Friday, November 30, 2012

Winter Bird Songs

The Sky was Ringing

This was the scene in our front yard yesterday.  Thousands of birds, Starlings, I believe, swarmed like bees.  First the cloud of wings would flutter overhead, then the trees would be a landing spot.  Take a look. 

Birds  in the 'Hood

Starlings Stopping to Rest

The birdbath, feeders and neighboring shrubs offer all the birds a drink and a meal and a place to rest.   I am amazed at this quite large community of fowl, and the seemingly seamless maneuvers. The little things never cease to amaze me.  Isn't life grand!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Houseplant Pests and Diseases


  How to Identify and Treat Insects and Diseases of Houseplants

Many of us will be picking up a houseplant for someone on our gift list. And many of us will add to the houseplant collection we already have.  Even though the plants look healthy at the garden center, here are a few things to lookout for before bringing that plant home.
1) Healthy looking roots – most nursery and garden centers will allow you to gently slide the root ball from the container.  The roots should extend to the edges and be mostly white and pliable.  If the roots are black, or brittle, put it back.  If the root ball is smelly or very wet, put it back.  The continued dryness can be the cause of the brittle roots, whereas the soggy, smelly soil around slimy roots is an indication that the plant has been over-watered many times.
salts damage on roots trun brown
High Salt Content Turn Roots Brown
High mineral content in the water, most specifically salts, can cause root damage as seen here.  The roots are brown, put this plant down.

2) Spotted leaves – If the leaves have a brown tip, this plant has probably been watered with chlorinated tap water, or fluoridated tap water. Don’t buy this one!
floride damage
Fluoride Damage
Spot on leaves are very common in houseplants.  Scalds on leaves can be caused by water drops on leaves and the light is magnified to literally burn the leaf at that spot.  The bleaching of the chlorophyll kills the leaf tissue.

Take a good look at potential houseplants before leaving the garden center. Clean, healthy plants will bring a lovely addition to your home.

.3) Spots in Patterns on Leaves
imagesdiseases on shepheria
Once home, the houseplants can get infected with diseases and insects. These pattern spots are a sign of disease in the houseplant.  Some are tan, while other spots seem to have a ring or halo.  There is no remedy for bacterial diseases in houseplants. Remove infected portions of the plant.  If the bacteria is in all portions of the plant, discard it.

Virus infections are indicated by spots, mosaic stunting, and crinkled leaves.  Virus infections cannot be cured, but rarely harm the plant.  Isolate the infected plant from others and don’t cross use tools that have been in contact with the sick plant to healthy ones. Wipe with a bleach solution and mild soap.
fungus mildew on ivy
Powdery Mildew on Ivy
Botrytis Blight, or Grey mold  is fuzzy and feeds on dying plant tissue, usually in a cool, dark area.  It feeds on broken or dying plant material.  Frequent inspection can catch this mold early.  Treatment with a fungicide is required to control gray mold. Plants that are prone to grey mold are English Ivy, Dracaena, African Violet, Lipstick vine, Peperomia, and grape ivy. Since most homes are too dry, rather than too wet, grey mold is more prevalent in the nursery setting.  Inspect all plants before purchasing them.

Molds and mildews may appear on your plant if the temperatures are too cool, and allowing the soil to remain too moist. Insect pests seem to be the most cause of houseplant concerns but actually, watering issues cause much of the demise in houseplants. Use a Neem oil specifically for indoor use to keep molds, mildews and root rot from too much water in check.

Here are a few insects that you may see, and some simple remedies that are safe and effective.

Once home, inspect the plant for insects and give the whole plant a good wash.  Using a hard spray will knock off insects like aphids. A dish washing liquid in solution will also work to wash off your new plant. The dish washing liquid makes the water wetter and will remove dust and dirt as well. 

Aphids are probably the most common pest on houseplants.  These soft bodied, pear shaped creatures really suck!  No seriously, they suck the plant juices from the underside of new growth causing deformed, or curled leaves. spider mites
Spider Mite Web
spider mite graying
Spider Mite Damage
Spider Mites seem to be the second most common pest on houseplants.  I showed a pothos of mine in a previous post that had webbing in the branches and leaves.  Too small for the human eye to see at 1/50 inch, these spider mites feed on leaves and infected leaves look grayish or yellow speckled.
Spider mites are not insects, but are related to spiders!  (amazing!)  Too dry of environment, and dusty conditions will allow these mite to thrive. Here again, that water blast will drive the spider mites off.  Misting the plant frequently, 2 – 3 times a week, will help from re-infestation.  Mites do not like water.
Friedrich Strauss
Remove Mealy Bugs with Alcohol Swab
mealy bugs
Infestation of Mealy Bugs
Mealy Bugs look like a cotton.  These soft creatures are a major pest concern for houseplants.  They like new growth at the stems connection, and like aphids, they suck plant juices which causes leaves to wilt.
Spray solution of Safer(R) Soap
The swabbing with alcohol is an easy remedy for mealy bugs.  But a spray of Insecticidal soap will also work.

My arsonal 

white fly from bonide
White Flies
White flies are another pest we see frequently in houseplants.  The shriveled leaves are again, from sucking mouth parts of the white fly. Being smaller than fleas, a female can lay up to 150-300 eggs making the problem even more apparent. Remove molted leaves that look like they have a pattern or pathways on the underside. Spray with an Insecticidal soap weekly until the plant is showing no more signs of white fly. Sticky traps are safe to use in the home, and they also will catch thrips. 
white fly damage
Thrips Damage
sticky traps for thrips, whitefly aphids
Sticky traps

Thrips are not as common on houseplants, but if you take the plants outside during warm weather, thrips can hitchhike indoors on your plants. Adults and larvae will suck plant juices from plant cells and the damaged leaves of  the plant will have a white or silver-flecked section on the leaf and is easily seen with light passing through.
adult thrips
Thrips and Their Damage
Thrips can fly and jump when disturbed. Control of thrips is similar to aphids – insecticidal soap, and a soupy water spray will control this pest.

Scale looks like brown spots on stems of plants, but these spots move!  Initially scale is nearly invisible, but as they age they turn darker, and the outer shell is more visible.
scale insects
Scale Damage
This sucker (no pun intended) will secrete a sticky substance called honeydew.  The honeydew allows sooty mold to develop.  This is also true of the scale, mealy bugs, and aphids. 
sooty mold
Sooty Mold from Honeydew
images (1)
Sooty Mold - from
One other pest for the houseplant is the fungus gnatBt Bacillus thuringiensis will attach the larvae in the soil.  This natural bacteria is very effective and can be purchases at the hardware store or garden center. Insecticidal soup will work if the soil is saturated.
fungus knat
Fungus gnat

The amount of light for a specific plant,  it’s watering needs, and ideal temperature are cultural requirements for a healthy houseplant. Humidity, and type of soil also specific for a plant.  A care sheet for a houseplant is usually available at the garden center.  On line sites like Guide to Houseplants  can give a great amount of information. Don't let these pests stop you from enjoying houseplants.  They really require minimal care for a great reward.

What houseplants do you grow?  What problems have you had?  If I can’t answer you questions, I’m sure many of our gardening community will be able to help.  Leave your comments, I love comments. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Best Houseplants For You

Care for Your Houseplants                                                    

Right Plant, Right Place

Picking the Best Houseplant is as easy as knowing yourself and your space. We all have lifestyles specific to us, and the best houseplant is kind of like picking the right pet for your home.  Do you travel?  Do you like color?  How much light is in the room?  Will you need to rearrange furniture to put the plant in a window?
Do you have a sun room with sun streaming in most of the day, or maybe you have a skylight that brightens your space. Do you need a plant that can live on your desk in a cubby at work where no light of day is ever seen?
Do you have a fist full of ‘brown thumbs’, and have never been able to enjoy an indoor plant? 
I think I can help you choose the best houseplants and help you care for them. 

ZZ Plant
On my list of ‘best’ is the ZZ plant – Zamioculcas zamiifolia. The ZZ plant is tolerant of neglect.  Forget to water – OK.  Very low light – no south windows or any windows at all – OK   Have a bright window or sun room – OK.  zz plants
The thick stems and glossy leaves make this plant very attractive.  It is a slow grower so it won’t outgrow its space readily.  All parts of this plant are poisonous, so children and pets should not have access to it.  Water regularly and allow it to dry out between watering.  Over watering will kill the ZZ – which is a common cause of death among all indoor plants.  There is no need to fertilize this plant either.  More benefits of this easy care houseplant!

The Chinese Evergreen, Aglaonema, is another ‘Best Houseplant’ pick of mine.
Chinese Evergreen
  chinese evergreen
The Chinese Evergreen can tolerate low light from an east or north facing window.  It will do well at the office too.  I like the leaves of this plant and it has several varieties that each are pretty.  The ‘Emerald Star’ has spotted leaves, and the ‘Silver King’ or ‘Silver Queen’ have silver markings. Drafts are not tolerated by this plant, and moderate watering – not soggy and not dry – will allow this large leafed plant to be quite striking.

cast iron plant
Cast Iron Plant
'Starry Night - cast iron plant
The Cast Iron Plant, Aspidistra, loves to be neglected. Low-light, and infrequent watering, a little, if any, fertilizer  gets my ‘Best Houseplant’ label. The glossy dark leaves grow to about 3 feet high. Some varieties have gold or white variegation.
The sun room can house a vast variety of houseplants that wouldn't work well in low light situations.  Many of these bright light plants are themselves bright.  Croton has beautiful foliage of  gold, orange, and red.
croton colorful

I take this Croton outside in summer.  It is more difficult to over winter indoors than some other houseplants, but the bright color is worth the effort. The sun-room temperature should not go below 60 degrees, and Croton does not like drafts.  Over-watering can cause leaves to drop, but it does not like to low humidity.  Setting the pot on a tray of gravel filled with water can raise the humidity around this plant.

Other sun-room plants for bright light are cactus and succulents.  Hens and chicks, (Sempervivum) are good choices as well. 
Cactus Dish Garden
succulents terrarium
Succulent Terrarium

One flashy plant that likes bright but filtered light, is the Purple Velvet Plant, Gynura aurantiaca.  The green leaves have fussy purple hairs, and is quite striking.  Brighter light, the deeper the purple. Too much light may allow the color to fade, and even moisture is required to care for this houseplant. The Purple Velvet plant can vine to about 9 feet, so give it some room. The fruit, a orange color, is edible, but the rest of the plant is poisonous.
Purple  Velvet plant
Purple Velvet Plant

One other 'bright light' houseplant is the Flowering Maple or Abutilon. I have over-wintered mine in a west facing window, and was thrilled when it bloomed for me.  
flowering maple
Flowering Maple
flowering maple abutilon
This plants is not a maple, but it’s leaves resemble maple trees.  The plant will bloom if fed a 15-30-15 liquid fertilizer each month when it is growing.  Leaf drop will occur if Abutilon is under fed.  Mist occasionally.

arrowhead plants
Arrowhead Plant
For the ‘fist of brown thumbs’ gardener, I have a couple of suggestions. One is the Arrowhead plant – Syngonium podophyllum.    arrowhead in water
This plant can grow directly in water.  Gently remove plant from its pot and remove all soil.  Wash off  roots.  In a clear container and filtered water, this Arrowhead will thrive.Use a water soluble fertilizer in the water, and replace the water every month.
Heart Leaf Philodendron
Another easy care houseplant is the heart-leaf philodendron.
Bright to moderate light and allowing the plant to dry out between watering, is the only care this houseplant needs.  I fertilize with a 1/2 strength water soluble fertilizer twice a year in late winter, and in mid-summer.  This plant can go outside during summer if it is in shade. 

I hope I have given you a couple of houseplants that you can care for in your home or office.  The best houseplant is the one that fits your lifestyle and your home. Gardening, even on the windowsill, is a year round hobby.  Enjoy.

Monday, November 12, 2012

How to Recognize Houseplant Stress

How to Care for House Plants

Steps for Indoor Plant Care to Reduce Houseplant Stress

I should have been more aware of the houseplants I brought in for the winter.  I wasn't  So imagine my dismay when I finally looked at the few houseplants I have, and recognized the signs of improper care.
Spider Mite Webs
Yellowing Leaves of  Pothos
This is a Golden Pothos.  One of the easiest,  most carefree houseplants there is.  Suddenly, (Or maybe not so suddenly) the leaves had turned yellow.  And the spider webs were entangled within.

I had the plant hanging from a hook in a west facing window for its winter home.  So I was pretty sure the light was not the problem.  Pothos can tolerate low light even from a north facing window.  I had watered this guy in the days previous, so I didn't think it was suffering from thirst.  Pothos can go for long periods of dryness. Watering every 3 – 4 weeks will not harm it.

In fact so many houseplants suffer and die from the over-watering by well-meaning caretakers.  Wet feet – water standing in the container – can cause molds, and harbor diseases.  If the soil is soggy water fills the soil pores and pushes out oxygen the roots need. The soil should have a chance to drain, and dry out between watering. A moisture meter can determine when your houseplant needs watering for proper care.
Gold Pothos

Safer Insecticidal Soap
Water Spray to Wash Plant Leaves

The Safer Insecticidal Soap was the second step to treating the spider mites that had infested my Pothos with the webs.  The first step was a spray in the sink with a warm blast of water on all the leaf surfaces.  This water shower can wash away some of the pests, and also gives the leaves a bath. By removing dust and dirt from the leaves, the plant can breath and better use the Carbon Dioxide it takes in, and transforms this CO2 to clean oxygen. Take the time to care for your indoor plant.  Plant leaves need to be cleaned periodically throughout the season.

Insecticidal Soap Spray for Spider mites
I then sprayed the entire plant, tops and bottoms of leaves, stems, and I even hit the soil with the Insecticidal Soap.  This step may need to be repeated in a few days if I see any new webs forming. 

The next step in my attempts to save this sickly plant, was to check a resource I frequently refer to – Jerry Baker’s Great Green Book of Garden Secrets.  Not only can I  look up the symptoms of a plant problem, but this book gives me safe, easy, inexpensive remedies to care for my ailing houseplant.

A note in Jerry Baker’s book caught my eye. Water softener water should NOT be used on plants.  This water is salty and salts can build up around plant roots causing major problems.
Water Softener Valve
I make a habit of turning the water softener on by-pass when I’m out in the yard, but I must admit, watering indoor plants just didn't get the same care.  I encourage you to use filtered water and avoid fluoridated water as well.  Fluoride can cause tips to turn yellow, and other chemicals in the city water can form a crust on the soil.

So I've devised a method to treat my houseplants better, and reduce their stress.

Charcoal Filter
Water Filter in Refrigerator
I’ve got a charcoal filter insert for the coffee and tea maker so I use the water from the tea compartment for a good source of filtered water.  The fridge also has a filter.  Both of these options filter water but the tea water is hot, and the fridge water is too cold.  Let the water sit till it is room temperature before watering your house plants.
The yellow leaves were still a concern.  I had the right lighting, and the water source was room temperature and filtered.  So I continues to research Jerry Baker's book and found that ‘if the mature leaves were turning yellow, the plant is starving.’
This pothos was outside all summer.  And besides the rain or rain barrel watering, this guy was on his own.  Duh – months of growing with no food.  Months of flushing nutrients through the potting mix with no nutrition.  I am so embarrassed!

Liquid fertilizer mixture
Compost tea
Water Soluble Fertilizer
Feeding houseplants with fish fertilizer is my first choice.  The water soluble organic fertilizer is great for a quick uptake by plants. A compost tea would also have been a good option.   But, I had used up my supply and so I resorted to another source for this emergency. 

Brown Spot on Leaf
The brown, dead spots on leaves indicated a Magnesium deficiency; so out to the shed for the Epsom Salts.  A tablespoon of Epsom Salts per gallon of water should remedy this problem too.

Epsom Salts for Added Magnesium

Watering houseplants with a weak solutions made from a used tea bag and a few drops of dish liquid will give nutrients to maintain a healthy plant.  The tea is slightly acidic which plants like, and the soap makes the water wetter, so it disperses through the soil and to the roots of the plant.
Jerry Baker has an All Purpose Houseplant Tonic in his book, Great Green Book of Garden Secrets that I am sure will carry the plant through the winter months with less stress.  
2 tbsp. of whiskey
1 tbsp. of hydrogen peroxide
1 tbsp. of Fish Fertilizer
1/4 tsp. of instant tea granules
1/2 tsp. of unflavored gelatin
1/2 tsp. of liquid dish soap
1/2 tsp. of ammonia
1/2 tsp. of corn syrup
1 gal of warm water. 
Mix all of the ingredients, and use this instead of plain water on your houseplants.

The ammonia is a source for Nitrogen, and the corn syrup adds carbohydrates for the plant’s food source. 
Golden Pothos

Houseplant stress can be reduced by smart watering practices, and adequate light.  Room temperatures between 65 degrees and 72 degrees is optimal to reduce houseplant stress.
I love to have plants indoors over the winter.  Finding plants that are easy to care for and also aid in indoor air quality will be addressed in the next few posts.  Houseplants in the office can also have benefits we will discuss.

Thanks for your visit today.  What houseplants do you have?  What problems do you encounter in their care?  Leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you.