WINTER PLANT CARE

Friday, January 17, 1997


Snow and cold, my favorite Winter bill of fare, always make for an interesting time. But the never-ending ice that seems to ruin everyone's day as the storms roll through weekly, just plain suck. It's all the damned weather forecaster's fault!

Hardy Plants
This is a time when all plants rest, some more so than others. Hardy trees, shrubs and perennials go dormant in the cold, and when warmer Spring weather arrives, the root system awakens and spreads, top leaf growth explodes and the world is rewarded with flowering.

By now, I really hope that all hardy plants are in the ground and well mulched. There should be absolutely nothing called a hardy perennial, shrub or tree sitting in a pot anywhere that this brutal cold can reach and damage the root systems.

They must be protected from cold, yet be able to freeze solid. Pots on porches for the Winter won't cut it. If you don't want to plant it, heel it in; that is, bury the pot into the ground and mulch very well. The alternate freezing and thawing and exposure of the root system to cold, drying winds is exactly what whacks potted plants left out for the Winter. The insulative value of any pot with a little soil is zero.

Houseplants
Houseplants go through much the same routine, minus the cold. They should be situated in a west or south-facing window for maximum sunlight and warmth during the Winter months. Since the days are shorter and the sun's warmth is tempered by a greater distance from the earth, no heat or sun scald damage will occur.

Cut way back on water and fertilizers; in fact, cut out the fertilizers all together until we get nearer to Spring. When houseplants are semi-dormant, as most are in the northern hemisphere right now, they can't metabolize or uptake the fertilizer and discard the salts inherent in all (except fish emulsion) fertilizer products. As a result, they burn and start to decline; possibly even die. Sure, the fertilizer companies tell you to fertilize in the Winter, but they just want to sell you more of their product. They, ummm lie.

Hold back on the water too. Dormant roots and leaves do not uptake nutrients or water. Misting early on a bright, sunny day will foliar (leaf) feed the plant, but not waterlog its root system. Sure, water on a regular basis, but cut the amount of water by half. Remember, it's easy to add water if a plant needs it, but it's very, very difficult to remove water from the soil without great mess and angst, all on your part. Always remember to water early in the morning on a sunny day; that way the plants have a chance to dry off their leaves before nightfall. Dark, cool temperatures promote fungus (botryitis) and other diseases. All foliage should be dry at night.

Also, do not repot a plant at this time. Because it's dormant, there's little or no root activity and transferring it into a larger pot, with fresh soil, and watering-in will just make the plant's crown and root system rot. (As in dead.) Wait until Spring, or as a last measure, step-up to one size larger in early Fall. The plant will respond to its new home and reward you with lush growth when Spring comes and it breaks dormancy.

The Myth of Flowering
As a horticulturalist, I'm still visually-pleased when plants flower. Though most, if not all, people don't realize that a flowering plant is unhealthy and near to death. True.

Plants have two basic missions in life: grow and reproduce (to propagate their species). But we humans like to see a floral display and we breed plants specifically for that purpose. When a plant flowers, it's under terrible stress. From either improper planting, fertilizing or aftercare. Flowering means that it is trying to produce seed and propagate itself through offspring, so that when it dies, a copy of itself remains. Much like humans do.

Evergreen trees loaded with pine cones are sending that same message to us, so are hollies with their bright red berries, geraniums (actually pelargoniums and not true hardy geraniums), petunias and so on through the Plant Kingdom. The stress can come from many places: we either water too much or too little, use too much or too little fertilizer, or use the wrong fertilizer (acid vs alkaline), hit them with lawnmowers, mulch too deeply; well, you get the idea.

A truly healthy (and happy) plant does not flower.

Winter Humidity
Because the air is extremely dry in Winter unless you use a humidifier for your residence it will also be necessary to mist the plants to keep their leaves from turning brown at the edges and drying out. This is especially important for large foliage plants sitting around your home or office. Their leaves must be watered constantly or you'll have a very, very brown-looking plant.

Misting or spray bottles are available at grocery stores, garden center; heck, just about everywhere. You can also use a tiny pinch of fertilizer in the warm water to foliar feed that is, through the leaves' surface each plant instead of dousing their root system with blue fertilizer water. The blue is a standard, harmless dye that simply lets you know there is fertilizer in that solution.

If you decide to foliar feed a plant, use a tiny pinch in warm water in the spray bottle. The fertilizer will be more readily absorbed through the leaves than through their dormant root system. Remember: just a small pinch, about the size of a pea.

Cold Burn
Many people put their houseplants in windows for the Winter, because the sun's rays are weaker and the angle of the light is vastly changed at this time of year. But they find that a mysterious burning takes place on the leaves.

It's the cold being transmitted through the glass. Or in some cases, the leaves are actually touching the glass and being cold-burned. Glass is a lousy insulator of both heat and cold. It transmits easily, but doesn't insulate at all.

Keep all plants 1-2" back from the glass and, at night, even further. The smart gardener removes all plant material from windowsills at night. Of course, if you have dozens of plants, this can be a daunting and tiresome task.

Simply cut a piece of thick cardboard to fit the lower portion of the window. An 8-10" height should suffice to keep the cold away from the plants' leaves.

Insects and Disease
Both can be a problem for houseplants during the Winter. Pests and disease would normally be dormant outside, but with inside temperatures in the 70s, they readily thrive and multiply. If your plants were outside for the Spring through Fall seasons, or if you repotted with fresh soil, chances are some little critters hitched a ride inside with the plants.

Check the undersides of all leaves; this is usually where bugs hide and lay eggs. Safer Co. makes an Insecticidal Soap from crushed chrysanthemum leaves that is harmless and non-toxic to us and pets, but readily whacks most bugs. Get it and use it instead of harsh chemicals. Also check the axials (joints) of the leaves, where they join the stem. Bugs hide in those places too.

Disease comes from too much water and drying out a plant can go a long way in alleviating this problem. But if a fungus is causing black spots on leaves or the stem is getting mushy, use Dragon's Benomyl or Dacomil Fungicide in a warm water solution. They're somewhat pricey, but they go a long, long way. Follow the directions. Both are wettable powders and will stop the spread of any fungus quickly. Cut off the portion that is infected and dispose of it. Spray the rest of the plant to keep the infection from spreading.

Temperamental Plants
Some houseplants are finicky. The Ficus (ficus benjamina) is one that requires watering and light on an exact schedule each week. If you miss a day, it will start to drop leaves like crazy and make you think it's your fault. It isn't.

A new variety has been introduced, called Ficus nitida which can be grown in lower light levels and is somewhat more forgiving in its watering requirements. It looks exactly like the benjamina and many corporations are now switching to it. We are now switching over to this newly-hybridized variety, since benjamina has caused some consternation with its temperamental behavior.

If you have a picky plant, send me some mail and give me some of the details of its behavior; I'll respond with some solutions for your problem(s)

Poisonous Plants Myth
I'm sure you've heard that Poinsettias the ubiquitous red Christmas Holiday plant is poisonous to children and animals. Hollies, rhododendron and many more have gotten that reputation as well. In a way, they are.

A 10lb cat would have to eat 45lbs of the leaves to feel any effect close to death. Do the math. The cat would explode before it died from eating Poinsettia leaves. A 45lb child would have to eat 170lbs of leaves to get the death nod; but s/he would also explode or have some very major diahrrea prior to entering death-dom.

In sum, anything taken in sufficient quantity can be toxic. Reaching that toxicity level can be a real adventure. I've never seen a cat or a child explode. Hmmmmm... naaah.

Orchids
In the years prior to opening this 20 acre Garden Center & Nursery complex, I collected, bred and exhibited orchids on the east coast. I had a collection of over 250 orchids, mostly Phalenopsis (Moth Orchid) varieties that graced my condo's living room and sunroom. People were stunned by their beauty when they dropped by for a visit. The colors and varieties were breathtaking.

After opening in March, 1991, I couldn't find a good, local source for orchids. So I put many in my venerable collection up for sale to admiring customers who begged for a chance to own a prize-winning specimen. They paid very hefty prices for the genetic breeding I had done in the previous seven years, but got an earthly rarity in return.

If you have orchids particularly the Phals variety they should be spiking-up right now. That is, their root system sends a stem up that will sequentially flower in early March or so. If there's no spike visible right now, you'll have to wait: the plant is either too young to flower (needs 4-5 mature leaves) or underwent some stress last year and won't flower again for a couple of years now. Be patient, it will be worth the wait.

The Phals need moisture also. I used specially-cast 20" diameter plastic round trays with a 1" lip to contain small pea gravel and water, which the orchid's pot would sit on to provide the evaporative effect of leaf cooling. They would still get a thorough watering in the sink weekly with warm water. Besides having the desired moisturizing effect, the tray were a beautiful exhibition media.

Fertilizers
Fertilizer nomenclature can be confusing, but when it's broken down into it's three basic units, it becomes very easy to deal with.

Fertilizer is identified with three numbers; the simplest being basic houseplant fertilizer of 5-10-5. The first number is nitrogen for healthy leaf growth; the second is phosphorous for root growth and flower bud formation; and the third number is potash for stem strength and disease resistance. Each is essential with trace minerals for lush, thriving plant growth.

Literally, there are hundreds of types of fertilizers with dizzying number combinations. Just remember the three numbers; each is key to what the fertilizer provides the plant with, in conjunction with the other numbers. If you want lots of green, vegetative growth, select a 30-10-5. If you want a great root system and prolific flowering plant, select a 5-30-15. The third number potash isn't really a visible factor, since what it provides is done somewhat invisibly and benefits the plant, not you or I.

There are also acid and alkaline fertilizers, with Ph factors in specific ranges for plant vigor and nourishment. Rhododendrons, azaleas, most evergreens, lilacs and others require an acid fertilizer. I specify Holly-Tone over Mir-Acid everytime. Mir-Acid is junk and makes all kinds of claims, but all it does is douse your plants with way too much nitrogen, causing fatigue and stress. Holly-Tone is a timed release and is gentler on the plant's growth rate. Use it. Dump the Mir-Acid shit.

Deja Vu
A year ago during The Blizzard of '96, I was sitting in this office with my cat, Pickles, looking out the windows and watching the snow fall heavily and drift to unbelievable depths. I was trapped for three days it was my own doing and wondering if I'd get out alive. It's Sunday evening now, I've put in almost a full day of work, and a weird feeling of been there, done that has come over me again.

I'm waiting for my dinner date to arrive; she said she'd be over after 6pm and we'd get some outrageous crabcakes and cold beers at LaMotte's Restaurant in nearby New Freedom, PA. They're regionally-famous for their 10oz pure-lumpmeat crabcakes.

But I can't help recalling those three days of isolation and total dependence upon communication through The InterNet. My story was printed and broadcast all over the world by the news media. As if being a prominent regional businessman and personality wasn't enough, I became an unwitting local celebrity. It sucked. People still ask me if I was the dummy they read and heard about. Yep, that was me.

The setting sun's glow in the western sky makes me wish I was in San Francisco, visiting my sister as I'd planned to be right now. But business considerations have held me here; I also have several speeches coming up at the end of the month and into February. Maybe I can get away after that's over with.

I kind of like the isolation though. It gives me some time to work in Photoshop and Illustrator without the phones constantly ringing and customers coming in; I like the solitude once in a while.

Headaches?
So you think taking care of a few houseplants is a headache? Trade you! We take care of tens of thousands of pieces of nursery stock from small, exotic miniatures and dwarf varieties to 25ft+ trees and large shrubs on a daily basis. When pests and disease strike a nursery, it's usually in a big way. It then requires several men, tractor-mounted spraying equipment and many, many hours of work to bring things under control.

I walk the nursery display and sales areas daily, checking on the health and saleable condition of all stock plant material. Occasionally, but not often, we don't see the problem until we are walking around with customers. Scale, spider mites, bagworms, gall and other problems manifest themselves at the most inopportune times. Any affected nursery stock is then pulled off the sales yards, isolated and treated. Only after the problem is completely vanquished is the material once again allowed into the sales areas.

Being upfront with customers unlike so many of the area nurserys is the way we've built our reputation of honest and quality. People expect that of us. They have been screwed in the past by shitpy little nursery operators and won't ever go back.

Site of The Day
Along with the many awards we've received in the past year now numbering 26 we just received The Pennsylvania Destination Site of The Day Award. We're honored. It's a special one, in that there are very few sites recognizing Pennsylvania websites specifically and very few Pennsylvania Websites getting any recognition.

I don't know how they found me or who submitted my Website, but it is certainly an honor to be among the recipients of that award.

If you have a few minutes, visit their Website and see all the winning sites worth a visit.

My Plants?
Sorry, but I don't have any at home.

I inherited two kittens Murphy, a 2yr male and Mama, a 4yr female years ago and they still enjoy destroying plant material, and then eating their fill. Consequently, I've abandoned the idea of ever bringing home the kinds of plants I would like to have at the condo. They wouldn't last one hour. Only hanging baskets are safe. And how many of those things can I stand if that's all there is?

I've cleaned up and repotted many plants that they've played in and uprooted All of which had to go back to my Garden Center's Propagation Greenhouse #1, or they'd be compost by now. Both are extremely affectionate and good cats and I have no plans to get rid of them. They're part of my family now, as is Pickles.

Besides, I'm around millions of plants every day; I need a rest from all the beaurty and lush greenery that owning such a place affords. I like the startk, white, antiseptic walls and austere setting of my condo now. Thanks, kids.

Enjoy
With a few minor problems that can easily be handled, houseplants are a blessing in the Winter. The green foliage, fragrance (forced bulbs such as Narcissus 'Paperwhites' and Amarylis) and bright colors of many other flowering foliage, can relieve the blahs of an all-too grey and white season.

If you shop for houseplants, find a place that raises their own, and not some operation that simply buys-in stuff from Florida or Mexico. The bought-in plants will be loaded with insect eggs, just waiting to hatch out in your home or apartment. Then it's your problem, and it shouldn't be. We raise all our own; or if we buy plants in from outside suupliers, we use them as stock plants and make cuttings to start new ones.

Get a good houseplant book; Ortho sells one, as do many other companies. Check Horticulture Magazine for a list of publishers. Your public library also has some great references as starting places. Spend some time there doing research (and if they're online, use their T1 line to surf the Web!) for a solid reference and well-illustrated houseplant book. I use 15-20 different ones as reference. If you'd like my list, send me some mail and ask for it. I'll gladly supply a list of the best houseplant books.

Don't worry about the Winter blahs; they'll pass quickly if you have a few nice plants to brighten up your surrounds. Some forced bulbs for color and fragrance will add to the ambience. Throw in an orchid for early Spring blooms and you've got the formula for laughing at Winter's doldrums. Works for me!


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