Earthworms in Your Houseplants?

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Question

I found some small earthworms in the soil of one of my houseplants. I think they’re affecting the growth of the plant: it seems to be declining. What should I do to get rid of them?

Paul T.

Answer

Earthworms are not very common in houseplants, largely because the conditions in our homes aren’t much to their liking. Certainly, they can’t reproduce there and, moreover, remain small. Plus, there is often only one or two in the pot, not dozens.

You may occasionally find small earthworms in your houseplants. Photo: http://www.growweedeasy.com

Inevitably, you’ll find earthworms only in plants that spent the previous summer outdoors. The worms moved into the potting soil while the plant was outside and remained prisoners when it was brought back indoors in the fall.

Most home gardeners don’t even notice their plants have worms unless they repot and find worms burrowed in the soil, but sometimes you discover their castings (little heaps of poo) under the pot, near the drainage holes, or see the worms themselves when they rise to the surface after a particularly abundant watering. 

You’ll likely only find earthworms in the soil of plants that prefer moist conditions; worms just don’t thrive in soil that dries out completely between waterings.

Normally, earthworms aren’t harmful to plants. On the contrary, they’re beneficial, aerating the soil through their tunnels and enriching it with their castings. But in pots, their main food, the organic matter normally present in soil, isn’t very abundant, especially since most potting soils are largely composed of peat or coir (coco fiber), two materials slow to decompose and mineral-poor offering almost nothing that an earthworm can consume. Under those circumstances, the worms begin to eat the young roots of the plant growing in the pot and that can, of course, hinder its growth, even possibly kill it.

What to Do?

Let’s start with prevention.

Soak the pot in soapy water to chase earthworms out. Ill.: Claire Tourigny & http://www.clipartmax.com

Before bringing your houseplants back indoors in the fall, plunge their pots into a bucket of soapy water and keep them entirely emerged for about 20 minutes or so. Earthworms dislike both water and soap and will rise to the surface, trying to escape. You can then pick them up and put them back in the garden. This will also rid the potting mix of most other soil pests.

If you skipped the first step (soaking the plant before bringing it in), you can also eliminate any worms by letting the potting soil completely dry before watering again. That’s why you rarely find earthworms in pots of succulents and other plants that are allowed to dry out deeply on a regular basis.

If you find them in houseplants that won’t tolerate their soil drying out completely, just repeat the same treatment you should have used in the fall before bringing the plant in: give the entire rootball a 20-minute soak in soapy water, then remove any worms that show up.

In winter, however, you won’t always be able save the worms you find. After all, you can’t successfully release them outdoors if the ground is frozen. Instead, try putting them in your compost bin: it may be just warm enough to keep them alive. Otherwise… well, let’s just say that dead earthworms are an excellent composting material!

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Two Quick Ways to Wash Pots

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With seed-sowing season just getting started and about to accelerate (March and April are the big months), it’s worthwhile for gardeners to look into their stock of flower pots. If you’re like me, you have a huge supply of pots, six packs and plant trays recovered from gardening sessions of previous years. These pots can almost always serve at least one more time and usually almost indefinitely. (Six packs are the most fragile.) It’s a question of economics on one side and respect for the environment on the other. Yes, most of the pots are made of plastic that can be recycled by specialists, but it’s even more environmentally friendly to reuse them, saving recycling as a last recourse.

However, pots must be thoroughly cleaned before reuse in order to eliminate any microbes or insect eggs that may be present in the residues that cling to their sides. After all, seedlings and cuttings require as sterile an initial environment as possible.

Hand washing: it works, but it’s time-consuming. Photo: essortment, http://www.youtube.com

The most obvious way to clean pots is simply to wash them by hand with soap and fairly hot water. If mineral salts, seen as a white or yellowish deposit on the side some of the pots, have formed, try soaking them in a solution of water and vinegar 24 hours before washing them. Vinegar being acid, it will soften the mineral deposit, which is alkaline, making it easier to remove.

But washing pots one by one takes time. Surely there must be a way to wash them quickly and with less effort? That’s the question I first asked myself about 30 years ago.

At the time, my wife brought up the idea of buying a dishwasher. With two parents working full-time and three children at home, it would save a lot of time. I objected however. Since indeed we had three children, I felt that we had enough cheap labor to handle the task. So why spend hard earned cash on a dishwasher? So I vetoed the expenditure and for some time we didn’t talk about the idea.

Maybe a dishwasher could do the job? Ill.: hanatemplate.com

But I started thinking. Couldn’t a dishwasher also be used to clean pots? I had accumulated at that time an impressive pile of dirty pots and was hesitant about washing all of them by hand. The more than I thought about it, the more it seemed logical. So one day, to the surprise of my wife, I announced that she was indeed right and that we needed a dishwasher. So we bought one and had it installed.

I suspected that my wife would object to the idea of my putting pots with dirt and who knows what else in a machine designed to wash tableware, so I waited for her absence before filling the dishwasher with pots. I added the usual detergent and started the machine. Everything seemed fine at first. It was only towards the end of the cycle that I noticed an odor of burning plastic wafting through the kitchen. Opening the dishwasher, I discovered to my horror that the smaller plastic pots had been tossed all over by the force of the water and that some had fallen onto the element where they were slowly melting. Fortunately I was able to clean everything up and ventilate the apartment before my wife got back.

What a disappointment, though! All that money wasted on a machine that did not even fulfill its promise! And I still had that huge pile of dirty pots to wash. What to do?

Would a washing machine do a better job? Ill.: clipart-library.com

I started to think. Perhaps the washing machine (clothes washer) might be able do the job? And we already had one, so there was no added expense involved! So, again when my wife was absent, I filled it with a load of smaller pots, the ones that didn’t stay in place in the dishwasher. I added detergent and set the cycle to “Delicates”. Eureka! The pots came out in perfect condition and absolutely spotless! Of course, I emptied the washing machine and carefully cleaned the filter, which was actually fairly clean except for a bit of perlite, before my wife got back.

She eventually discovered the subterfuge a few years later when a friend spilled the beans… but even came to accept it as yet another of those weird things her husband does. I am now allowed to use either machine for pot cleaning, as long as I clean up afterwards. The dishwasher is ideal for terra-cotta pots, medium-sized plastic pots and plant trays while the washing machine (do use the Delicates cycle!) is perfect for smaller plastic pots and six-packs. But I still wait until my wife is out of the house before starting a load. It’s a question of tradition.

Oh, and I should warn you: do not try to wash terra-cotta pots in the washing machine. My wife doesn’t know about that one and, really, she doesn’t need to know. I’m counting on your silence!

Tips and Tricks for Top-Quality Seedlings

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If you’re like me, you grow dozens of plants from seed indoors every year: annuals, vegetables, herbs, perennials, etc. Yet you can’t help but be a bit disappointed by the results. By planting out time, they’re usually a bit spindly and pale, looking little like the lush, healthy plants you can pick up in your local nursery. Of course, you’ll discover your wimpy seedlings do quickly pick up once they’re planted out, but … isn’t there a way of making your babies look happier while they’re indoors? 

Sure there is, and in fact, there are several things you can do. But first, you have to understand why homegrown seedlings usually don’t compare well to those grow in garden centers. There are in fact 2 main reasons: they get less light and receive warmer temperatures. 

Full Sun, Cool Nights

Recreating commercial greenhouse conditions indoors is nigh to impossible. Photo: http://www.roughbros.com.

It’s hard to equal greenhouse conditions when it comes to light. In a greenhouse, light comes from above and all four sides. If you grow on a windowsill, even if the window faces south, that’s still only 5 or 6 hours of full sun. And many of us are using east or west windows, with even less light.

Also, professional greenhouse growers start their seeds in special climate-controlled areas that are exceptionally warm and where daytime and nighttime temperatures are equal, but after germination, they move the seedlings to cooler areas. The main purpose for the move is to save energy: in the spring, a cool greenhouse requires little to no heat. But it also happens that the majority of seedlings do best with moderate daytime temperatures and considerably cooler night ones. Combine full sun, moderately warm days and cool nights and you’ll have short, dense, very green plants. 

Seedlings grown on a windowsill tend to look a bit weak compared to greenhouse-grown ones. Photo: Karen, flickr.com

Compare those conditions to homegrown seedlings. They’re usually on or near a windowsill or under grow lights. Neither is as bright as a greenhouse. Also, we tend to heat our homes to what is comfortable to us: rarely less than 65 °F (18 °C), even at night. But most seedlings prefer a drop to 50 °F or 55 °F (10 °C or 13 °C) at night, even less for perennials. So, what can you do to give your seedlings the conditions they need?

Chillin’ With the Family

Seedlings like cooler temperatures than you do! Ill.: Classroomclipart.com & ua.all.biz

If you’re persuasive, you may be able to convince your family of the advantages of a cold night’s sleep. Get out the sleeping bags and set the thermostat at 40 °F (5 °C). Move any seedlings that like warmer temperatures (tomatoes and peppers, for example) well into the room where it will be warmer, but the others will love the cool of the windowsill (and no, it won’t really drop to 40 °F/5 °C in your bedroom). Your family may complain but your plants will be happy. And do remember that the family dog makes an excellent foot warmer.

Light Up Their Life

One of my mini-greenhouses, used in spring to give my seedlings the brightest light possible. Photo: laidbackgardener.com

It’s not so easy to fix light problems. A south-facing sunroom would give you greenhouse light intensities, but that can be an expensive addition. Try adding a cold frame (much less expensive). Or install a temporary greenhouse: there are many models on the market or you can make your own. Continue starting the seedlings indoors (they need warmth to germinate), then move them out after they have 4 to 6 true leaves. By the time the snow is gone, most cold frames and temporary greenhouses will not even need heating: the heat they save up in the day will carry them through the night. You’ll be amazed at how great your plants will look! 

If that isn’t possible, at least grow your seedlings right up against a window in the brightest room you have. 

If you grow under lights, two things can be done to increase the light: move the plants closer to the tubes and extend the lighting period. 

Keep your seedlings close to the lamp, although without touching. These could use a bit of a boost! Photo: backroadjournal.wordpress.com

Generations of gardeners have learned that seedlings do best, staying much more compact, when they’re only 1 to 3 inches (3 to 5 cm) below the tubes. The problem is, they keep growing, so you have to adjust every two or three days. I keep on hand a pile of pots of different heights: turned upside down, they make great supports for my seed trays and I just keep using smaller and smaller support pots as the seedlings grow. You can also have grow lights on chains so you can move them upwards. Just don’t let the seedlings touch the lights or their leaves may dry up.

Also, buy a cheap timer and set the days at 14 to 18 hours. That will give your seedlings much more light. Just be aware that a very few seedlings need shorter days to grow well. One of these rare examples is the African marigold (Tagetes erecta) that needs short days (less than 12 hours) to initiate bloom. However, their seedlings still grow and look best under long days. The solution? Grow them under long days under lights, then about 3 weeks before planting them out, adjust their timer to 11-hour days. That will give you great-looking plants with abundant bloom.

Other Helpful Hints

Use a sowing mix containing beneficial fungi. Ill.: Claire Tourigny, from the book Les idées du jardinier paresseux: Semis

Use a growing mix containing beneficial fungi (mychorrhizae) or add them at sowing time. They help encourage better growth and disease repression.

For green, healthy seedlings, you’ll need to start fertilizing after the plant has 4 or so true leaves. I like to use seaweed fertilizer, diluted according to the label, as it is unlikely to burn seedlings. 

Domes are great for germination, but once seedlings sprout, remove them to provide adequate air circulation. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

Keep the humidity up: dry air can slow growth and result in dry leaf edges. A room humidifier can help, or set up a humidity try (a tray of gravel that you occasionally pour water over, so the water evaporates and humidifies the air). Or simply grow many seedling trays in the same room, as they are natural humidifiers in and of themselves. However, do notleave plastic domes over seedlings more than a few days after germination. Yes, the seedlings will love the humid air, but the lack of air circulation under a dome can lead to diseases like rot and damping off.

Brush or shake seedlings regularly to give them a shorter but thicker stalk. Photo: http://www.tomatodirt.com

Give your seedling containers a 60-second shake every day or brush over them back and forth with your hand or a soft brush. This movement imitates the action of wind outdoors and helps the plant develop a thicker stalk. Turning a fan (at the “breeze” setting) towards your plants will give a similar result.

A quarter turn once a week will keep your seedlings standing straight. Ill.: Claire Tourigny, from the book Les idées du jardinier paresseux: Semis

Turn the trays every few days if you’re growing them in front of a window; otherwise they’ll tend to grow sideways! (This isn’t necessary if you grow them under lights or in a greenhouse.) 

Don’t forget to water. Seedlings are very delicate and even the slightest touch of drought will hold them back. You’ll need to check often, daily if possible, as seed trays dry out veryquickly.

Switch to Cool White tubes. Horticultural tubes purport to do wonders, but were designed to induce flowering, not foliage growth, and at the seedling stage, it’s foliage you’re concerned with. Horticultural tubes are less intense than Cool Whites, far more expensive, and simply don’t do a good job on seedlings. Save them for plants that really need them, like orchids or cacti.

Harden off seedlings before you plant them out. Photo: priorunitygarden.wordpress.com

Finally, always harden off (acclimatize) your seedlings to outdoor conditions before planting them out. I give mine 2 or 3 days of shade, 2 or 3 days of partial shade and 2 or 3 days of sun before doing so. And if there’s a cold snap, I bring them all back indoors or into a cold frame or greenhouse overnight. Why risk losing your plants when you’re so near your goal!

Yes, you too can grow professional quality seedlings: you just need to know how to do so! 

A Thermometer for Houseplants

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Some indoor plants (cyclamens, cactus, some orchids, etc.) actually prefer cold night temperatures during the winter: 33–50˚F (1–10˚C). But how can you find which spots in your house really are the coolest … without spending the night sitting in each one to test it out?

Here is one case where modern technology can really make your gardening life simpler! Most modern digital room thermometers display not only the current temperature, but the maximum and minimum temperatures of the spot where you place them. Leave one in a location that you think is appropriate for a few nights, jot down the temperatures, then try a few others. Soon you’ll have a much better idea of the true growing conditions in various spots throughout your house. 

By the way, most digital room thermometers also give you the relative humidity, something you also need to know. Most houseplants prefer a relative humidity of 50% or more.

You can easily find an inexpensive digital room thermometer in any hardware store.

Make Cut Roses Last

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In a sense, red roses for Valentine’s Day are a big rip-off. Red roses, the traditional Valentine’s Day flower, quadruple or quintuple in price at the approach of the holiday. Even so, most people in a loving relationship won’t think twice about the cost. As the saying goes, what price love?

All over the world, rose growers have been working feverishly to produce enough top-quality red roses for this one occasion, but they’ll fail. They always do. Demand always outstrips supply and has done for over a century. Hence the extraordinary price of cut roses at this season. Lovers from all over the world want red roses for Valentine’s Day and are willing to pay the price, no matter how high.

Ill.: http://www.interflora.fr

That said, even if you are indeed convinced that your love deserves nothing less than red roses, known the world over as the symbol of true love, you can still get a little more for your money if you know how to extend the flower’s life to the fullest.

The Five Factors Involved in Prolonging Floral Life

Five factors especially influence how long cut roses will last:

  • The initial quality of the flower (there are roses of top quality, second quality and third quality);
  • The temperature they’re kept at (cool is best);
  • Whether or not there are air bubbles in the stem (they prevent water, sugars and minerals from reaching the flower);
  • Bacterial development (it clogs the stem and therefore also prevents water, sugars and minerals from reaching the flower);
  • The gradual disappearance of sugars in the stem and flower tissues (sugars are the flower’s source of energy).

Simple Solutions

You may think the first factor (flower quality) is out of your control, but it isn’t.

Only florists offer top-quality roses at Valentine’s Day. Photo: http://www.flowershopnetwork.com

At Valentine’s Day, everyone and their mother suddenly becomes a flower vendor. Even so, only florists have the quality blooms. They reserved them all: yes, every one!

A professional florist has a reputation to maintain and will therefore inevitably only buy from a recognized supplier and will pay whatever it takes to have top quality flowers. A premium rose will be large, in bud, although possibly slightly unfurled, unblemished and born on a long, straight, solid stem.

Second and third quality flowers are sold to non-specialists: supermarkets, big-box stores, public markets, flower girls, etc. Don’t expect as much from them. A rose drops in quality for various reasons: the flower may be too advanced, too small, lack symmetry or be damaged in some way, the stem may be too short or crooked, the flower could have been exposed to heat or was inadequately cared for in during shipping, etc.


The responsibility for the second factor in floral life is shared between the merchant and you. A responsible merchant will keep their roses refrigerated until the time of sale. It’s then up to you to continue to keep them as cool as possible after purchase.

If you buy your roses on Valentine’s Day, you’re already a bit late! Ill.: Doug Angus-Lee, http://www.youtube.com

Tip:  If this is your first Valentine’s Day floral gift and you head to the florist on that fateful day, expecting to purchase the best roses, you may already be in trouble. Serious lovers don’t wait until the last minute; they order their roses in advance, at least a week or before February 14. As a result, their order will be ready on time using the very best roses: there is no risk of disappointment. By buying on Valentine’s Day, you would have to accept what are essentially leftovers! Very expensive leftovers and, hopefully, quality leftovers, but leftovers nonetheless! And if you arrive in rush at the end of the day, suddenly realizing your love is waiting expectantly, you may have to accept—horror of horrors!—roses of a different color than red, because quality red roses always sell out. Always!

Back at Home

When you receive cut roses, your job will be to make them last as long as possible. Photo: Doug Angus-Lee, http://www.flickr.com

At home, the responsibility for making Valentine’s roses last usually now lies with the person who receives them. So, here’s what to do:

In the evening, place the roses in a cool place; during the day, put them on display, of course, but away from direct sun. And bump the thermostat down a bit if you can take it. The cooler the room (above freezing, that is), the longer the flowers will last.

Cut the stem under water. Ill.: http://www.transparentpng.com, aseret-uido.com et http://www.bartlettman.com. montage: laidbackgardener.com

It is also important to prevent air bubbles from forming in the stem. To do this, as soon as you have a minute, immerse each rose stem in tepid water and cut about an inch (3 cm) off the bottom, preferably with pruning shears (scissors tend to squash stems). The important thing is to do sounder water(no, youdon’t have to be underwater, but the stem and the tip of the shears do.). Then count slowly to 10 before you lift the stem out and place it in its vase.

You see, when you cut a flower stem, that instantly causes suction inside the stem. If the stem is exposed to the air, it’s air that will be sucked in and thus bubbles are formed that will gradually rise up the stem and block off water flow to the flower, shortening its life. If the cut is made underwater, though, it’s water that will penetrate the stem, then rise upwards, keeping the flower moist. It’s as simple as that.

Flower food. Photo: http://www.chrysal.com

The fourth and fifth factors (growth of bacteria and disappearance of sugars) are best controlled by the application of a cut flower conservation product (generally sold as “flower food,” although it really isn’t a food). Sold as a powder or a liquid, and usually offered in packet form with the purchase if you bought the flowers from a florist, this product contains sugar and bactericidal products that will help your bouquet last as long as possible.

Also, remove any leaf that will be under water in the vase: another potential source of bacteria.

Monitor water quality in the vase daily: if it becomes cloudy, change it, adding a new packet of cut flower conservation product, and recut the stem under the water. You’ll probably need to change the water two to three times a week.

Any good florist will give you flower food with the purchase, but non-specialists rarely do. If not, then, make your own. 7 Up, for example, contains both sugar that will help extend the flower life and citric acid that is helpful in preventing bacterial growth. Mix 50% water and 50% 7 Up, plus a few drops of bleach (again, to prevent bacteria) and use this solution to the vase where you place your roses rather than plain water. The result won’t be as good as with a floral preservation product, but is better than water directly from the tap.

With proper care, your cut roses can last 10 days, sometimes even two weeks!

Happy Valentine’s Day! Photo: http://www.freepik.esci

Seed Starting: As Easy as 1-2-3

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If you’ve never grown anything from seed before, you might be surprised at how easy it is to have a beautiful, productive summer garden starting with a few packs of seed in spring.

1. Use quality seed.

You may be tempted to use old seed, but think first. Was it kept in someone’s garage? Is it more than two years old? If in doubt, buy fresh seed from a trusted seed seller.

2. Maximize light.

Whether natural or artificial, adequate light is necessary for good seedling growth.

3. Don’t start your indoor seedlings too soon.

The earlier in the season you start your seeds, the more likely it is that your seedlings will be weak and spindly. Determine your seed starting date by reading the seed packet to see when it is safe to plant seedlings outdoors. For tomatoes this is generally when nights are above 50 °F (10 °C). Count back a month to 6 weeks.

Note: Just because a tomato plant can go outside immediately after danger of frost, there’s no law saying it must.

What Seeds Should I Start Indoors in Containers?

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Carrots, lettuce, sunflowers: these are examples of easy plants to grow from seed sown directly outdoors. Photo: http://www.ezfromseed.org

Not every type of seed needs to be started indoors. In fact, many are best sown directly in the garden soil.

In some regions, it makes sense to start seeds of spring greens indoors to get an early crop, and then sow more of the same greens outdoors to extend the growing season.

Carrots, lettuce, flowers, tomatoes, herbs, and many other garden favorites are easily started from seed.

Seeds to Start IndoorsSow Indoors or OutSow Directly in the Garden
Broccoli
Brussels Sprouts
Cabbage
Cauliflower
Eggplants
Herbs (most types)
Onions
Peppers
Perennials
Tomatoes
Basil
Cucumbers
Kale
Lettuce and other salad greens
Melons
Nasturtiums
Parsley
Spinach! Squash
Sunflowers
Swiss Chard
Zinnias
Arugula
Beans
Beets
Carrots
Cilantro (coriander)
Corn
Dill
Parsnips
Peas
Radishes
Spring Onions
Turnips

Tip: First plan your garden; then order your seeds. Sometimes the fastest vegetable varieties, most interesting herbs and old-fashioned flowers such as larkspur, four o’clock and love-lies-bleeding are available only from seed.

Where Should I Put My Indoor Seedlings?

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A sunny window may provide enough light or you may need to purchase lights. Photo: http://www.cornerstoneacresfarm.com

A south or west-facing window will provide adequate light, assuming you wait until the longer days of April to begin planting. If you have a sun porch, even better, but keep an eye on the weather; you’ll need to provide heat on frosty nights.

If natural light is not available, you can purchase grow lights. Cool white fluorescent tubes will do the job and are much more economical than the full spectrum grow lights. Place them two to four inches (5 to 10 cm) above your seedlings, and keep them on 16-18 hours a day.

A Brief How-To

Supplies

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Gather your supplies. Ill.: Claire Tourigny, from the book Les Idées du jardinier paresseux: Semis

For indoor seed starting, get a good soilless mix and some containers. These can be recycled plastic containers from the grocery store, half-gallon milk containers sliced lengthwise, purchased trays and cell inserts, biodegradable pots, or anything that is at least 2 inches in depth. Be sure to add drainage holes if your container has none.

Sowing Indoors

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There are all sorts of containers you can repurpose for seed starting. Photo: http://www.greeningz.com

Seeds can be germinated in recycled containers and then transplanted into individual cells. Some plants—beans are a good example—don’t need to be started indoors. Sow them directly into the soil.

Moisten the soil mix to the consistency of a wrung-out sponge before planting seeds. A rule of thumb when it comes to starting tomatoes indoors in cell packs: plant two to three seeds in a cell and thin to one when the seedlings grow their first set of true leaves. This goes for all plants that you are starting from seed, including peppers, eggplants, squash, annual flowers, and even greens.

Heat mat. Photo http://www.feathersinthewoods.com

Tip: If you are starting seeds in a cool space, purchasing a heat mat to place under your seedling trays will speed germination. Once seeds sprout, remove the tray from the mat.

Transplanting

If you sow rows of seeds in flats or recycled containers, place them no closer than 1/2 inch (1.25) apart. Transplant seedlings into individual cells or pots when they have one or two sets of true leaves.

Seedling Health

Seedlings thrive when provided with plenty of light and enough water to keep the soil moist but not wet. Begin feeding them with a half-strength liquid fertilizer when they have at least two sets of leaves. If possible, bring them outdoors on warm sunny spring days.

If Sowing Directly Outdoors

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You can start fast-growing plants outdoors. Photo: http://www.wyevalegardencentres.co.uk

Read the packets of root vegetables, greens, beans, and other plants for seedling spacing. Gardeners, especially beginning gardeners, tend to sow seeds too closely. Try to scatter seeds of greens and root vegetables about an inch (2,5 cm) apart when sowing directly in the garden, otherwise plants will be overly crowded, and will not thrive.

Tip: Thinning is critical to garden success! With the exception of baby greens, all seedlings should be thinned according to packet instructions.

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The above article is derived from a press release by the Home Garden Seed Association (www.ezfromseed.org) which promotes gardening from seed – the easy, economical, and rewarding way to garden. Visit their website for gardening articles and information about their members and their activities. Members’ retail websites can be accessed through the “Shop Our Members Online” page.

How to Save a Rotting Cactus

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Rot is, unfortunately, a common problem on cactus. While environmental factors are involved (rot is most common when the plant is overwatered, growing under conditions of high atmospheric humidity, when the stem has been wounded, after an insect infestation, etc.), it’s important to understand that the rot itself is a fungal or bacterial disease and will likely continue to develop unless something is done.

Rot can occur on any part of the plant, from the roots to the tip, although crown rot—rot starting where the stem meets the soil—is perhaps the most common. Look for soggy black or brown, somewhat sunken tissue, often with pale green or yellow growth around it. Root rot is the most difficult to detect, since it is underground. Often the first sign of it is when the entire top of the plant begins to yellow and sag.

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This isn’t rot, just the natural corky growth that appears on many older cactus. Photo: los-plantalones.tumblr.com

Many cactus become corky and brown at the base over time and that’s quite normal for those species. Try poking the base of the plant with a (gloved) finger. If the brown part is hard, it’s not rot. Rot will be soft.

Saving a Rotting Cactus

In the wild, cactus often seem to cure themselves, compartmentalizing around the wound with callus tissue to keep it from spreading. That’s not nearly so common indoors, under the lower light and higher humidity inevitably found there. Besides, the rotted section, even if the rot stops spreading, will forever mar your plant’s appearance. That’s why major surgery is recommended. Fortunately, you don’t need years of medical training to carry this out.

Sterile Tools

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Sterilize the blade between each cut with rubbing alcohol. Photo: rwadamslaw.info

Any surgeon will tell you sterility in the operating room is vital. So it is with cactus surgery as well. Throughout the operations to follow, always keep your cutting tools (knife, pruning shears, even saw [for really thick stems]) sterile by wiping them down with rubbing alcohol before cutting and between each cut.

Stem Rot

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With its rotting tip removed down to healthy growth, this cactus will be able to sprout a new top. Photo: Green Lady, http://www.youtube.com

When rot occurs aboveground, near the tip or in the middle of the stem, simply cut off and toss the top part using a sharp knife or pruning shears. Study the wound on the lower part of the stem to be sure there is no sign of rot (dark, spreading tissue or even just an orange discoloration). If there is, recut even lower until you see the remaining tissue is healthy.

You may want to treat the wound with powdered sulfur, although this is not as vital as with root or crown rot.

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New growth appearing from a decapitated cactus. Photo: http://www.kaktusmichel.de

Over time, the cut will callus over and one or more new stems will start to form just below the cut. It’s up to you to decide if you want to keep just one stem or more. Over time, the plant will fully recuperate … assuming, of course, you’re giving the plant the growing conditions its needs.

Root or Crown Rot

When the roots or the base of the stem show signs of rot, you’ll need to do more drastic surgery. You’ll need to decapitate the plant and reroot its top. This will only work if the top part is still healthy and green. If it’s already yellowing or becoming soft, might I suggest holding a little cactus funeral service … then going out to buy a new one?

Assuming the top is healthy, with a knife or pruning shears, cut off the top of the plant, above the wound. Dispose of the bottom part. If you decide to keep the pot, make sure you thoroughly empty and clean it before reuse to remove any disease spores.

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If the first cut shows signs of rot, slice off another section. Photo: http://www.kuentz.com

Examine the wound. Is the tissue healthy? If you see the slightest tinge of brown or orange inside, lay the cutting on its side and slice off another section, as you would slice a carrot, then again and again if necessary, until you end up with a section showing no rot. Sometimes you’ll find the rot has spread right through the plant, in which case it’s game over, but usually you soon reach healthy tissue.

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Freshly cut cactus, just before sulfur is applied. With a stem this thick, it may take months to form a good callus. Photo: thesucculentsource.com

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Sulfur applied to wound. Photo: I’d Tap That, http://www.youtube.com

When you’re sure you’ve excised all the rot and pre-rot (orange tissue), apply sulfur powder to the wound (it’s a natural fungicide).

Now set the cutting aside to callus over.

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You may want to stand top cuttings upright as they callus over to ensure vertical growth later. Photo: http://www.shroomery.org

Callus formation can take as little as a week for thin-stemmed cactus to 3 months or more for a thick-stemmed one. You can simply lay the stem on its side if callusing will only take a few weeks. If it’s going to last a few months, the stem tip will begin to grow upward from its prone position, ruining the cutting’s future symmetry. If so, either give the prostrate stem a quarter turn each week so it won’t know which way is up or stand the cutting in an upright position.

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The callus has to be hard and dry before you pot it up: if it still feels a bit soft, give it a few more weeks. Photo: http://www.zamnesia.com.

When callusing is completed and the entire cut surface is completely dry and hard, pot the cutting up into dry potting soil, using a cactus mix if that is your preference. Do not water right away! Give the new plant a few weeks in dry soil until roots start to form. Then start to water lightly. When you start to see healthy new growth, you can begin watering normally.

Clumping Cactus

In clumping cactus, when rot appears on a stem, the treatment can be as easy as cutting out or pulling off the one or two stems with the disease.

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You can divide clumping cactus and replant only the healthy parts. Photo: Michael Wolf, Wikimedia Commons

If it turns out to be root or crown rot affecting just one side of the plant, though, division may be the best solution. Remove the plant from its pot and pull the cluster apart, keeping only healthy stems. They’ll probably already bear roots and, if so, you can simply pot them up, although hold off on watering for a week or two.

If stems aren’t rooted, consider them cuttings. Clean them off and let them dry exposed to the air for a few weeks, then pot them up. As above, don’t water them at first, then began watering normally when you see new growth.


So, you can (often) save a rotting cactus. You just need to know how!