Pull Your Plants Back from the Window

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If you find it hot near a south-facing window on a sunny day, imagine your houseplants’ distress! Source: Claire Tourigny, from the book Les 1500 trucs du jardinier paresseux.

In spring, the light in front of a south- or west-facing window becomes more intense and abundant daily and also starts to extend beyond what our houseplants, which are tropical plants accustomed to no more than about 12 hours of daily sunshine, receive in their native lands. And behind a wall of glass, there isn’t much air circulation. Thus, heat can easily increase to a point where the plants are harmed.

With the return of spring, therefore, it’s wise to keep an eye any houseplants you place near sunny windows. When you notice any sign of distress, like leaves wilting, curling or turning pale on one side only, the one closest to the window, it’s time to react.

There are several ways of coping with this overly intense light and resulting heat. You can move them back from south- or west-facing windows or place them in rooms where the light is less intense. Or simply draw a sheer curtain between the plants and the sun during the hottest hours of the day.

A simple change that makes for happier houseplants!

Controlling Those #$@&%* Japanese Beetles

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Japanese beetle (Popillia japonica)

No, they are not easy to control! Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica) have been the scourge of the North American garden world ever since they were accidentally introduced to New Jersey in 1916 (happy 100th, Japanese beetle!) and have been spreading steadily ever since. They are established throughout much of Eastern North America and are now found in all states east of the Mississippi. In Canada, they got to Nova Scotia rather early, but only recently moved into Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick in a big way. Even so, they tend to be very localized: you may well have a major problem with this insect in your town while nobody in the neighboring village has ever even seen one.

The Japanese beetle also moved into Italy in recent years and it is feared that it will spread throughout Europe over time.

Bad Eating Habits

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Japanese beetles will skeletonize leaves.

Japanese beetles have been discovered eating over 400 different species of plants, from perennials, annuals and vines to trees and shrubs (but rarely conifers). The adult beetles chow down on leaves, flowers, and fruits. They often skeletonize leaves, often leaving only the veins, then the leaves turn brown and fall off. From a distance, a severely affected tree may look like was scorched by fire. After the beetles stop feeding, the affected plants usually produce new leaves and therefore don’t suffer as much from the infestation as do their human owners, but several years of defoliation can certainly weaken a plant or even kill it.

Japanese Beetle Host Plants

Here’s a link to a list of over one hundred of the Japanese beetles’ favorite food plants.

At Closer Look at Japanese Beetles

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Really rather handsome, don’t you think?

The adult is a plump beetle about ½ inch (13 mm) in length with a metallic green head and body and copper brown wing covers. They also sport six rather spiffy tufts of white hair along each side of wing covers. All in all, it’s a mighty handsome beetle… if you’re into beetles, that is.

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Various stages of Japanese beetle grubs.

The larva is a white grub that lives underground. It’s one of the famous white grubs, the larvae of May/June beetles and various chafers, that do so much damage to lawns. It is C-shaped and has a brown head and a cream-colored body. To tell if you’re looking a Japanese larva or one of the other white grubs, you’d have to carefully study the arrangement of the hairs on its rear end, which I know you’re not going to do. At any rate, you don’t want any of these grubs in your lawn and the same techniques used to control one will get to the others.

The adults emerge in late June or July and feed on low-growing plants at first, then migrate to the top of trees, eating their way down. Even when they reach shrubs, perennials and the like, they tend to stick to the top of the plant, as they prefer sun to shade. In fact, you won’t find much Japanese beetle damage in a forest: it just isn’t their thing,

After a few weeks of making your plants look like they were repeatedly blasted with a shotgun, the female begins laying eggs in the ground, almost always in lawns or grassy fields. She lays a few eggs every few days over a 6 to 8 week period, burrowing down a few inches. When the grubs hatch, they feed off grass roots. In the fall, they dig further down, 6 inches (15 cm) or so, to keep from freezing in the winter. They’ll go even deeper in really cold climates, about 14 inches (35 cm), although that isn’t always enough and in some areas, a really cold winter can seriously deplete the population.

The grubs, now quite large, move back nearer to the surface up in the spring and do most of their damage then, leaving dead brown patches on the lawn. Then they pupate for a few weeks and emerge as adults to start another cycle.

Two Important Details

First, although Japanese beetles may have you mostly wailing about damage to your hibiscus and cannas, you have to understand that they are very much linked to lawns, and grass lawns at that. Without large and abundant lawns of grass for their grubs to feed on, they wouldn’t be numerous enough to be a major pest. In Japan, where they are native, other forms of plant far outnumber lawn grasses and as a result Japanese beetle are just a minor pest. In North America, with it’s endless green carpets of nothing but grasses, much more space is devoted to lawns than to other cultures, resulting in huge numbers of grubs turning into equally numerous and very hungry adults that have to concentrate on what little other above ground vegetation you left have to offer. It’s a bit like you invited 20 people to the salad bar, but 90 showed up. There ain’t going to be much left over!

Mommy beetles prefer to lay their eggs in lawns growing in full sun and in sandy soil. The patchier and more open the lawn (often the case in sandy soils), they better they like it. They don’t particularly like dense green lawns or tall grass. Already if you just cut back on mowing in July and August, letting the grass grow to 4 to 8 inches (10-20 cm), rather than scalping it in the typical suburban fashion, it helps discourage the females from laying eggs. Of course, they can and do fly, but still tend to remain fairly near their favorite sandy lawns.

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Japanese beetles are gregarious: you rarely see just one.

Equally important to understand, though, is that Japanese beetles are extremely gregarious. They are aggregate insects, drawn to other Japanese beetles by their scent. You rarely see just one, but rather dozens, often 2 or 3 or more right on top of each other copulating. And that can be good news for a gardener. If you are diligent in your control at the very beginning of the season and keep the numbers low, the remaining JBs may quickly move on to smellier pastures.

Control Methods

People, this isn’t a war and you aren’t going to win it. But what you can do is to keep the population low enough that little damage is done. And here are some possibilities.

1. The single best practice is to gradually remove, over a number of years if necessary, the most severely affected plants and to replace them with plants they like least. This is not only amazingly effective, but also self-sustaining. No food plants, no FBs: it’s as simple as that. The problem is that many of their food plants are big trees, something you’re unlikely to want to remove… until you’ve seen them defoliated 3 years in a row. That may change your mind!

2. As soon as the adults start to appear (late June, early to mi-July), start hand harvesting them. Do so in the morning, when they’re still sluggish. Just knock them into pail of soap water: you don’t actually have to handle them. Or harvest them with a portable vacuum. This can work amazing well if you start early and keep at it. This is the second best method of controlling them.

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Japanese beetle pheromone trap.

3. Use Japanese beetle pheromone traps. They’re widely available and quite effective… if you use them correctly. They contain two pheromones: a sex pheromone that mimics the smell of the female Japanese beetle, which attracts male beetles, and another that gives off a floral scent that attracts both sexes. But you have to make sure you place these traps far from any of their favorite plants. You see, the odors waft over a considerable distance, drawing them from afar, but only a handful make it into the trap. So put the traps at least 50 feet (15 m) from their favorite plants. And empty the traps daily if they start to fill up. (Sometimes they’ll catch hundreds a day.) For more information on pheromone traps, read Love Trap for Bugs.

4. You could also try spraying. Do so early in the morning, before pollinators and other beneficial insects are around. For an organic choice, you could use insecticidal soap, neem or pyrethrum. Avoid the dishwater detergent: it’s toxic to many plants. There are also systemic chemical pesticides you could theoretically use that make the whole plant toxic from the tip of its roots to the tip of its stem, but do you really want to live in an environment where you don’t dare have kids over for fear of poisoning them? Many of the best systematic pesticides are no longer offered because of their great toxicity or only professionals have access to them. Rightly so, in my belief.

5. Mix clover into your lawn or even replace your lawn grasses with a clover lawn. Neither grubs nor adults will touch clover. Egg-laying mommy JBs will tend to go elsewhere when the lawn is mostly clover.

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Don’t direct any lighting to the lawn: it will show the beetles where to dig!

6. Avoid lighting lawns and flowerbeds at night. The light attracts Japanese beetles just at the right time for egg laying: it’s like telling them: dig here! Use just enough lighting for safety purposes and try not to direct any towards the lawn itself.

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You can find beneficial nematodes in most garden centers.

7. You can also treat your lawn with beneficial nematodes – microscopic predatory worms – from mid-August to early September, when the grubs have just begun to hatch and are still vulnerable. Nematodes are sold alive, but refrigerated: you have to keep them cool until you apply them. Give the spot a thorough watering the day before you apply them, then apply them as a liquid spray (shake the container frequently). And water again to settle them in. Keep the soil moist for 4-7 days. Full sun when you spray them can kill them, so it’s best if you apply them on a gray or cloudy day, or early in them morning so they can burrow out of sight before the sun gets hot.

8. There is a bacterial disease you can apply. It’s called milky spore disease (Paenibacillus popilliae, formerly Bacillus popilliae). It is specific to Japanese beetle grubs and will harm no other insect. You apply it a bit like nematodes (but follow the specific instructions given). It has a greater persistence than nematodes, which tend to be rather fragile, and can remain active in the soil for up 20 years or more! However, it takes 2 to 3 years before the amount of spores in the soil builds up to the point where you start to see a difference, so you have to be very patient. Milky spore disease has never been approved for Canada and is not available there.

9. There is also a special form of BT called BTG (Bacillus thuringiensis galleriae), a bacterium that is specific to beetles, chafers and their ilk, but has not yet been approved for use in North America. It is effective against all stages of Japanese beetles, both grubs and adults, and seems very promising.

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Shrews are interesting Japanese beetle predators.

10. Encourage the presence of natural predators (toads, birds, shrews, moles, etc.) or release ducks or chickens in the area. Skunks also eat the grubs… but do a lot of damage to the lawn while looking for them. Two natural predators of Japanese beetles from Asia have been released in the United States, the predatory fly Istocheta aldrichi and the tiny wasp Tiphia vernalis, and are spreading on their own. I don’t believe you purchase them at this time, but if they have reached your neighborhood and you want them to work for you, you’ll have to avoid using insecticides.

11. When it comes to vegetables and small fruits, you can get really good protection by simply covering them with a floating row cover. Apply it early in the season, before you seen any adults.

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Castor bean is said to poison Japanese beetles: they munch on the leaves, then keel over!

12. You could try poisoning your beetles with toxic plants. They’re said to be susceptible to the flowers of the zonal geranium (Pelargonium x hortorum) and bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) and the leaves of castor bean (Ricinus communis) and four-o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa). Of course, this treatment will only work if the beetles nibble on them, so you’ll be sacrificing these plants to the cause. These trap crops are not going to solve your JB problem, but it can be quite satisfying to watch the beetles drop off the plants mentioned, land on their back and twitch drunkenly. At best they’ll combine with other methods to help lower the population.

12. Other plants are reputed to repel Japanese beetles, particularly alliums (onion, leek, garlic, chives, etc.), rue (Ruta graveolens) and tansy (Tanacetum vulgare). The idea is to plant them around susceptible plants and they should keep the beetles at bay. However I hear both positive and negative results with this method, which is why I put it last. Besides, tansy is a very invasive, hard-to-control plant. Not something you’d want to let loose just anywhere!

Few Perfect Solutions

As mentioned, you won’t really be able to totally control Japanese beetles once they have found your neighborhood. The best you can do is to reduce their numbers to more acceptable levels. Only replacing beetle favorites with plants they simply don’t eat will really solve your problem completely… but by carefully combining different methods, you can reduce the population to the point where the beetles become more a small inconvenience than a scourge.

I’ll let you choose the methods you feel will work best for you.20160721C

Are Your Houseplants Suffering from the Winter Blues?

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21060106BAre your houseplants looking a paler shade of green than they used to? Do the leaves lean towards the light? Or are they turning yellow and dropping off? Have the plants stopped growing entirely or, if they do grow, are the stems etiolated (extra long and thin)? And are no new flower buds being produced? These are all symptoms your plants are suffering from the winter blues.

You’ve certainly heard of people who suffer from the winter blues, also known as winter depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD). They feel lethargic and depressed during the winter months and studies show this is due to a lack of light. The short, gray days of winter just get them down. And the usual treatment is luminotherapy (light therapy, phototherapy), exposure to bright light. In fact, you can scarcely walk into a drug store without running into a display of (expensive) luminotherapy lamps.

Well, houseplants have much the same problem. They originate in the tropics where days are of equal length and the sun is of similar intensity all year long. When you move them into a temperate climate home, where there are seasons involving short, gray days, they just don’t get as much light as they would really need. And since light is their unique source of energy, they don’t react well.

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Plants are happiest near a window during the winter.

If this is the case with your plants, the most obvious thing to do is to move them closer to the window where light is more abundant. Yep, forget about your carefully planned indoor décor, with plants artfully placed here and there, and plop the plant that seemed so happy in the far corner in July right in front of the window for the winter. Christmas plants, until now playing a starring role in your holiday display in the middle of the living room or dining room, need to be right next to a window. And don’t worry your plants will get sunscald: if you’re living north of the 40th parallel, especially, the sun is so weak during the late fall and winter that damage is unlikely. Even “shade plants” will prefer full winter sun.

If the window is small, shaded by overhanging branches, or faces North, it would be wiser to move the plant to a sunnier window, preferably a south-facing one, even if that means changing rooms.

In spite of their great need for light, do make sure your plant’s leaves don’t actually touch a frozen window, otherwise they will be damaged. Usually keeping just 1 inch (2.5 cm) between the glass and the leaves will be enough to keep the leaves both warm and well-lit.

Luminotherapy for Houseplants

20160106C.jpgOr use artificial lighting to increase light they receive. No, you don’t need to invest in those expensive luminotherapy lamps (although they would work). A simple two-tube shop-type fluorescent light hung above them will do a world of good. You’ll find more information on using artificial light here.

Come March, as days get longer, you can move your plants back to their summer positions… but for the moment, give them all the light you can to chase the winter blues away.

Success with African Violets

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Hybrid African violet

I’ve been growing African violets (Saintpaulia ionantha) since pretty much forever. My first one came from a leaf my great aunt gave me when I was a very young boy. I grew it on the window ledge of my parent’s house for years, wild and unkept, with a long, creeping swan’s neck, propped up with rocks to keep it from falling over, but it did keep on blooming. And that’s what people appreciate about African violets: they manage to bloom off and on throughout the entire year, even if you neglect them a bit.

I’ve learned more about African violets since then and have grown literally hundreds of them. I even used to participate in African violet shows and bring home ribbons. I’m no longer into that, but still like to have them around and now I know better how to keep them clean and symmetrical… and usually get mine to bloom pretty much all year long. Let me share what I know about them with you here.

Its Origins

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Violet-shaped flowers of the species African violet Saintpaulia ionantha.

Despite its popular name, the African violet is not a true violet (Viola, from the Violaceae family), but rather belongs to the Gesneriaceae, the plant family that includes the florist gloxinia (Sinningia speciosa) and the Cape primrose (Streptocarpus spp.). Its common name comes from the shape and color of the flowers of wild African violets: with their five petals, two smaller ones on top and three large ones below and their violet coloration, there really was a resemblance with a wild violet (Viola spp.).

 

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Today’s African violets offer lots of choice.

Modern African violets bear little resemblance to wild violets, though. Thanks to 100 years plus of hybridization, their petals are generally larger and more symmetrical and their flowers are often double or semi-double, sometimes with attractive wavy margins. The color range has greatly expanded since its origins: all shades of violet and purple are possible, of course, plus pink, red, white, green, and – yes! – even yellow! Many varieties are bicolor or even tricolor. The plant’s form – originally a flat rosette composed of spoon-shaped leaves – has also seen a few changes over the years and you now see some very attractive trailing African violets with multiple creeping stems. Leaves can be flat or undulating, green or red underneath and variously variegated. As for size, expect to see violets almost 2 feet (60 cm) in diameter and others smaller than a teacup. There are currently more than 40,000 different varieties of African violets, so take your pick!

Tips on Growing Violets

I’d be the last person to say that the African violet is difficult to grow, but it is true that it can be a bit finicky, especially if you want to grow it to perfection. So here are some tips to help you achieve success with this popular plant.

Light

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Fluorescent lights help bring on constant bloom.

The main secret of a happy AV that flowers profusely most of the year remains adequate lighting: forget the warning you may have heard that African violets can’t take direct sun. No, they don’t like hot sun for hours on end, but a bit of direct sun is highly appreciated, especially during the winter months. In fact, if you live north of the 40th parallel, don’t be afraid to give them full sun between November and early March, when days are short and the sun is particularly weak. The rest of the year, an East window is an ideal choice: it gets some direct sun early in the morning, when it is coolest, and bright light for the rest of the day. If your windows face South or West, where the sun can be brutally hot in summer, try moving the plant back from the window or drawing a sheer curtain between the plant and the sun during the heat of the afternoon.

Like many African violet growers, I grow my plants under fluorescent lights, moving them into regular light only when they are in full bloom and I want to put them on display in my living or dining room. By setting my plants with their top about 6 to 12 inches (15-30 cm) below a two-tube fluorescent lamp (one Cool White tube, one Warm White) and lighting the plant 14-16 hours a day, I can assure them summer-like conditions at all times and in return get more or less non stop bloom.

Watering

The potting mix of AVs must be kept relatively moist at all times. For this purpose, apply simply follow the golden rule of watering: water deeply, enough to moisten the entire root ball, then allow the soil to dry before watering again. Thus there is no specific watering frequency you need to learn. Simply touch the soil every 3 or 4 days. If it appears dry, water the plant; if it doesn’t, don’t. Could anything be more simple?

You may have heard that saintpaulias must be watered from below rather than from above. That isn’t actually true, but there is a reason for that recommendation. African violet leaves are easily stained when water is inadvertently spilled on them and such stains are hard to remove. So if you water from below, filling the plant’s saucer with tepid water and letting it drink its fill, the watering can is nowhere near the leaves and you’re much less likely to spill water on them. If you want to water from above, though, that is easy enough to arrange. Just lift up the leaves on one side of the plant with one hand and direct the spout of the watering can directly onto the soil with the other. That way you water the plant’s roots from above without wetting its leaves.

Temperature and Humidity

Two vital factors to African violet health often go sight unseen: temperature and humidity.

The African violet is a tropical plant and doesn’t like cool conditions. Keep temperatures above 60˚F (16˚C) throughout the year. And be careful: a spot too close to a cold window, even in a well-heated room, can be cold enough to harm the plant.

Likewise, you won’t see the damage dry air does to an African violet, as it has thick hairy leaves that are quite resistant to dry air. You can’t say as much for its flower buds and they often abort when the air is too dry. As a result, the plant seems to stop blooming and you might figure it is resting, while in actual fact, it’s trying to bloom, but its blooms are being killed by the dry air. For that reason, it can be wise to place your African violets on a humidity tray, especially during the winter months.

Fertilizing

There are fertilizers designed specifically for African violets you can use if you prefer, but pretty much any fertilizer will give good results. Ideally, for good symmetry and bloom, consider adding soluble fertilizer each time you water, diluting it to one-eighth the recommended monthly dose. If your plant is in a situation where it lacks light in the winter (often the case with plants grown on a windowsill), it is best not to fertilize during that season.

Repotting

If left to grow at will, your African violet lose its lower leaves over time, leaving a bare stem (neck) that eventually bends over… and there goes your plant’s symmetry! This is easy to prevent: just get into the habit of repotting your African violet annually. When you do so, slice off the bottom of the root ball to a height equal to that of the plant’s bare neck. Place the now shorter root ball in the bottom of a clean pot (you don’t necessarily need to increase the size of the pot) and add fresh potting mix to the top, covering the neck. New roots will soon grow from the covered stem to replace those cut. Presto! Your plant is symmetrical again!

By the way, although African violet potting mixes are often offered in garden centers, just about any houseplant potting mix will do.

Propagation

There are several ways to multiply an African violet (seed, stem cuttings, suckers, tissue culture, etc.), but leaf cuttings are the best known.

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Stick a healthy leaf in moist soil and cover with a plastic bag.

Remove a healthy leaf with its petiole (stem), simply snapping it off near its base. Now re-cut the petiole with a sharp knife so the wound surface will be even. Although you may have been told that you have to cut the petiole at a 45˚ angle, that is actually of little importance. A 90˚ cut will give equally good results.

Insert the petiole into a pot of moist soil. It may be useful to cover the cutting with an inverted clear plastic cup or a clear plastic bag: this will help maintain high humidity during the rooting process.

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Repot the babies into separate pots.

After a month or so (cuttings root faster in spring and summer than in the fall or winter), small plants will appear at the base of the leaf. When they were about 2 inches (5 cm high), separate them and repot each one in its own small pot. This step is very important: if you let all the baby plants grow around the mother leaf, they’ll compete with each other as they grow, leading to a crowded pot and poor flowering.

For Further Information

I’ll stop here, yet there is so much more to say about growing African violets: using wick watering, removing suckers, multiplying chimera violets, controlling insect pests, etc. For further information, why not join an African violet club? Their experts will be able to answer all your questions. There are local African violet clubs all over the world and quite probably one in a city near you. Even if you’re not yet ready to join, you’ll certainly want to go and see their annual show!

There are also national and international African violet societies you’ll want to consider joining as well. Here are a few:

African Violet Society of America

African Violet Association of Australia

African Violet Society of Canada

African Violet Society of Europe

Bag Your Houseplants Before You Leave

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20150323Watering houseplants when you’re away is always a problem. Even if you ask a friend or relative to water them for you, you’ll probably get home to find a plant or two either forgotten or overwatered. That’s unfortunate, because there is an incredibly easy method of watering houseplants while you’re absent, even when you’re gone for weeks or months!

Simply water the plant normally before you leave, draining any water remaining in the saucer. Remove any dead or dying leaves or fading flowers: anything that will be likely to fall off and rot while you are away (not that a bit of rotten plant tissue will do any harm per se, it’s just that you plant will look better when you return home). Now install the plant in a clear plastic bag: a dry-cleaning bag would be great for larger plants. You could also put several plants together in a large bag. Next, simply seal the bag with a twist-tie and move the plant to a moderately lit spot with no direct sun. The latter point is important: if you put a plant enclosed in plastic in a sunny spot, it will quite literally cook!

Inside a plastic bag, your plant will be able to survive for months without any water at all. This is because most of the water you normally apply to your plants is simply lost to transpiration and evaporation: inside a sealed bag, the humidity level will be essentially 100%. There will be no transpiration or evaporation and therefore your plant will use almost no water.

I can just hear you saying: “Yes, but how will my plant breathe if it’s sealed inside a bag?” I can assure you it will breathe perfectly. Remember that plants use carbon dioxide and give off oxygen during the day. Well, at night, they do exactly the opposite. Yes, that’s right: plants provide all the “air” they need for their own survival. They’re perfectly happy sealed in a plastic bag.

How long can you keep your plants sealed up like this? Easily 6 months, quite possibly up to a year. There are sealed terrariums that have never been opened in decades and the plants are still alive. Eventually, of course, your plant’s growth will be hampered because it will use some of the water and carbon dioxide for its growth, but that will take months or even years. Even if it does occur, your plant will still be in fine shape, just growing more slowly than usual.

Just think! A year of autonomy means you’ll have time to take a world cruise! The truly annoying thing, though, is that generally your plant will be in better condition when you get back than when you left!

20150323BOne warning: most arid-climate plants (cacti and succulents) will not appreciate the high humidity present inside a plastic bag, but they’re even easier to care for while you’re away. Just water them well, move them back from a sunny window (to slow down their growth), and go off on your travels. They’ll be good for at least 6 months, although they may be looking a bit shrived when you get back.

When You Can’t Repot, Top-Dress

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278.KWhen a houseplant remains too long in the same pot, the soil it grows in becomes contaminated with mineral salts. You can see them because they form a white or yellowish crust on the inside edge of the pot and even on the lower part of your plant’s stem. Theoretically you should repot a plant whose soil is contaminated, or at very least, leach the soil. But there are situations when repotting or leaching is difficult or impossible. For example, when the plant is in a pot so big that transplanting it or even moving it to the sink for leaching is going to be a major hassle. Or, when you have a climbing houseplant that is working its way up your indoor wall… or when the pot is permanently bolted to a floor or wall. Under these circumstances, what can you do to keep the plant in good condition?

Fortunately, there is a way to keep a plant in the same pot for 5, 7, 10 years or more: you just have to top-dress! This involves scratching the top 1 to 2 inches (2-4 cm) of growing mix and adding the harvested soil to your compost bin, then replacing it with a fresh layer of potting mix. This will help because toxic minerals tend to migrate upwards to the top of the pot: by replacing the contaminated portion of the soil with fresh mix, you will allow your plant to remain in good condition even if you don’t repot.

20150320CThe usual tool for top-dressing is a fork. Of course, I don’t mean a garden fork, but simply one borrowed from the kitchen. If you have one of those houseplant tool kits that people routinely give as a gift, but that no one every uses, the mini rake it contains would also work fine. Aren’t you glad you finally found a use for it!

When should you top-dress? Any season will do, but you will see results faster if you do it in early spring. That’s because your plant will be ready to begin its annual growth spurt at that time of year and a fresh coat of soil will signal it that it’s time to begin.

After your first top-dressing, mark it on your calendar for next year and make it an annual routine. After all, what wouldn’t you do to make your houseplants happy?

Houseplants Cringe at Sight of Snow

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This is what 5 feet of snow looks like… from a plant's point of view.

This is what 5 feet of snow looks like… from a plant’s point of view.

I can’t help feeling my houseplants are angry with me. As the snow builds up all around them, they seem to be saying “What are you doing? Get rid of that white stuff! It’s cutting off my light!” In the photo you can see the side of the greenhouse as the snow builds up. What you can’t see is that the roof is entirely covered in snow and has been since November. What use is a glass roof if it lets in no light during the darkest days of the year?

Frost Damage to Houseplant

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It took only a few seconds of extreme cold to damage the leaves of this Ficus elastica.

It took only a few seconds of extreme cold to damage the leaves of this Ficus elastica.

On January 25 2014, I blogged about moving my son’s houseplants from his place to mine at -20. I wondered at the time how they would fare after their (admittedly very short) exposure to such cold, dry air.

Well, 10 days later, all but one are doing fine. I even repotted two of them (they really needed it!), then repotted one of the two a second time after I accidentally knocked it over.

The one exception is a young Ficus elastica: one of those pots overcrowded with micro propagated cuttings that passes for a houseplant these days. It’s not that Ficus elastica is necessarily any less cold tolerant than the other houseplants, but it was the only plant that had not been fully covered. It was in a cloth bag with a  few other plants, but being taller then they, its upper leaves stuck out into the cold. I estimate that it was only exposed to about 30 seconds of cold air (in two blasts, moving into the car, then out of the car into my house), but now you can see the youngest leaves have browned along the edges and even their surface is damaged: a sort of yellowish mottling that might under other circumstances look like thrips damage, but that I figure is damage to the outer layer of leaf cells: the cuticle.

My guess is that these leaves will probably die and possibly also the bud at the plant’s tip. If they don’t, I’ll probably cut them off. However, the lower leaves (the ones that were inside the bag) seem fine. I’m assuming the plant itself is essentially all right and that it will soon begin to recover from its ordeal.

So, take my word on this, only a few seconds cold can damage plants: wrap them well before you move them in cold weather!

Moving Day

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Mathieu's plant settle into my spare room.

Mathieu’s plant settle into my spare room.

It was brightly sunny and painfully cold (-20) when my son Mathieu and I moved his houseplants to my place yesterday. He’s moving to Montreal and wants me to care for his plants until he and his girlfriend find a permanent home. Not the kind of weather I would have chosen to put any plant outdoors!

I figured the car would have thawed out on the way over to his place (about 15 minutes from here), but the seats were still rock hard from the cold. I parked in total illegality in front of a fire hydrant, but with blinkers on: surely the cops would understand that we were moving incredibly delicate living beings than can’t stay outdoors more than a few minutes?

Mathieu had already packed the plants, covering them with black garbage bags. We raced them down the slippery steps and into my car. About 20 of them, of all sizes. Fortunately they all fit on the back seat. We simply dropped them off in my front hall upon arrival: I didn’t unwrap them until this morning.

How did they fare during the transition? I won’t know for a few days: my experience is that frosted houseplants often look fine at first, then the damage shows up later. Fingers crossed!

So, where to put them? At this time of the year, my place is jammed with houseplants and other overwintering vegetation. Also, I didn’t want to have to search for them throughout the house when Mathieu comes back for them. Finally, I decided to remove most of the plants from our spare bedroom, scattering them stuffing them in here and there throughout the house, then put all his in that one room. With a large, south-facing window, they should do fine. In fact, they should do better, as many of them are pretty light-starved. Let’s hope he finds a place with big, sunny windows!