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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.

How to Care for Cyclamen

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.

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.

What to do with your 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.

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.