Watering houseplants when you’re absent for more than a week is always a problem. Even if you entrust the work to a neighbor or a friend, it’s very likely that some plants will suffer. But it’s easy to organize plants so they don’t need watering for 8 to 12 weeks or more. Here’s how:
Start by watering them well one or two days before your departure. You want their root ball to be thoroughly and evenly moist, but not soaking wet.
The day before or the morning of your departure, insert them into a transparent plastic bag (a bag from the dry cleaners, for example), either alone (for large plants), or in groups (for smaller ones). Seal the bag with a twist tie and remove the bagged plants from full sun (the sun beating on a sealed container can cook the plants inside). Now, go in peace!
In the open air, plants lose about 95% of the water you give them to evaporation. That’s why you have to water them so often. But since the water in a closed bag can’t evaporate, your plants will benefit from moist soil for months! Yes, most plants treated this way will still be in fine shape in 6 to 8 months later! So, take a long trip if you want!
And no, your plants “won’t run out of air” in a closed bag. Plants are experts in recirculating air, producing excess oxygen during the day and excess carbon dioxide at night. Thus, they meet their own needs.
When you return, “free” your plants from their bag and put them back in their place … but don’t be surprised to discover that they are now more beautiful than when you left, because the high atmospheric humidity present in a sealed bag almost always stimulates healthy new growth.
Researchers from the venerable Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, aka Kew Gardens, have been busy combing forests, jungles, scrublands and deserts all over the world for new plants. In 2019, they published, with their partners, the discovery of 102 vascular plants from all over the planet.
Nearly half of these species were from Africa and most are threatened with extinction. Naming them is vital for their survival.
Here are 6 of the top species of 2019, some of which may help to provide us with new foods, materials or medicines.
This one might make a charming houseplant, don’t you think? It’s a spectacular new species from the Gesneriaceae (African violet family), Cyrtandra vittata, and was discovered in northern New Guinea. It’s a rainforest shrub with bright pink candy-striped flowers followed by white berries which are thought to be dispersed by doves and pigeons.
Collected from the wild under permit by scientists at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, the discoverers knew nothing about the flowers, as it wasn’t in bloom when they harvested samples. However, when cuttings rooted and bloomed in their greenhouse, they know they had something special. Indeed, it was discovered to be a brand-new species.
Cyrtandra vittata is one of about 800 species of Cyrtandra which range from herbs to small trees and occur from Thailand to the Hawaiian Archipelago. Most species occur in the Philippines, Borneo or New Guinea.
Sour No More: A New Miracle Fruit
Synsepalum chimanimani, a new species of miracle fruit, was discovered in the lowland rainforests of the Chimanimani Mountains on the Mozambique – Zimbabwe border in Africa. The fruits of this miracle fruit are only slightly sweet to taste, but contain a compound called miraculin that blocks taste buds, so that when sour foods such as lemons are eaten later, they taste sweet.
It’s a small tree, just four meters in height, with glossy evergreen leaves produced in small bunches. The twigs produce a white rubbery latex when cut. Fewer than 40 species of Synsepalum are known, all from tropical African forests.
The new species has been assessed as endangered, as it’s only known to exist in three locations, all of which are under threat from deforestation for agriculture.
Holiday Photo Leads to New Species of Snowdrop
A new snowdrop, Galanthus bursanus, from North West Turkey near the town of Bursa, was discovered on Facebook when Turkish pediatrician, Dr. Y. Konca, uploaded her holiday photos there.
Ukrainian researcher, Dr. Dimitri Zubov, realized that the snowdrop was something special: an unknown species. They both went back to find the location in the photo, collected a sample of the plant and contacted Kew’s snowdrop specialist Aaron Davis.
Unlike most other snowdrop species, Galanthus bursanus flowers not in the spring, but in the autumn and without its leaves. Not to worry, though: the plant does have leaves, but they sprout in the spring, then go dormant in summer. The fall flowers are highly fragrant.
Unfortunately, this snowdrop has already been assessed as critically endangered due to threats from illegal collecting, marble quarrying, climate change and expansion of agricultural land.
A Colorful Mountain Gladiolus
Kew scientist Xander van der Burgt found the vivid orange flower growing on a table-stone mountain in Kounounkan, Guinea. It is restricted to two mountains in the area: ones that are among the last to remain unimpacted by humans. It likes to grow in fire-free habitats and occurs in open vegetation with little grass.
And he named it for his wife, Maria. So, welcome Gladiolus mariae!
Going, Going, Nearly Gone
With just seven trees known on Earth, zonozono (Mischogyne iddii), a 20m tall tree in the soursop family (Annonaceae) found in Tanzania, is perhaps the rarest species described this year.
It was named by its discoverers, George Gosline and Andy Marshall, in honor of the Tanzanian botanist Iddi Rajabu and has been identified in a genus previously only known from Central Africa.
It is assessed as endangered due to the low number of individuals and threats from pole cutting and from an invasive tree species.
Volcano Top Herb
Growing on the rim of a semi-active volcano may not be the safest place in the world to grow, but that’s the native habitat of Costularia cadetii, a grasslike perennial herb. It grows on the lip of volcanoes on Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Although the first record of this species was collected in 1965, further material was needed and it was only officially named this year.
Isabel Larridon named the herb after its collector, Thérésian Cadet, a former teacher and climbing enthusiast of the island. The species is already classified as endangered, as it is restricted to this high elevation habitat which puts it at risk from volcanic activity, fire and climate change.
Information adapted from an article by Dr. Martin Cheek that appeared on the Kew Gardens website.
Every year, the National Garden Bureau, a non-profit organization promoting the pleasures of home gardening, selects one annual, one perennial, one edible plant, one bulb and one shrub to celebrate. It’s a great way to discover a new plant or to learn a bit more about a plant you may already be growing.
Let’s look at the perennial chosen for 2020, lavender.
What is Lavender?
The word lavender refers to any plant in the genus Lavandula, a genus that contains some 47 species of annuals, perennials and shrubs, all from the Old World. Most are found in the Mediterranean region, with outlying species as far away as Cape Verde and India. Most too are fairly tender plants, but a few species are hardy enough to be grown outdoors all year in temperate climates.
Of course, when people say “lavender,” they usually mean just one species: English lavender (L. angustifolia). This is by far the most widely grown species. It’s the lavender of soaps, potpourris, perfumes and gardens. In spite of the name English lavender, it is not native to England, but the Mediterranean (Spain, France, Italy, Croatia, etc.)
The word lavender is thought to be derived from the Old French lavandre, which can be traced back to the Latin lavare, both referring to washing, as clothes used to be washed in lavender water to keep them fresh and scented.
Lavender is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae).
Everywhere you look, people are incorporating this multifaceted plant into their daily lives, It’s seen in gardens, as well as in kitchens and décor. It’s even a special part of health and wellness routines. The texture, scent, attractiveness, and overall usability of lavender make it one of the most versatile plants you can grow.
This is the hardiest form in terms of garden performance. There are several varieties, such as ‘Hidcote’, ‘Munstead’ or ‘SuperBlue’, that have been trialed to overwinter reliably in USDA zones 5 through 9 and, under the right conditions, you can keep English lavender going in zone 4 and even 3 as well.
English lavender blooms sit on spikes rising tall above a gray-green base of narrow leaves. Both the florets and foliage are heavily scented. The plant flowers mostly in pink-purple colors, but some silver-white varieties exist as well. It can grow as high as 3 to 6 feet (1–2 m) in mild climates, but most of the top-selling varieties today are dwarf varieties, which grow to a more manageable height of 6–24 in. (15–60 cm).
Additional varieties of English lavender include ‘Annet’, ‘Aromatico’, ‘Big Time Blue’, ‘Blue Spear’, ‘Ellagance’, ‘Lady’, AAS Winner ‘Lavender Lady’, ‘Lavance’, ‘Sentivia’, ‘Sweet Romance’ and ‘Vintro’, among others.
Most gardeners consider English lavender to be a perennial, but it is actually a small shrub.
Spanish and French Lavender
Spanish lavender (L. stoechas) and French lavender (L. dentata), are also natives of the Mediterranean. Their leaves are longer and gray-green, and the taller flower stems are topped with thicker pink-purple pinecone-like flower clusters crowned with similarly colored bracts. (Stoechas is a Latin word derived from the Greek word for “in rows,” which is how these cones generally display their tiny purple clusters.) This type of lavender is more fragile than English varieties and it is also less winter hardy (USDA Zones 6–9). However, it still tolerates a wide range of temperatures. Its fragrance also makes it very attractive to bees—an excellent pollinator-friendly option for your garden or patio.
Some reblooming Spanish lavenders, such as the Anouk or Bandera series, flower heavily in the spring with a second flush of flowers later in the growing season. Spanish and French lavender work well indoors, too, and can be a scented décor or gift item. Additional varieties include ‘Castilliano’, ‘Javelin Forte’, ‘LaVela’, ‘Papillon’ and ‘Primavera’.
Then there are additional varieties, such as the hybrid species lavandin (L. × intermedia [L. angustifolia × L. latifolia]), a cross between English lavender and aspic lavender. Such lavandin varieties as ‘Phenomenal’, ‘Provence’, ‘Torch’, ‘Hidcote Giant’, ‘Edelweiss’ and ‘Fred Boutin’ give an even wider array of lavender types, colors and habits. They too are generally less hardy than English lavender, about USDA 6 to 9.
With lavender, there is, as they say, something for everyone!
Ideal Growing Conditions
Lavender grows best in full sun in dry, well-drained soil; it does not like saturated roots. Adding inorganic drainage materials, such as gravel or sand, to the soil of a raised bed could help improve the conditions for successful lavender growing. Lavenders of all types need little or no additional fertilizer, and it is good practice to provide air circulation. If you live in a region of high humidity, watch out for root rot due to fungus infection. This is sometimes aggravated by using organic mulches, which can trap moisture around the base of the plant.
Quick tip:Use gravel or crushed rocks rather than organic mulches at the base of the plant for a better growing environment.
In very cold climates (USDA hardiness zones 4 and less), try growing English lavender on a south-facing slope, planting it on a well-drained mound. Look for a spot that is hotter than average, perhaps protected from cooling winds. (Lavender does love a hot summer!) Winter protection in the form of a thick straw mulch or a covering of a white breathable landscape fabric may be necessary.
In Your Garden
Planting lavender as a front border means you’ll see it up-close. Feel free to run your fingers through the soft foliage and enjoy the fragrance! Lavender can also be planted in a mixed patio container with other sun-loving plants, or by itself as a fresh way to scent the air in a small space.
In really cold climates, well… just grow it as an annual!
The flowers and leaves of lavender plants are used in many herbal medicines and self-care regimes. Homemade projects and recipes include herbal teas, culinary spices, essential oils, aromatherapy, balms, and more. Lavender is widely added to bath salts, soaps, soaks, perfumes, etc., for a fresh fragrance and calming effect. As a strong-scented herb, dried lavender florets can also be used to repel pests in the garden, or even in the home closet where a fragrant sachet can ward off clothes moths. French chefs use lavender as a fragrant spice to both savory and sweet dishes.
All of these uses add up to quite a versatile and enjoyable flower that’s become a must-have in gardens and homes around the world. And it’s easy to see how 2020 can be your Year of the Lavender!
Edible mushrooms grown in ordinary garden mulch. Photo: Etienne Durand
E-mail message: I’m a big fan of your blog and read it daily. I wanted to share with you a really great gardening experience from last summer.
Following the advice in your blog, I used mulch for my vegetable garden and flower beds for all the usual reasons: keep weeds down, maintain even soil moisture, keep plants cooler in summer, fertilize the plants, etc. Except I went one better.
I inoculated the mulch (fresh straw and wood chips resulting from tree pruning) with the mycelium of wine cap strophia, also called king strophia (Stropharia rugosoannulata), that I bought on the site Homegrown Mushrooms.
I had impressive harvests of excellent mushrooms all summer long, including plenty to dry and store for winter, while still being able to harvest a very large number of vegetables from my garden.
I’ve sent you some pictures.
Answer: That’s a wonderful idea: two birds with one stone!
The famous ‘Lumper’: the deadliest potato in human history. Photo: myirelandspast.wordpress.com
You might wonder why anyone would want to resurrect the potato that caused the great Irish potato famine of 1845 to 1849, but it’s been done. The ‘Lumper’ or ‘Irish Lumper’ was the main potato grown by Irish farmers of the time and when a new strain of late blight (Phytophora infestans) reached the shores of Ireland, brought from the New World in 1844, a disaster of unprecedented proportions occurred. Half the crop was wiped out in 1845; nearly two thirds in 1846.
Irish peasants relied on potatoes for their survival. It was the only crop prolific enough on the small lots available to tenant farmers that could adequately feed a family: a single acre of potatoes could support a family of 5–6 people. The stage was thus set for a famine so terrible it killed one million people and while another one million emigrated to avoid it. Ireland lost one quarter of its population and, indeed, the population drop consequent to the famine continued for over a century. Ireland has yet to recover.
It’s less often mentioned, but the potato famine hit not only Ireland, but all of Europe, where fewer people died (about 100,000) because a wider range of potatoes were being grown, some more resistant to the disease, plus not as many farmers were limited to one single crop. It had already wiped out potato crops in Canada and the US in previous years.
Human beings have since learned, one hopes, that planting vast surfaces in one single crop (a monoculture) is a dangerous thing, and that planting a wider range of varieties can help prevent future famines. Yet if you look at the vast fields of identical plants of wheat, soybeans and maize that constitute modern farms, one really does have to wonder.
Story of the ‘Lumper’
The ‘Lumper’ was a medium-sized, light brown-skinned, off-white-fleshed, strangely lumpy potato that just happened to be very prolific (at least compared to others at the time) and widely adapted. It was from Scotland originally (Scotland also suffered a famine in 1845 due to this potato). It could produce abundantly even in poor soils and cold, rainy summers when little else would thrive. Its flavor was quite good in good years, but said to soapy and waxy in bad ones, but … tenant farmers can’t be choosers, can they?
The ‘Lumper’ was pretty much forgotten about until Michael McKillop of Glens of Antrim Potatoes in Northern Ireland found it among other varieties of heritage potatoes in 2009. He grew the plant, produced more and now sells the spuds as a St. Patrick’s Day novelty at Marks and Spencer stores throughout Ireland. It’s also being grown in Canada at the University of Guelph’s Elora Research Station in Ontario, Canada and at Canadian Potato Genetic Resources in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
Late blight disease has certainly not disappeared, but much more is known about it today. For example, we know it overwinters in infested tubers, often those left in the field, then spreads via wind-borne spores early in the summer. The disease does not survive on its own in the soil. So an outbreak can be controlled quite quickly by thoroughly cleaning the infected field at the end of season. And today there are fungicides that can slow down and stop the progression of the disease when it does show up. That means that highly sensitive varieties like ‘Lumper’ can be grown again if you have any real desire to do so.
Grown in School Gardens in Ireland
In the summer of 2019, schools across Ireland were offered free ‘Lumper’ seed potatoes, thanks to a collaboration between the Committee for the Commemoration for Irish Famine Victims and Glens of Antrim Potatoes. The idea was to plant them in school gardens. The process of planting and tending the crop is hoped to help pupils remember the victims of the famine, as well as those who suffer hunger today. And it may teach them some basics about gardening!
Where to Find ‘Irish Lumpers’
So, you want to try growing the ‘Lumper’ potato? If so, you may have to wait a bit. I was unable to find any commercial source of ‘Lumper’ seed potatoes. If any of my readers knows of one, please do let me know.
I don’t think I’ll be trying it, though. I’d rather go with more modern, more productive and disease-resistant potatoes than disease-susceptible ones of historic interest!
I don’t know about you, but I’m in a self-imposed coronavirus lockdown. Actually, it’s more a wife-imposed lockdown: Marie won’t let me out of the door unless I promise to go no further than the street. Most people will probably come through a bout of COVID-19 with no more symptoms than from a bad cold, but I’m one of those people who suffer from a “pre-existing medical condition,” a lung disease called pulmonary fibrosis. People with PF who come down with COVID-19 aren’t likely to survive.
So, I’m stuck at home for the next few weeks (at least!) and guess what I’ll be doing to keep active and alert? Gardening! It’s better therapy than watching TV and you don’t have to go anywhere to practice it. I have all the supplies I need on hand (if not, I could order them online), my seed orders have arrived and need to be started and I have plenty of houseplants that require various bits of care: from pruning to repotting to complete makeovers.
Where I live (Quebec, Canada), it’s still far too early to be gardening outdoors: there’s still about 90 cm (3 feet) of snow on the ground and that will take a month yet to melt away. So, for the moment, I’ll be gardening indoors. But if the need for isolation continues long enough (who knows?), I have outdoor gardens that will slowly emerge out of the snow and need a bit of care.
So, maybe I’ll be a bit less laidback about my gardening for a while, doing a few things I would normally avoid as not being absolutely essential … but if puttering in my garden helps me deal with feelings of insecurity and isolation (and it does!), then I’m willing to put a bit more work into it. Not that it will feel like work: gardening always feels a bit more like accomplishing something than work.
Try it and see! Do a bit of gardening daily, or even a lot of gardening, and you’ll see time fly.
Hopefully, we’ll be able to mix and mingle again soon!
Smooth hydrangea (left), big leaf hydrangea (middle), panicle hydrangea (right). Only the first and last should be pruned in spring.
It’s unavoidable. A few warm days, birds chirping, snow melting, and crocuses sprouting can only mean one thing. Time to get those pruners out and do a little trimming.
When it comes to hydrangeas, however, incorrect pruning is the biggest reason for lack of flowers. That’s because we prune them at the wrong time. So, let’s get it straight once and for all.
Pruning New Wood
The ones you can prune in early spring are those that flower on stems they will grow this year, i.e. on new wood. Easier said than done, since most of us don’t know which ones we have and what kind of wood they have. Let’s drill down a little deeper to figure that out.
Flower Shape and Foliage Clues
You can tell your hydrangeas apart by noticing the flowers and/or foliage.
If the flowers are big, round, and either white or shades of pink, and it blooms early in the season, you have a smooth hydrangea, also called a woodland hydrangea. Botanically it’s known as Hydrangeaarborescens. Varieties like ‘Annabelle’, ‘Haas’ Halo’, Incrediball® and Invincibelle® Spirit are among the smooth hydrangeas in today’s market. Smooth hydrangeas never have blue flowers.
When your flowers are football- or cone-shaped, you have either a panicle or oak leaf hydrangea. Flowers start out cream, white or green, and age to shades of pink. No blue flowers ever on either of these two varieties.
Your panicle hydrangea (H. paniculata), which includes such cultivars as ‘Limelight,’ Vanilla Strawberry™, Pinky Winky®, Bobo®, Strawberry Sundae®, etc.) flowers on the wood it will produce in the coming months, i.e. on new wood.
Now you know that new wood flowering hydrangeas (smooth and panicle) are the only ones you should be pruning in spring. All the other flowers on old wood. If you cut the old wood bloomers too early, i.e. any time in spring, you risk losing your flowers.
How Much to Cut
You can take your smooth hydrangeas down to about 18–24 inches (45–60 cm). But don’t go further than that, if even that much. You need strong stems to hold up the flowers, especially after a rainstorm. The older the stems are, the stronger they become so let them be. You can even leave up a few taller stems to form a supporting framework. They will disappear into the plant once it leafs out.
For your panicle hydrangeas, you can cut them down by at least one third. You might want to take even more if the plant has become distorted from snow load and other causes.
Be comforted in knowing it’s very hard to make a mistake when it comes to pruning new wood hydrangeas. They are very forgiving in that they always grow back and fill in.
What About Old Wood Hydrangeas?
These are the ones I call the troublemakers. Old wood hydrangeas come in a few flavors. Some are the ones with the round flowers that you can sometimes change to shades of pink or blue. They can either be mountain hydrangeas (H. serrata) or big leaf hydrangeas (H. macrophylla). Climbing hydrangeas (H. petiolaris) and oak leaf hydrangeas (H. quercifolia) also flower on the growth they produced last year.
If the foliage looks like an oak tree, you have an oak leaf hydrangea. How’s that for an easy identification? You might have ‘Alice’, ‘Snowflake’, or ‘Snow Queen’ among others. The oak leaf hydrangea flowers this year on the growth it put on last year, i.e. on old wood. The flower buds aren’t very hardy, so it likely won’t flower at all in cold climates.
Develop a New Love for “Broccoli”
For all old wood hydrangeas, with the exception of dead, diseased or damaged wood, you must hold off cutting until you see their little buds that look a bit like broccoli. It’s only when those buds emerge that you will know which stems to discard. However, if you need to cut your plant back because it has outgrown its allotted space, then go for it … knowing the potential consequences. A point to remember is that some people in mild climates never cut their old wood hydrangeas and the plants do just fine.
Keep in mind there’s no guarantee of flowers from old wood hydrangeas if your plant has lost its buds to weather or whatever. Many areas had a rapid and deep freeze last November before the hydrangeas had a chance to harden off. That cold spell may have killed the buds that were already formed. If so, you’ll get a nice green bush but no flowers.
And in hardiness zones 5 and below, most old wood hydrangeas (the climbing hydrangea, hardy to zone 4, is an exception) are unlikely to ever flower. They’re just not designed for cold climates. However, you may have some success if you protect the from the winter cold. More information here: Preparing Your Hydrangeas for Winter.
The Magic of Reblooming Hydrangeas
Here’s the saving grace. With a big leaf or mountain hydrangea that reblooms (not possible on oakleaf and climbing hydrangeas), you can still expect to get flowers from that plant even if the terminal buds were destroyed.
Rebloomers have amazing genetics and produce flowers on new stems they will generate in the current season as well as along the stems of last year’s growth. However, these new stems are produced, not from the base of the plant, but from last year’s wood, so you still have to be careful what you prune in early spring.
But you must give them the proper cultural conditions to do that. The right amount of fertilizer (applied in early spring, after snow melt), moisture, and light (part sun) will keep them happy. Then they can concentrate on mid-season flower production.
So you see, this hydrangea pruning thing is really pretty simple. All you need is a sharp pair of pruners to get those new wood bloomers off to a good start.