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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.

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.

Bringing Ferns Indoors

I have a Boston fern and is has been outside all summer and has grown quit large. Can it be brought in for the winter? If so, how do I care for it inside? And how do I make sure it does not have bugs that will get into my other houseplants?

As the temperatures around the country begin to drop, many gardeners will be bringing their houseplants back indoors. 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 transition.

When you bring your houseplants in you don’t want to bring in insects as well. To prevent this I spray them with an insecticide. I use an insecticidal soap because it is safer than others with harsh chemicals. I saturate the plant and always make sure to spray the underside of the leaves. After spraying, I leave the plants outside for two or three days, then give them one more check before I take them inside.

Keeping certain houseplants in good shape during the fall and winter can be quite a challenge. Some of the most difficult for me are the ferns, Boston ferns in particular. I love its delicate, fresh appearance but whenever I bring it inside it inevitably begins to shed its tiny leaves.

Now there’s really not much I can do about this. It’s basically just the nature of the plant, whether it’s inside or out. But what I can do is give it a good shake periodically and try to remove as many of the dead fronds as I can. Putting down some newspaper will always help make this process a little tidier.

I’ve found that no matter what houseplant you’re dealing with, you’ll have more success if the conditions inside can closely match the conditions it had become accustom to outside.

Most ferns need moderate, indirect light indoors. Never put them directly in a south or west facing window. The heat and intense light will scorch the leaves.

When it comes to moisture, watering is really no big deal, but humidity is another issue. This time of year when the air in our homes is becoming drier, lack of humidity can present a problem to the plant. One of the simplest ways to increase the moisture in the air immediately around the plant is to place the container on a saucer of gravel and water. Just make sure the bottom of the container is above the water line.

Lucky Bamboo Care

I bought a lucky bamboo plant and I need to know how to care for it. It is in a vase with stones and water. Thank you.

Lucky bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana) is a popular houseplant because of its ease of care, interesting form and it is believed to bring good fortune, especially if given as a gift. I cannot vouch for the more mystical qualities, but I do know that it is a very low maintenance plant.

Lucky bamboo is not a bamboo, but a dracaena native to the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia and Africa. If you have ever grown any of this plant’s cousins then you know that dracaenas are practically foolproof. I think what stumps most people about lucky bamboo is that it is often presented growing in water; no soil. These plants will continue to thrive in just water if you follow a few simple tips.

Water
Change the water once a week. The water level should be just high enough to cover the roots. Lucky bamboo is sensitive to chlorine and fluoride in tap water so use filtered water, spring water or rain water. You can use tap water if you allow it to sit, uncovered, for 24 hours to disperse the chemicals.

Light
Place your lucky bamboo in a location where it will receive bright, but indirect light. If the room has no natural light, move the plant into indirect light every few weeks and leave it there for four to five days. You can then move it back to its original location.

Temperature
Room temperature between 65 to 70 degrees F is best.

Fertilizer
Lucky bamboo does not need fertilizer on a regular basis. However, if it begins to look weak you can feed it with an organic liquid fertilizer diluted to 1/10 strength.

Yellowing Leaves
One common problem with lucky bamboo is that the leaves sometimes turn yellow. This can be caused by lack of light, chemicals in the water or too much fertilizer. Change out the water to remedy the latter two problems.

Pets
Lucky bamboo is not so lucky for curious pets. It is poisonous if ingested.

Ficus

I’ve had a small ficus tree for about four years. In the last month, it’s dropping all its leaves and looking awful. What can I do for it?

In general, the ficus is an easy houseplant to grow, which is why it has always been so popular. However, they can be a little temperamental.

Have you changed the plant’s light conditions or temperature? If you make any dramatic changes the leaves can fall off. But if you get the conditions right, they’ll leaf again in no time.

For the best results, you should provide your ficus with plenty of bright light and you should always keep the soil consistently moist.

Another reason these plants are so desirable as houseplants is they eventually become large trees. And, you don’t have to re-pot them very often. In fact, they actually do better when they’re a bit root-bound. So, don’t be alarmed if you see roots growing on top of the soil in the pot.

The ficus family is a big family of houseplants. They can range from the rubber tree to the fiddle leaf fig that can also make quite a tree. A new kid on the block is the ficus ‘Alii’. It’s one of the toughest members of the family. It is not only durable, but beautiful with its strap-like leaves.

One of the most popular figs is the old stand-by, the Benjamin fig. And, it also comes in a variegated form.

Hot House Flowers

The grocery store makes for an unexpected ally in beating winter’s blues. Spruce up your home with a few potted plants that you can find at the grocery store. To personalize these blooms to suit my style I slip the plants (pot and all) into decorative containers.

Hot House Flowers are a Breath of Spring

Forced Daffodils, Tulips and Hyacinths – The daffodils and hyacinths you buy at the grocery store can be planted in the garden after the flowers fade. Wait until the foliage dies back. I’ve not had much luck with replanting tulips because they aren’t perennial in southern gardens where springs are short. However, daffodils and hyacinths will bloom again for me the next year.

Daffodils

Cape Primroses€“ Maintain temperature around 60 degrees. Place pot on a tray of wet pebbles to provide humidity without overwatering.

photo credit: Eva Gruendemann

Hydrangeas – These big, colorful flowers are everyone’s favorite. While the plant is indoors keep the soil consistently moist and out of direct sunlight. After the last frost date in your area plant it outside in a partially shaded spot.

Hydrangeas

Orchids – Watering orchids can be tricky and varies depending on the type or orchid and time of year. (Water more in the summer and less in the winter.) Generally a good rule is to water every five to 12 days. Avoid wetting the leaves when watering. Dab excess water off leaves.

Orchids

Growing Herbs Indoors

I love to grow anything that I can put to good use – flowers for cutting, vegetables for cooking and herbs for all kinds of purposes. And while the onset of autumn signals the end of homegrown tomatoes and bouquets of blooms, it doesn’t necessarily mean I can’t continue to grow herbs. I simply move them indoors.

Selection
Not all herbs will grow well indoors. For the least amount of heartache try a few from this list: scented geranium, mint, rosemary, parsley, bay leaf, thyme, chives, garlic and oregano.

Basil, dill and coriander should be started from seeds and mint, rosemary and bay leaf can be rooted from cuttings.

Basil is fairly difficult to grow indoors because it is such a lover of sun and heat. It can be done though if you can provide the plants with 16 hours of artificial light and daytime temperatures of 65 to 75 degrees F and nighttime temperatures that do not drop below 50 degrees F.

Making the Adjustment
If you are moving your plants in to the house from the garden or starting with seedlings purchased at a nursery, it is important to acclimate them to the lower light conditions. New leaves that are accustomed to the lower light conditions must be produced for the plant to survive. To do this place the plants in a shady spot in your garden for one week. Next bring the plants indoors for a few hours each day. Do this for about another week before you bring them in for good. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to complete this process before the first frost. This adjustment period can mean the difference between a healthy herb and one that loses it leaves, becomes leggy or even dries up and dies.

Light
A windowsill with southern exposure is often all you need to grow herbs indoors. Most herbs require at least 6 hours of direct sunlight and it doesn’t hurt to put them under a grow light. The exceptions to this rule are mint, parsley and rosemary, which can take a little less light. With this mind place the sun lovers in the center of the windowsill and those that need less light on the outside edges.

If you use a grow light, be sure the lights are about six to nine inches above the tops of the plants.

Your herbs will prefer temperatures between 55 and 70 degrees F.

Soil
It is important that your potted herbs have proper drainage. I use a mixture of 1 part good quality potting soil, 1 part sand and 1 part humus.

Towards the end of winter you may find that the soil in the containers has become compacted. Simply rake the surface with a fork to loosen it up.

Moisture
During the winter plant growth slows so they don’t require as much water. The rule of thumb is to only water when the soil surface is dry. Herbs such as bay leaf, thyme, oregano and sage should dry out completely between watering while mint, rosemary and scented geranium prefer a little more moisture.

To help herbs survive the stuffy air typical in our homes during winter mist the plants, especially rosemary, on occasion and increase air circulation around them with a small fan. Keep in mind a fan may cause the soil to dry out faster, requiring you to water more frequently.

Fertilizer
Unlike herbs that grow in the garden, potted herbs need regular feedings. Fertilize with a fish emulsion at half strength about once a month.

Pests
If you have a problem with pests, I recommend you use an insecticidal soap. Saturate the tops and undersides of leaves. Insecticidal soap is effective and safe. And this is something to keep in mind if you’re planning on using these to spice up some of your favorite recipes.