Monday, February 25, 2019

Christmas Cactus


(First published in the InterTown Record in three parts in 2018)

As it is so often, research into a particular plant has my head spinning. What I’d always assumed, is not necessarily true, and various websites have slight differences in their explanations.

Schlumbergera bridgessii is the scientific name for Christmas cactus. The cultivars are also known as Thanksgiving cactus, crab cactus and holiday cactus. Christmas cactus is not really cactus but a succulent. Wikipedia says, “Nearly all cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are cacti.” (Succulents are plants with parts that are thick and fleshy which enable water retention in arid conditions.)

One site said the Christmas cactus does not naturally exist in nature. It was bred from two other plants grown in the rainforests of Brazil. It has segmented, flat stems of a glossy green which can hang down about 36 inches. Flowers form on the ends. The bright blossoms are unique in that they may have several tiers of petals making the entire flower up to 3 inches long. Each one can last for several days, and the entire blooming period spans several weeks. 

Because the plant comes from rainforests it prefers humidity and requires more water than what one would assume of a cactus. Homes around here can be very dry. A little extra care in the winter may require putting the cactus in a pebble tray. Place pebbles in the tray and add a little water. Don’t cover the pebbles. Set the cactus pot in the tray but not so the plant itself is sitting in the water. The evaporating moisture will help provide humidity. (I bought a couple of cheap, pretty trays at Family Dollar and with colorful stones and/or river rocks added, it makes a cute setting).

Basic care of a Christmas cactus is keeping it out of drafts, watering when it feels dry, providing adequate light and occasional feeding. One thing of interest, though, is that Christmas cactus requires a certain amount of darkness.


I think my Christmas cactus liked me writing about it last week. (Doesn’t most everything like a little attention?) The plant has sprouted more and looks vibrant. Oh OK, perhaps it’s because I’m giving it more water now that I understand it’s not a real cactus.

Speaking about watering, here are some tips. Water when the top inch of soil feels dry. Soak the soil until water runs through the pot’s drainage holes. Give it a few minutes then discard any excess water in the drip pan. If you use a pebble tray let the extra water in the tray evaporate to provide humidity around the plant. Just make sure the plant isn’t sitting directly in the water (which could cause brown spots, or root or stem rot). Pebble trays and the pebbles need periodic cleaning.

A mild household plant fertilizer is beneficial, too, about every other week. However stop feeding a month before the plant will bloom, usually late summer and fall.

I learned two “thermo-” terms in this research regarding blooming and achieving the best growth in plants. Thermo-periodic is the technical term used for the amount of day light time the plant is exposed to in a 24-hour period. Thermoperiodism refers to the day and night temperature fluctuation surrounding the plant.

Christmas cactus likes indirect sunlight and does best in east or north-facing windows. It can adapt to low light conditions but will bloom better in bright, indirect light. Too much direct sunlight may burn the leaves. Ideal day temperatures should be around 70 degrees and evening temperatures 60-65 degrees.

I mentioned last week about the ability to choose when you want your cactus to bloom. Of course most people want theirs to bloom around the fall/winter holidays, although the plant can also bloom during the summer. If you want more control, whatever date or holiday you choose, simply cut back watering and hours of daylight six to eight weeks before you want it to bloom.

This will force the plant to go into its dormancy/rest period. (Whether you are trying to change its regular bloom time or not, it still needs a period of dormancy.) It will also need more darkness; 12-14 hours of total darkness, meaning no indoor light or neighbors’ lights. (I have neighbors who leave their outside lights on all night.) Some people cover the plants or put them in a closet. Dormancy temperature is best at 50-60 degrees. It the temperature is over that, the plant will need 15 hours of darkness.

New buds will eventually begin to appear and, at that time, increase the water times – but not the amount. Buds will fall off with too much water or if the pot is moved around. Blooming time is usually four to six weeks in bright, indirect light. The flowers can last up to nine days.

Once flowering time is over, the plant can be trimmed back for uniformity. Pinch off enough sections to achieve the shape you want. Normal watering and fertilization can begin when new growth appears.

To continue about Christmas cactus care: Christmas cactus prefers snug pots with its roots tightly confined in well-draining soil. This snugness helps the root system produce better blooms. The plant will only need to be repotted every two to three years.

Repotting is usually best done in spring or early summer when the plant is not blossoming. This allows the plant time to acclimate before blooming again.

Pruning helps keep the plant healthy, keeps it shaped and confines the growth to the available space in the home. Pruning also encourages the plant to branch out and start growing again. Give it about a month to rest after the blooming period is complete, though. To prune, gently twist the stem between the segments on the stem and remove the section. Up to 1/3 of the Christmas cactus can be removed each year without causing damage to the plant. Sections trimmed off can be placed in a new pot to create more plants. Bury the last segment in potting soil.

Fertilize with a houseplant fertilizer April through October. The plant can be moved outside to a shady spot in the summer until temperatures drop below 50 degrees.

Two issues with these plants are stem rot and root rot.
Root rot can happen if the roots sit in wet soil. The plant can be saved if the damaged root can be removed. However if the rot has moved up the stem, stem rot, a fungal problem, occurs. If this happens start a new plant before the infection spreads too far.

My Christmas cactus had two more blossoms during the third week of February.




Saturday, June 16, 2018

Rhododendron


There’s been at least two or three rhododendron bushes in every place I’ve ever lived. I used to think it was a shrub that once planted, you just let it go and grow. When I moved to Bradford, I learned that with a little care, rhodies can be even more beautiful.

This past week I had a couple sections of stockade fence installed and decided to get new rhodies to go in front to pretty up the blank wall. (Later I will add my flair of painting – purple, of course! – along with some other decorating.)

Rhododendrons (rhodies) are a familiar spring blooming shrub that usually stands out because, not only the size of the plant itself, but for the large clusters of showy flowers. Rhodies belong to the genus of rhododendron and are the largest genus in the Ericaceae family. There are over 1,000 different species in the genus. The Ericaceae family also includes azaleas, heather, cranberries, blueberries, mountain laurel and more. Rhododendron is from the Greek and means rose tree.

All azaleas are in the rhododendron family but not all rhodies are azaleas. It depends on the subgenus and types of leaves. The leaves for the smaller azalea are usually pointed and narrow; the leaves of the rhododendron are generally large, leathery and paddle-shaped, although that can depend on the particular species/subspecies.

Note: Rhododendron are toxic to humans and pets. Do not eat any part of the plant! There is a lot of talk about the toxicity to bees and what is called “mad honey.” The websites I checked had some pros and cons. From what I can tell, the bottom line is rhodies attract bees, but as long as there are many other flowering plants and trees in your yard, there is no worry.

Rhododendrons can be evergreen or deciduous. The blossoms are usually tubular, funnel or bell-shaped, and often fragrant. Individual blossoms form in a ball-shaped truss. The flowers come in colors of white, red, pink, yellow, blue, purple, magenta, orange and various shades thereof.  The shrubs come in a variety of shapes and sizes and leaf shapes vary in size, shape and texture.

Rhodies prefer environments where it is neither too hot nor too cold (Zones 5 to 8) and need a certain amount of chilling to develop strong flower buds. Though most flower in the spring, there are also summer-blooming varieties that add color and charm to any garden.

Planting
Most large-leaved varieties require dappled shade; avoid deep shade or full sun. They do not like full morning sun in winter. Choose a sunny spot that receives a few hours of shade is perfect. Soil should be well-drained, humus-rich, moist, and acidic (pH 4.5-6). Soggy and waterlogged roots are the main causes of failure. The north side of a building not under the eaves is best, protected from the wind. If you’re planting in a more open area, make sure to choose a more tolerant species.

If you can prepare the soil in the fall for planting in the spring. (Of course, I never plan that far ahead, ha ha.) Amend the planting area with compost, peat moss or a substitute. Oak leaves are good, too. If the shrub has a root ball, soak before planting by placing it in a tub of water until air bubbles disappear.

Plant the shrub in loamy fertile soil so the top roots are at soil level or slightly below. If you plant them any deeper, the roots may rot. If the plant was in a pot, plant it so the crown is the same level as it was in the pot.

Regular rhody care
Rhodies have a shallow root system and need consistent moist soil and at least two inches of mulch to keep them from drying out.

Tip: When the leaves curl and twist, water immediately. Do not allow the stress of wilting. Shade loving annuals, such as the annual impatiens, may be planted near the rhody and will also indicate when water is needed.

Fertilize in the fall with an acid loving material. Pine needles make a good mulch. Wrap rhododendrons with burlap in the fall if winters are severe. Winter burn results from frozen soil, freezing winds and cold winter sun.

Pruning
Snap off spent flower stalks by bending them over until they break away from their stems. Remove dead flowers carefully because next year’s buds are just under the old heads. Be careful not to damage growth buds at the base of each flower stalk. Deadheading, where practical, promotes vegetative growth rather than seed production.

Heavy pruning will help rejuvenate a plant but may take a couple years before it will bloom again. I personally experienced this. The first year I lived in Bradford some of the rhodie leaves turned brown during the winter. My brother, who did landscaping for years, said it was winter burn. He suggested early in the spring pruning back the parts/branches that were damaged. It would not harm the plant to cut it back to within a few inches from the soil.

I was hesitant but trusted him. I trimmed up some of the shrubs and cut the most damaged one almost entirely to the ground. By mid-summer, there was signs of new life and yes, it took a couple years to bloom again. As I had never seen this one in bloom before, I was pleased to see a beautiful shade of cream (not like the standard purple-pink color of the most the others).

Also, one of the bushes in a closed-in corner between the sunroom and garage was so well-protected that it grew huge; covering almost the entire corner width-wise and up over the roof. Again, Don said to cut it right back, not to the ground, just to give it better shape and allow more airflow through the shrubbery. Soon it began showing new life. How exciting!

This week someone saw one of my Facebook photos of my newest rhododendron (rhodies). He asked how to get rhododendrons to bloom.

Some people are lucky enough to just have the right spot for their rhodies to blossom well. For others, their rhodies may take a little care, especially with the hybrid varieties.

Know which type of rhodie you have. Some require more sun while others prefer shadier areas (but not total shade). Realize too, as the trees around your yard grow and change, that could change the amount of sunlight your garden gets.

So here are a few tips:
If the shrub is new, was it planted too deep? Rhodies have shallow roots. Only plant the new shrub as deep as the root ball. Tip: A straight handled tool placed across the ground of the newly planted shrub should lie level with the area around it.  

New plants need to get established and may take a couple of years to bloom.
Adding 2-5 inches of mulch will help keep in moisture in the soil. Mulch or pine needles permit needed air but mounding the plant roots and stem with soil may prevent blooming.
In the spring, fertilize lightly when the buds swell. Cut back on fertilizing and watering in late summer. Coffee grounds worked into compost or into the soil will boost the acidity level required by rhodies.

If you prune off the spent blossoms, do so right after they fade. Next year’s buds begin forming quickly and waiting too long to deadhead will remove next year’s growth. Try to remove spent blooms before it goes to seed by holding the stem and carefully snapping off the flower head without damaging the new buds.

After the blooming period, check the plant for health and cut away any parts that are dead. A rhodie pruned back a lot, may take more than one season for it to blossom again. In this case, be patient.

Some rhodies bloom a lot, some may not bloom every year.



Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Annual Geraniums

Geranium, also known as cranesbill, can be annual, biennial and perennial. (I always believed they were all annuals until recently.) My mother was kind of funny when it came to geraniums. She didn’t particularly like them, but would buy a couple of plants (always the annuals) every year because it was her mother’s favorite. I never paid much attention because, to me, it was a plant to put on graves. I don’t know whether most people do that or if it was only because that’s what my mother did.

Martha Washington Regal Geranium
"Elegance Purple Majesty" purchased 07/17
A geranium was the last plant my mother ever bought me. I remember the day she brought it home. A friend had taken her out for the day as she didn’t drive or go out on her own any more. She was so proud to bring me home a gift, a beautiful Martha Washington geranium. I was as excited to receive it as she was to give. She so wanted to please me – and she did. I planted it in the little garden near the garage.

A friend told me I could dig it up and bring it inside for the winter. I did and it survived, so for the next couple of years, I’d plant it outside in the spring and in the fall, dig it up and put it in a pot to winter inside. It lasted a few years but somehow went missing when I moved from Bradford. 


A Sarista Sunstar Red purchased in 2016 and wintered inside




Geranium facts: There are 422 species in the geranium genus. The leaves are palmate and broadly circular in form. The flowers have five petals and a few clumps will grow tight on a single stem. The colors range from white, pink, purple, blues and shades of red. Some will be a single color while others may have veining or be two-colored. 

Geraniums are nice because they will grow almost anywhere and, unlike other flowering plants, they don’t have a dormant period. They look great wherever they are planted whether in pots, in garden beds or hanging baskets. They prefer six to eight hours of sunlight, though. I had a friend who kept her geranium inside and it eventually got so big that the pot couldn’t be moved.

Care is easy – deadhead regularly and water deeply when the soil feels dry. (I sometimes wait until the leaves droop.) However, they don’t like to be water logged. A water-soluble houseplant fertilizer or 5-10-5 fertilizer can be added once a month during the active growing season. A potted geranium will wilt when it needs re-potting.

Now for the fun part, and something with which I am not familiar – propagating. I’ve always had trouble cutting plants back or dividing them when they get big. I was afraid of hurting them even though I know they do better with attention. Propagation of geraniums is easy. You can take cuttings in summer, gather seeds or divide a larger plant in autumn or spring.

I bought three geranium plants last year to honor my mother. I planted them in flower boxes in the yard and dug them up and brought them inside for the winter. Two of last year’s plants were in an oblong flower box in the living room window. They grew taller and taller. I didn’t want to cut them back because there was always a bud. The orange bi-color reached 40 inches tall and the pinto red, 36 inches. Both were in bloom and the weight of the blossoms finally caused both stalks to bend. 

Geranium cuttings root well without the need of any additives. I cut off the flowers and then cut the stems near a node (place above a leaf or a swollen part of the stem). Cutting here also encourages new growth on the mother plant. I pulled off the bottom-most leaves and just stuck the stems in the soil and gave them a generous amount of water. I watered often in the next few days whenever the leaves started to wilt.

Blossom from a cutting -- it grew!
I researched more on geraniums. Some websites said to dip the root end into a rooting hormone such as Miracle Gro FastRoot while others say it’s not necessary. The sites also say propagating is a great way to keep the geraniums as they often only live about a couple of years.

Weeks went by. The leaves stayed green and the plants grew. I was amazed. Three weeks later, one blossomed. The dilemma now is going to be what to do with too many geraniums. I hate the thought of just throwing excess away. Free geranium cuttings, I guess. 







Sunday, July 9, 2017

Haphazard Gardening

I’ve been meaning to write, but as usual, I’ve been incredibly busy. How is it possible to get busier? And now that I’m writing, I have a lot to say. I thought I went overboard last year when I got into gardening. I thought that a smaller property would be easier to design and maintain. Perhaps that would be true for a professional landscaper. However, I’m not a professional and I do things my way. 

These daisies attract bees.
Yes, I overspent on flowers last year. A smaller yard doesn’t necessarily mean small gardens. I created new gardens besides those already here, and this year I’ve gone even further (in money, the size of gardens, and the amount of new plants). Still, it’s not exactly where I want it to be … nor do I know exactly where I want it to go.

So, where am I going wrong? No, it’s not that I’m going wrong (well, maybe that depends on who you talk to, ha ha), it’s that I’m jumping in without a prepared plan. Wow, I haven’t actually admitted that before. That’s exactly what I do, though. I stop at the nursery, fall in love with too many plants, and purchase more than I can handle at one time. I get them home and I ask myself, “Now what do I do?”  

I created a lily bed just for hybrid day lilies
But, flowers make me happy. I love the colors, shapes, textures, patterns. The way one plant might grow different from another is fascinating. Why does this plant not do as well and one right beside looks great? I can’t help myself. Maybe I’m making up for all those years I wasn’t interested in gardening. 

It’s not easy. I face challenges every day when out in the yard. It takes three to four days to get the new purchases planted. Sometimes where I thought I’d put a plant isn’t where it ends up. Sometimes where I put it means I have to extend the garden which means more edging and when there are a lot of roots the digging is extremely difficult. Then there are times when a new plant doesn’t like where I put it and I’ll have to find a new spot. 

Hens and Chicks - Red Beauty
There are lists to make so I can add new pages to the garden reference manual I’m putting together of plants in my yard. I look up three or four websites to gather information on each plant and then work the information into one cohesive piece for the manual. I photograph the plants and if the plant isn’t flowering yet, I add a photo later.

The soil here is mostly sand, so that creates yet another issue. I want to keep it simple. I don’t want to deal with PH testing and amending the soil, although I do add potting soil. Then there are sun issues. The main part of the yard gets a lot of afternoon sun and even sun-loving plants are not happy with too much heat in the afternoon. (I’ve learned that if a plant tag says, “Sun/part shade,” I’m better off leaning towards part shade.) 

Last weekend I went on a garden tour in New London and Elkins and saw some amazing gardens. Then today, there was a posting on Facebook of 23 amazing gardens. Absolutely stunning, with professionally designed and manicured plants. At first, I thought, “How could I do this?” I realized these gardens are beautiful, but not me. I’m not perfectly manicured. I don’t follow the norm. I make my own way … even when it comes to gardening.

Other colorful elements bring other aspect to a garden. This
is a work in process re-purposing plant trays.
The light bulb lit up as it dawned on me that I’m a haphazard gardener. Sasha Wolfe, the haphazard gardener. That’s me. It’s how I work and create. I am spontaneous. I do things against the grain. I buy plants not knowing where to put them, then build a garden around them. I put some like colors together and others are mixed.

I’m learning all the time and I love to hear what others say. One of the ladies I met on the garden tour said her garden has been a 30-plus year love-affair and she changes it all the time. My gardens are coming along, but now that the heat of summer has arrived (and bugs), I’m less prone to want to be outside. I’m usually outside around 7 a.m. which has totally upset my normal morning routine (one thing I’ve always been in a rut about), but that’s another issue.





Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Daisies - Osteospermum and Gerbera

It’s funny how I can sometimes be blind even when things are right in front of me. I discovered bright-colored daisies when I moved to Bradford in 2006 and I’ve bought some each spring since. I believed these annuals, even though some had larger flowers, were all gerbera daisies, that some were just a smaller version. However, I was recently told when making purchases for this year’s flower boxes that the small-flowered ones I chose were not gerbera. 

If you look closely at the tips of the petals, Gerbera daisies
have "two lips."
Gerbera have much bigger blossoms. The little tags on the pots of the smaller flowers said osteospermum. Duh, how could I have not realized they were not the same with the two types of plants right in front of me! I guess in this case, a rose isn’t a rose – or colored daisies aren’t all gerbera. (Am I showing my ignorance of the plant kingdom?) 

I got the plants home and began research. I compared the Wikipedia websites (among others) for both varieties. Osteospermum and gerbera are both known as African daisies. Osteospermum also goes by cape daisy, blue-eyed daisy or daisybush, and gerbera, Transvaal daisy or Barberton daisy. Both are of the plantae kingdom, both in the order of asterales and family of Asteraceae. However, the subfamilies, tribe and genus are different. 

Osteospermum are in the subfamily of Asteroideae, one of the smaller tribes of calenduleae and genus of osterpermum (perennials) and dimorphotheca (annuals). They are annuals in this area (zone 3).  Gerbera, also annuals around here, are in the subfamily of mutisioideae, the tribe of mutisieae, and the genus of gerbera. This is all Greek to me, oops, I mean, Latin. And this isn’t even getting into cultivars.

But enough of the technical jargon. Let me talk about the physical aspects of these plants. 

Osterspermum 4D Violet Ice
Osteospermum (cultivars around here) grow 15 to 24 inches tall and can reach 1-2 feet in width. Osteospermum prefer cool weather and will bloom often until the summer gets hot. (In 2016, I had them in containers and when they started to wilt and not bloom as much, I moved the containers to a less sunny spot and they did much better.) Cultivars flower well when watered and fertilized consistently. They don’t need deadheading because they don’t set seed easily. However, the plants look nicer when the spent flowers are removed.  

A Gerbera daisy plant prefers sun and can grow 18 inches tall and 18 inches wide. A single flower grows on top of one stem rising up from a mound of slightly fuzzy leaves. Multiple rows of two-lipped petals tightly surround the head. The blossoms can be 2 to 5 inches in diameter. Wikipedia said it’s the fifth-most cut flower in the world after rose, carnation, chrysanthemum and tulip. 

What’s interesting is that both plants’ centers or capitulum are composed of hundreds of individual flowers. They both attract butterflies and are deer and rabbit resistant. These are some of my favorite flowers and I’m happy to now have better understanding of the differences. 









Monday, May 1, 2017

Daffodils, a symbol of friendship


I’ve always loved daffodils. Maybe because yellow is one of my favorite colors. Maybe it’s because that gorgeous brightness after the dreariness of late winter/early spring convinces me spring has finally arrived. Whatever the reason, daffodils are stunning! 

Daffodils and narcissus are the same family, amaryllicaceae. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that. I always thought of daffodils as the bigger, yellow, trumpet-shaped flower and that narcissus was the flatter-looking white-petaled flower with the yellow trumpet (that’s what my mother had said). They are all narcissus and I found out that those flatter-looking narcissus are paperwhites. Jonquil is another popular type with the difference being smaller, clustered blossoms with the leaves are more cylindrical. 

Interesting facts:
The bulb has contractile roots and pulls itself deeper into the ground after blooming. The plants are dormant throughout the summer to late winter. Next year’s flower stem and leaves form in the bulb to be ready for sprouting in the spring. 

All parts of the daffodil contain lycorine, a toxic chemical. The bulbs have been mistaken for onions. However, they do not have the onion odor nor do they cause tearing. Eating any part of the plant can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea. 

The front garden here last spring had narcissus. They bloomed before I caught the gardening bug so I didn’t research them at the time and I’m not sure exactly what type they are. Currently there are sprouts, but I’ll have to wait until they blossom before making the identification

I purchased a pot of bulbs the end of February which have already bloomed. Normal planting time for spring-flowering bulbs is in the fall, but I planted these last week. The hardest part was deciding where to plant. I was thinking about putting them under the little crabapple tree because they will bloom (next spring) by the time the leaves come out on the tree. Then I read that it’s good to plant bulbs with others to create a square or circle, so I put them in front of a mushroom garden sculpture. 

One more chapter in beautifying my yard.





Monday, April 24, 2017

Cleaning Up and Expanding


Small stints of gardening continue as I spend about 20-30 minutes outside in two or three intervals during the day. I’m making an art of working in short timespans. I work until my body gets achy and says it’s had enough, then go inside and work on another project.

You can still see remnants of the gray driveway stone
that got plowed into the driveway this winter.




I began edging the main lily garden last Friday and it continued through the weekend. This section is on the north side of the driveway and is lower than the house. The ground here is harder. I want a better definition to the garden and perhaps create a shape. It’s not working out as I would like and it looks messy … but it will eventually come together.




This is the tiered lily section near the garage on the north side.
The green is the hyacinths.
I also started an area begun last summer -- better clearing of what I’m calling the coneflower bed. (I eventually want to come up with nicer individual names for all my little gardens.) The Echinacea plants were discovered last summer in front of a few big rocks that were placed when building up the land to put the house back in 2003. The slope changed a bit with the addition of the garage last summer and later in season, another lily garden was planted in two tiers on the side of the walkway going down towards the edge of the property. I had also extended the coneflower bed to the east in front of a couple more rocks and planted rudbeckia. Now it’s time to pretty it up more.


This oldest section in front of the rocks, the coneflower bed,
has now become the lower tier. I'm still trying to remove grass.
Now, there is still an older section of ground between the lilies and the coneflowers, and it’s this section I’m trying to clean up and the grass clumps here are horribly tough. It’s not even nice grass! I worked it a little last summer when I discovered the Echinacea, but gave up. I removed a lot of the briars (blackberries). There is also one tulip leaf and a couple inches away, a daffodil (neither bloomed last spring nor this). 

I love rocks and it is my intention to have the flowers and rocks accentuate each other. At this point, I’m wondering if I’m going to have to ask for help. Today I’ll take another go at it.



This last photo is looking down from the top tier
(the walkway along side of the garage). 

This last photo is looking down from the top tier (the walkway along side of the garage). 

It's all guesswork as to the design. I'm just trying to make everything look better.

With another year of water issues (between the drought and the old dilapidated water system in the district), I'm not sure how far I can take this. All I know is that flowers make me happy and are one way to pretty my yard and home.

Hopefully the rain barrels will help again. This year I may attempt pumping water from the brook as long as it doesn't dry up.