Tattle Tales


I got a phone call from your houseplants the other day. They would have spoken to you directly but they said you were too busy. They really don’t like to complain but you seem to have forgotten that they are living, breathing organisms. But they can’t handle this cruel world all on their own. All they’re asking for is a little TLC. And in exchange, they promised they’d continue to brighten up your life and your home, and even clean your air.

Based on the conversation, and I can’t repeat all of it, I promised to pass along a few pointers that will get these guys back into shape for the ever-shortening days, which will lead to cold nights and then freezing cold just a few short months away. Your plants really do want to make your life better and make you smile when they flower. In fact they don’t even mind being taken for granted while they add greenery to your home during the frigid months of winter. But hey, they’d like just a little respect.

Now, where to begin? Well, you take a shower or a bath to keep clean so how about doing the same for that ficus or palm, that gardenia or hibiscus? If they’ve been out on the patio they probably have a fine layer of dust, soot and who knows whatever else fell out of the sky an onto their leaves.

They’d really like the stuff rinsed off. You can do it with a fine spray of water but if you really want to pamper them use a sponge and really clean those leaves and fronds, gently. No need for soap but if you add a couple of drops of Joy dish washing detergent (they call it Joy for a reason) in a gallon of water, it won’t hurt at all.

As the plants sigh in utter “releaf” during the bath or shower, look for signs of broken stems, snails, slugs and bugs. If you see signs of insects, simply remove them.

Take the appropriate action to get rid of mealy bugs. If you find scale, spider mites or other six- or eight-legged critters, maybe a spray of Spinosad is in order. It’s very easy to do when the plants are outdoors, and one or two sprays five to seven days apart could easily stop an infestation that might otherwise take control and cause havoc come December or January.

A little bit of pruning and shaping isn’t out of the question either. Some plants tell me that it was a great summer to grow and they really stretched out.

Like us getting a haircut, some of these plants need a simple pruning to keep their shape or to keep them in check. Know your plant though and its natural growth habit.

Cut the tip off a Norfolk pine to slow its growth and you’ll do nothing but change its growth habit. This plant wants to grow to the sky and if you cut the tip you’ll not only distort its natural form but it will sprout two new growing tips that won’t grow tall and straight, instead they’ll go sideways and ugly.

On the other hand, that magnificent jade plant that adored being out all summer may have just grown too big. You can repot it (see later) and encourage it to grow more or you can carefully prune it to make it more compact.

This plant, unlike the Norfolk pine, is very forgiving of pruning. Done correctly the cutting back will result in a rounder, lush plant that will thrive through the winter.

The same holds true with plants, such as geraniums, that you may have growing in pots but want to overwinter indoors. Give them a hard pruning, then bring them inside. Reduce the watering to accommodate for the loss of foliage and in a few weeks they’ll begin to sprout new shoots.

Read up on where to make the cuts (above leaf axils) and allow the plant to grow back indoors on a sunny window. Not only will it flower in the dead of winter but you’ll be able to take and root cuttings from it in February and March that can go back into other pots and the garden next summer.

And then there are the house plants that have grown to the point where they are cramped and need a bigger home. Spring is really the ideal time to do this but this is the second best time because you can do your work outdoors then bring the repotted plant indoors for the winter.

The first issue is usually getting the older plant out of the original pot. Water it first. Wait a half hour or so, then try to pull it out again.

If it’s really tight in a clay pot you may have to crack the pot. If it’s in a plastic pot you may have to cut the pot. If you notice lots of roots growing out of the drainage holes at the bottom, cleanly cut those roots off.

Once the plant is popped out of its container, study the root ball and plan for a new pot only a few inches larger in diameter. This may seem illogical though because you may think a much larger pot would be appropriate. But remember that a much larger pot will have much more soil. That soil will act like a sponge and soak up lots of water.

The plant is slowing down its growth cycle as the season cools down (inside and outside) and the available light is reduced. The plant is less able to draw water out of the pot, so too much wet or water-logged soil will result in a potential situation for killing that plant that you’re trying to encourage, not discourage.

Replant the plant at same depth in the soil as it was at in the original pot. When in doubt, plant higher and not lower. Don’t add any fertilizer and try not to use a potting soil that contains fertilizer in it. Just repot, water in lightly and bring the plant indoors.

Oh, and the house plants you have outdoors asked me to mention one last thing. It’s getting colder. They notice it much more than you do and on some nights in September they get downright cold.

They don’t want to let you down and they know you still think it’s summer, but it’s not for them. If they don’t stay warm enough, they’ll change. The changes will be subtle but the colder nights outdoors in September and early October can result in some sickly indoor plants come November and December.

Lastly, if need new houseplants or just don’t have enough already, this is a great time to go out and get some more. Look for new arrivals from Florida since they’re fresh and perky and haven’t been sitting in hot and steamy trucks and dimly lit warehouses. There are some great values for astute shoppers.

Keep growing.

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