Change Empty Flower Boxes Into Winter Beauty


Photo: Ashley McCarthy,

Nothing says more clearly “it’s fall and I’m depressed” than a flower box emptied of its annuals sadly awaiting the first snows of winter. Yet it’s so easy to convert that empty summer flower box into a winter decoration that will add punch to your winter landscape. Just use your imagination!

Ideally, your box would still in place, emptied of its plants but filled with potting soil, because the soil will act as a support for decorations you’ll be adding. Here’s what to do.

The Harvesting Expedition

Take a tour of your yard or, with permission, a neighbor’s, seeking bits and pieces of nature’s beauty to use in decorating your flower box. You’ll need pruning shears and a basket or large bag in which to gather your findings.

Photo: Stone Style Gardens & Bouquets

What should you harvest? Whatever you like! Evergreens are classics: conifer branches (spruce, cedar or pine), stems of euonymus, holly and other evergreen shrubs, etc. All will keep their color through winter if you harvest them late in the fall. Don’t forget trees, shrubs and climbers with persistent fruits and berries: winterberry, cranberrybush viburnum, bittersweet, certain crabapples, etc. And the colorful branches of dogwoods and certain willows with bark in shades of red, orange or yellow … or spray paint other leafless branches in the colors of your choice. Conifer cones are also attractive, especially the larger ones, not to mention the stems, leaves and flowers of ornamental grasses as well as dried hydrangea flowers. For extra pizzazz, add the twisting stems of corkscrew willows or Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’).


Go easy as you harvest, though, especially with shrubs, trees, and conifers: you don’t want to remove the branches that will be needed on the plant next summer. Fortunately, it’s usually easy to find secondary stems or branches somewhat hidden from view that won’t show if you prune them off.

What About Adding Plants?

Design for a mild climate using golden Monterey cypress and flowering cabbage. Photo: Monica,

I hesitate to recommend including plants in your winter flower box, unless you live in a mild climate, because even hardy plants often don’t make it through the winter in containers, especially when they were freshly planted in the fall. After all, the soil in a pot freezes much more deeply than soil in the garden. The secret is to use extra hardy varieties, ones adapted to colder climates than yours. If you live in hardiness zone 5, for example, avoid plants labeled zone 5, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find a few that are hardy a zone or two colder. Look for plants with evergreen foliage: miniature conifers, sedums, and dwarf periwinkle (Vinca minor) are examples of fairly hardy additions you could use.

In milder climates (zone 7 and above), this is less of a problem. Try heucheras, English ivy, hen-and-chicks, etc. Even a few extra-hardy annuals may make it through the winter in a flower box: ornamental cabbages and pansies, for example, often look good all winter in warmer parts of zone 7 as well as zone 8 and above.

Raiding the Attic

You can easily combine harvested plant material with decorations for a Christmas display. Photo:

Of course, you can limit yourself entirely to “natural ingredients” found in your yard, but you can also raid your stock of Christmas decorations for red or white ribbons, strings of lights, Xmas balls, and other ornaments. There are no rules when it comes to decorating a flower box!

Decorate to Your Heart’s Content

How you organize your arrangement is entirely up to you: just let your imagination run wild!

You can stick stems upright in the soil of the flower box, use them to create a dense groundcover or have them lean or even drip over the sides. A bit of florist wire can be useful to fix pinecones and other stemless finds so they won’t blow away.

Christmas decorations will give the flower box a holiday look. Photo: Michael Molesky Interior Design

True enough, sometimes birds come in midwinter to feast on the berries you used … but if the flower box is located right in front of your window, as it usually is, that can actually be a good thing, as you’ll be able to enjoy watching them from only inches away.

I’m sure you’ll be more than satisfied with how your arrangements look when you finish, but the arrival of a little snow will make them even more attractive. Make sure you take a few photos of the display to brag about on Instagram!

Article originally published on November 9, 2015. 

Is Brita Water Safe for Plants?


Ill.: &, montage:

Question: I have a Brita water pitcher I use for improving the quality of my drinking water. Can I also use this water on my plants? 

M. Carmichael

Answer: Sure, but why would you bother? Plants are actually excellent water filterers in their own right. They take up the impurities that could be harmful to humans and actually use for their own growth. 

Brita filters and others of that type are basically composed of loose carbon granules that are very good at removing chlorine from the water and also filter out, to a much lesser degree, heavy metals such as lead and cadmium. Basically, they’re designed to make water taste better, but plants have no sense of taste … that we know of!

It has to be said that chlorine is not nearly as harmful to plants as the urban legend claims. It’s not chlorine that burns leaf tips (that condition is most often caused by dry air, insufficient watering, mineral buildup in the potting mix or very hard water) and in fact, chlorine (Cl) is an essential element plants need for their growth. 

The purpose of chlorine in tap water is to provide protection from pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses and protozoa that could cause diseases in humans. The same pathogens would be filtered out and actually consumed (indirectly) by plants as the water flowed through the soil and their root system.

There are indeed some plants that don’t tolerate hard water , that it, water containing a large quantity of dissolved salts and minerals such as magnesium and calcium (carnivorous plants are the most obvious example), but water pitcher filters don’t soften water to any noticeable degree. You need to water such plants with rain water, dehumidifier water or distilled water.

So, go ahead and use your Brita water pitcher to water your houseplants, but don’t expect that to help them in any obvious way!

Grow Your Own Miracle Fruit


Miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulciferum). Photo: Hamale Lyman, Wikimedia Commons

I don’t bandy the word “miracle” about unnecessarily, but there is indeed something quite special about the berry of the plant known as miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulciferum). The small egg-shaped red berry is not particularly sweet on its own, though quite edible. It’s what happens afterwards that is surprising. It contains a glycoprotein called miraculin (yes, that really is its name!) that binds to your taste buds. Then, if you eat something sour or bitter, it activates the sweet receptors, resulting in the perception of a sweet taste. 

I once brought some berries to a lecture I was giving about unusual houseplants and had a few volunteers try it (I only had 7 ripe berries to share). I had them munch on the fruit, then bite into a slice of lemon … the sweetest lemon they had ever tasted! You should have seen the amazed look on their faces! I could have had them try radishes, pickles, hot pepper sauce, mustard, grapefruit or beer. (To me, beer drunk after chewing on a miracle berry tastes like champagne!)

Miracle fruit berries. Photo: MiracleFruitFarm

Those strawberries you paid a fortune for just aren’t sweet enough? Chew on a miracle fruit and they’ll be heavenly! Sneaking a miracle fruit into your pocket would be the ideal trick when you’re invited over for a meal at your mother-in-law’s whose cooking you simply cannot stand. Or have a child chew on a berry (remove the seed first to prevent any risk of choking) before giving them any bitter medicine. 

The effect lasts of miraculin about 20 to 30 minutes, the time it takes your saliva to remove the protein.


Distribution of miracle fruit in the wild. Ill.:

There is nothing new about the miracle fruit: its effect has been known for centuries. It’s native to West Africa and generations of West Africans have picked and chewed the berries before meals. The Chevalier des Marchais, cartographer and slave ship captain, wrote about it as early as 1724. Various attempts to commercialize it have generally failed, but it is possible to buy miracle berry fruit tablets on the Internet. But, let’s face it, tablets are nothing compared to the real thing!


Miracle fruit shrub outdoors in the Philippines. Photo:

Miracle fruit is an evergreen shrub about 6 to 15 feet (1.8 to 4.5 m) high outdoors, though rarely more than 5 feet (1.5 m) indoors, with dense elongated smooth green leaves clustered at the ends of its branches. The tiny ¼ inch (6 mm) tubular brown to white flowers appear sporadically in clusters throughout the year and are not too noticeable. The 1-inch (2.5 cm) red berries, though, are quite striking, looking a lot like coffee berries and with a similar size seed inside (which you can discretely spit out), although the two plants are not related. (Coffea arabica is in the Rubiaceae family, miracle fruit in the Sapotaceae one.)

Growing Your Own

Miracle fruit grown as a houseplant. Photo:

Miracle fruit is a tropical shrub. In temperate climates, you’ll need to grow it indoors, at least from fall through spring. It likes an acid soil (mix ½ peat moss into your usual houseplant mix), so won’t do well in the alkaline soils of California, but it positively thrives in the acid ones of Florida.

Growing mine indoors, I struggled at first: it seems to need a lot of humidity and the 40 to 50% relative humidity I usually manage to offer just wasn’t enough. So, I learned to stuff it into a large transparent bag for the winter, using stakes to lift the bag above the leaves. With this personal greenhouse and humidity close to 100% from October to March, it now breezes through the winter, probably thinking itself back home in West Africa. 

In the wild, it grows in partial shade. Indoors, where the sun’s strength is seriously diminished, I suggest giving it as much sun as you can while avoiding the extreme heat of noon and early afternoon. It prefers tropical temperatures year-round, so avoid temperatures below 60ºF (15ºC) if you can. Established plants are said to tolerate light frost … but they won’t like it!

Watering is “normal”: allow the soil to dry slightly, then water abundantly. I just use plain municipal tap water, direct from the faucet. To keep the pH down, I fertilize with a soluble acidifying fertilizer (one sold for rhododendrons and conifers) at one eighth of the recommended rate from spring to early fall.

Flowers. Photo: Paulina Daruk, Twitter

Theoretically, the flowers self-pollinate, but just to make sure, I move a little pollen around with an artist’s brush if the plant is indoors at the time of blooming. While it’s outdoors, I let insects do their job. Under my conditions, I usually get two flushes of fruit per year, but other gardeners report 3 or 4. And I’m not talking about bushels of fruit: more like handfuls. I’ve seen this plant in tropical climates and even there it seems to be a rather sparse bearer.

I once found a few scale insects on my plant (I immediately pruned off the affected branch and thus apparently nipped the infestation in the bud) and suspect mealybugs would also like it. Spider mites too, if the air is too dry.

I’ve never tried multiplying my plant (I only have room for one!), but it is apparently fairly easy to grow from cuttings (use rooting hormone) or fresh seeds. Seed-grown plants, though, are probably many years away from producing berries.

Where to Find It

Sometimes miracle fruit plants show up in garden centers: if so, grab one without delay: it’s a fairly rare occurrence. 

In the US, you can order a plant via Amazon or from Logee’s or Top Tropicals. In Canada, I got my plant from FloraExotica. In Europe, try AlsaGarden; in Australia, LushPlants.

But don’t order this heat-loving plant in winter: wait until balmier weather arrives!

Get Your Lawn Mower Ready for Winter


It’s always wise to give your lawn mower a thorough cleaning before winter. Photo:

When you’re done with your lawn mower for the season, even a laidback gardener really ought to take an hour or to give it a thorough cleaning and to prepare it for a winter of idleness. Here’s what to do:

1. Clean the body to remove stuck-on grass clippings and dirt. Wash it with a strong jet of water, then use a scraper or brush to remove what remains. Finish by drying it with a cloth, then lightly coat metal surfaces to prevent rust.

2. Grease the wheel axles.

Dull blades won’t get any sharper over the winter! Photo:

3. Clean, sharpen and oil the blade.

Replace the gas with fresh stabilized fuel. Photo:

4. To prevent condensation and damage to the carburetor, empty the fuel tank completely. You can siphon the gas off or use a turkey baster. The gasoline you remove can go into the car … or the snow blower. Now, run the mower until the motor quits in order to burn off the remaining gasoline in the tank and fuel lines. Next, refill the tank with fresh gasoline containing a stabilizer (available from hardware stores). Finally, run the engine for a minute or two so the lines refill with stabilized fuel and your tank and lines will be ready for winter.

5. Remove the spark plug and spray a bit of oil into the cylinder. Clean the spark plug with a small metal brush … or replace it. Most lawn mower guides recommend you change the spark plug every 2 or 3 years.

6. If the oil is dirty (black), empty the oil tank and replace the oil with the type of oil recommended by the mower manufacturer. Check with your municipality to find out where to take the used oil for disposal.

Clean or replace the air filter. Photo:

7. Many people choose to clean or replace the air filter before winter. Refer to your model’s instruction manual for the recommended frequency for this procedure, as well as how to clean or replace it.

8. Store the mower in a dry place (garage, shed, cellar, etc.) until spring.

Electric and Battery Mowers

These mowers require less maintenance. Especially follow steps 1, 2, 3 and 8.

Finally, for a battery-operated model, bring the battery indoors for the winter, as extreme temperatures may shorten its life.

And there you go! One short hour of effort at the end of the season will help keep your mower in good shape for many years to come!



The following is derived from a press release by and designed to promote indoor gardening. The information may be a bit quirky, but it certainly does make you think. Enjoy!

Plants are essential in our lives. Let’s give them something back! 

When you think of plants, you might think of the sansevieria that used to sit on your grandparents’ windowsill, or that spiky cactus in the meeting room. Yet, plants also cover the steppes and tundras, and make our countryside green and picturesque. What about the vegetables that you eat? It’s no accident that we talk about the Plant Kingdom. These green beings we share our planet with provide us with enormous abundance and riches. We could do with thanking them for that more often.

No Life Without Plants

Plants are essential for the Earth’s survival. They release oxygen into the air and provide food for animals. As autotrophic organisms (they convert sunlight into energy via their ability to photosynthesize), plants are the world’s main producers of oxygen, and also the basis for most food chains. In terms of evolution, the existence of animals on land could only occur after plants had gotten there first. Without plants there is no oxygen, no animals and no food. No plants—no life!

What Plants Do for You

It’s been shown that plants in your home make your life considerably more pleasant. They remove harmful substances from the air in playrooms and other parts of your house, and regulate the temperature to keep you feeling cool. Your children are never too young to discover the benefits of plants with these fun tips. Plants also help you to hang on to that holiday feeling for longerreduce stress throughout the year, and can transform a corner of your home into a Zen refuge.

Thanks plants!

Because plants do so much for us, wouldn’t it be nice to do something for them in return? So give them a loving home. Make the effort to get to know these living things. Give them a shower now and then. Move them to a brighter spot. Set them on a humidity tray. Whisper sweet nothings in their leaves. They really do thrive on that—and secretly it will also give you a boost too. They are alive. In fact, they’re life itself. Thanks plants!

Text and photos adapted from

Information and Disinformation: How Carrots Helped Win World War II


Today, in honour of Remembrance Day (Commonwealth countries) and Veteran’s Day (US), here’s a guest blog by Joanne Reed about how one of our favorite home-grown vegetables, the carrot, helped win World War II. Enjoy!

Where does human behavior come from? Behavior comes from our perception of an event or a situation. Where does perception come from? Perception comes from information received, be it from personal experience, newspaper or media. If our behaviors are influenced by information, how can we be sure that what we receive is information or disinformation?

Controlling Perception

It is possible to control human perception. The best way to do this would be to filter or censor the type of information that the public receives, or by using deceptive tactics such as subterfuge, propaganda or misinformation to make the public believe something that is not true.

The “Carrot Myth”

According to conventional wisdom, eating lots of carrots will magically enhance your vision! While there is a little bit of truth in this, the “Carrot Myth” was engineered by British Intelligence and popularized and reinforced by the British Ministry of Information – the government department responsible for publicity and propaganda – during WWII.

During the 1940 Blitzkrieg , the Luftwaffe often struck and bombarded London under the cover of darkness. In order to make it more difficult for the German planes to hit targets, the British Government issued city-wide blackouts. The Royal Air Force (RAF) were able to repel German fighters in part because of the development of a new secret radar technology. The on-board Airborne Interception Radar (AI) was invented and first used by the RAF in 1939 and had the ability to pinpoint enemy bombers before they reached the English Channel. To protect their secret weapon, British Intelligence invented a propaganda campaign that claimed that British pilots could see in the dark because they ate a lot of carrots!

There is no denying the fact that carrots, by virtue of their heavy dose of vitamin A (in the form of Beta Carotene) are very good for the health of your eyes; but this truth was stretched a little by granting carrots the “superpower” of improving your night vision and give you the power to spot enemy planes in the dark! The truth is that eating carrots does not help you see better in the dark any more than eating blueberries will turn you blue. That said, the carrot campaign of subterfuge helped hide a new technology that was critical to the Battle of Britain, a major campaign fought entirely by air forces and the first defeat of Hitler’s military forces, and to the eventual Allied victory.

author joanne reed
this is your quest
information and disinformation
Joanne Reed – Author of “This Is Your Quest”

Information and Disinformation Overload

Today, we are living in a world of information and disinformation overload; data about almost anything is available at the click of a button, we are constantly bombarded by streams of information (and sometimes disinformation), making it very difficult to know what and who to believe.

Hoaxes, hysterias, misinformation and scams have been around a long time. Con men and Ponzi schemes are in every corner of recorded history. You might think that our access to vast oceans of information on the internet would change that, but it hasn’t. In fact, humans are just as gullible and easily led as ever. Skepticism is just as rare as any other time, and most people are willing to believe something they read on the internet, heard second or third hand, without subjecting their curiosities to even the most basic fact-checking.

It is important to remain skeptical. Some people may dismiss you as a cynical, but that’s likely to be the person who’s actively trying to influence you or sell you something. There are no awards for coming to a conclusion the fastest, so take your time, and don’t form an opinion based on emotion. Here are some quick ways to keep yourself in check:

  • Check your sources
  • Understand the difference between opinion and fact
  • Beware of anecdotal evidence
  • Ask a lot of questions
  • Question your beliefs
  • Turn to history for clues

Skepticism is healthy. Be discerning about the information you receive and the medium through which it is transmitted, they are skills worth developing.

And this, my Dear Companion, is Your Quest!

If you liked this post, you may also like:

8 Flavors of Love – Which One Are You?
Why Things Are Not Always What They Seem
Don’t Worry Be Happy – The Benefits of Music
Being in a State of Flow. The Key to Happiness?
A Compass to a Meaningful Life
Positivity vs. Negativity – Battle of the Fittest
How to Have Superpowers and Remain Resolutely Human.
#1 Spot! Sweet! Thank you to my French readers for keeping me there!
Understanding The Psychology of Willful Blindness
Goddess Athena – The Art of War

You can also purchase Joannes book ‘This is Your Quest’ online at BookLocker, from Amazon or from Barnes & Noble.  The Ebook version is available on Amazon (Kindle), Barnes & Nobles (Nook), Apple (iBooks) & Kobo. Or check out her Amazon Author Page here.

Lichens: More Complex Than Anyone Imagined


Lichens: so small, yet so complex! Photo:

Lichens are composite organisms often found growing on rocks and trees. Some species are commonly found in gardens, especially on well-established trees, and the advice to the home gardener has always been to ignore them: they’re harmless to plants and also add a bit of interest as well as (to a very minor degree) helping to fertilize the plants they settle on.

Lichens aren’t plants, though, but “composite organisms.” They were long thought to be simple combinations of one algae and one fungus. By joining their forces in symbiosis, each organism helping the other, the new composite organism develops properties different from those of its component organisms. 

Most algae, for example, cannot live outside an aquatic environment, but, sheltered within the cells of a fungus, they can now carry out their photosynthesis on a tree trunk, branch or rock. And the carbohydrates they produce feed the fungus … and some of the nitrogen they capture from the air drips down to the plant roots below. Everybody’s happy!

This symbiotic one algae/one fungi relationship has been known since the 1800s, but it turns out it’s more complicated than that. Scientists are finding lichens often have a third partner or a fourth or even a fifth!

There are often two fungi involved: an ascomycete fungus and a basidiomycete yeast. And in some cases, there is a second basidiomycete involved in the partnership. And other lichens have been found where there is one fungus and two algae species … and sometimes three. With some 17,000 identified lichen species in the world (and probably at least as many unidentified ones), the possibilities seem almost endless! 

I suppose symbiosis is rather like cooking: you need just the right ingredients to make things turn out!

Further Reading:

Not One, Not Two, But Three Fungi Present in Lichen

Symbiosis in Lichens