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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.

Creating Stellar Houseplant Arrangements

When it comes to selecting and arranging houseplants for rooms indoors, I use
many of the same guidelines that I follow when I design flower borders and
container gardens for outdoors.

Consider the Growing Requirements

In general, most houseplants do well in bright, indirect light, so be aware of
the room’s light conditions when selecting where to display your plants. If the
room is dimly lit, such as a bathroom or an area with north-facing windows,
choose plants that do well in low light, such as a fern, dracaena, ivy or peace
lily. Check the plant tag when purchasing your houseplants so you’ll know what
light conditions are best for each plant.

Using Houseplants Together

If you are grouping several houseplants together, select those with contrasting
foliage and textures, such as broad and waxy leaves next to fine and feathery
foliage to create more interesting compositions. Place larger plants in the
background of smaller plant groupings. When combining several plants in a
container or basket, use a trailing houseplant, such as ivy (Hedera helix), to
conceal the line of the container and give the arrangement a more finished look.

Choose Houseplants that Complement Your Home

Look for plants with leaves and flowers that complement the colors in your home.
Another consideration is coordinating the type of plant with the style of your
home. Ferns and fan palms are beautiful with Victorian-style décor, whereas
houseplants with striking foliage such as a snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata),
croton and ti plant are great accents with contemporary furnishings. Plants with
simple, gently curving lines work in art nouveau settings. The flamingo flower
(Anthurium) and peace lily (Spathphyllum) are good examples. Furniture made of
bamboo and rattan and Oriental-style shapes work well with exotic hanging plants
such as string of pearls (Senecio royleyanus) or wax plant (Hoya). Traditional
English or French styles seem to go with bushy, vigorously flowering plants like
the cyclamen, gloxinias and begonias. Some plants, such as orchids, work well
with any décor. Once considered exotic and hard to grow, varieties such as Just
Add Ice moth orchids take the guesswork out of caring for these beautiful plants.

Choose Plants that Match the Scale of the Room

When I am working with a large garden area, I use several tall plants as anchors and
then fill in with smaller groupings. The same idea is true indoors–the larger the room,
the bigger and more numerous the plants. A small, single plant on a side table tends to
be overlooked in a large space. Consider using tree-like plants and those with large
leaves such as dracaena, philodendron or a rubber tree. They can quickly fill a room or
entrance hall. Then add other plants, either grouped in containers or arranged together on
a table. In a smaller room, such as a bathroom, bedroom or home office, large plants can
be out of scale and take up too much space. To get the best effect in those areas, choose
mid-size plants with finer foliage or flowering plants to brighten up an area.

As in the garden, there is really no hard and fast rule as to which plants to use. The
best thing to do is choose the plants that appeal to you and see which ones enhance your
style. The greenery and flowers will give your room a lift and help bridge the gap until
spring returns.

Christmas Cactus Outdoors for Summer

I have a question for you about my Christmas cactus. I made the mistake of putting it outdoors and the leaves are now whitening. What should I do?

Thanks much, Caitlin

Caitlin, it could be your Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) is suffering from leaf scorch. Intense summer sunlight and excessive heat causes the leaves to fade or wilt. Christmas cactus prefer bright, indirect light. Place yours in a spot with high shade or morning sun and afternoon shade.

Now if your plants are in a shady spot that stays relatively cool, you may have a problem with mealy bugs. These pests are common on Christmas cactus and other houseplants. Take a close look at the white substance on your plant’s leaves. Is it fluffy like bits of cotton? Is the white mainly in the joints and crevices? If your answers are yes, then you have mealy bugs. Treat the plant by removing the bugs with a cotton swab dipped in alcohol.

Although we refer to Schlumbergera as a cactus, it’s really a tropical plant. During the spring and summer keep the plant consistently moist. Good soil drainage is important because root rot is a common problem with these plants.

If you plant is looking a little worse for wear, you can give it a hair cut in early summer. 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.

Rubber Tree

I need to know how to take care of a rubber tree. I had one before and all the leaves fell off. Please help! Thanks so much.
Texarkana, Arkansas (zone 7b)

The rubber tree, Ficus elastica, is treasured for its big bold foliage. They are in general easy to care for, but like their cousin Ficus benjamina a little finicky at times.

Ficus will drop their leaves for a variety of reasons including too much water, too little water, low light, dry heat, a cold draft or even a sudden change in environment.

For better results with your new rubber tree place it in an area that will receive bright light from an eastern exposure and temperatures that are 60 to 65 degrees F at night and 75 to 80 degrees F during the day. Keep your tree away from cold drafts and sources of heat such as a fire place or heating vent.

Rubber trees don’t like wet feet so be sure to plant yours in a container with drainage holes using a loose potting mix that drains easily. Consistent moisture is important, but don’t over water. Deep soak the plant with tepid water and then wait until the top 2 inches of soil is dry to water again.

During the growing season feed with a liquid fertilizer every three to four weeks.

Rubber trees prefer to be root bound, so they don’t need frequent repotting. Wait until early spring to repot plants that have outgrown their containers.

It is common for older rubber trees to lose some of their lower leaves, but new leaves should emerge.

The large leaves tend to be dust catchers so clean them with a soft cloth and a little water.

It is also important to note that rubber trees produce a milky sap when cut. This sap may cause skin irritation and if eaten, an upset stomach. So it’s best to keep the plants away from children and pets.

Corn Plant Turning Brown on the Tips

The tips of the leaves on my corn plant are turning brown. Why is this happening and how can I prevent it?

Corn plant or dracaena is an excellent houseplant because it requires relatively little care and can take the low light conditions typical of our homes and offices.

I like the tropical look of the plant with its woody trunk topped with a bundle of strap like leaves.

Corn plants prefer daytime temperatures of 75 to 80 degrees F and 65 to 70 degrees F during the night. The soil should be kept consistently moist, but not soggy and they only need fertilizer every 6 months. Although dracaena can take low light conditions, they do best when placed in bright but indirect light. Try to avoid placing them in full sun as it will burn the leaves.

The problem you are experiencing is probably due to inconsistent watering. If the soil dries out too much the tips of the leaves will turn brown. Of course, you don’t want to over water either, especially in winter when growth has slowed, because this can lead to root rot. A good system for determining when to water is to scratch into the soil about 1 inch down, if it is dry then it is time to water. Check your plants about every 7 to 10 days and remember that our homes are often hot and dry in the winter so plants may need to be watered more often.

When you water, make sure the water temperature is not too hot or too cold, just pleasant to the touch. Your plants will appreciate you for this and they’ll drink more of it. Also it’s important to realize that too much chlorine can harm your plants. You can easily de-chlorinate your water by simply filling the watering can the day before and the chlorine will evaporate overnight.

It’s just natural for a plant to produce a few yellow leaves, its nothing to get alarmed about. This is particularly true if the plant has been moved to a new location. However if it produces a lot of yellow leaves all at once, say five or six, you may be over-watering or the plant may be suffering from a lack of light.

One of the fun things about corn plants is that they are easy to propagate. To create a new plant from an existing one simply lop off the green top, plant it in a new container filled with clean potting soil and water it in. This should be done in the spring or summer when the parent plant is in an active growth stage. Now, I know this sounds drastic, but the old plant will put out new growth where you made the cut.

How to Make a Terrarium

As temperatures cool, I turn my attention to the many ways I can enjoy the garden indoors. Houseplants are a popular option, but if you are like me, my woeful neglect of the plants often leads to their quick demise. I suppose that is why I am so excited about terrariums. These houseplant arrangements are simple to assemble and the best news is that they will pretty much take care of themselves.

I have a terrarium on my desk that has thrived for months with low light and no additional water. It’s not so much a miracle as it is the science of nature. The plants inside the terrarium create their own mini-climate, transpiring water vapor that condenses on the glass and then flows back into the soil.

Science aside, I find a terrarium fascinating to look at, like a miniature landscape in a jar.

Don’t be intimidated by the process of building a terrarium. With all the supplies in hand, you can put one together in a few hours.

Materials for Making a Terrarium:

wide mouth glass container
something to cover the jar top such as clear plastic wrap, a pane of glass, or Plexiglas
potting soil
small plants
pea gravel
watering can or spray bottle

Three terrariums on a coffee table

Directions for Making a Terrarium:

Select a container for the terrarium. For easy access, choose one that has a wide mouth. A fishbowl or aquarium is a good choice. I used an apothecary jar with a glass top. If your container does not have a lid, you can cover it with clear plastic wrap, a piece of clear Plexiglas or a sheet of glass.

To avoid insect and disease problems wash the gravel with hot water and use top quality, sterile potting soil.

Fill the bottom of the container with about 1 inch of gravel. If you container is especially deep, you may want to use 2 or 3 inches.

Top the gravel with 3 inches of soil.

Now comes the fun part, planting the landscape. When you choose plants, select varieties that all have the same growing requirements ? light, water, and humidity. Slow growers with small leaves are best suited for the confines of a terrarium.

Remove the plants from their pots and plant them in the terrarium just like you would in the garden. Place the taller plants in the back, mid-sized plants in the middle and low growing things like moss toward the front. If possible, keep the foliage away from the sides of the container.

Once you have the plants in place, moisten the soil lightly and put the lid in place.

How often you will need to water your terrarium depends on how tightly the lid fits. A loose fitting lid lets moisture escape. A good indication of when to water is the condensation on the glass. If there is no condensation, water the soil very lightly. If there is heavy condensation, remove the lid to allow the terrarium to air out.

The neat thing about terrariums is that you are only limited by your imagination. Add large rocks to represent craggy mountains or small mirrors for ponds. You can even create a desert landscape with succulents and cacti.

Good Terrarium Plants:

Acorus
African Violets
Creeping Fig
Moss
Maidenhair Spleenwort
Needlepoint Ivy
Oxalis
Peperomia
Prayer Plant
Peacock Moss (Selaginella uncinata)

Bird of Paradise

I have a bird of paradise in my house that is about three years old and is up to the ceiling. It’s by a window that gets the morning sun, and I feed it every week with a liquid feed. I have three new plants starting to shoot out. I read somewhere that they should be root bound to flower, and mine is very root bound, but I have never gotten a flower off of it. Can you please tell me why?

Sue, it sounds like you’re doing just about everything right! But just to be sure, lets look at a few basic points about Strelitzia reginea or the bird of paradise.

I too have heard that root bound bird of paradise bloom better, maybe that is because it takes between four to six years for the plant to mature. Expect blooms in the spring and sometime late summer.

While this plant is a splendid houseplant, these tropical beauties can be found growing outdoors where temperatures don’t regularly drop below 28 degrees. So if freezing isn’t a threat these plants can grow into massive clumps reaching 30 feet in height or more. Of course they won’t grow that large in a container.

Like so many houseplants the Bird of Paradise doesn’t like to be over watered so keep soil slightly on the dry side. It will always respond best when placed in full direct light.

Feeding it is important too and I recommend a well-balanced solution of liquid fertilizer a couple of times a month during the growing season. Just hold back on feeding during the fall and winter.

Most of us are familiar with the orange flower but I happen to like the white Bird of Paradise. There’s nothing like this to give any flower arrangement a tropical if not exotic flare.

Now just think, if you give your houseplant all the tender love and care it needs and have plenty of patience you can produce beautiful flowers like these.

Dieffenbachia

I recently received one of the most beautiful dieffenbachia I’ve ever seen. It’s name is ‘Tropic Honey’. I don’t want to lose this plant, but don’t know how to care for it. Can you give me some suggestions?

You are in luck because dieffenbachia is one of the easiest houseplants you can grow. They will tolerate dim light as well as the dry conditions of our homes during the winter.

For the best results place your dieffenbachia in moderate light and away from direct sunlight, which can cause the leaves to burn or yellow.

When it comes to water, this plant prefers moderate moisture. So only water when the soil is dry to the touch and don’t let the plant sit in water because this may lead to root rot.

Feed your plant during the growing season (spring through late summer) with an all-purpose liquid fertilizer about once a month.

The common name for dieffenbachia is dumb cane and this name should be a warning to you. The leaves and stems are poisonous. If consumed they can cause a temporary loss of speech and painful swelling of the mouth and lips. A chemical in the leaves called calcium oxalate causes this reaction. This characteristic is particularly important to note if you have pets or small children.

If you’ve ever grown this plant, you know it can get tall and leggy as it matures, losing many of its lower leaves. If this occurs I recommend cutting the stalks back to about 8 to 10 inches. Everywhere you cut it, it will flush new growth. And with all of those pieces you cut off the top, just stick them into some moist soil and they will root. In no time you’ll have a lot more to share with friends and family.

Grow Lights

We watch you all the time on the Weather Channel and get your updates on a regular basis. We are in need of a grow light for my wife’s plants. Can we use a regular fluorescent light? Thanks for your time and consideration.

If some of your houseplants are looking a little weak and anemic, they may be starved for light. This is a common problem in winter when daylight is in short supply. This problem is easy enough to remedy. You can give them an extra boost by using artificial light.

Plants will respond to just about any kind of light, even a sixty-watt light bulb in a table lamp. But if you want to get a little more elaborate, you can do it without much expense or time. Fluorescent tubes are ideal as a supplement for areas of your home or office that get no natural light at all.

Now I must admit, you probably wouldn’t want to put one over your dining room table, but what I like to do is set one up in an isolated area of my house, then I can move plants in and out as needed.

If you decide to use florescent lights, you want to make sure your plants are within a three foot range of the tubes and if it’s your only source of light, keep it on at least twelve hours, but no more than sixteen. An automatic timer can help with this. Not only will this help your plants when the days are short, you can also use it to start seedlings for the garden later in the spring.