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  1. Growing Palms Indoors and Palms for Indoor Growing

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    Parlor palm is one of the most popular palms for indoor growing.

    Palms are trending in indoor gardening circles because they are the ultimate multi-taskers, functioning simultaneously as architectural elements, air cleaners, and silent promoters of peace and calm. With their pleasing green fronds and compatible natures, palms are among the best plants for enhancing living spaces of all sizes.

    Palms Defined

    Technically speaking, palms are plants in the palm (Arecaceae) family and are native to tropical or subtropical environments throughout the world.  True palms are generally characterized by fronds of long evergreen leaves that sprout from unbranched stems. Some popular plants that are billed as “palms” and bear characteristic green fronds are only masqueraders that belong to other plant families. Some of these palm wannabes are ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) and sago palm (Cycas revoluta)–both excellent houseplants.

    Palm Basics

    Most indoor palms have similar needs, including bright direct or indirect sunlight; well-drained soil; and temperatures that never fall below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Good soil with good fertility and excellent drainage, such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix, is essential. “Wet feet”, which result from overwatering and poor drainage, will kill palms quickly. Generally speaking, water only when top few inches of potting soil feel dry. The early effects of consistent overwatering will show up in the form of yellowing leaves. Conversely, if your palm is thirsty and needs more water, the ends of the leaves will start to turn brown.

    Starting Your Palm on the Right Foot

    When you buy a palm, you will probably want to replace the container it came in with something that fits your indoor décor and suits the palm’s growing needs. Choose a container that has drainage holes in the bottom and is a few inches larger than the palm’s root ball. Add your potting soil to the bottom of the pot so that the root ball sits 1 to 2 inches below the container’s rim. (The extra top space will provide room for water.) Fill in around the sides with more of the potting soil, gently pressing it down as you go. To provide the humidity that many palms crave, set the new container on a tray or saucer filled with pebbles and water.  Mist periodically.

    Palm Maintenance

    The leaves of these parlor palms show tip drying due to too little water and humidity.

    If the palm is relatively compact and can be moved, it will happily vacation outside through the warmer growing months.  Be sure to position the plant in indirect light and bring indoors when night temperatures start to dip below 60 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Prune dead leaves off your palm as they appear, but do not prune the top where new growth appears, as it will not re-grow. Though palms flower in their native habitats, indoor container specimens will almost never flower.  They are prized on the strength of their stunning foliage.

    Palms available in nurseries and garden centers are sometimes only identified as “palm”.  Though most palms have similar needs, it pays to ask the nursery or store manager for specifics–starting with the plant’s real name. 

    The following are some great palms for indoor cultivation.

    Good Indoor Palms

    Parlor Palm

    Beautiful potted palm in modern living room

    Native to Central America, parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans) lives up to its “elegant” Latin species name.  Individual specimens are slender so parlor palms are generally sold with several plants in a single container to create a bushier appearance. They are relatively compact, growing 2 to 6 feet tall, and 2 to 3 feet wide. They are happiest in bright, indirect light. The fronds are long-lasting and decorative, which also makes them useful for indoor flower arrangements.

    Kentia Palm

    Light modern living room with brown leather couch and numerous green houseplants creating an urban jungle

    Beloved by England’s Queen Victoria, the kentia palm (Howea forsteriana and Howea belmoreana) is another that is generally sold with more than one plant per container.  Its statuesque nature—up to 10 feet tall—and arching fronds make it perfect for entryways or corners of rooms with high ceilings. This trait has contributed to one of its other common names, sentry palm.  Of the two popular species, the belmoreana type is somewhat shorter with fronds that are more erect. Though a little more tolerant of less-than-tropical temperatures, kentia palms still prefer temperatures above 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Bottle Palm

    The somewhat compact bottle palm (Hyophorbe lagenicaulis), which can reach between 5 to 7 feet tall, has a slow growth rate that adds to its attraction as a house plant.  The gray, bottle-shaped trunk, which gives rise to the common name, supports a vivid green main stem bearing large, arching fronds. Bottle palm is native to Mauritius and Madagascar and is distinguished by its graceful habit. 

    Pygmy Date Palm

    A full-grown pygmy date or miniature date palm (Phoenix roebelenii) reaches 6 to 10 feet but grows slowly within the confines of a large container. The Southeast Asian native features a nubbly brown trunk that produces arching branches laden with slim, feathery fronds, giving the plant a delicate almost fern-like look. While the name promises fruit, the roebelenii species’ fruits—when they are produced on an indoor specimen–are rather seedy with little flesh.

    Chinese Fan Palm

    Chinese Fan Palm

    Chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis), also known as Chinese fountain palm, is distinguished by its exuberant rounded “fans” of slender leaves that bend, fountain-like towards the floor. The Asian native is a slow grower and reaches impressive heights in the wild. Indoors, it may eventually reach 10 feet tall, but will take years to do so.

    Windmill Palm

    A horticultural relic of the Victorian era, when it was extremely popular, windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) is another “fan” –type specimen with a relatively luxurious crown of green, leafy “fans” atop a slender trunk.  Native to China, a windmill palm will top out at 5 to 6 feet tall, fitting comfortably in a large container. 

  2. House Plant Reboot

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    If your houseplants could talk, they would tell you that they like natural daylight—the kind you get outdoors—better than artificial light of any kind.  They might also say that the winter-time humidity level in your house is too low.  They hope that the compensatory misting you give them does something good for you, because it doesn’t help them very much.  Neither does the overwatering that they get from time to time.  In the midst of saying those things, some of them might yawn, as winter is a time when many houseplants’ growth cycle slows.

    What do your plants want in the winter?  The following will help keep them in good shape until spring sets in and growth cycles start anew.

    Tidying Up

    Anthurium 'A4' (PACORA™) PP11728

    Wipe down the leaves of large-leaved plants, such as this Anthurium, if they become dingy or dusty. (Jessie Keith)

    Your plants, especially those that have summered outside, probably could use a little TLC.  Prune out weak stems, and cut back those that are too gangly.  If the plant has glossy leaves, like a gardenia, gently wipe the foliage with a damp cloth to eliminate pore-clogging dust.  Check stems, leaves, root ball for pests.  Many can be dislodged with a stream of water or application of insecticidal soap. If the plant is pot bound, repot with fresh media, like Fafard® Professional Potting Mix, in a clean container that is about one third larger than its predecessor.  Winter will not bring much growth, but it won’t bring strangulation either.



    Clivia are midwinter bloomers that need bright indirect light for good flowering. (Jessie Keith)

    If you are blessed with a lighted greenhouse, all you have to do is find appropriate spaces for houseplants that prefer a bit of shade.  But if you, like many gardeners, have to rely on windowsills, try to put most of your plants in south-facing ones.  This may be too much for some popular indoor varieties, like African violets or fancy-leaf begonias.  Save areas with bright indirect light, like north-facing windows for them. Be sure to rotate your houseplants regularly to even out light exposure and avoid lopsided growth.


    In general, fertilize plants when they are in active growth.  For most plants this means little or no feeding in late fall and winter.  The caveat is that you should know your plant.  If it is a winter bloomer, it may need fertilizer during the colder months.  A little research on individual species will ensure that you fertilize properly for winter blooms.


    Calathea lancifolia

    Low humidity caused the leaf edges of this Calathea to turn brown and dry. (Jessie Keith)

    Houseplants like more humidity—generally 40-50 percent— than the average indoor environment provides in winter.  If all your plants are in a single room, think about investing in a humidifier.  The added moisture in the air will be good for you, the plants and any wooden furniture in the immediate area.  If a humidifier is not an option, fill deep plant saucers with pebbles and water and stand the plants on them, making sure that the bottoms of the pots are not standing in water.  Replenish the water around the pebbles every few days or as needed.  If plants are grouped together and each stands on a bed of pebbles and water, the humidity level around them will be comfortably high.


    Agave victoriae-reginae 'Variegata'

    Succulents, such as this variegated Agave, need very little water in the winter months. (Jessie Keith)

    Overwatering is the most frequent cause of houseplant death.  Fortunately, it is also the most preventable.  Before you water, take a look at the plant.  Is the top inch of the soil dry to the touch?  If you pick up the container, does it feel relatively heavy or light?  If the specimen in question is a succulent, it is best to water them very sparingly in winter. If your plant appears to be too dry, gently feel a leaf or two.  Thirsty succulents tend to have slightly flaccid leaves.

    If the plant is dry, water thoroughly until water flows out of the holes in the bottom.  Deep watering once or twice a week in the winter is much better for overall health than adding a little water every day. Some houseplants, such as African violets and Streptocarpus, need to be watered from the bottom to keep their leaves from getting wet; moisture on the leaves causes spotting and damage.


    Pilea cadierei JaKMPM

    Tropical plants like this Pilea need warm temperatures to grow well indoors. (Jessie Keith)

    The majority of popular houseplants like the same indoor temperatures as the majority of humans. Like us, they also prefer to avoid extremes.  Ambient temperature around 70 degrees F is generally good. If you house your plants on windowsills, don’t let leaves touch the cold glass panes.  Avoid positioning them over radiators too.  Intermittent cold drafts from doors, windows or vents can also be harmful.


    Kalanchoe blossfeldiana JaKMPM

    Flowering potted plants may languish when you first bring them indoors for winter. Give them good care and they should revive. (Jessie Keith)

    In late fall or early winter, houseplants that have spent the summer and early fall outdoors often languish while adjusting to lower light, less humidity and fewer daylight hours.  If the plant is in the right light situation and receiving adequate water, it will adapt and recover after a few weeks.  That does not mean that your plumbago or oleander or prize geranium will behave like the blooming fool that it was in the summer.  It means that it will live to dazzle you again when warm weather returns.

    The same may hold true with houseplants that you purchase from a nursery, garden center or other retailers.  Many have been raised under near-ideal conditions and will need adjustment time as they get used to your particular indoor environment.
    1760FF Pro Potting Mix 2cu RESILIENCE FrontHouseplant care follows the same rules as care of any other kind of plant.  If you are observant, the plant will generally tell you what it needs.  Watch for signals and respond accordingly.  If the soil is too wet, cut back on watering.  If leaves appear burned around the edges, move the plant to a place with less light.  About the time you are feeling droopy due to winter blues, your plants may be similarly afflicted.  If you have given them good care, both you and the plants will recover as the hours of daylight increase.


    Streptocarpus are houseplants that should be watered from the bottom and kept just moist in winter, never wet.

  3. South African Bulbs for Indoor Growing

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    Lachenalia aloides

    Lachenalia aloides var. quadricolor is beautiful and flamboyant.

    Most Cape bulbs follow the seasonal rhythms of their native land, beginning to push leaves in late summer or fall (whether watered or not), and flowering at their appointed time in late fall, winter, or early spring. Their flowers also tend to share a certain likeness, with many species bearing heads of narrow, tubular, brightly colored blooms on stout scapes – the better to attract and accommodate the long-billed, brilliantly hued sunbirds that pollinate them.


    An almost indestructible house plant, Veltheimia bracteata thrives in bright indirect light. (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Cape Hyacinth

    Veltheimia bracteata (commonly known as forest lily or cape hyacinth) beautifully exemplifies these Cape bulb traits. Handsome in their own right, the lustrous, wavy-edged, strap-shaped leaves (with perky wavy-edged margins) emerge from fleshy, tennis-ball-sized bulbs in late summer. In midwinter, red-hot-poker heads of tubular pink flowers develop on fleshy purple-flushed scapes that slowly elongate to 18 inches or so. Flowering peaks about Valentine’s Day, but continues for several weeks before and after. An almost indestructible house plant, Veltheimia bracteata thrives in bright indirect light, relatively tight quarters, and a porous potting mix (such as Fafard® Professional Potting Mix with RESiLIENCE). Shallow planting (with the “shoulders” exposed) suits the bulbs well. Plants prefer a dry, shady summer rest after the foliage begins to flag in late spring.


    Showy, tubular blooms also make a frequent appearance in the genus Lachenalia. Lachenalia aloides is perhaps the most flamboyant, flaunting proportionately large golden-orange blooms that nod on 10-inch scapes in mid- to late winter. Some forms of this species take the flamboyance one step further, adding horizontal bands of crimson, yellow, purple, and green to the floral color scheme. Variety quadricolor is one such dazzler, with orange-based blooms that shade to yellow at their midriffs and purple-red at their tips. Flowers of the cultivar ‘Nelsonii’ have brilliant red buds that turn lemon-yellow with lime-green tips as they expand. Purple splotches ornament its stems and leaves, another characteristic of many forms of this striking species. Other highly ornamental species include Lachenalia bulbifera, with lipstick-red flowers that open around Christmas, and Lachenalia rubida, whose freckled, rose-pink, late fall blooms are the earliest in the genus. Lachenalia hybrids are also now available, most notably in the form of the African Beauty Series (including ‘Namakwa’, ‘Rupert’, and ‘Romaud’).
    1760FF Pro Potting Mix 2cu RESILIENCE FrontAll of the above lachenalias prosper in containers. Shallow planting (one inch deep or so) in a porous potting mix is best, with moderate watering during the growing season. Lachenalias like it cool and sunny while in growth but should be moved to a dry, shady location when dormant.

    Lachenalia fanciers often find themselves drawn to the many species that flower in less gaudy but equally seductive hues (sometimes with fragrance thrown in). The flowers of Lachenalia viridiflora, for example, are of a luminous, other-worldly turquoise-green, making for a singular late fall to early winter display. These lesser-known and lesser-grown Lachenalia species can be somewhat tricky in cultivation, but all are worth the effort.


    Not all Cape bulbs fit the tubular mold. Haemanthus albiflos is a striking example, brandishing white, up-facing shaving-brush flowers on short fleshy stems in fall or early winter. The leathery, tongue-shaped, evergreen leaves are also attractive. This drought-tolerant species is practically indestructible if shallowly planted in a porous potting mix in a bright but not too warm location.

    Oxalis obtusa

    The palest pink Oxalis obtusa is one of many beautiful Oxalis fit for indoor growing.


    North American gardeners tend to think of Oxalis species (commonly known as wood sorrel) as horticultural thugs. Many Cape Oxalis, however, are of a far more rarified (and less invasive) plane, featuring jewel-like flowers and lush, ornamental foliage. Oxalis purpurea deserves a place on every cool sunny windowsill in need of winter color. Its numerous varieties flower in a rainbow of colors, from white to rose-pink to raspberry-red to lemon-yellow, and its rich green “shamrock” leaves are sometimes suffused or blotched with contrasting colors. The cultivar ‘Ken Aslet’ – distinguished by felted silvery leaves and brilliant yellow flowers – is usually sold as this species (but probably belongs under Oxalis melanosticta). Also invaluable for winter bloom are lilac-flowered, fuzzy-leaved Oxalis hirta; candy-striped Oxalis versicolor (with white, carmine-edged petals); and numerous other Cape Oxalis. All flourish in a porous potting mix kept reasonably moist in winter and dry and relatively cool in summer.

    Look for these and other winter-blooming Cape bulbs in mainstream and specialty plant catalogs, as well as in local greenhouses and grocery stores. A touch of South Africa can do wonders for a dreary winter’s day.

  4. Beautiful Indoor Begonias

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    Begonia 'Irene Nuss' (Superba Group)

    There are so many begonias to choose from for indoor color, such as this Begonia ‘Irene Nuss’ (Superba Group). (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Begonias are so much more than summer bedding plants. This dizzyingly diverse genus encompasses more than 900 tropical and temperate species and 10,000 cultivars – most of which are not Semperflorens hybrids (the botanical name for the ubiquitous wax begonia). Growing in a wide range of forms and habits – from elfin perennials to cascading vines to large shrubs – they offer a myriad of possibilities for garden and greenhouse.
    1760FF Pro Potting Mix 2cu RESILIENCE FrontThey also offer something for every season. Winter, especially, is a great time to have some begonias around the house – including those types that bear splashy evergreen leaves in a range of fanciful shapes and colors.

    Cane Begonias

    Cane begonias, for example, are a group of shrubby species and cultivars distinguished by their thick, fleshy, bamboo-like stems and typically large, flamboyantly marked leaves, often of “angel-wing” shape. Numerous varieties are available, including:

    Begonia maculata ‘Wightii’, whose elongated, olive-green “angel wings” are decorated with silvery-white dots and maroon undersides. Clusters of white flowers hover over the foliage in summer.

    Begonia aconitifolia ‘Metallica’, named for its shimmering deep green, purple-veined, hand-shaped leaves with red-purple reverses. Pink-flushed white flowers appear in fall.

    Begonia ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’, with pleated, shiny, dark olive-green, pink-dotted leaves with maroon undersides. New leaves are suffused with copper.

    Begonia 'Silver Angel'

    ‘Silver Angel’ has striking silvered leaves with purple-red undersides that look great all year long. (photo by Jessie Keith)

    Rex Begonias

    Also noted for their flashy leaves are the prima donnas of the tribe, the Rex hybrids, which trace their lineage to the begonia species of that name (it arrived in Europe from Northeast India in the mid-nineteenth century). Most Rex begonias have heart-shaped leaves with brash silver splashings and unequal lobes that sometimes spiral at the base. Rather fussy in cultivation, they require high humidity and porous soil kept neither too wet nor too dry. Cultivars include ‘Raspberry Swirl’, with relatively jagged, red-purple, silver-edged leaves; and ‘Fireworks’, distinguished by its crisped silver-washed leaves with black-purple veins and purple margins.

    Numerous other begonias make great winter foliage plants. Among the many possibilities are ‘Caravan’, an easy-care, shrubby cultivar thickly clad with lime-green-veined, chocolate-suffused leaves that bring elephant ear (Colocasia) to mind; ‘Connee Boswell’, whose deeply lobed, maple-shaped, heavily silvered leaves have dark green, purple-flushed veins and rims; and ‘Madame Queen’, unique for its heavily ruffled, olive-green, red-backed leaves that have the look of an ornamental kale.


    Fancifully swirled leaf bases distinguish the foliage of Begonia ‘Escargot’. (photo by Maureen Gilmer)

    Brazilian Heart Begonia

    Perhaps most desirable for winter display are the begonias that go one better by flowering during this season. The cascading stems of the easy-to-grow Begonia solananthera are frothed with fragrant, white, sometimes pink-tinged flowers from early winter into spring. Fleshy, lettuce-green, heart-shaped leaves provide a year-round display. The B. solananthera hybrid ‘Potpourri’ one-ups its parent by producing rosy-pink blooms over an even longer season, sometimes flowering into early summer. A few cane begonias add to their value by blooming on and off throughout the year (‘Paper Snowflake’ is among the best, with silver-flecked angel-wing leaves and heads of deep pink blooms). And some wax begonias excel not only for summer bedding but also as year-round, ever-blooming pot plants. For bright, easy, four-season color, few house plants can match the endless succession of salmon-red blooms brought forth by the Semperflorens hybrid ‘Cotton Candy’.


    Vibrant leaf colors are the mark of many Rex begonias. (photo by Maureen Gilmer)

    Most indoor begonias thrive in a warm eastern exposure or other brightly lit but not overly sunny location. They also often benefit from relatively high humidity (which can sometimes be provided by placing the pot on gravel in a saucer half-filled with water). An airy, humus-rich, soil-free potting mix high in peat (such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix with RESiLIENCE) works best. Water when the soil surface is dry, either from the top or by immersing the base of the pot in water. Then stop by the windowsill now and then to enjoy the winter show!

  5. Holiday House Plant Hangover

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    The holiday razzle-dazzle is over, and it’s back to real life. Nothing symbolizes the banality of January more than the Holiday Houseplant Hangover, a unique form of misery that comes from dealing with the remains of once-gorgeous amaryllis, paperwhites, Christmas cactus, and poinsettias.

    Some people cure the condition with tough love, depositing the declining plants on the compost pile or in the trash, and speeding to the nearest garden center for a few fresh-faced African violets or moth orchids. Then there are those die-hards who consider it a moral failing to discard a desiccated poinsettia. They devote themselves to the fading botanical belles, taking all the pains necessary to ensure eventual rebloom.

    If you are one of those two types, you already know what to do, but what if you are a fence-sitter, unable to decide if your flowerless Christmas cactus is worth lifting a weakened, post-holiday finger? The cure for your case of Holiday Houseplant Hangover depends on the type of plant and your level of commitment. Before making your decision, weigh the options below.


    Paperwhites can be revived in the garden with a little coaxing. (Image by Ceasol)

    For most people, paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta varieties) are one-shot wonders. Many varieties, like the popular ‘Ziva’,  are marginally hardy (USDA Hardiness Zones 8-10) outdoors in cold winter climates, though others are considerably hardier. If you live where they won’t survive, make a guilt-free trip to the compost bin.

    Those basking in environs with warmer winters can plant the paperwhite bulbs outside in the ground in spring, where they may prosper in years to come. Store them in a cool, dark place after they bloom indoors before planting then 6-inches down in the cool spring soil. Forced bulbs often take a year off before reblooming.



    Specialty poinsettias may offer more reason to care for the plants all season. (Image care of Jessie Keith)

    Is a poinsettia plant (Euphorbia pulcherrima) that you bought at a big-box store for $4.50 really worth many months of aftercare? If you think it is, it’s possible to keep it going. After the blooms fade, move it to a uniformly brightly lit spot, where the temperature hovers between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Water thoroughly when the top of the soil feels dry, but don’t let water pool in the plant saucer. Apply a soluble houseplant fertilizer once a month, according to manufacturers’ directions.

    Lop the old flowering stems back to about 4-6 inches in early March, making sure a few leaves remain on each stem. This is also a good time to repot, if necessary, using a high-quality potting soil mixture, like Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix.

    In spring, when night temperatures consistently hover above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, place the plant in a lightly shaded outdoor location. Prune the shoots back again in mid to late July to encourage branching. Around Labor Day, bring the poinsettia inside and place in a sunny spot.

    To get it to bloom, keep the plant in total darkness from 5:00 pm to 8:00 am every day, before returning it to its lighted position. You can either cover it with an opaque black cloth or place it in a dark room. Reduce water and fertilizer applications during this time. Continue this routine from October 1st to December 1st, by which time you should see the festive colored bracts we all associate with the holidays. The plant should be ready for its second turn in the spotlight.



    Amaryllis (Hippeastrum hybrids) often flourish in the long-term.

    Amaryllis (Hippeastrum hybrids) often flourish in the long-term, though they may produce fewer blooms the second year, without good care. Clip off dead flowers, but don’t remove stalks until they begin to turn yellow. As the bulb sprouts new leaves, water when the top of the soil feels dry and fertilize every two weeks.

    Like poinsettias, amaryllis appreciates a summer vacation outdoors but are happiest in a sunny location. Bring them inside at Labor Day. If well cared for and allowed to remain evergreen, the plant will eventually rebloom in its own time. To control the timing, stop watering and let the plant languish in the dark for eight to 12 weeks, returning it to a brightly lit place when new growth appears. Resume watering and fertilizing.

    Amaryllis like to be cozy in their pots, so only repot every three years, making sure that the new container is no more than two inches wider than the bulb’s diameter. Detach and pot any offshoot bulbs that have sprouted. They will grow on and may eventually flower. (Click here to learn more about growing and caring for amaryllis year after year.)

    Holiday Cactus

    Post-bloom, keep your cactus in a bright, sunny space for the remainder of the fall and winter.

    Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti (Schlumbergera truncata and Schlumbergera bridgesii, respectively) often enjoy a healthy afterlife. Thankfully, the plants are relatively unfussy. Post-bloom, keep your cactus in a bright, sunny space for the remainder of the fall and winter.
    Like poinsettia, holiday cactus can vacation outdoors in semi-shaded comfort. Pinching back stems in June will result in more flowers later on. When it comes to flowering, these holiday favorites share poinsettia’s proclivity for long, dark spells. To control bloom time, the plants should spend six weeks on a regimen of fourteen hours a day in continuous darkness and ten hours of bright light, at an ideal temperature of about 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Water holiday cactus when the soil surface is dry, except in the fall, after the plant has set buds, at which time the soil should be kept uniformly moist. Fertilize monthly from late winter through summer’s end with soluble fertilizer diluted to half strength. Every few years, repot in spring, using a mixture of six parts high-quality potting mix, like Fafard® Professional Potting Mix.

    Whatever option you choose to cure Holiday Houseplant Hangover, don’t add guilt to the mix. Life is too short and houseplants too plentiful to mourn a poinsettia.

  6. Growing Miniature African Violets

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    Traditional single-flowered minis feature two smaller and three slightly larger petals.

    Traditional single-flowered minis feature two smaller and three slightly larger petals.

    Miniature African violets (Saintpaulia ionantha hybrids), look and act very much like their larger violet siblings. The big difference is the small size. Minis feature a basal leaf rosette that is only 3 to 6 inches in diameter, making them perfect for limited growing space, terrariums and other special situations.

    African Violet History

    African violets are not true violets, but members of the Gesneriaceae family. Their wild ancestors were first collected in 1892 from forests in what is now Tanzania by Baron Walter St. Paul, a German colonial official, and amateur botanist. St. Paul sent the specimens to his father in Germany, who passed them on to Hermann Wendland, Director of the Royal Botanical Garden, who first described them. Eventually, the new genus was christened Saintpaulia, after Baron St. Paul. The species name, “ionantha” means “violet-like,” in honor of the purple flowers.

    The violets arrived in New York in 1894. They caught on with plant lovers and by 1946, they were so popular that a group of enthusiasts formed the African Violet Society of America (AVSA). The society, which is also the registration authority for new violet varieties, now describes itself as “the largest society devoted to a single indoor plant in the world.”

    African Violet--Red

    Petal edges may be exuberantly ruffled.

    African Violet Sizes

    As the vogue for African violets grew, breeders created new varieties, expanding the range of flower and leaf forms and colors, as well as plant sizes. Miniatures are one of a handful of recognized size categories. The others are micro-miniatures (less than 3 inches in diameter), semi-miniatures (6 to 8 inches), standard (8 to 16 inches) and large (over 16 inches). Minis, micro-minis, and semi-minis are genetically predisposed to small size, but may occasionally grow larger than the dimensions that define their categories.

    African Violet Flowers and Leaves

    Like their larger relatives, minis may have single, semi-double or double flowers. Traditional single flowered varieties feature five petals, with the two on top slightly smaller than the bottom three. Petal size is more uniform on varieties with single, star-shaped flowers. Petal edges can be flat, slightly wavy or exuberantly ruffled. Color possibilities include shades of white, pale green, pink, red, yellow, purple and blue-purple, as well as combinations of those colors.

    Miniature African violet leaves are sometimes as interesting as the flowers, with variations in shape, size, texture, leaf edges and color. Some varieties bear bi-colored foliage with contrasting variegation in shades of green, tan or cream.

    African Violet--Pink

    Semi-double varieties may feature bi-colored petals.

    Miniature African Violet Care

    Beautiful minis need loving care. This starts with a free-draining, soilless potting medium like Fafard African Violet Potting Mix. Good drainage is essential to violet health because too much moisture causes deadly crown rot. Once potted up, minis should be watered whenever the surface of the soil feels dry to the touch. Feed the plants each time you water with a diluted solution of balanced fertilizer (for example 20-20-20), following manufacturers’ directions, or using one 1/8 teaspoon fertilizer per gallon of water. If you water from the top, avoid the leaves, as water droplets cause unsightly leaf spotting. Water from the bottom by filling the saucer and allowing the plant to stand for an hour before emptying out the remaining water.

    Indoors, minis need bright, indirect light from east or west-facing windows. South-facing windows may also provide good light in the winter but need to be covered with sheer curtains in summer to prevent leaf burn. Promote balanced growth by turning the plants about 90 degrees each time they are watered. Plants may also vacation outdoors during the growing season, as long as they are positioned in light shade.

    Grooming African Violets

    Groom miniature African violets by removing dead or dying leaves. To promote flowering and maintain the plants at the optimum size, do not allow them to produce more than five horizontal rows of leaves. Rejuvenate overgrown specimens by removing the lowest row(s) of leaves and repot, if necessary, using fresh potting mix. Minis and other African violets flower best when they are somewhat pot-bound.

    For more information on minis and other African violets, contact the African Violet Society of America, 2375 North Street, Beaumont, TX 77702-1722, (409) 839-4725.

  7. Indoor Bloomers for Midwinter Cheer

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    streptocarpus 'party pinafore' logees 20914

    Streptocarpus ‘Party Pinafore’

    Most of us in the Frozen North could really use a hit of spring about now. How about flowers, for instance? Or better yet, how about a lush plant in full bloom, providing a colorful (and therapeutic) dose of midwinter cheer?
    That won’t be happening in most of our gardens for a few weeks yet (although here in southern New England the early witch-hazels often open their spidery blooms before February is out). On the other hand, any number of plants will provide a bevy of winter blooms in a sun room or kitchen or any suitable indoor space, given a modest investment of care. Furthermore, some of them double their display with equally showy foliage.

    Purple-leaved Oxalis

    One sure sign of spring’s approach is the mass arrival of purple-leaved oxalis (Oxalis triangularis) in supermarkets and department stores, in anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day. This handsome and easy-to-grow perennial is much more than a one-holiday wonder, however. Although the deep-maroon, three-lobed, shamrock-like leaves give it obvious St. Patty’s Day caché, they are perhaps even more appealing in winter, especially when punctuated with the pale pink, funnel-shaped flowers that this South American native produces year-round. Plants can also be purchased as “bulbs”, which are actually scaly, caterpillar-like underground stems (rhizomes) that should be planted horizontally an inch or two below the soil surface in Fafard® Professional Potting Mix. Full to partial sun, almost any potting mix, and anything but total neglect will keep this tough perennial happy. It is also remarkably cold-hardy, functioning well as a foliage accent in mixed borders and other perennial plantings from Washington DC into the South.

    calathea 'holiday' logees 20914

    Calathea ‘Holiday’


    Calatheas, like purple-leaved oxalis, are typically known and grown for their showy foliage. Yet, a few surprise us with blossoms that stand clear of the foliage in an arresting and anything-but-drab display – rather than cowering blandly near the bases of the leaves. Among the best of these showy-flowered peacock plants are a series of hybrids developed in Indonesia in the early 2000s. And none is better than the cultivar ‘Holiday’, whose striking blooms – with rose-pink, pale-eyed petals tipped with olive-green – open sporadically throughout the year. When not in flower, ‘Holiday’ provides ample ornament with its broadly oval, bright green leaves marked by purple-black chevrons and silvery, purple-edged margins. Other ever-blooming calathea hybrids include ‘Constellation’, ‘Jungle Cat’, ‘Maria’, and ‘Royal Standard.’ (Their flowery parent, Calathea loeseneri, also makes a wonderful subject for a shady indoor nook.) All calatheas prosper in full to partial shade, warm humid conditions (although they’ll tolerate less), and a coarse humus-rich potting medium. Fafard African Violet Potting Mix is a good fit. Repot and divide plants yearly or once every two years.


    Cymbidium orchids grow beautifully in the cool winter months.


    Terrestrial to semi-terrestrial orchids of many types bloom beautifully in the winter months. Most notably are Cymbidium, Paphiopedilum, and Phaius species, grexes, and cultivars. All provide bright, long-lasting floral color and thrive in Fafard’s Premium Orchid Mix, which offers a perfect blend of fir bark, chopped coir and perlite. 

    Spiral Ginger

    For sheer nonstop flower power and ease of care, few plants can match spiral ginger (Chamaecostus cuspidatus, formerly Costus cuspidatus). The golden-orange, ruffle-edged, blooms look almost orchid-like and appear year-round on cane-like, 2-foot-tall stems clothed with glossy, dark-green, broadly lance-shaped leaves. Flowering is most abundant in summer, but blooms continue to open throughout fall and winter, particularly in warm humid niches. Give it bright shade, a fertile compost-rich growing medium, such as Fafard® Organic Potting Mix, and moderate watering for maximum display. Other members of the costus tribe, like dwarf cone ginger (Costus woodsonii) and crepe ginger (Cheilocostus speciosus), thrive in similar conditions, and are also well worth seeking out.

    Oxalis triangularis 'Francis'

    Oxalis triangularis ‘Francis’


    No discussion of winter-blooming (and ever-blooming) houseplants would be complete without mention of cape primroses. Members of the southern African genus Streptocarpus, and close relatives of African violets, these little evergreen perennials perch easily on a modest windowsill (fitting happily in a 4-inch pot), where they bloom their heads off year-round, the funnel-shaped flowers smiling from atop wiry, 4- to 8-inch stems. Hybrids abound in all manner of luscious exotic colors and patterns, with the flowers’ two rounded, ear-like upper lobes typically differing in hue from the three lower ones, and their throats often bearing dramatic contrasting streaks. Partial shade, Fafard African Violet Potting Mix, mild humid summers, and coolish somewhat drier winters will result in nearly constant blooms, and loads of midwinter cheer.

While we have made every effort to ensure the information on this website is reliable, Sun Gro Horticulture is not responsible for any errors or omissions, or for the results obtained from the use of this information. All information in this site is provided “as is”, with no guarantee of completeness, accuracy, timeliness or of the results obtained from the use of this information.

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