Tea, anyone?


Yay! My tea plants (Camellia sinensis) got here today. I originally ordered one, but the guy said he could fit two more similar-sized plants in the same box for the same shipping cost. Twist my arm, I got two (plus another plant for a friend).

These are the ‘Sochi’ variety, which is apparently one of the hardiest tea varieties. They still wouldn’t survive outside here without some serious winter protection, but at least it gives me some leeway when it comes to bringing them inside in autumn.

Because I really need more large houseplants in winter.

Of course, I know it won’t let me stop buying tea to drink (I’m addicted to tea), but growing tea is something I’ve always wanted to try. I’ve tried growing plants from seed several times, but never been able to get past the seedling stage.  I’ve read they don’t do so well as houseplants, but you never know until you try. I imagine the reasons are light and humidity, but my tropicals come through winter just fine in a south-facing bay window and with some humidifying tricks.

Other than that I think the trickiest part for me is the soil. As a species of camellia, I imagine they’d need rich, friable, and acidic soil…right now I’ve got them potted in a mixture of topsoil, vermiculite and worm compost, with a dusting of sulphur. Peat moss is the standard soil acidifier, but I personally don’t think it gets harvested sustainably, so I try not to use it. I know the aluminum sulphate people use on hydrangeas damages rhododendrons and azaleas, so I’ll avoid that. Need to think about this.

Spring is in the air.


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Well, the days have begun to warm up, so maybe we’ll have a decent spring this year. It would be slightly early, but not remarkably so. The American robins (Turdus migratorius) are out in force, along with the ubiquitous sparrows (Spizella spp.) and black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus).

My black hellebore (Helleborus ‘Winter Dreams Black’), which was overwintering in the garage, began flowering weeks ago. It’s glorious now. The tulips are sprouting and it will soon be time to start end-of-winter pruning on the honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) and the roses. And the neighbour’s wisteria.

Speaking of pruning, we’ve had a run of mild sunny days, so yesterday I root pruned the bonsai (argh, why are bonsai pots so expensive?). I also potted up one dahlia (‘Karma Chocolate’) crown that had just started to bud out, but left it in the garage, hoping that the lower temperature would slow it down a bit. Now I have to hope the shock won’t kill it…

And today I was wandering through the gardening section of my local predatory department store (the only one left around here now that all the other chains have come and gone). I wasn’t looking FOR anything, mind you, just looking, because I’m a compulsive gardener. They had sticky strips for catching indoor flying houseplant pests – specifically, fungus gnats, aphids, thrips, and whitefly. I don’t have a terrible problem with fungus gnats, haven’t had indoor aphids in a long time, and I’ve never had thrips at all, but the jasmines (Jasminum sambac) always get whitefly in late winter no matter what I do to them.

The butterworts (Pinguicula agnata) do a reasonable job catching whitefly – they’re often covered in whitefly, and I mean that in a good way. But they never catch all, so I decided to try these sticky strips (made in Sweden). They actually work – in just a couple hours they were already catching things. Interestingly, they might not be based on a pheromonal attractant – the box only mentions the bright yellow colour as the attractant. Experimentation might be in order.

Soon be time to start seeds. Leaf out.

Ginger snaps


I dug up the ginger (Zingiber officinale) today. Edible ginger, not the ornamental sort. It wouldn’t survive winter around here in the ground (it is a tropical plant, after all), so I grow it in a large pot. When the weather starts turning cold (around the middle of October), I bring it in and stop watering it and that sends it into dormancy. Then I just leave it in the pot – that preserves it just as well as, if not better than, any other way, until I’m ready to use or replant it.

People often call it “ginger root”, but of course we don’t use the roots – what we use is actually the rhizome, a creeping underground stem.

I wasn’t desperate for ginger this year, so I never needed to harvest it. However, now is the time I need to think about replanting it for this year. It usually takes up to six weeks to break dormancy, and possibly up to six more weeks for it to actually sprout and grow strongly. If I start that process soon, it should be ready just in time for June, when the weather is reliably warm enough here that ginger can be left outside. I got my original piece years ago from the grocery – I highly doubt that it was organically grown, and I’ve heard that such things are often treated to prevent sprouting. In that case, it might take even longer to grow.

For a starter piece, choose a section that’s firm and has a few small bumps – these are the buds from which new growth will sprout. I like to leave it in a sealed transparent container in a warm place until the buds start turning green (breaking dormancy), then plant it. In the ground it should be planted about four inches deep; in a pot you can get away with planting it two inches deep. Once planted, water well and don’t water again until green leaves appear (or unless the soil dries out completely).

I’m always amazed by how much of a return ginger gives. The piece I planted last year was only a 2-inch section, if that; the piece I dug up measured just about 11 inches – more if you count the bit growing off the side. The rhizome has a strong linear tendency, so as it often does, this piece started distorting the pot when the ends hit the sides. I only use cheap flexible plastic pots for ginger now – I’ve actually had pots crack in the past because of the pressure the growing rhizome exerts. Same thing with ginger’s cousin turmeric (Curcuma longa).

Common sense would therefore suggest growing it in a trough, but it’s not necessarily that simple. As you can see in the picture, the roots need a fair bit of room to grow, so it would need to be a deep trough. Also, if growth is very good, side buds can strike off in their own directions…and hit the sides of the trough. I wouldn’t use a trough unless I can get a big one…which would be a bitch to lift and bring indoors in autumn. Sigh.

It would be nice, though. Leaving the plant undisturbed for a couple seasons could very well result in flowers. Z. officinale flowers aren’t all that spectacular, but it would be nice to do it at least once.

Back to the roots: they were very succulent and fleshy, even though the soil was bone dry. Of course, that’s why I can get away with growing ginger at all – they naturally have a dormancy response to drought. From certain angles, the whole thing looks like some sort of huge spider or centipede or something. The round cracked areas are the scars left from where the leaves grew (the view is from the top).



Growing ginger is pretty simple if it gets enough sun and warmth. It also likes good, fertile, friable soil and lots of water. If you can give it these things, you just have to sit back and watch it break the pot.

Why, plants, why?


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They do it to me every year. Containerised (potted) plants that I bring into the garage or the basement in late autumn/early winter for overwintering…start sprouting in February. That is, now.

Sigh. It’s still too cold to realistically put them outside and there’s no space left in the house where they’d get enough light to thrive. So every year I invariably end up with a front hall full of leggy plants.

I say it’s too cold, but right now it’s practically tropical for February in these parts. Despite forecasts of a more “normal” winter a few months ago, this winter has been another mild one for the books. There were a few colder spells, but overall it’s been mild. The temperature is forecast to drop again in several days, but still to above-average temperatures for the end of February.

So right now the ‘Black Star’ calla lily (Zantedeschia ‘Black Star’) is sprouting, as are one of the lotuses (Nelumbo cv.) and a water lily (Nymphaea cv.)…all things that need lots of sun, and in the case of the water lily, a pain in the arse to keep alive indoors. It’s a good thing I checked them, which I only did because I expect this to happen (and hope it doesn’t). That’s what I get for listening to long-term weather forecasts – if I’d overwintered them in the garage (not the calla lily), they’d probably have stayed dormant longer, but I wasn’t sure they’d survive the colder temperatures that were predicted. At least the dahlia tubers and other calla lily tubers (wrapped up in newspaper) haven’t started sprouting too. Yet.

Also, the hellebore ‘Winter Dreams Black’ started sprouting with a vengeance, but hellebores like cold weather, so I put that outside. Hopefully that will slow it down, but at least I know it will survive. You might be wondering why on earth I’m growing a hellebore in a pot – well, the shady spots in my garden that hellebores prefer not only have completely unsuitable soil (hard clay), but are not places I could easily enjoy the flowers at the end of winter/beginning of spring, when hellebores bloom.

You love your plants, you look after them, you do your best for them – and this is how they repay you. By growing.

Winter grays

…and not one of the fifty shades everyone was talking about.

It has now been three weeks in a row that we haven’t seen the sun here. According to the weather forecast, this isn’t going to change soon. I think the longest I can remember an overcast stretch here is two weeks, so three (with at least another on the way) is getting a bit dull (no pun intended). In late January I’d expect the days to just begin to lengthen, but in these conditions it’s hard to tell.

The garden has also put me on a new path, or rather, reintroduced me to an old one. After fighting with the hardpan clay under my property for years, I finally had a lightbulb moment last summer: make it work for me rather than against me. I played around with ceramics a lot as a child, and the clay under my backyard is actually pretty pure. I have more free time in winter (no garden), so I’ve been processing clay to make it workable. Hopefully when the weather warms up and I can be messy outside, I can build a few things for the garden, then take them somewhere to be fired. My very own terracotta pots and saucers, how nice that would be.

(Most potters will tell you that working with clay is quite therapeutic, but I suspect most modern potters don’t have to break their backs to dig it out of the ground, then thump it around either dry or in water so they can sieve the larger particles out by hand…)

I need to make friends with someone who has a stone grinder that I can use on all the shale in my garden as well. Shale is just compressed clay, and usually fairly soft as stone goes, so it would be wonderful to get rid of all the shale piled up in various corners that way. I could be wrong about this, but I seem to remember reading that a lot of clay used in the ceramics industry these days comes from pulverised shale.

Anyway, most of the clay I have is gray. As above, so below?

Winter houseplants 16: a few common diseases and Conclusion

Following from the previous post.

A few common houseplant diseases include:

Powdery mildew: this appears as a thin layer of powdery white fuzz on the leaves and stems, which later dry up and go brown. It likes to attack new leaves, which then grow distorted. Unusually for a fungus, this one actually takes hold when the conditions are warm and dry, but then spreads when things get more humid or moist.

Botrytis/grey mould: this looks just like the latter name says: a light, slightly fluffy mass of grey filaments growing on the surfaces of leaves, flowers, and stems. In addition to poor air circulation, it’s also encouraged by overfeeding and overwatering the plant.

Sooty mould: another one that’s what it says on the tin. It looks like patches, or a dusting, of tiny black specks. Unlike the others, this one doesn’t really affect the plant directly. In fact, it’s a symptom of something else: one of the pests I mentioned in the previous posts. Aphids, scale insects, and mealybugs suck sap from the plants and excrete a thick, sugary liquid called honeydew. This rains down on the plant parts below and creates a shiny, sticky buildup; this is what the sooty mould is growing and feeding on. Treat to get rid of the pests, then wipe off the sooty mould and honeydew with a damp cloth. Leaving it will only encourage more, and when it gets too thick it will inhibit photosynthesis. If the plant doesn’t have those pests, check the plants around it.

These three are among the most common and most cosmopolitan houseplant diseases. Individual plant species may be affected by their own particular ones; for example black spot on roses (which has happened on roses I’ve brought inside).

For people starting seedlings indoors, another fungal condition often rears its ugly head, called damping off. This is when a seedling suddenly develops a “soggy” weak spot on its stem, droops, and dies. There’s nothing you can do about it except prevent it by using clean materials, good air circulation, and perhaps a light sprinkling of sulphur or cinnamon.

Finally, I’ll talk about bacterial leaf spot, especially common on orchids. These look like little sunken chocolatey brown dots on the leaves that expand into larger spots or streaks, often with yellow haloes. I find spraying with hydrogen peroxide (from the pharmacy) helps greatly, but if it gets bad, then prune and burn.

I think that’s it for this series of posts. If it seems that I’ve repeated myself sometimes, well, I did. I’ll excuse that, however, by emphasising that any living thing is affected by the components of its environment as a whole, not as unrelated factors working in isolation. Moisture, soil, humidity, the container – these things all work in tandem to affect the plant’s health directly, and indirectly by influencing the plant’s resistance (or susceptibility) to disease and pests. Only light works independently of those factors, but it too is affected by (and affects) the plant’s surroundings.

Winter houseplants 15: dealing with disease

Following from the previous post.

Moving on to diseases. I’ll be blunt: plant diseases, especially indoors, can be difficult to control and even harder to eradicate. Prevention is definitely better than cure here.

Most common winter houseplant diseases are caused by fungi. Fungi are generally encouraged by still, moist air, so good circulation goes a long way toward keeping your plants healthy. As I said in a previous post about humidity, maintaining good humidity is a balance: too dry and the plant suffers; too moist and you risk fungi taking hold.

I don’t want to give the impression that fungi in general are bad. In fact the vast majority of them are beneficial or inconsequential. It’s just that we notice the bad ones more and take the good ones for granted. The same goes for bacteria: it’s not about how much are present so much as which ones. If you constantly use antibacterial products on everything in the house, you’re actually doing yourself a bad turn in the long run. (As a biologist, I have quite a long rant about this, but I’ve strayed from the topic at hand…)

You can improve air circulation by not crowding your plants together. I know (from experience) that if you have a lot of houseplants and limited space, the temptation is to jam as many into the window or under the grow-light as can fit. Well, you have to do what you have to do. Individual plants (depending on the general growth habit of the species) can be pruned to have a more open, airy shape, and this also benefits air circulation.

In addition to good air circulation, fungi can be controlled by spraying with baking soda and water or dusting with powdered sulphur. Baking soda, however, is a prophylactic: it helps prevent fungi from taking hold, but won’t do anything to cure the problem. Sulphur and garlic spray can both help to control fungi once they’ve shown up, but even these aren’t always reliable, especially if the problem is bad. I’ve also heard good things about cinnamon. However, spraying and dusting are not always practical in the house.

Often, the best way to get rid of a disease is to prune out the affected parts and burn them. Do not put the prunings into your compost bin/heap; if burning is not practical, then put them in your municipal green waste pickup and let the city deal with it. Such facilities can kill disease spores; backyard composters and worm bins usually don’t. The same goes for anything that was affected by disease and fell off the plant. With houseplants, I would recommend pruning and prevention rather than dusting or spraying.

Use clean, sharp tools to prune (standard advice), but make sure to sterilise the blade(s) after every cut, and I mean every cut. Dip the blades in rubbing alcohol and then pass them through a flame. A bleach solution works too, but it needs to soak for fifteen minutes to sterilise the blades, so…that’s kinda boring. Leave that for when you’re finished. Don’t just prune out the bits that look diseased; prune well into healthy growth to maximise the likelihood of removing affected tissue.


Winter houseplants 14: some common pests

Following from the previous post about dealing with houseplant pests.

Some common indoor pests include:

Aphids: little green, yellow, red, orange, or black critters that suck the sap out of the plant and cause wilting and internal drying of the plant. Female can reproduce parthenogenically (they clone themselves without any need of the males), so their numbers can increase ridiculously quickly. They like to cluster around the tenderer parts (new shoots, leaves, buds) and I find it immensely satisfying to run my finger and thumb up the stem to crush them (before spraying). Outdoors, ladybirds and hoverflies are the classic aphid predators, but these are not practical to use in a home; greenhouse keepers will probably find them far more useful. Spray with soap or garlic.

Whitefly: these look like tiny little white moths, smaller than a pinhead. In medium to bad infestations, you might see a cloud of them flying off if you disturb the plant. Little white flecks stuck to the undersides of the leaves are another symptom (I’m not sure what these actually are; I think they’re either dead whiteflies or possibly the remnants of moulting). Spray with soap or garlic every two or three days for at least two weeks; they lay eggs in the soil that will survive, so you have to get the adults as they complete their life cycle. You can also get sticky traps for whitefly.

Red spider mite: tiny red arachnids (mites are arachnids); they do spin webs that one could be forgiven for mistaking for those of real spiders. They are also capable of parthenogenesis. Symptoms include stippled yellowing leaves, a general sickly look to the plant, and the webs. Remove the webs, burn them, and spray the plant with soap. They generally take hold when humidity is very low, so increasing the humidity can help control future infestations.

Mealybug: these look like tiny greyish-whitish-pinkish pillbugs, often covered with white fluff and/or having two long tails (a particular species). If there are just a few, try swabbing them with rubbing alcohol (or crushing them…); otherwise spray with soap.

Scale insect: these appear as small scales or shells of various shapes and colours stuck to the stems and leaves. These are in fact mature females that live inside the scales, sucking the juices from the plant. If there are just a few, scrape them off gently with your fingernails and swab the area with rubbing alcohol. Less mature females have softer shells that can be penetrated by soap. Larger infestations might warrant pruning the affected parts off and burning them. You can also try spraying with rubbing alcohol first (test first to make sure it doesn’t damage the plant), then with soap, or a mixture of a spoonful of vegetable oil to a cup of water. For long-term control, soap solution will kill males and immature females, which are mobile and soft, but you’ll probably never see or notice them.

Fungus gnats: these aren’t too pestiferous really; they’re more of an unsightly nuisance than a real threat to healthy houseplants. They’re little black flying or walking insects that might be mistaken for fruit flies at first glance. The larvae feed on soil fungi and plant roots, but seldom to a harmful extent unless the infestation is really bad. Sometimes they can be a symptom of overwatering. They’re probably most dangerous to seedlings, because they can spread fungi on their feet – such as the sort that causes damping off. I’ve never found it necessary to control these by the usual methods; my carnivorous Pinguicula do a nice job of it. They’re also attracted to water, in which they have a tendency to drown. Oddly enough, once I left some leftover sesame seed oil in a saucer on the kitchen counter and the next day there were a bunch of fungus gnats drowned in it. Whether they were attracted to the oil itself, or the shiny surface, or something else, I couldn’t say. I really like sesame oil, so I don’t care to waste any by conducting tests.

Winter houseplants 13: dealing with pests

Following from the previous post.

Most indoor pests are insects or arachnids and can be controlled by the many insecticidal soaps on the market now. Actually, ordinary soapy water will do, but you must be sure to use soap and not household detergent. Soap (technically itself a type of detergent) and other detergents have different chemical activities and different effects. To confuse matters, sometimes soaps are marketed as detergent and vice versa. Dishwashing liquids, shampoos, some liquid hand soaps, and most modern laundry detergents/soaps are detergents. Bar soap is soap, and the old-fashioned washing crystals are soaps as well.

Soaps work by dissolving the waxy coating that insects secrete to prevent water loss through their exoskeletons, so they dehydrate. Detergents don’t do that. However, detergents are better surfactants, so a bit added to soapy water can help the liquid to coat the plant. I suppose a detergent solution might work by engulfing and suffocating the insect, but don’t depend on it.

If you make your own soap solution, beware of making it too strong or it can burn the plant. If you’re worried about this, test it first on a single leaf or small section of the plant (leave it on for a couple days to see if the leaf goes brown and/or shriveled). It should, however, be strong enough that the water feels soapy to the touch.

Do not use soap on ferns, cacti/succulents, or conifers.

Garlic spray, made by mashing garlic cloves and soaking them in oil for a few days, then mixing this with water (yes, I know oil and water don’t mix) and a little detergent, works very well on some pests, but not others. Test for damage to the plant first and dilute if necessary.

Spraying your plants indoors can be a messy job, so you might want to put the plant in the shower or bathtub before you start. Be sure to spray every part of the plant: under the leaves, in the cracks and joints of the stems, all the little crevices between the flowers – everything. Spray until the point of drenching; you want to see the stuff dripping off. You will probably need to do this several times at intervals of two or three days. It’s not a bad idea to wash the plant off the next day by spraying with clean water, but it isn’t usually necessary.

Another way depends on identifying the exact species of pest you have. If you can do this, you might be able to order special sticky traps. These traps are loaded with pheromones that attract the (adult) pests, which get stuck. Since these traps are usually hung on or around the plants, they are generally only available for pests that fly at some point (I could be wrong about this; haven’t looked into them for a while).

Winter houseplants 12: pests and diseases

You know, I was going to end this series with the last post before it occurred to me to address houseplant afflictions. Bet you’re sorry it did.

Anyway, pests and diseases – well, what’s the difference? Both are caused by other organisms attacking the plant. In practical terms, plant diseases are caused by microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi) and pests are, well, pests – you can see them with the naked eye (assuming you have reasonable vision), at least at some stage in their life cycles. Some people might count nutritional deficiencies as diseases as well: scurvy in humans, for example, is a Vitamin C deficiency. For plants, that’s more of a problem with the soil and fertiliser, so I won’t go into it here.

I can’t possibly talk about every single disease or pest that could affect every single houseplant – I certainly don’t know about every single houseplant, much less everything that attacks them. Even if I did, that would fill an entire set of books.  I’ll just go into the ones that are most common on houseplants here. Much of it also applies in greenhouses.

Pests and diseases indoors can sometimes seem to be much more of a problem because of the isolated nature of the environment. Outdoors, many of these things are controlled to a manageable extent by natural predators or simply the living conditions; indoors, those factors are not present. Annoyingly, they are often brought into the house when you bring the plants inside for overwintering; they may not be apparent because they were kept under control by outdoor factors and then suddenly they boom into a problem. Some of them spend part of their life cycles in the soil and remain hidden there for a time.

As is usual, prevention is better than cure. When you start thinking of bringing the plants inside, take a good look at them for signs of anything wrong. If you find diseases, prune off the affected plant parts and if possible burn them. A good drench of insecticidal soap or solution is a good idea, but it must reach every single part of the stems and leaves and it won’t reach things hiding in the soil. A hard pruning (which is a good idea for a lot of plants at this point) can make this a lot easier. If a plant is due for repotting and a complete soil change, think about doing so now.

Prevention also depends on keeping plants healthy in other respects: plants that are weak, overwatered, underwatered, overfed, underfed, or otherwise not given conditions to their liking, are more susceptible to pests and diseases. Just like humans, really.

Even if you do all you can, don’t beat yourself up if later something bad does show up. Pretty much all of the common pests and diseases have stages that are very difficult to see or find, much less eradicate.

Once you do recognise something amiss, try to isolate the plant while you treat it so as to minimise the likelihood of the problem spreading. On the other hand, by the time you notice it, the problem probably already has spread…