Friday, April 25, 2014

Put Plant Health First

 So, I've had some controversy on my last post about insects on your houseplants. First, the use of imidicloprid was brought into question. Of course, I am not telling you to run out and  buy an insecticide and use it on every plant you have to kill everything in sight and out of sight. I always try the least toxic solution first. This includes using soap and alcohol, or neem oil in the form of Rose Rx. Now, if that doesn't work, I will use a houseplant insecticide. Some of my plants are over 30 years old and belonged to my great-grandma. I am not going to lose those plants to scale or mealybug.  I have also listed the biological controls that one could choose to use in their home. Whereas this may seem contradictory to some, these bugs are the good guys. They destroy the bad guys and the plus is that you don't have to use insecticides in your home.  After those good bugs have eradicated the bad bugs, they won't take over your home. In fact, without something to eat, they will probably die.

A well grown crown of thorns
The number one thing to remember is that a healthy houseplant is a happy houseplant. A healthy houseplant also is much better able to ward off insect pests and disease. That being said, everyone is going to deal with pests at one time or another. Bringing houseplants home from a store or even a  friend's house can bring unwanted visitors into your home. Even if a plant looks pest free, quarantining your plant from your other plants is very important. Four to six weeks should be long enough to allow any pest or pest eggs that are lurking to show themselves. Checking your plants on a regular basis for insects can help prevent them from becoming a problem. Every time you water, take time to inspect your plants. Look under the leaves and in the areas where the leaf petiole meets the plant stem. Insects love to hide in these areas. Keeping them clean is extremely important. A dusty, dirty plant is blocked from photosynthesizing, preventing the production of  food they must have to live and grow. I like to put my plants in the shower on occasion. Of course, this only works for the ones I can lift. The other plants are washed with a sponge and mildly soapy water. I like to use Ivory dish soap or Murphy's Oil Soap. Using a de-greasing dish soap can mar the foliage of some plants.
Refreshing their soil, or re-potting them on a regular basis is also beneficial. The growing media your plant is growing in can break down and disintegrate over time. Giving them new soil can be like fertilizing the plant. It gives them renewed vigor and strength. 
Another way to ensure your houseplant stays happy and healthy is to place your plant in the right light for the plant you are growing. A high light plant growing in low light is a stressed plant. And just as stressful is a low light plant growing in high light.

Watering your houseplant correctly is also a huge factor in the health of your plant. Too much water can suffocate your plant and rot the roots. Not enough water can shrivel your roots and your plant will wilt. It may come back from being under watered, but it still takes its toll on the plant's health. 
And lastly, air circulation is a plus. I have a ceiling fan running 24/7 in my greenhouse and in my African violet room. Pests do not like wind and by running a fan, the stems of your plants are strengthened. This also helps prevent diseases such as powdery mildew and fungal diseases that can result from wet leaves.
Just remember, healthy plants are pest and disease resistant plants. Try to nip those problems and pests in the bud before they negatively affect your plants.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Honeydew Isn't Always a Melon

Honeydew dripping from a Schefflera
I can spot a houseplant problem "a mile away". It's true. Of course, the whole girl scout troop had head lice in 2nd grade, (19 years ago), and I can still spot them "a mile away", too. Lol!
 I'm going to do a couple of posts about different insect pests of houseplants. So many people aren't sure what is bothering their houseplants. I'd like to help  identify the problems and the ways to solve them. I'm going to start with the insect and mite problems and then will attempt to tackle the diseases and other disorders. So, here we go.
When you have shiny, sticky leaves on your houseplants, it usually means you have a pest problem, unless someone has recently spilled honey or some such substance on your plant. Let me expound on this. 
On the following plants you will notice a shiny substance. If you touched it, you would find it is sticky, as well. This is the excretion (yes, it is what you are thinking) from certain insects. It comes from scale, mealybugs, and aphids. The first is a soft scale which are the brown spots you see in the following pictures. There are insects living under the brown covering and  they are sucking the juices from your plants and slowly killing them. They then excrete the leftovers and it is deposited on your plants and if the infestation is large enough, on your floors and carpeting. Yuck!

Sticky honeydew on scale infested staghorn fern.

Scale on Schefflera arbicola

Hemispherical scale and honeydew on a bird's nest fern

As you can see from these pictures, these scale like ferns and schefflera, but also love ficus, palms, and many other plants. Scale are very hard to get under control. We will talk about control after we talk about the next insect.

My brother sent me the picture below, asking if there was any hope for this palm. I told him it was pretty bad. Not only does it have scale, it has spider mites, which most people usually miss. Unfortunately, they are quite obvious on this plant, but we will talk about them later. The spots on the stem are the scale insects.

Scale as well as spider mites on a palm plant (Photo by Keith Eldred)
The second pest is mealybugs. They are extremely slow moving insects which like to hide in crevices and under leaves. When it gets as bad as the pictures below, it is VERY hard to eradicate them. In fact, in my experience, mealybugs are the hardest pest to control in the indoor garden.The plant pictured is a jade plant and it would seem that they are mealybug magnets. Actually, they love all succulents. The pictures aren't showing them hiding, as these plants have very large infestations. They were hiding, but now have revealed themselves in a big way. 

Mealybugs on jade plant

Notice the large mealybug near the top of the picture.

Mealybugs and cryptolaemus on strelitzia

Honeydew on heliconia

 How do you eradicate these plant juice sucking insects? One way is to get some cotton swabs, dip them in rubbing alcohol, and touch each one of the insects. The alcohol dries them out and removes their protective coating. Another solution and it can be used in combination with the alcohol, is neem oil. I use a product called Rose Rx which is neem oil and it seems to help keep them under control. The oil smothers the insects. If these remedies do not work, a systemic insecticide may be your next step. I use Bonide Houseplant insecticide which has a very low percentage of the insecticide imidicloprid. The product, placed in the soil, moves through the plant when it is watered. The insects then chew on the plant and they die. I wouldn't recommend using this on plants your cats or dogs would chew on or where children are present.
Cryptolaemus destroying mealybugs

If you would like to use a biological control, there are a few different choices. Cryptolaemus, the mealybug destroyer, is an insect that eat the mealybugs in the immature and mature stages of their lives. They are black/tan lady beetles, but I only have pictures of the larval stage. They were imported from Australia in 1891 to control citrus mealybugs in California. They control citrus and long tailed mealybugs and some scale. I have only ever seen these in greenhouse settings, never in a home, but I'm sure they would work anywhere. The only downside to this, is that this control measure involves more insects. I'm sure some people would rather not introduce more insects into their homes. Another biological is the parasitic wasp, Leptomastix dactylopii. They attack citrus mealybug and do not usually control the other varieties of mealybug. They are native to Brazil and were introduced to America in 1934-35. These are good at finding low populations of mealybugs, so if you have a small problem, these are a good control measure. 
If it is scale you are fighting, the red scale exterminator, Aphytis melinus are parasites of California red scale, San Jose scale, and oleander scale. The purple scale parasite, Rhizobius lophanthae, is a small black lady beetle which will eat both the larvae and adult scales. They also will eat mealybugs. You can find these predators at biological control mail order sources. 

Cryptolemus larvae or mealybug killer
Lets try to use the least toxic control for the insects on our houseplants. We want to definitely be conscious of the products we use in our homes and on our plants. Yet, we also don't want to lose our fern from great-grandma that is irreplaceable. Try the least toxic control, and if that isn't working, try something else. If you don't want to use chemicals, then you have to decide whether the plant is important enough keep fighting the insects or just throw the plant away and call it a day.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The White Lily of Hope and Life

On this Easter weekend, it is fitting to talk about the Easter Lily. At this time of year, they are in every florist and garden center. Even if there are other plants to buy, tradition drives us to buy the lily. Why is the lily the symbol of this season? It represents the resurrection of Jesus. The lily rises out of the soil and blooms beautifully, those we buy at Easter being forced to do just that at just the right time. The Easter lily, Lilium longiflorum is native to Japan and most were grown there for shipment to the U.S. until World War II. Then the U.S. started growing the bulbs themselves. Most of them are raised on the California/Oregon border. It is known as the Easter Lily Capital of the World. It takes 3-4 years to grow the bulb from bulblet to shipping size.  The bulbs are then shipped to greenhouses all over the U.S. to grow and force for Easter.  According to the U.S.D.A, Michigan produces the highest number of plants. Go Michigan!! The hard part is forcing them to bloom for Easter which changes every year. The first Sunday that follows the first full moon after the vernal equinox is Easter Sunday. This could occur any Sunday between March 22 and April 25. This keeps the growers on their toes. Poinsettias are always needed on the same date every year, as are Valentine's roses.

Many stories circulate concerning the story behind the Easter lily. One is that lilies were found growing in the Garden of Gethsemane after Christ's time there praying. The lilies sprung up where his drops of sweat fell on the ground in his final hours. Churches use these flowers to decorate sanctuaries at this time of the year. They represent hope and life: the eternal  life that Jesus gave to us by his death and resurrection. 

How do you take care of them when you get them home? First, remove the yellow anthers before the pollen starts to shed. The flowers will last longer and not stain you, your clothes, or the white flower petals. Keep your lily in a cool,bright place and keep them moderately moist. If it comes in a decorative sleeve, empty it after watering or take it out of the sleeve to water and let it drain before replacing it. 
After flowering and the chance of frost is past, you can plant your lily outside. Plant the bulb at least 3 inches below the soil surface. Next year, it will bloom at the time it would normally bloom if not forced, which is in the summer months. They like their head in the sun and their roots in the shade. This means a nice layer of mulch is essential. Here in Michigan, I would probably make sure they have a good thick layer of mulch for the winter, as well. 
Next time you see an Easter lily, I hope you think of it more than just a nice white flower.

 Easter morn with lilies fair
Fills the church with perfumes rare,
As their clouds of incense rise,
Sweetest offerings to the skies.
Stately lilies pure and white
Flooding darkness with their light,
Bloom and sorrow drifts away,
On this holy hallow'd day.
Easter Lilies bending low
in the golden afterglow,
Bear a message from the sod
To the heavenly towers of God.
-Louise Lewin Matthews

The Easter Lily, purest white,
Seems illuminated by a holy light;
Glowing with grace of the risen Lord,
It stands supreme in the dark of night.
A symbol of One who defeated death
To reign in power above all strife,
To beckon all who will believe
And offer them eternal life.
The debt of my sins has been crucified,
Because Christ lives, I too shall live -
All praise and glory to his blessed Name!
The Easter Lily, so pure and white,
Represents Jesus, the risen Lord;
He stands supreme as the one, true God;
My Savior is worthy
To be loved and adored!
- Connie Faust

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Plant By Numbers

Mossy Falls (Steve Asbell)
 Most people have at least one or two houseplants plopped here or there in their homes. In his new book , Plant by Numbers, though, Steve Asbell demnstrates  how to put houseplants together to make living arrangements. Think of it as a "container" garden for indoors. Use houseplants like you do your spikes, geraniums, and ivy as your "thriller, filler, and spiller". It can be difficult to put plants together that have the same water and light requirements, but in this book, Steve shows us how to do just that. It is as easy as A, B, C!

Femme Fatale (Steve Asbell)
 We've all had one of those dish gardens given as a gift or from a funeral, at one time or another. Those small plants become huge and quite often high light plants are planted with low light plants or moisture loving plants with cactus. Also, they never have drainage holes. We are set up for failure from the beginning. 
The first part of the book deals with the basics of plant care. How much light do I have?- or not have? How do I raise the humidity? How much space do I have? What is the average temperature in my home? How do I plant my container and keep it looking good? What kind of soil do I use for the plants I am using? How do I handle problems that come along, like insects and diseases?
The second part of the  book is where the fun begins. Steve gives you the recipes for making the containers. The recipe includes the shopping list with common and botanical names of the plants. If you can't find the specific plants he recommends, he has alternative options for you to choose from. How could you fail?

Pink Limeade (Steve Asbell)

 Steve likens these houseplant combinations to "works of living art. Colorful plants are your palette, with patterns, textures and shapes. But what really makes painting with plants exciting is having the opportunity to work with a growing and changing medium." 

Jungle Glow (Steve Asbell)
  If you don't find a combination you like, Steve has lists of plants that you can pick from according to the conditions you have in your house. I love these lists! A few examples are edible houseplants, trailing and vining houseplants, lime colored plants, silver plants, pink plants, plants for low light, plants that like it sunny and dry, or sunny and moist. He has a list of plants for every condition you can think of. He also tells you to listen to your plants. Growing healthy plants depends on being a good listener. Visual cues are yellowing leaves, dropping leaves, and pests. You need to pay attention to these things and deal with them immediately. If you have to let the plant go, don't beat yourself up. It happens. 
Lime and Coconut (Steve Asbell)
 So, if you've had bad luck with houseplants in the past, don't wait to read Steve's book. 
And that's where the best part comes in. I am giving away Steve's book, right here!  Leave a comment below telling me your favorite houseplant and why.  Then, on April 15, yes, the dreaded tax day, I will pick a winner with  I figured we could use something good to think about on tax day. Entries must be received by 8 pm April 15. I will contact the winner via email and if you do not respond within 3 days, you forfeit the book and I will choose someone else. Remember to leave your e-mail in the comment so I can contact you. Thanks! 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Begonias at Hidden Lake Gardens

Begonia masoniana  Iron Cross Begonia

 Two weeks ago, we went to Hidden Lake Gardens in Tipton, MI. We were there during their annual Spring show.  You can see those pictures here. In past visits I have taken pictures of the begonia collection. I decided to share those in this post. Many of the begonias have Logee's Greenhouse tags in them. Logee's is a mail order nursery in Danielson, Conn. with a large begonia collection and many of them are represented at Hidden Lake. Another great mail order place is Kartuz Greenhouse. For really great information on begonias, visit Brad's Begonia World page .
Iron cross begonia
The iron cross begonia is a rhizomatous begonia, meaning it grows from stems, (rhizomes) that creep along on the surface of the soil. This type is easily grown from these rhizomes. Cut pieces of them, lay them on the surface of a container of moist soil, pressing them down into the soil a bit so that they have good contact. I use florist pins to pin them down, to ensure they are in contact with the soil. Roots will grow from the stem pieces and send up new leaves from the top side. If your rhizomatous begonias start defoliating, they are either cold sensitive or staying too wet. Most begonias have very shallow root systems, thus needing only a shallow pot. I find that clay pots work well and look good with the begonia foliage.

Begonia 'Mike's Mauve'

'Mike's Mauve' is a rex begonia. These begonias have extremely colorful leaves. Some of the mini rexes need to be kept in a terrarium because their requirements for humidity are so high. All rexes appreciate high humidity, so keeping them on a tray of wet pebbles is a great idea. Do not keep the soil overly wet and good air circulation is essential, as well.

Begonia listada

Begonia listada  is a species begonia, meaning it hasn't gone through hybridization, but is in its natural state as it would be in the wild. It is native to the far south of Brazil. Lisatada is derived from Spanish and means "striped" obviously referring to its leaves.                                
Begonia listada leaf

'Northern Lights' begonia

'Northern Lights' is a rhizomatous begonia and I have one of these at home growing in a large shallow clay pot.

Eyelash begonia- Begonia bowerae
The Begonia bowerae is a rhizomatous begonia. It is a Mexican species, also called eyelash begonia because of the white hairs on the edges of the leaves that look like eyelashes. This is a small begonia that is perfect for a terrarium. 

Begonia x erythrophylla or beefsteak begonia is a very old variety that almost everyone has seen. This is one of those "Oh, my grandma grew one of those" plants. It was hybridized in the mid 1800's and it is quite often passed down through families, not unlike the Christmas cactus.'Bunchii' below is a cultivar of erythrophylla.

Begonia x erythrophylla 'Bunchii'


Begonia 'Palomar Prince'

Begonia 'Black Velvet'
Begonia schmidtiana - Schmidt begonia

The Begonia schmidtiana, from Brazil, is a very hairy species. This is the species that the semperflorens begonia came from. It needs a warm, bright position out of direct sunlight.




Begonia ricinifolia 'Immense'
Begonia ricinifolia 'Immense' is a rhizomatous begonia and this one is, as it's name implies, immense! I also have one of these at home, as well, but it isn't immense as this one. The hairy stems add more interest to the plant. Notice them in the picture below.
Begonia 'Immense'

Begonia 'Chessun'

Begonia 'Di-erna'
The begonia 'Di-erna' is a cane type begonia. It was about 4' tall and had these beautiful large cluster of pink flowers hanging off it. 

Begonia 'Holley Beauty'
Begonia 'Holley Beauty'

As you have seen, begonias are a very colorful and most are easy to grow. I would try a rhizomatous begonia first, as they seem to be the easiest to grow. But, let me warn you now, you won't be able to stop at just one. Soon you'll have a collection of begonias. They are a very diverse group of plants and the more, the better!