root, rock and clod-free. Makes planting in awful soils a lot simpler for you and your plants. Functional and under $30.

Get the skinny on garden rainfall

Rain gauge - As any meteorologist will tell you rainfall can vary widely within a very small geographic area. You'd be surprised at how much different the figure may be than your local weather report. So, it's nice to go to your gauge after a rain and know how much your garden received, especially during the heat of summer. Accurate info is a great thing. Under $30.    
Subscription to a great gardening magazine - My favorite is always Fine Gardening, a Taunton Press publication. Beautiful gardens, great practical information, with lots of applicable local and Midwest content. Inspirational, educational. A year subscription is less than $30, money well spent.

Share the joys of birding

Bird feeder - Birding and gardening are neck and neck as America's favorite hobbies. Why not combine the two and enjoy watching the birds feeding in your garden from your window? The range of feeder choices is mind-boggling. If you're giving a feeder, why not include a bag of good seed (like everything in life, you get what you pay for, so read the ingredients on the "value" seed label carefully before buying)?

Happy stress-free holiday shopping to all!
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