Archive: Jan 2018

  1. Eight Hard-to-Kill House Plants

    Cast iron plant is one of the toughest house plants available.

    The best house plants add a lot to life without adding extra hours to the day because they require as little fuss as possible. Their benefits are most notable in winter when the need for green, living things is the greatest. Only plastic plants are completely un-killable, but the following “hard-to-kill eight” need little, give a lot and thrive under normal household conditions.

    Aloe vera

    Aloe vera is tough and grows best in full sun.

    A cut Aloe vera leaf exudes a substance that soothes minor burns, a quality that has made this succulent plant a longtime kitchen staple. Its other virtues include an attractive clump of erect, grey-green leaves with serrated margins that are complemented in summer by tall spikes of tubular yellow flowers. Aloes increase freely by offsets or “pups”, creating new plants that can be separated from the mother plants and given away to friends and family. Best of all, the plants accomplish all that on a minimum of water and care.

    Place your aloe in bright, direct sunlight (at least 6-hours a day) and water only when the soil surface is dry. Plants can withstand partial sun, but they will perform poorly in shade. When moving aloes outdoors in summer, slowly acclimate them to full sun conditions to avoid leaf scald.

    Spider Plant

    Spider plant is reliably beautiful and can take a beating.

    A favorite since Victorian times, spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) works well on tall plant stands or in hanging baskets that allow the perky “spiders” (offshoots of plantlets) to cascade over the sides. The long, slender leaves, which also help purify indoor air, may be all green or striped with white or yellow and arch gracefully outward. Tiny white summer flowers are a nice bonus, as are the stems of young spider-like plantlets that form at the flowering nodes.

    Detach and pot separately when the plantlets reach about 2-inches across, or keep them tethered to the parent plant and place each “spider” atop a small pot filled with soil-free mix.  It will root readily.  Spider plants thrive in bright, indirect light.  Water regularly but do not allow their soil to become too wet.

    Christmas Cactus

    Christmas cactus is tough but requires good care for flowering.

    The familiar Christmas or holiday cactus (Schlumbergera spp.) is sometimes also called “crab cactus” for its spreading growth habit.  An epiphytic (tree-dwelling plant) cactus with arching, segmented leaves, it produces claw-like flowers of vivid red, pink, orange, cream, or purple at the ends of the stems in late fall to midwinter.  These are true cacti, though they lack sharp spines.

    Holiday cactus will flourish as long as they receive bright light and their yearly watering schedule is met. After flowering, plants should be watered very minimally for a period of three months. Then from mid-spring to summer, water them regularly when the soil feels dry down to 2-inches depth; in this time they will put on a new flush of foliage. In early fall, place them in a cool place and reduce watering once more, until you see flower buds develop on the plants. Then keep them regularly irrigated again until flowering ceases.

    Sansevieria

    When snake plants become too root bound, divide them.

    You may call it “snake plant” or even “mother-in-law’s tongue”, but whatever the common name, Sansevieria trifasciata is an indoor standby.  Its bold, lance-shaped foliage stands erect, generally reaching about 2-feet tall in sunny indoor situations.  If your snake plant summers outdoors, place the container in full sun to light shade.  The leaf markings that inspired the “snake” nickname are gray-green against a lighter green background.  Though it rarely happens indoors, sansevieria produces greenish white flowers in spring, followed by orange berries later.  The plants appreciate regular watering from spring to fall, but reduce watering significantly in winter.

    English Ivy

    Variegated forms of English ivy are extra pretty and just as tough.

    Outdoors, English ivy (Hedera helix) can be lovely, but virtually uncontrollable. Grown indoors in containers, it has better manners. Numerous cultivars, including many with interesting variegation and smaller leaves, are available from garden centers. Because of its expansive nature, ivy works well as filler for large containers or in hanging baskets.  As with many other houseplants, it prefers bright indirect light.  Watering should be regular and the potting mixture should not be allowed to dry out.  When the ivy becomes too unruly, simply trim it to shape. Vines need to grow to a great height to flower and fruit, so indoor specimens never flower.

    Jade Plant

    Jade plants perform best in full to partial sun.

    The jade plant (Crassula ovata), sometimes called “jade tree” because of its gray trunk-like stems, is actually a branching, succulent shrub from southern Africa. The plump, glossy, oval-shaped leaves are its chief glory, and sometimes have a slight reddish tinge. Indoor jades will occasionally produce small, starry, pinkish-white flowers as well. Container grown specimens may reach up to 30 inches tall and prefer bright light indoors and partial shade outside. Water when the soil feels dry down to a finger-length depth.

    Golden Pothos

    Vining golden pothos is very hard to kill.

    Golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum) is a striking foliage plant with big, heart-shaped leaves, marbled in golden-green.  In the wild, it is a vigorous climbing vine, but as a civilized houseplant, it grows no more than 6- to 8-feet tall.  If you want it even smaller, it can also be kept in check by periodic trimming.  Because of its good looks and vining nature, the big-leafed plant is useful for hanging baskets, plant stands, and large containers.  Bright indirect light, evenly moist soil, and occasional stem pinching will keep it full and healthy.

    Cast Iron Plant

    True to its tough nickname, cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) can survive shade, neglect, and climate conditions that would send many other plants into fatal swoons. Like spider plant, it was beloved by Victorians and is still a hit today. With green or variegated lance-shaped leaves that sprout on long petioles or leaf stems, mature aspidistra may grow to 2 t0 3 feet tall and wide. The plants grow slowly and flower infrequently indoors.  If flowers appear, they are purple and lurk near the plant’s base.  Aspidistras grow best with regular watering but will survive with little moisture.

    Care and Feeding

    Hard-to-kill houseplants need little help to look great, if you start with good care.  Average house plants require a  high-quality mix like, Fafard® Professional Potting Mix or Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix with Extended Feed, to ensure good growth and success.  Established plants should be fed intermittantly with a diluted all-purpose fertilizer.  More succulent house plants, like aloe, snake plant, jade, and Christmas cactus require mix with excellent drainage, so lighten consider lightening the potting mix with equal amounts of perlite or bark.  Succulents are accustomed to lean rations and need little additional fertilizer.

  2. Non-Invasive, Native Evergreen Groundcovers

    Many native evergreen groundcovers, such as moss phlox (white flowers), are non-invasive natives. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    It’s time for American gardeners to move beyond Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis), English ivy (Hedera helix), and periwinkle (Vinca minor).  It’s true that these ubiquitous landscape plants make excellent evergreen groundcovers, rapidly forming dense swaths of handsome foliage.  But, in addition to being tiresomely common in American gardens, they’re a nuisance outside of cultivation, invading natural areas and out-muscling native plants with their aggressive growth. (English ivy and periwinkle appear on invasive plant lists over much of the southeastern and far-western U.S.).

    Many U.S natives possess the same virtues as the ubiquitous three, with none of the liabilities.  Here are several lovely native, evergreen options to replace tiresome invasive spreaders.

    Allegheny Spurge

    Bottlebrush spikes of white flowers appear just before new spring leaves unfurl. (Photo by Zen Sutherland)

    Japanese spurge’s more alluring, better-behaved relative from Appalachia is Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens).  Its broad, coarsely toothed leaves are similar in shape to those of its Japanese cousin, but they do much more in the way of color.  Fresh grassy-green when emerging in early spring, the foliage becomes gray-suffused and darker over the growing season, developing silvery flecking as fall approaches. Low, bottlebrush spikes of white flowers put on a charming display just before the new leaves expand.  This clump-former thrives in rich, well-drained soil and partial shade, gradually spreading into dense 2- to 3-foot-wide hummocks.  It’s hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9, and reliably evergreen in USDA Zones 6b and warmer.

    Fetterbush

    Fetterbush (Leucothoe axillaris spp.) is a handsome evergreen groundcover for partial shade.

    Another Southeast U.S. native that makes a handsome evergreen groundcover for partial shade, fetterbush (Leucothoe axillaris spp.) bears glossy, oval, dark green leaves on arching, 2- to 4-foot-tall stems that sucker into thickets.  For a traditional ground-hugging groundcover, choose the compact Leucothoe fontanesiana Scarletta, which forms billowing 2-foot-tall mounds with bright red new leaves, clusters of ivory flowers in spring, and maroon-red winter color.  Or you can go full fetterbush and use a regular-sized Leucothoe axillaris as a tall groundcover.  All forms produce white, bell-shaped flowers in spring.  Fetterbush does well in moist humus-rich soil in USDA Zones 5 to 9, but is prone to leaf spot in poorly aerated sites.

    Canby’s Mountain Lover

    Canby’s mountain lover (Paxistima canbyi) becomes a bold, textural evergreen groundcover. (Image by Daniel)

    No evergreen groundcover for partial shade is finer – literally and figuratively – than Canby’s mountain lover (Paxistima canbyi).  In the wild, it’s a rare, often gaunt inhabitant of rocky uplands from southern Pennsylvania to North Carolina.  In favorable garden sites, however, it’s anything but shy and scraggly, spreading into low, thick, 3- to 5-foot-wide thatches of narrow, petite, deep green leaves.  They provide a splendid textural contrast with bold-leaved evergreens such as rhododendrons and Pieris.  Well-drained, humus-rich soil and partial to full sun seem to bring out the best in this beautiful Appalachian native, which is hardy from USDA Zones 4 to 8. Bronzing sometimes occurs in harsh winters.

    Creeping Phlox

    Creeping phlox ‘Sherwood Purple’ becomes blanketed in spring flowers. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Quite a few native species offer eye-catching flowers in addition to ground-covering evergreen foliage.  Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) earns its name via its ever-expanding carpets of spoon-shaped leaves that give rise in mid-spring to 8-inch spikes of proportionately large, showy flowers.  Several cultivars are available, varying in their flower color and vigor.  Perhaps the best colonizer (and the best as a groundcover) is ‘Sherwood Purple’, with violet-blue blooms.  Although creeping phlox is happiest in partial shade and woodsy soil, it will also flourish in rich moist soil in full sun.

    Moss Phlox

    Moss phlox creates a mat of fine green foliage that becomes covered with flowers in spring. (Image by Jessie Keith)

    Full-on sun is the preferred habitat of moss phlox (Phlox subulata).  Sometimes scorned because of its association with median strips, whiskey barrels, and other lowbrow landscape features, it’s near the top of the list of tough, attractive groundcovers for hot sandy slopes and other difficult sites.  The dense, ever-spreading, needle-like foliage is handsome and weed-suppressing, and the early spring flowers come in many colors besides the bubble-gum-purple shades disdained by plant snobs.  Additionally, this Midwestern to eastern U.S. native is rock-hardy and adaptable, flourishing in well-drained soil in USDA Zones 3 to 9.

    Other Native Evergreen Groundcovers

    Christmas fern brightens shady gardens in summer and winter. (Image by Wasp32)

    Blooming at the same time as creeping phlox (and making a knockout companion for blue-flowered cultivars such as ‘Sherwood Purple’), gold-star (Chrysogonum virginianum) mats the ground with fuzzy, toothed leaves that recall those of other members of the aster family such as Rudbeckia.  The fully evergreen Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is another woodland groundcover for shade. Golden-yellow, five-parted star-flowers with fringed rays open in May and repeat sporadically until fall if conditions are not too hot and dry.  Gold-star shares much the same cultural preferences and hardiness range (USDA Zones 4 to 9) as creeping phlox.

    Toughness and adaptability are among the virtues of another often-scorned eastern and central U.S. native, robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus).  Two selections of this fuzzy-leaved meadow-dweller are excellent choices for challenging niches such as dry shade or sunny slopes.  The cultivar ‘Lynnhaven Carpet’ has beefy rosettes of large, flat, tongue-shaped leaves that smother everything in their vigorously expanding path.  In contrast, ‘Meadow Muffin’ produces congested, relatively slowly proliferating rosettes of smaller, crinkled leaves.  Both cultivars send up pale lavender daisy-flowers on 10- to 15-inch stems in mid to late spring.  Plants are evergreen through much of their USDA Zone 5 to 9 hardiness range, but may go leafless in relatively harsh winters.

    Hardy evergreen sedums, such as Oregon stonecrop (Sedum oreganum), create fully evergreen cover for raised sunny beds or rock gardens. This species creates a spreading 2 to 3-inch mat of bead-like foliage that turns from green to reddish bronze in winter. Small, starry, yellow flowers grace the plants in summer.

    Most newly planted groundcovers appreciate the addition of soil amendment, such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend, at planting time. This organic-rich mix encourages root growth and holds needed moisture to help plants thrive. Water new plantings every few days for at least two weeks. In no time, your native groundcovers should be rambling effortlessly through your garden.

    Dozens of other native species work wonderfully as evergreen groundcovers, but those offered in this article are reliable and attractive through all seasons.

    Leucothoe Scarletta is a low-growing shrub evergreen that makes a great groundcover for shade. (Image by Russell Stafford)

  3. Windowsill Herbs and Vegetables for Kitchen Gardeners

    A sunny windowsill is all you need to grow a variety of vegetables and herbs.

    Homegrown fresh herbs and vegetables are not just a product of the warm growing months. Several can be easily cultivated along a sunny, south-facing windowsill during winter. Then when temperatures grow warmer, you can plant them outdoors to extend your summer gardening efforts.

    Herbs for Indoor Growing

    Pots of sweet basil and other herbs grow in a sunny window.

    Basil– Fresh sweet basil pesto can just be an arms-length away, if you have a sunny kitchen window.  Some grocery stores or retail greenhouses sell plants in colder months, but you can also quickly grow your own plants from seed. Many varieties take only 40-50 days to grow to a harvestable size.

    Small bush varieties, such as ‘Piccolino’ and ‘Pluto’, are the fastest growing sweet basil types to grow from seed. The large-leaved ‘Pesto Party’ is also fast growing and tasty. Sow seed on the surface of a small pot filled with Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil, which is approved for organic gardening. Keep the soil moist and place your pot in a sunny window. In just one week, the seeds should sprout. Give them even moisture, full sun, and they should thrive.

    The small bush basil ‘Piccolino’. (Photo by Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

    Rosemary– Pruned rosemary plants are often sold in winter for home growing. New growth can be trimmed off to flavor meats and or pasta sauces. Just be sure to give them lots of sun—turning window-grown plants every few days for even growth. Refrain from overwatering them because their roots are sensitive to rot.

    Thyme– Pots of low-growing French thyme (Thymus vulgaris) or lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus) look pretty and taste great on vegetables, meats, or added to fresh salad dressings. If you have an outdoor plant, you can easily root cuttings for indoor growing. Simply take 6” cuttings, remove the leaves from the bottom 2-inches of the stem, and place them in a clean glass of water. Refresh the water if it starts to look mucky. In just a couple of weeks they will root and can be potted in mix. Like rosemary, they require light water and lots of sunlight.

    Cilantro is very easy to grow indoors. (Image by Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

    Cilantro-This cool-season herb is one of the easiest to grow indoors. Like basil, it is best grown from seed—with seedlings ready for harvest in just 50 days. Try the tidy ‘Calypso’, which also resists flowering and produces lots of edible leaves for salsa making. Start them as you would basil seeds.

    Parsley-Pot-grown parsley thrives in sunny windowsills and quickly regrows new leaves as you trim fresh foliage for cooking. On occasion, plants are sold at grocery stores or in retail greenhouses, but seed-grown plants are probably your best bet. Plants take two months to reach harvestable size, so they are best seeded in late fall for winter growing. Start them as you would basil seeds.

    Vegetables for Indoor Growing

    Salinova® Green Sweet Crisp lettuce is a cut-and-come-again variety great for indoor growing.

    Greens—Lettuce, spinach, and arugula are all fast-growing salad greens that grow quickly in indoor pots. In fact, some compact varieties are specially bred for indoor growing. Lettuces in the Salinova® series are compact, cut-and-come-again varieties that grow fast and produce well in pots. Try the curly Salinova® Green Sweet Crisp and red-leaved Salinova® Red Butter. Surface sow the seeds in a rectangular pot, place them along a sunny window, give them light moisture, and they will sprout quickly. In just 45-55 days they will be ready to harvest. The fast-growing ‘Corvair’ spinach (21 days) and ‘Esmee’ arugula (21-40 days) can be grown the same way.

    The Brazilian beak pepper, ‘Biquinho’. (Image by Johnny’s Selected Seeds)

    Peppers-Tiny pepper plants with fruits of all colors and heat levels can be grown in super sunny windows. The Brazilian beak pepper ‘Biquinho’ is a new red hot pepper that reaches only 1 to 2 feet high and yields fruits in just 60 days. Lunchbox mixed sweet pepper plants reach 2 to 3 feet, and bear small green peppers in just 55 days (75 days to turn red and orange).

    Start seeds in small pots of Black Gold Seedling Mix, keep them just moist and place them in a sunny window. In one to two weeks they should sprout. When they reach 6-inches high, move them into a 1-gallon pot filled with Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Soil, and add a stake to support growing plants. Feed them regularly with a water-soluble tomato and vegetable fertilizer.

    Tomatoes– If you have very sunny south-facing window or sun room, you can grow tomatoes indoors. Bush-type (determinate) tomatoes bred for northern growing will grow and fruit the best.

    Start them indoors from seed in mid to late fall for winter fruiting. Maintaining room temperatures above 65° F will encourage fruit production. In just 60 days, ‘Gold Nugget’ cherry tomatoes bear small, golden tomatoes on short plants reaching 2-feet. For classic red tomatoes, try the high-yielding, disease-resistant ‘Polbig’, which reaches 2-3 feet. Start the seeds and pot and feed plants as you would with peppers. Support plants with stakes to manage growth, and prune back any leggy stems.

    Planting fresh herbs and vegetables indoors this winter will keep fresh food on your table until spring. These attractive edibles also provide welcome indoor greenery to brighten cold, snowy days.