Jul 20, 2010

5 Ways Plants Show The Love

Remember a couple blogs ago I mentioned the 5 ways plants show you love? All five mean you are doing a good job with your plant(s), and shows the plant enjoys its current location, etc. Here are they are!

1. A thirsty plant will perk up.
Plants 'droop' if they are thirsty. In some plants, like Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum, commonly called a 'Spath' for short), this effect is very noticeable. Other plants, like African Violet (Saintpaulia species) or the Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum), will look....thinner, sort of duller in color, or even display transparent leaves when they need water. Snake plant (Sansevieria) and other succulent varieties will wrinkle their leaves when dry. Give them a good drink and they should bounce back.

2. A well fertilized plant will stay greener longer (and look more beautiful)
Sometimes your plant just needs an extra boost to stimulate new growth. Are you looking for a surefire way to keep older plants looking like they did five years ago? The answer is here: fertilizer. Fertilizers that are water soluble come in the form of little granules you simply add to your watering container. But what do those little numbers mean, you ask? They show how much nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) are present in the fertilizer. So the label 6-12-4 means: 6% nitrogen, 12% phosphorus and 4% potassium. An ideal leaf-developing fertilizer (great for foliage houseplants) would be labeled 30-20-20, whereas a flowering plant like African Violet might go for something like 15-30-15, which is high in phosphorus.

The deal with fertilizer - it really depends on who you ask, and what type of fertilizer you're using. Experts will tell you to fertilize the plant only during its period of growth - typically spring to summertime - and to cease fertilizing during its period of plant rest - fall to wintertime. This is really a matter of personal preference. The key is to use just enough fertilizer to the amount of water - about 1/4 a teaspoon fertilizer to 1 gallon of water. Since most watering cans for indoor use aren't that large, I recommend using just a pinch of fertilizer between your thumb and index finger; or, just a few granules. Add this to your everyday watering container before you water (mine is in the shape of an elephant!) Make sure you always dilute the fertilizer heavily – highly concentrated amounts aren’t good for your plants!

3. Flowering plants will bloom
One of the best examples of this in my opinion is with African Violets (AVs). If the conditions for your plant are being well met, AVs will bloom throughout the year, again and again and again! This fact only helps add to their appeal as a cheery, happy looking houseplant. How do you make them bloom? Light is undoubtedly a key factor, and a source of great debate over the years. Some people claim an east window is the one and ONLY window near which AVs can bloom. For other enthusiasts, a west window is the answer. North windows often have too little light, so the plant will survive okay, but fail to really thrive, therefore yeilding no blooms. My Northeast window seems to be the spot the AVs enjoy most! A dry plant can't bloom, so be sure not to overlook watering on a regular basis. Fertilizing the plant helps blooms develop, also. My advice: be patient, and your plants will bloom! Before you realize it, the plant will be blooming like crazy and look even better than when you bought it! Spaths will also bloom if kept moist (they like a LOT of water) and given good light. They tend to bloom during spring or summer.

4. 'Parental' plants produce 'babies'
Ah, the Spider plant....all those little plantlets give you waves of joy when you see them (if you're like me, that is). I tend to think of this plant the most when I think of baby plants. They create exact mini copies of themselves that look just like the mother plant. The best way to ease the new plant into its own pot is to pin the baby to the fresh soil with a paper clip or some other fastening device. Make sure the pot isn't too large in relation to the plantelet size. Leave the plantlet attached to the mother plant until the new plant roots - anywhere from 2 weeks to one month - and keep the soil in the pot *lightly moist* but not soggy. Misting the plantlet would be a wonderful idea! Once the new roots are developed, sever the plantlet from its mother. If you don’t wish to propagate your spider plant now, you can leave the babies attached to the mother with no ill effects. Older plantlets may not root as well as new ones. They also make excellent gifts for friends, family, or whoever!

5. New leaf growth is a good sign!
Leaf development means the plant loves its conditions just as much as it loves you! New leaves also lead the way to a fuller plant in the future, giving it a more mature look. Whatever watering plan you’ve chosen, stick to it! If the plant likes lots of light, be sure you can provide it before you buy it! Variegated varieties need lots of light to maintain their coloring, so choose wisely.

Norfolk Island Pine 101

You might've seen a Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) for sale at your local grocery store around Christmas or Yule time. They are often sold as miniature Christmas trees - some people even decorate them in place of a full sized tree! I bought my Norfolk at the nearby Kroger. I saw them, and I couldn't resist having one. They make a great addition to your plant collection, and help to put you into the spirit of the season. However, they can be a little tricky in the care department.

Water. Norfolks like to be kept lightly moist at all times. Make sure the pot allows for good drainage. Letting the soil dry out even just a little is a bad idea - the plant will shed its needles and they won't grow back! Make sure to water when the top 1/2" feels dry to the touch.

Light. Give Norfolk a bright location, but avoid full sun. A West or East location should do nicely! Avoid long exposure to extreme cold, heat, or wind.

Humidity. Mist the plant regularly to prevent yellowing of leaves and keep them green. Yellowing of older leaves at the base of the stem is normal - trim away dead leaves with scissors or pinch between thumb and index, lightly pulling until the leaf comes free.

Pot types and sizes. The best kind of pot for Norfolks is plastic, since they are versatile, durable, and come in attractive colors. If you'd prefer something in the glazed category, there's a better selection to be had as far as designs on the pot itself. Glazed pots are heavier, and will accommodate larger plants if you have them for a long time. I would definitely avoid a terracotta pot, due to their reputation for drying out quickly. If you repot the plant when you get it home, a little broken pottery or stones on the bottom of your pot will help greatly improve drainability.

Display Tips. If you find a small tree at the grocery store and decide to decorate it for the holidays, be mindful of the branches - they can break if too much weight is put on them! A small string of lights, a garland, and maybe a few small ornaments should be ok...just don't overdo it! Norfolks make a nice centerpiece on a mantle, end table, or kitchen table anytime of the year. Their simple elegance will add charm to any room in the house!

The #1 thing to remember when you buy a Norfolk: on the way out the door with your brand new plant (in the middle of December), remember to cover the plant with an extra bag! Arctic weather is a sure way to kill your plant! Oh darn!

Jul 13, 2010

Your Houseplants and Some Ways to Make Them Love You

There are a few things you can do to make your plants fall in love with you...and they have ways of showing it!

When you walk into a room full of healthy plants, you can just tell. They look nice, and just seem happier in general. You feel happy watching them grow and develop. Showy leaves boast great color and shape, and green leaves are a healthy shade of green - never yellow or brown. A sick plant can have transparent leaves, brown spots, sunburn, or curled leaf margins.

Here are some ways to avoid the sick plant, and keep them looking amazing:

1. Give the plant good light
Good light is essential to plant health. Plants need light for photosynthesis. Too much light can spell death, while too little will equal poor, leggy development. If your plants are reaching for the nearest window, then for Gods' sake, move them closer to that window! Many plants prefer lots of indirect sun, so a west or east window will work the best. Plants that thrive on lower light can handle a north facing window. For those hardcore desert plants like cacti, give them direct sun in a south facing window. A few other full sun plants: Croton, living stones (lithops), Hens and Chicks, Flaming Katy (Kalanchoe), Basil, Chives. Many verigated plant varieties like lots of sun to keep their leaf colors looking nice and sharp!

2. Water should be room temp
Shocking the plant's root system is never a good idea, so avoid this at all costs. Use room temperature water from your tap (or distilled water if you prefer). Make sure the water isn't ice cold, but also not scalding hot: either of these temps can damage the plant! If not exactly room temp, warm water is okay, too.

3. Don't over-water!
Overwatering is the number one cause of plant death. Why? Because nearly everybody does it. Chances are you know at least one friend who’s told you: “I can’t grow plants because I always kill them.” Well the sad reality is, yes, you do. But your friends can change: When it comes to watering, in a lot of cases, less is actually more.

Overwatering can lead to root rot, fungus gnats, and a whole slew of nasty problems, ending even in death. At the very least, why waste the ten bucks you spent for that Peace Lily? Peace Lily is actually a great plant for learning when to water: when the plant is thirsty, it droops. Once you water it, it perks up again. If you buy a cactus, go easy on the watering – cacti hold water in their leaves or stems, so they need much less water than plants which don’t hold water. Here are some VERY loose guidelines for watering (based on how some plant tags are labeled in grocery stores and garden centers):

Water sparingly = water once every two to three weeks
Water frequently = Water twice a week, or when the top half-inch of soil feels dry to the touch
Keep on the dry side = only water when the top 2 inches of soil feel dry
Keep plant evenly moist = Keep the soil damp, but not soggy

Never let a plant dry out altogether. Also, make sure your plants don’t sit in water!

4. Select the right size pot for your plant
Make sure your pot size is right for your plant. Too large, and the soil cannot dry out properly. Too small, and the plant will constantly need a drink. Look to plant size when deciding which pot to select. If the plant is 6 ft tall, it will probably need at least a 10, 12 or maybe even a 14 inch pot to accommodate it. If the plant is around 5 or 6'' tall go with a 3 or 4" pot. Select a pot that will fit the root ball comfortably with room for about 1"  of soil around the roots. The pot should also be deep enough for 1 to 1.5” of soil beneath the roots, and about 2” of soil above the roots. Make sure to leave space for watering!

5. Don't skimp on soil...cheap is never good
Cheap soil is (usually) bad soil. It clumps together easily and holds a ton of water, and usually is dark colored. It also becomes as hard as a rock when it dries, making rewatering expressly difficult, since any water you add to the pot just flows down the sides of the rootball. You can buy a ton of this type of soil for very little at the hardware and other stores, but don’t be duped! Plants that like good drainage will suffer from staying too wet! If you absolutely must buy them-- or have friends who like to  buy cheap soil as gifts-- you can amend it with one part sand or perlite to make them a bit lighter.

Better still: buy more aerated soils, like Miracle-Gro Potting Soil (I know people who HATE Miracle-Gro potting mix, but in my opinion, their soil is some of the best on the market! The Miracle-Gro cactus mix is excellent for its namesake, as well as palms, citrus plants, and many succulents). Watch out: when you buy a new plant, in many cases they will already be potted in peat moss, a very wet medium. It holds A LOT of water and can potentially rot your new purchase, so the best thing to do is repot the plant into fresh soil pronto.

6. Provide humidity if needed
Plants like African Violet or Prayer Plant (Maranta leuconeura ) benefit from increased humidity. Use a pebble tray filled with a bit of water to just below the pebbles. Take care that the plant isn’t sitting in water! The pebbles should keep AV’s above the water. Another way to provide a quick burst of humidity is to mist your plants with a mister bottle. Clean water at room temp is best. Ever been in the grocery store by the veggies when the misters kick on? The water helps produce stay green, and so does your houseplant mister bottle! Bathrooms are an excellent place to keep plants that like lots of humidity, since your bath, shower, toilet and sink all use water, which then evaporates into the air.

Ways your plants show their love:
1. A thirsty plant will perk up
2. A well fertilized plant will stay greener longer (and look more beautiful)
3. Flowering plants will bloom
4. 'Parental' plants produce 'babies'
5. New leaf growth is a good sign!

For more on these 5 ways of plant love, see my next blog!