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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.

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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.

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Houseplant Care

As winter approaches our attention seems to turn to sprucing up our homes’ interiors with plants. Perhaps it is in anticipation of spending more hours indoors when cold weather prevents us from heading out into the garden.

Houseplants are a simple way to add instant vitality to a room, but they are not always easy to maintain. It is always so disheartening to purchase a houseplant to accent a room only to watch it fade over the course of time.

Whether you purchase new houseplants or bring in existing plants that have spent the summer in the garden, I have a few tips that will help them thrive.

Bringing Houseplants into Your Home
If you are returning houseplants to the indoors from your garden be sure to first give them a good bath. Gently washing the leaves with a mild soap and warm water will help them breathe and respond better to light. After you wash your plants, spray them with an insecticidal soap to assure that you will not bring in any hitchhiking pests.

As for when to move them in, the rule of thumb I follow is to make the transition when night time temperatures outside become similar to those inside your house.

Dieffenbachia
When you purchase new houseplants deep soak them as soon as you bring them home. You can do this by placing them in the sink and watering them thoroughly from the top until the water has washed through the holes in the bottom of the container. Let them drain, and then repeat the whole process about 30 minutes later.

This does two things. It thoroughly saturates the soil around roots and it also washes out any salt buildup from fertilizers applied at the nursery.

Feeding
If a plant is looking tired and weak we automatically think, well, it’s time to feed it again. But fertilizer isn’t a cure. If a plant isn’t in an active growth stage and you put fertilizer around its roots, it just sits there and it could possibly damage the plant.

Generally, most houseplants will do fine only being fed every 3 to 6 months. When I feed a plant, I use a liquid fertilizer, with a 5-10-5 ratio.

Watering
Over watering is another way we can kill plants with kindness. This time of year when we have the heat on in our homes, our plants can dry out sooner, so you may want to check them and add a little extra water, but be careful. Too much water can actually suffocate the roots. Healthy roots need plenty of oxygen. Now, if you’re going to make a mistake in watering, I think it’s better to err on the dry side rather than watering your plants too much.  Be sure that the container allows water to drain through the pot and not collect in the bottom.

Make sure the water temperature isn’t 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 filling the watering can and leaving it out for about 24 hours. This allows the chlorine to evaporate from the water.
Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s natural for a plant to produce a few yellow leaves, so there’s 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.

Humidity
During winter the dry air in our homes can be a problem to plants. 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.

Location
Even with central heating, different areas of the same room can have subtle variations of light and temperature. For instance, on the north side of the house the window is cool making it ideal for growing something like ivy. But on the south side it’s much warmer. There’s much more sunlight making it the perfect place for something like a ficus. For plants such as ferns more humid areas of the house are better suited, like the bathroom or kitchen.

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Phalaenopsis Orchids

If you’re like me, caring for something as delicate looking as an orchid can be intimidating, but these plants are surprising little creatures. They can be some of the easiest and most beautiful houseplants to grow.

Orchids are a vast and elegant family. There are some thirty-five thousand naturally occurring species from all over the world. The family is divided into four major groups based on whether they grow in trees, on rocks, decaying vegetation or in sand.

If you’re a beginner at growing orchids, I recommend that you start with the Phalaenopsis orchid. They produce spectacular sprays of blooms in solid or variegated, white, pink, lavender, yellow and even red. When you select one go for a plant with healthy foliage and mature flower buds rather than open blooms.

Phalaenopsis Orchid
The reason the Phalaenopsis orchid is a favorite houseplant of mine is that it will take low light conditions and when it comes to temperature, if you’re comfortable, it is too. Phalaenopsis enjoy a temperature range similar to what we prefer, about 70 to 80 degrees during the day, but a bit cooler at night. This makes them the perfect companions in our homes.

When it comes to soil, orchids really don’t grow in soil at all. They grow in the bark of fir trees and some growers like to create a blend of fifty-fifty fir bark and lava rock.

Now when it comes to feeding, orchids are light eaters. You only need to fertilize them with twenty-five percent of the recommended amount on a liquid fertilizer label. And they should be fed about every other week. Orchids hate salt build-up from fertilizer so it’s important to wash that out when you water.

If growing something this beautiful has seemed out of the question for you, you should really give Phalaenopsis orchid a try. I think you’ll be surprised at how easy and enjoyable they are to have around.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.