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Winter Windowsill Herb Garden

Thyme in a wire basket with a bord handleStay warm indoors this winter while tending a windowsill herb garden. Growing herbs is a great way to exercise your green thumb, without freezing it off in the garden. There are so many herbs that you can cultivate indoors, and also use in hearty winter recipes. Add a splash of fresh oregano to your spaghetti, or sprinkle a few sprigs of fresh thyme atop a slow-cooked pot roast with herbs harvested right from your windowsill.

When I’m planning my windowsill garden, first I think about which herbs I use the most in my cooking. Growing your own herbs is not only a great way to add some fresh flavor to your food, but you can also save a lot on your grocery bill.

Some of the easiest herbs to grow include rosemary, scented geraniums, oregano, thyme, bay leaf, mint and chives. These herbs like well-drained soil and lots of indirect sunlight. Indoor air can become very dry in the winter, so think of a nice, humid place for your herbs like the kitchen or bathroom window. Prune and harvest often to keep these herbs producing, and don’t be afraid to get creative with your planters, like this Double Tin Pot from the P. Allen Smith shop. Herbs are functional and decorative, so utilize their aesthetic qualities to add life to your home during the cold, dreary months of winter.

Cyclamen Care

The Cyclamen that I got for my birthday from my granddaughter is showing signs of not liking me, what can I do to help it?

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In the world of symbolism, few flowers have been more inaccurately labeled than the cyclamen. Traditionally this petite bloom symbolizes timidity, but I have never found it to be faint-hearted. Enduring and prolific, it is one of my favorite flowering plants to use in my home during winter.

In nature cyclamen is a plant that goes dormant in summer and emerges during the cool, damp weather of fall, which is why you begin seeing them at florists and nurseries this time of year. Cyclamen come in a wide range of color, from white through the various shades of pink into the deep maroon. And if that is not enough, the foliage is a masterpiece into itself. I like this plant because it blooms for such a long time. Last year, I had one that continued blooming for four months, so you can really get your money’s worth with cyclamen.

Here are some tips for keeping your plant healthy and happy.

Light
Cyclamen like lots of light so place your plant in a bright, sunny location.

Water
This is one of those plants that is finicky about water. Too much and the tubers will rot, not enough and the foliage wilts beyond repair. Water when the soil surface feels dry, but before the plant begins to wilt. After watering, empty the saucer so that the plant is not sitting in water. The roots resent “wet feet.”

Temperature
Just as they do in nature, cyclamen prefer cool temperatures when grown indoors. Hot, dry temperatures will cause the foliage to yellow and shorten bloom time. Keep them in a room that has daytime temperatures of about 68 degrees F and between 40 and 50 degrees F at night.

Fertilizer
During the active growing season, fall through early spring, feed your cyclamen with an all-purpose liquid houseplant fertilizer diluted to half strength. Do this about once a month.

After Care
Once your cyclamen stops blooming the foliage with begin to yellow and wither. This is natural; the plant is just going into dormancy. At this point you can either toss the plant out or let it die back completely and try for more blooms next year. If you want to save it, stop watering the plant as soon as the leaves start to yellow. Store the pot in a cool location where it will not get water. The following autumn when leaves begin to emerge give the plant a good soaking and move to a bright, sunny location.

Moving Houseplants Indoors for Winter

The temperatures are definitely getting cooler and if your houseplants have been enjoying a change of scenery outside, it is time to prepare them for their move back indoors. Before you get started there are a few things you can do to help ease the transition for them.

First, if you live in a part of the country that has extremely cold winter temperatures, you don’t want to wait until the first hard frost to move them indoors. The change in temperature can be too drastic. A handy rule of thumb to remember is that when temperatures outside become similar to those inside your house, it’s a good time to make the move.

And once you get them inside, you want to make sure that the light conditions are similar to what they had outside.

If you’re not careful, you may be bringing in more than just your houseplants. Hitchhikers can be a problem. During the summer any number of pests can get in the soil and on your plants. And some of them are so small, you need a magnifying glass to see them.

To keep these little stowaways from creating an infestation in your home, try saturating your houseplants with an insecticidal soap, an earth friendly pest control that is available at any garden or home center.

Whenever you spray a plant be sure that it is well hydrated and out of direct sunlight. And always test spray the plant in a select area first, wait 24 hours and if there are no problems, go for the pests.

When applying the insecticide saturate the entire plant and be sure to get the underside of the leaves. After spraying, leave the plants outside for two or three days, then give them one last check before taking them inside.

One final tip to follow is that as the days become shorter and your plants shift from an active growth cycle they won’t require as much water, so don’t kill them with kindness by over watering.

Peace Lily Care

What should I know to care for a peace lily plant? The plant that I have has sentimental value so I would appreciate your advice.

When it comes to houseplants, the number of questions I receive about peace lilies (Spathiphyllim) tops the list. Peace lilies are popular plants to give as a memorial and often have sentimental value, which is why so many gardeners are eager to learn the specifics about their care.

The good news is that these plants are very easy to maintain. Here are a few tips to keep your peace lily happy and healthy.

  • Peace lilies are a tropical plant and prefer a warm environment, don’t let room temperatures fall below 40 degrees F or the plant may not survive. Daytime temperatures between 68 to 85 degrees F and night temperatures around 58 to 75 degrees F are ideal. Also, be sure and keep your plant out of cold drafts.
  • The plant should be placed in a location with bright, filtered light. Direct light may burn the leaves.
  • When it comes to water, the soil should be moist but never soggy. Allow the soil to dry slightly between watering, but don’t wait until the leaves wilt because this may cause them to turn yellow. It is also advisable that the water be at room temperature to prevent shock to the roots.
  • A telltale sign of over fertilizing is brown leaves. Feed your peace lily every 2 to 3 months during the growing season. Use an all-purpose liquid fertilizer that has been diluted to half strength.
  • Repot your peace lily every 2 to 3 years. Spring is the best time to do this. Use a quality commercial soil blend to ensure good drainage.
  • If the plant is reluctant to flower, try reducing the light to encourage blooms.
  • One last tip is clean the leaves regularly with a damp cloth to help the plant breathe. Wipe both the upper and lower sides of the leaves to remove dust and pests such as spider mites, mealy bugs and scale.

African Violets

How should I care for my African violets? I have several plants that I started from cuttings. Although they continue to live, they just don’t seem very happy.

The African violet, believe it or not, is the most popular houseplant of all times. Now some may regard it as a bit too old-fashioned but I think that just adds to its charm. When you consider this plant, if treated well, will bloom continuously all year long, it’s easy to see why it is so popular.

The wrappers commonly found around African violet pots are very telling. They’re not just there for decoration. They put them around the pot for shipping to keep moisture from getting on the leaves. Water can damage the foliage. That’s why over the years people have come up with some clever ways to water African violets without getting droplets on the fuzzy little leaves.

One example is the string method. A string extends from the base of the clay pot and it simply draws moisture through the string from a container filled with water into the soil. This is similar to the way a wick works in an oil lamp. You can also water them from below directly through the saucer.

African violets like bright light, but not direct sunlight. Indirect light from an east, south or west window is ideal. During the winter, you may need to supplement their daylight with some artificial light. If they began to look a little peaked, you’ll find that they actually thrive under grow lights.

It’s important to fertilize each time you water. I use a formula specifically blended for African violets. It just takes the guess work out of it and makes it so much easier.

Home Pest Remedy for Houseplants

There are little bugs on my houseplants. Help, I need a safe solution to treat the problem! What do you recommend?

Have you ever wondered how people dealt with problems in the garden long before so many different products were available to us? Well, many times they used products that were common to the household or farm and perhaps designed for other purposes, but could have a positive impact on plants.

For example, it was discovered probably quite by accident that throwing dirty dishwater out the back door onto plants could rid them of certain insects. And over time, this practice of using soapy water in this way became fairly common.

I’ve had reasonable success going up against certain plant loving insects both in my garden and in my house by mixing a couple of teaspoons of dish washing liquid to a quart of water and spraying them.

Now what this solution does is break down the outer covering or cuticle of an insect, making it more susceptible to disease, dehydration and other insects.

If you use this solution, you need to be careful because the same sort of outer covering, or waxy coating is also on plants. And this can damage young, tender plants in particular if you get too much on them. So I recommend spraying a select spot on the plant first, wait twenty-four hours and if there is no problem, go for the pests.

A simple solution of 1 part rubbing alcohol to 3 parts water can have a similar effect on these little devils.

Another tip to keep in mind is to isolate infected plants to prevent the pests from spreading to your other houseplants.

Reblooming Amaryllis

Do you have information available on what to do with amaryllis bulbs in the fall so they will bloom again?

You can get your amaryllis to re-bloom, but sometimes the flower isn’t as spectacular as it was the first time it bloomed. Hopefully, after the blooms faded, you cared for your amaryllis like a regular houseplant, watering and fertilizing it over the summer.

Now, around the first part of September, it’s time to stop fertilizing the plant and begin cutting back on the water. By October you should stop watering completely. This will force the bulb into dormancy. Place the potted bulb somewhere cool and dark – such as your basement.

Around January or February you can bring the bulb back out, remove old soil and roots and repot. Begin watering again and in about six weeks you should get a bloom.

Bromeliad Care

What can you tell me about the life and care of a bromeliad plant? Initially it had a beautiful red flower. Now the flower is gone and it doesn’t seem to be doing much.

The bromeliad is a houseplant that comes about as close as any I know to adapting to the tough conditions of our homes. Low light, low humidity and dry air make it unbearable for many plants, but not the bromeliads. In their native habitat they can grow with very little root system, on tree branches, trunks and on rocks. That’s why a large plant can grow in such a small container.

With so few roots you might guess this plant wouldn’t require much water. Well, you are right. In fact, over watering is the number one cause of death of bromeliads in our homes. Too much moisture around the roots will cause them to rot. But this plant has other ways of storing moisture. Its leaves overlap to create cups, which actually hold water.

When it comes to fertilizer, very little is necessary. A diluted solution, say down to 25 percent of an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer is all you need for plenty of vigorous growth. Just feed them every two weeks or so.

If your bromeliad has not bloomed in a while there is the way you can trick it into flowering by simply using a plastic bag and an apple. Make sure there is no stored water in the leaf cups and cover the plant with a clear plastic bag along with an apple. Ten days with the ripening apple will be long enough to encourage the plant to begin producing a flower stalk.

Of course my favorite member of the bromeliad family is one we’ve all seen, and I like it for obvious reasons. It’s the pineapple.

Holiday Cactus

I inherited my grandmother’s Christmas cactus, which is easily 75 years old. My mother repotted it once in my memory, but now it is beginning to look a bit tired. I’m determined to save it if I can, but I have little experience in gardening, and certainly no expertise in the cultivation of a plant this old. It would mean a great deal to me if you could give me some suggestions.

The abundance of questions that I receive regarding the care of an inherited holiday cactus, or schlumbergera, attests to the popularity and longevity of this plant.

These plants are called holiday cactus because their habit is to bloom around the time of one of three holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter. You can determine which holiday cactus you have by looking at its leaves. The Christmas cactus has rounded notches on the margins of the stem segments while the Thanksgiving cactus has pointed tooth-like notches on the margins. The Easter cactus has tooth-like marginal notches with tiny spines or hairs on the stem segments. Most schlumbergera that I have encountered are Thanksgiving cactus, even those that I have purchased during the Christmas holiday. This is because many plant growers will force their Thanksgiving cacti into bloom for Christmas.

Caring for these plants is simple regardless of which type you have.

Soil – Schlumbergera require well-drained soil. I suggest that using a potting soil designed for cactus and succulents. The best time to repot holiday cactus is in the spring after active growth resumes, but it can be done at any time if the plant appears to be suffering.

Light – When growing holiday cactus indoors, place it in bright but indirect light. Direct light and excessive heat will scorch the leaves and cause the flower buds to drop. If you move your plants outdoors for the summer keep them in full to partial shade.

Water – In spite of its appearance and common name, schlumbergera is not a cactus. When in bloom these plants should be watered about once a week or when the top half of the soil in the container becomes dry. Lack of water will cause the flower buds to drop. After the flowers fade stop watering the plant for about 6 weeks. This will allow the plant to rest. During the spring and summer keep the plant consistently moist. Root rot from over watering is a common problem with these plants.

Fertilizing – When new growth emerges in the spring, begin a fertilizing with an all-purpose houseplant food mixed at half strength. Continue to do this once a month until October.

Pruning – A plant that can potentially live to be more than 75 years old is sure to need an occasional haircut. The best time to do this is in June. Simply snip off the top 2 or 3 segments of each stem. This will make the plant bushier and promote flower development. You can then root these cuttings to make more plants.

Propagation – Just as you back up data on your computer you can create a back up of your holiday cactus by taking a cutting. This will ensure the continuation of the plant if the original dies. Just cut a stem at a segment, about 2 or 3 from the tip. Stick the cuttings in loose soil or vermiculite and water only lightly for the first couple of weeks so the plant does not rot. Once it establishes some roots, begin watering normally and you’ll have lots of plants to give to your friends.

Re-bloom – Holiday cactus need either cool night temperatures (between 55 and 60 degrees for 6 weeks) or extended periods of darkness to set flower buds. If you cannot meet the temperature requirement simply give the plant 13 hours of total darkness each night for several weeks. This can be done by keeping the plant in a closet or covering it with a dark cloth. During this time stop fertilizing and reduce watering. Once the buds set, return the plant to normal light and resume watering.

Bud Drop – Many people wonder why buds will drop from their plants before the flowers open. This can be caused by excessive heat, too much light, cold drafts, over watering, under watering or a sudden change in light or temperature.

Miniature Roses Indoors

I have a miniature rose in a container that I would like to keep indoors over the winter. Need to know how to do that. Thanks.

When growing miniature roses outdoors give them the same care you would any other rose and you will find them quite easy to maintain. However, if you are growing them indoors it is a little more difficult.

Roses require 6 hours of sunlight a day so place your miniatures in a south facing window. If you do not have a south facing window you will need to use a grow light 12 to 16 hours a day.

The roses should be kept consistently moist in the summer and when it is hot and dry you may need to water as much as once a day. In the winter you can cut back your watering to once a week.

Miniature roses like a day time temperature of 65 to 75 degrees and a little cooler at night.

One last tip is to plant your minis in a glazed terra cotta pot. Unglazed pots allow air to reach roots through the walls. This causes the feeder roots to dry out.