Houseplant Confidential – Part I

Tucked on window sills and tabletops my houseplants clean the air and provide indoor beauty while the landscape outdoors is mostly resting. They are easy to keep healthy if I follow a few tips.

Spathiphyllum aka Peace Lily

A typical houseplant lives in the understory of a tropical rain forest where it gets filtered light. They’re used to warm rain and perfect drainage. We put them in pots inside our homes where they have much different conditions to contend with. Most houseplants will tolerate darker conditions if you adjust your watering to accommodate the slower growth rate.

Water just enough to keep the soil from going totally dry allowing oxygen to move back into the root zone. Let the soil in a 4-6 inch pot dry half an inch down between waterings then water with room temperature water. Don’t let the pot sit in a saucer of water or the roots will rot. If your plant is in a larger pot let the soil dry a couple inches between waterings. A moisture meter is very helpful for larger plants.

Move plants into the best light you have. Even a table lamp will provide light for a plant growing underneath. Remove dust with a moist cloth or place the entire plant under lukewarm water in the sink. Dust blocks light from getting to leaves.

Dracaena

Fertilize less often skipping December and January and starting up again with half strength fertilizer in mid-February. Houseplants are essentially dormant in winter needing fertilizer only when active growth resumes.

Don’t re-pot a plant in winter when they are slow to grow new roots. Replant when the growing season resumes in March or April. Choose a pot only two inches bigger than the old pot each time you transplant. Most plants grow happily for years in the same pot and soil with proper fertilizing and watering during the growing season.

Avoid placing plants in cold drafts near high-traffic areas such as a foyer or hallway. Ficus trees are notorious for dropping leaves when exposed to temperature changes.

Sansevieria

If you have medium to low light conditions in your house some of the best upright plants are philodendron, peace lIly, Chinese evergreen, cast-iron plant, schefflera, arboricola, ferns and palms. Hanging plants that grow well in low light are heart-shaped philodendron, pothos and grape ivy. Most of these houseplants grow naturally in low light areas of the jungle. Don’t overwater and they’ll be happy.

If you do find insects on your plants, a spray of mild insecticidal soap for houseplants usually does the trick if you do a follow up spraying a week later. Horticultural oil works well, too, by smothering insects and their eggs. If you have tiny black fungus gnats flying over the soil, you are watering too frequently. They feed on the algae growing on moist soil. Scrape off the surface, spray with insecticidal soap and let the soil dry out.

Next week: toxic and non-toxic houseplants for cats and dogs and those that clean the air.

Fungi- The Good, the Bad & the Beautiful

A recent article in The Press Banner warned of the severe consequences of mistakenly eating poisonous mushrooms found in our area. With our early rainfall this season fungi are emerging at a record pace and if you are not an expert at identifying a particular variety of edible mushroom better leave them off the dining table. While there are many wild mushrooms growing in this area that are edible there are just as many that are poisonous. Mistakenly ingesting one can cause death or liver damage so severe that a transplant would be needed for you to survive.

Amanita muscaria

There are over a thousand beautiful fungi to discover in our area. They live in such lovely places. Each year I volunteer as a basketeer for the Fungus Fair that is organized by the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz. It’s held at the Louden Nelson Community Center in Santa Cruz on Friday afternoon, January 13th and continues on Saturday and Sunday, January 14th and 15th from 10:00am – 5:00pm.

Mushroom experts will be available throughout the fair to identify mushrooms you’ve found. Bring yours in a paper bag which keeps them fresher than plastic. You’ve got a week to collect remembering that those in our State Parks are off limits.

Honey mushrooms

The habitat display is what I help put together by creating baskets of some of the hundreds of mushroom species commonly found in the Santa Cruz and neighboring counties. It is one of the main attractions of the Fungus Fair. Volunteers collect different types of tree, leaf and duff material for the tables and main centerpiece that will display fungi by order and family. It’s an easy way to get started learning which ones are poisonous, good eating and just plain beautiful or unusual.

During the fair renowned speakers will talk about mushroom toxicity, identification, myth busting and even mushroom medicine along with cooking demonstrations and tastings of exceptionally good fungal fare. The Kid’s Room which is open on Saturday and Sunday has mushroom arts and crafts, face painting and making dyed fabrics. You can even look at fungi spores through a microscope.

Most foragers enjoy the hunt for fungi as well as eating them in a good meal. Me, I seem to take more photographs than specimens. Getting down at their level as they emerge from the earth, looking to see if their undersides have gills or pores or other identifying features, makes one appreciate our entire ecosystem and how we fit in. In most any meadow or mixed forest you are sure to discover varieties you’ve never seen before.

Coral fungi found in Fall Creek St Park

I recently came across an impressive coral fungi emerging from the forest duff. They are quite distinctive looking and many are edible. My Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms by David Aurora, however, states that even this unique looking family of fungi can be hard to identify. Some are edible while many are mildly poisonous.

Don’t miss the opportunity to see hundreds of fungi up close and personal as well as take in all the talks, displays, food and marketplace next weekend at the Fungus Fair.

Happy New Year 2017

Mother Nature made her presence known this past month. She has a way of doing that. Between the 25 inches of rain that fell in December alone up here in Bonny Doon and the short but impressive cold snap that descended upon us before Christmas I’m humbled. As the calendar turns to a New Year these are some of my thoughts for 2017.

Happy New Year 2017

Dreaming is more than an idle pursuit. It’s good for you and improves the quality of your life over the long haul. We gardeners are eternal optimists. Why else would we plant a tree, a seed or a garden?

Enjoy your garden. Set realistic goals. After all, who cares if there are a few weeds here and there when you’re sitting under a shade tree next July. Enjoy a beverage of some kind often in your garden. That clean up or transplanting will still be there tomorrow.

New Years resolutions for gardeners should be mere suggestions. Don’t worry if you don’t get to everything you hoped to accomplish. It’s all in the baby steps. Your wish list will serve you well during the cold, wet days of winter even if you don’t get them implemented. Sure planning a landscape that conserves water will benefit the environment and your budget. And ordering seeds for the spring garden is great therapy for winter blues. But there’s always next year or next month or the summer after next.

I did fulfill some goals I had for this year, adding more pollen-producing flowering plants to attract beneficial insects. They’ll keep the good guys around longer to eat the bad bugs. And I learned what quite a few of the good guys look like. I’m going to count this as two resolutions.

I sat in my garden and enjoyed it- not jumping up to rearrange containers or deadhead. This one was easy.

I accepted a few holes in my plants and walked around the garden regularly to identify if a problem was getting out of control and I needed to break out an organic pesticide.

I tried to plant more edibles but my growing conditions thwarted me. The Farmer’s Market and generous friends helped fill the gap. Edibles in the garden feed both the body and the soul. More than just vegetables and fruit trees growing food connects us to the earth and to each other.

When you grow something you are being a good steward of the land as you enrich the topsoil using sustainable organic techniques. You connect with neighbors by trading your extra pumpkins for their persimmons. Knowledge of how and what to grow can be exchanged, seeds swapped. Do your best even if you only have a few containers to grow an Early Girl tomato or some Rainbow chard.

Enjoy the simple things. Laugh often. Life is not measured by the breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away. Everyday is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.

Happy New Year to all of you fellow gardeners from The Mountain Gardener. May your tomatoes be sweet and your roses as fragrant as a summer’s eve.

A Christmas Poem by The Mountain Gardener

Hydrangea Christmas tree

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the garden,
The creatures were stirring, the deer got a pardon.
The hummingbird feeders were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that the Anna’s soon would be there.

The flowering cherries were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of spring glory danced in their heads.
The summer vegetables were harvested and beds put to nap,
The compost’s a brewing so next year’s a snap.

When out on the lawn there rose such a clatter,
I ran into the garden to see what was the matter.
And what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a big flock of chickadees and eight black-tailed deer.

They spoke not a word, but went straight to their work,
The chickadees devouring aphids with amazing teamwork.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the deck,
Prancing and pawing, the deer making a wreck.

A hydrangea here, an abutilon there, this garden’s a feast,
With edibles and perennials at the very least.
We love this garden, they whispered to themselves,
With any luck, they’ll think we’re the elves !

Beautiful flowers and nectar and fragrance abounds,
We’ll include this forever on one of our rounds.
The birds can sing and fly in the skies
But we have the charm with huge brown doe-eyes.

We get a bad rap, it’s not all our fault,
Most of our feeding grounds are covered with asphalt.
Just give us a sleigh and we’ll make you proud,
We’re good for more than just eating roses, they vowed.

Call us Dasher and Dancer and Comet and Vixen,
Or Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen,
Then maybe you’ll forgive us for our past mistakes,
We can’t help that we eat plants, we don’t eat steaks.

Now if you’ve been good this year, go ahead make a wish,
And each time you see us, think welcome, not banish.
And all of us creatures will give it our best shot,
To feed and nourish your garden with nary a thought.

So everybody listen carefully on Christmas Eve,
And maybe you’ll hear us and then you’ll believe.
You may even hear us exclaim as we prance out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

My thanks to Clement Clark Moore who wrote the original poem in 1822 in New York. I’d like to believe that he would enjoy my version for gardeners everywhere.

Holiday Wreath Makers Invade Felton

Somewhere in Felton near the San Lorenzo river sits a home beneath the redwoods. Surrounded by a white picket fence it’s the site of the annual holiday wreath makers get together and this year we have gathered to kick off the season with pink champagne, cranberry-orange scones and the tools of our trade: gloves, clippers and paddle wire.

Wreath of mixed evergreens, roses and tulips

Our hostess Barb Kelley and her husband Reg ventured forth earlier in the week to collect evergreen boughs, holly, flowering branches and various berries for us all to use in our wreaths. Since this extravaganza of supplies and good cheer continues for a week many will return time and time again with grandchildren, friends, neighbors and relatives to make many a wreath. One year Barb counted 50 wreaths made in a single week. This year 44 were made by over 30 wreath makers. To say we have a great time would be a gross understatement.

It all started 13 years ago when Barb needed a quick Secret Santa gift for her bunco card group. She’s a talented lady with flower arranging expertise so a wreath was an easy item for her to put together.

A few of the 30+ wreath makers including Barb on the right.

I am always amazed at how many creative people come for this annual event that. One of the show stopping wreaths this year incorporated red and pink roses long with dark pink tulips. Dried hydrangea blooms are always a good accent and we all agreed that the blooming Ruby Glow tea tree branches and the Chinese pistache dark pink berry clusters added just the right amount of color to the other types of variegated foliage.

Long time attendee and material gatherer Martha was up in Tahoe skiing due to the early snow and was greatly missed. I think she holds the record for most wreaths made in a single season. Barb holds the record for the biggest which also weighed the most. Described as a “Kardashian” it lacked nothing in glitz and glamour.

Variegated holly and conifer wreath

This year I had my eye out for good wreath making plants that also have low water requirements in the garden. Besides the leptospermum “Ruby Glow” I also found that many of our drought resistant native plants have thicker leaves by design and are perfect additions to a holiday wreath. I haven’t found a manzanita or ceanothus variety that doesn’t last well in a wreath. Also madrone, bay laurel, mahonia, toyon with berries, Douglas fir and redwood boughs and cones look right at home in a wreath or swag.

A wreath in progress

Take advantage of this opportunity to prune your evergreen shrubs and trees to use in a holiday wreath. Besides the plants already mentioned cuttings from strawberry tree, pines, cedar, boxwood, camellia, privet, bottlebrush, pittosporum, leucadendron and nandina berries are long lasting in a wreath. At this time of year, prune your shrubs and trees from the bottom up and from the inside out. Avoid ugly stubs by cutting back to the next largest branch. If the plant has grown too dense, selectively remove whole branches to allow more air and sunlight into the plant.

I look forward to getting together with my fellow wreath makers each December. This is my fourth year and I wouldn’t miss it. You can’t make a bad wreath. They all turn out great plus your shrubs get a little early pruning too.

Are Common Holiday Plants Safe?

Throughout the year we enjoy many types of plants inside the house but during the winter as we spend more time inside we appreciate them even more. With the holidays season upon us I like to enjoy some colorful plants on my tabletop and window sill. How safe are holiday plants for pets and small children?

Poinsettia colors

I have a beautiful poinsettia on the table and soon I’ll be getting other holiday plants such as cyclamen, paperwhite narcissus, maybe a pink jasmine wreath or one with holly, ivy and evergreens. I also like those rosemary topiaries that are trained in the shape of a Christmas tree and have already started one of those huge showy amaryllis bulbs. Christmas cactus grow in several locations. Which plants do I need to watch out for?

The classic plant to decorate our homes at this time of year is the poinsettia. It is too cold here in the mountains for poinsettia to survive outside at night but being native to Mexico they thrive in the warmth of the house.

Poinsettia bracts

Poinsettia hold up well either as a cut flower or a living plant. They need a bright spot in the house and the soil should be allowed to dry slightly, but not completely, between watering. Deprive them of either of these requirements and the lower leaves will yellow and drop. Also be sure they aren’t sitting in water at the bottom of the container. Poinsettia are brittle but if you break off a branch sear the end of the stem with a flame and it will hold up quite well in a vase or arrangement.

Are poinsettia poisonous? Ohio State University conducted extensive research and concluded that although poinsettia sap from leaves and flowers that might give you a stomach ache if you ate them they won’t seriously hurt you. The sap may cause a rash if it comes in contact with the skin on some people. With this in mind, you should keep poinsettia plants out of the reach of curious pets and small children.

Cyclamen

There are two pets in my household- a cat named Archer and Sherman, the Welch springer spaniel. I usually put a couple red and white cyclamen on a table in the house. Are cyclamen safe around them?

According to the Pet Poison Helpline cyclamen are mild to moderately toxic to dogs and cats if ingested but it’s the root or corm that is especially toxic if ingested in large quantities. Pets and people react differently and it is unlikely that children) would eat the corm and be affected.

My beautiful amaryllis flower and leaves are safe but the bulb is

Amaryllis

toxic. Amaryllis bulbs contain the same alkaloid that is found in narcissus and daffodil and is the reason deer know to leave them alone. Ingesting a small amount will produce few or no symptoms, however.

Azalea leaves and Christmas cactus are toxic and should be kept away from pets and small children. Holly berries are toxic if eaten in large quantities. Same for mistletoe and ivy.

While serious complications aren’t likely with holiday plants it’s still best to keep them away from small children and out of your pet’s reach.

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