Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Unexpected Houseplant

I have recently read, for the second time, Tovah Martin’s book, The Unexpected Houseplant. It is a wonderful book! Tovah blurs the indoors and outdoors by using plants we wouldn’t normally think of as houseplants, thus the title. She brings in junipers, cypress, grasses and euphorbia, among other plants. She recently posted a picture of a salvia on Facebook that is blooming inside right now.  She especially loves bringing in spring plants for early blooms after the long New England winter. If you don’t like plants, don’t even bother visiting, she says,  because her house is full of them and they are her family. Amen, Tovah! Of course, we can't forget a very important member of her family. Einstein is her Maine Coon cat that plays a large roll in her house plant life, laying in them, batting at them, and sometimes even shredding them. But, everyone knows a cat is a must for plant lovers. At least this plant lover. I have three. We also have to me mindful, though, that there are many plants that are very poisonous for animals and humans alike. Choose your houseplant wisely.
“Intimacy with nature” is what Tovah is striving for and would like other people to feel the same by a hosting a houseplant or two (or hundreds) in their homes. She describes herself as a fanatic and a missionary, trying to rope us in. In her book, she describes over 200 plants that she is growing or has grown and had good luck with. She even likens her home to an oversize terrarium.  I love this quote, “Frankly, I don’t buy the “I don’t have a green thumb indoors” excuse for a botanically bereft home. Green thumbs aren’t in your genetic makeup. This myth is really just a rationale for attention deficit disorder in the botanical direction.” Again, Amen, Tovah!
 Go buy a plant, at the grocery store, on line, or at a nursery, she recommends, but only if it "tugs at your heartstrings". Don’t waste your time on a plant that really doesn't interest you. If someone gives you a plant and there is no "chemistry", throw it away.  The plant will not thrive without some tender loving care and an unhappy, neglected plant is an insect and disease magnet. 

Picture from Camp de Fiori website.
When you get your plant home, re-pot it in a wonderful container. A plastic pot is an unattractive plant home. Your plants deserve better. Tovah likens pots to picture frames- they make or break the picture. I always take my plants out of the plastic and plant them in a beautiful pot. In my case it quite often is bright green. I  love terra cotta pots, as well as glazed pots. They come in any color you need to match your décor. Campo de Fiori makes beautiful terra cotta pots and I've noticed in the book, Tovah likes them, too. 
Stephanotis- Madagascar Jasmine
Tovah includes a section on fragrant plants. She points out that winter is when "floral essences have their greatest impact". Being shut in all winter warrants some botanical perfume. She grows plants such as stephanotis, jasmine, and sweet olive. The starring role, though, goes to her South African bulbs. These include the pregnant onion, the climbing onion, (neither are onions, just look like them), and her favorite, Lachenalias. They all do their “thing” in the late fall and winter.

Begonia 'Black Truffle'
After working at Logee’s for 25 years, Tovah has a large collection of begonias. They are some of my favorites, also. Even though their flowers aren’t huge, they have a subtle beauty. She likens begonia blooms to finding a forgotten $20 bill. Even without the blooms, the foliage is amazing, but when the flowers rise above the foliage in the winter, it is sublime!

Begonia 'Marmaduke'
Begonia schmidtiana

 Tovah lived in a Victorian home for many years, but has moved into a home attached by a greenhouse to a converted barn. I also bought a home with a greenhouse attached, making an offer on it while my husband was out of town. The greenhouse sold me on the house the minute I walked in. My husband liked the house, but saw the greenhouse as a sunroom with a few plants and a nice table to have breakfast or coffee. Needless to say, there is barely room to walk through the room, much less have a table and chairs. Plants definitely took precedence when "decorating" the room. How could a person who loves plants pass up a home with an attached greenhouse? Tovah couldn't. I couldn't.

Amaryllis 'Prelude'
This book includes a section on holiday plants we all inevitably  receive during the holidays, excluding poinsettias. No poinsettias for Tovah. Cyclamen, schlumbergera, (my favorite), crown of thorns, and amaryllis are all discussed with great information for helping them survive past the holidays. 

I especially love the section on plants that she has tried that just don’t live in the house. I am so glad to see that someone else admits to not being able to grow a bougainvillea in their home. Me either! Heliotrope, abutilons, which I’ve tried to keep alive and looking good numerous times, to no avail, and hibiscus. I do have luck with hibiscus in the greenhouse in the winter, but they really just struggle along until I take them back outside in the Spring, occasionally sending out a bloom or two. But even a bloom or two can make my winter!
I truly enjoyed this book and know I will be reading it again. I've enjoyed all of Tovah’s previous books as well. A truly exciting day for me, was the day I went to a local greenhouse to hear her speak. I took all my books to be autographed. I was equally excited when she came to my area again a few years ago to lead a terrarium class. (See previous post about her terrarium book.)  Check that off my bucket list. (If I could meet Elvin McDonald, my bucket list would be a even shorter.) I have spent many hours with these two houseplant book authors reading their wonderful books. If you haven’t noticed, I love houseplants…..take it from Tovah and me, plants will enrich your life a thousandfold!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Hairy Old Man

My hairy old man!
 I can't imagine anyone would say a good picture comes to mind when the phrase  "hairy old man" is mentioned, but if you are talking about plants, it is a different story. I have an old man cactus, Cephalocereus senilis, and as I was watering the other day, I decided to find out more about this unique,"hairy old man" plant.
I bought it at the Missouri Botanical Garden in 2007 at the gift store there. It was a tiny little plant and it has resided in my dining room West window now for 6 years. It hasn't grown by leaps and bounds, but I didn't expect it to.  The reason for its name is obvious, but why is it hairy? What is the hair? I'm one of those people that ponders such things. Don't ask me why. I always want to know more about plants and how they work and why. So, I investigated. Here's what I found out.....
The name comes from the Greek word "Kepale" meaning head, the Latin word "cereus" meaning a wax taper (candle), and the Latin "senilis" meaning old or aged man. It is a tall, skinny, taper shaped plant with a white hairy top. I obviously can understand where it got its name. 
The "hairs" are really modified spines called radial spines. The central spines are the spines coming from the center of the areole. What is an areole? Areoles are what differentiate cactus from succulents. Aeroles are small brownish bumps that the spines originate from. Succulents such as Euphorbia milii, crown of thorns, have spines but no areoles. The "hair" or radial spines are specialized spines that are produced around the edge of the areole. Why is this plant growing hairy spines?
File:Guanajuato en México.svg
Photo from Wikipedia. Natural habitat of Cephalocereus in Central Mexico.

 The hair is used as protection from the sun in its native habitat in Guanajuato and Hidalgo, in Central and East Mexico. (See map for the location of Guanajuato. Hidalgo is to the right of  Guanajuato on the map.) 

It is also a secondary defense system against its enemies, the central spines it is hiding are the first.  The more sun your plant gets, the longer the hair grows, for more protection. The bad thing about having these hairy spines on the plant, is that you could overlook the fact that you have insects, such as mealybugs. They would be well hidden under the white hair. If the hair on your plant gets dirty, you can even wash it. Use a mild soap, such as Ivory dish soap and a soft brush, rinsing well. Check for bugs at this time. Its flowers may be red, yellow, or white but won't be seen until they are  10-20 years old and 20 feet tall. So, I'm thinking we won't ever see any in our homes.
In their native habitat, they are vulnerable to extinction. It is such a unique plant, it was harvested too much. Who wouldn't want this interesting plant? Now, its popularity has led to greenhouse growers producing it in large numbers. This will hopefully keep it from extinction in the wild. I love this plant and think it is so interesting that it grows its own sunscreen!

See the central spines sticking out among the "hair".
 In the picture above, you can see the spines and the areoles that they are growing out of.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Crimes Against Succulents

Red and green living wall for Christmas.

  I have labeled this post "Crimes Against Succulents" because that is exactly how I feel. These "new", "all the rage" plants are a disgrace to the horticultural world. It is the same as using plant shine, as far as I am concerned. Using unnatural materials on your plants clogs their stomata and hinders their food making process  (photosynthesis).

Silver and gold living wall.

The first few pictures were taken at a trade show. Obviously, they were the paint sellers, not the plant sellers. "It doesn't hurt the plant." they said. I beg to differ! It grows out and then you have a bi-colored, unsightly plant. Succulents are definitely the "hot" plant right now, but doing this to them is really a crime. I think they are beautiful just the way they are and if you want to match a plant to your wedding or home decor, do the plants a favor- buy some flowers.

A fall arrangement

These last three pictures were taken at a local big box store. In the first picture you can see the natural plant as well as the painted version. What are they thinking?!  
How attractive! Looks like the wicked witch after melting!
  This second plant looks like it melted like the wicked witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz! 
Didn't get enough paint or it has grown out.

The plant in this  picture has either grown out and needs more paint or it didn't get enough paint to begin with. Either way, it is atrocious! The plants that end up at the big box stores already have an uphill, losing battle to fight, but add paint and they might as well commit suicide before they even get there. You definitely won't find this houseplant lover buying into this horrendous plant torture!

Moving On Up!

Ready for a new home!

 It is Spring, even though here in the Midwest, you would never know that. This month has been cold, wet, and even snowy at times. But this weather doesn't really affect your houseplants inside. They have longer days with more light and they are waking up and actively growing. Now is the time to check your houseplants to see if they need to be up-potted ("potting on" as they say in England). Your plants may be struggling because they need to be in bigger quarters. There roots have filled their pots and they need some space to breathe. They need to move on up!

FYI: If you have a plant that is older and in a container that is unable to be moved, remove the top 1-2 inches of soil and add fresh soil. This is called topdressing and is a great way to give a larger plant a "shot in the arm". If you are able to get it out of the container and remove some soil from the bottom as well, and put fresh in, that would be better. Prune the top at the same time, to give the new roots time to catch up. This also works for plants that are at the ultimate size you would like to keep them. Root pruning and trimming the top allows you to keep a plant the same size for a long time. A loose form of bonsai, if you will.

Croton that is rootbound and soil deficient.

Following are the steps to up-pot a root bound plant:

 This croton is root bound, has fallen over a few times, and lost a lot of soil. It is definitely time to move to a new container. This plastic container wasn't heavy enough to keep this plant from toppling over. Moving it into a clay or ceramic pot will help with this problem.



Roots that need some more soil.

If your root ball looks like this, it is definitely time to move up to a new size container. If you have to water your plant more than once a week to keep it moist, this also indicates to you that your plant may need a bigger home.  
Make sure when picking a new home for your plant, though,  to select the next size container up from the one it currently resides in. If the plant is in a 6" pot, move up to a 7 or 8" pot. Many people make the mistake of moving up to a container that is too large, which usually  results in root rot.
From one size to the next one up

The pot on the right is the old container and the pot on the left is the pot I moved the croton into. I would recommend that the pot be cleaned and disinfected before moving a new plant into it. Soaking a clay pot before you use it is a good idea, as well. Otherwise, the dry clay pot will steal water from the soil. (Do as I say, not as I do!)

Checking the size.

Notice how there is only an inch or so of space around the old root ball. This is the perfect size to move up to.

  I will water the plant to settle the soil and this plant is ready to take off and fill the pot with new roots. It would thank me if it could!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Little Worlds Under Glass

Fairy resting in the baby's tears.

Last week at our garden center, I had a terrarium class. Yes, I said terrarium. If you haven't noticed that they are all the rage again, you've been living under a rock! They are in all the garden magazines, as well as others.
What is a terrarium? Webster defines it as "a usually transparent enclosure for keeping or raising plants indoors." Any clear container will work as long as the opening is large enough to fit soil and plants through and deep enough to hold soil for the plant's roots.  You can use a bottle that held Grandma's perfume or a Ball jar she canned with. A brandy snifter, a fish tank, a cookie jar; if its clear glass, it will work. 
Nathaniel Ward wasn't trying to grow a plant in a jar in the 1830's, but that's what happened. He put a moth pupa in a jar and forgot about it. Six months later he looked in the jar, and found a fern. What a discovery! And, the rest is history. 

A couple of books I recommend to help you with your small world making, is The New Terrarium by Tovah Martin and Tiny World Terrariums by Michelle Inciarrano and Katy Maslow, the creators of Twig Terrariums in New York. 
Tovah Martin worked for many years at Logee's Greenhouses and is a celebrated author and lecturer. Her book about terrariums is top notch. I had the pleasure of meeting her at a garden center in SE Michigan and participating in her terrarium workshop. She is a big proponent of adding things that are special to you from nature. A shell, things you've gathered on a walk or vacation, rocks, etc. The picture below is the terrarium I made that day. I used some birch branches, sweet gum seed pods, and birch bark, as well.  
I love this quote from Tovah's book. "For as long as I can remember, my life has been tinged with green. Even when I can't escape outside, due to work or the weather, plants and nature are omnipresent. From the moment I first wake up in the morning and find my way past the menagerie of houseplants on the way to the kitchen until the late evening hours when I sit reading, propped up on a mound of pillow beside the fern by my bed, green is my constant companion." 

The terrarium I made with Tovah.

Tovah demonstrating terrarium construction.

Below are some of the other terrariums my fellow participants made that day.

When I taught my class, I had available, true miniature plants. It seems the problem with most terrariums, is the plants outgrow their container. This usually occurs because normal size houseplants are used. They start off small, but quickly outgrow their confines. We used miniature creeping ficus, mini begonias, espicia, ferns, and selaginella. 

Miniature houseplants in a terrarium.

A young man made this terrarium.

Another customer made this adorable scene.

A customer's beautiful terrarium.

Michelle and Katy wrote the book called Tiny World Terrariums. They are the co-creators of  Twig Terrariums in Brooklyn, New York. "For city folks like us with nary a fire escape, terrariums are a way to bring a "plot of land" into the home. But no matter where you live, terrariums are therapeutic to create and peaceful to observe." They make wonderful small scenes in their terrariums, mostly using different kinds of moss and small figurines. These are the terrariums I modeled my own terrariums after. I went out in my yard, gathered some moss, and went to work. I found the fairy, deer, and bee keeper at the hobby shop. You can find figurines at the hobby shop, antique store, flea market and garage sales. Fairy gardening is so "in" right now as well, there are fairy accessories everywhere you turn. Little birds, gnomes, toadstools, and other small items are all perfect for your tiny world under glass. Your imagination is your only limiting factor. Try making one today, and see if your little world isn't an everyday inspiration. 

Bee keeper with his hives.

Bee keeper.


Haworthia in a terrarium in an urgent care in Chicago.
When I was visiting my niece last year, in Chicago, we went to an urgent care and the terrarium above was in the waiting room. The hanging terrarium (what a great idea! let's get our macrame-making skill polished up) was in a florist window in Wicker Park. Love it!