Tuesday, April 17, 2018

April 17, 2018 Kim’s Weekly Garden Blog

Crocus from the one nice spring day.

Hi Gardeners
Will winter ever end? I’m beginning to wonder.  We had an ice storm over the weekend and some snow last night although a lot melted today.  Its 40 degrees now but a strong wind makes it feel colder. We are supposed to get rain and freezing rain again tomorrow and snow Thursday so I’m really unhappy.
My beautiful crocus flowers are probably done, it looks like they were frozen pretty well.  I’m hoping that there isn’t damage to the other bulbs that have sprouted- the ones the deer didn’t damage.
I am hearing from a lot of people this year that even people who never had deer damage before had some this winter. I don’t usually have them come up close to the house in my front flower beds, but they did this year.  I installed a battery powered hot wire by some and put black netting over others.  I’m hoping if the buds weren’t nipped I’ll still get blooms even with leaf damage.
I’ll tell you that if they start munching my hosta when they finally emerge I’ll be waiting in the dark with a shot gun, and I’m not a gun person.
I have little seedlings sprouting all over the house.  It’s been a challenge to find good light for them.  Usually I’d move them to my little unheated greenhouse by this time, but it’s been too cold. I guess tomorrow I am going to have to set up a grow light situation somewhere.
I need to pot up the dahlias and get them started but I just don’t have the room if I can’t move the porch plants to the greenhouse. Everything is delayed this year. Many of my tender bulbs that are on the porch in pots have sprouted though, begonias, crocosmia, tuberose, acidanthera, rain lilies, cannas, are all coming up.  And new bulbs are on the way!
Every year is different in the garden.  With some trees cut down and this long delay in getting spring started it’s going to be interesting this year I think. I hope it’s “good’ different.
One thing the weather did was keep me inside writing longer.  This is a long blog.  I get interested in a topic and just keep writing.  Hope you enjoy.
Ant antics
There are hundreds of species of ants in the US and thousands across the world.  Ants have fascinating lifestyles, forming complex societies that can do remarkable things.  In nature they are prey, predators and scavengers.  Their nest building loosens and aerates the soil.  Ants pollinate some plants and carry away and “plant” the seeds of others.  When they are not in your house and not a harmful species they should be left alone.

It’s when ants intersect with humans that problems arise.  Some ants are a threat to humans, but most are just a nuisance problem.  The tiny sweet eating ants in your home aren’t going to harm the house or you, but many people can’t tolerate them.   I know there are some tiny red ants living in my vegetable garden that I detest because they attack and bite me while I’m planting or weeding.  But they aren’t fire ants and the bites less serious than mosquito stings, so I don’t go on a killing spree.
I confess I can’t tell most ant species from each other, although I can identify a few.  Ants can be hard to identify unless you are an entomologist.  I’m going to give some brief descriptions of ants that can cause serious problems.  But ant control is basically the same if you are doing it to remove a pest or a nuisance species, so I will cover control of ants at the end of the article.  First let’s discuss some ants that do more harm than others.
Allegheny mound ant Formica exsectoides
This ant species is found from the east coast to just west of the Appalachian Mountains. It can either be a reddish color or black and sometimes both colors exist in the same colony.  It’s fond of open woods, or open undisturbed areas.  It sometimes appears in tree and shrub nurseries and home landscapes.  They build a large mound in the sun, which helps incubate their eggs and larvae. 
If Allegheny ants need more sun they try to kill any vegetation that shades the mound.  They do this by biting the plant and injecting formic acid.  They can kill good sized trees over time with repeated injections.  Plants being attacked by these ants often have brown blister like bumps on trunks and stems.
Allegheny ant mounds are large and quite conspicuous, up to 3 feet high and 6 feet wide.  From time to time the colony will split and form a new mound, spreading across the area. Besides the ants killing any plants near the mounds they also aggressively attack anyone who disturbs the mounds. Homeowners may want to eliminate them.  These ants are hunters of other ants and insects, although they will also scavenge for honeydew from aphids, plant nectar and other sweets.  They rarely enter homes and won’t nest there.

Carpenter ants (Camponotus spp.)
The black carpenter ant (Camponotus pennsylvanicus). is one of the most common species of carpenter ant in the US but there are many species. These large black ants cause a lot of concern for homeowners and they can cause damage to homes.  These ants don’t eat wood like termites do but they tunnel in it to make homes and can do structural damage. They also tunnel in trees, hollowing out the inside.  They prefer wet or rotting wood and if carpenter ants invade the homes structure it almost always had water damage in the area first.
If you see a few of the large black ants in the house in the summer, it may not be cause for worry.  These ants often range widely for food and their nest may be outside away from your home.  If you see them in the winter though, it probably means they have a nest in the house somewhere, unless you are bringing in firewood they may have been in.  If you see the mating stage, flying carpenter ants, in the home in large quantities you almost certainly have a nest inside.
Carpenter ants in the woods are part of natures recycling plan and do no harm.  They should be left alone in this circumstance.  But you may want to eliminate them from garden areas as they are a species that herds and protects aphids, which are not good for your plants.
Carpenter ants are hunters, herders and scavengers. They hunt and eat insects including smaller ants, they “milk” aphids for their honeydew secretions and they scavenge for sweet liquids, like soft fruit juices, honey, nectar and human foods and for protein sources like dead insects and small animals.  Most foraging is done at night.  Different species of carpenter ants may prefer different food sources.
Red Imported fire ant Solenopsis invicta
This is a much-feared ant that has steadily been working it’s way from the south to the north.  The first two segments of the fire ant body are often copper brown and the last segment black, but some worker ants can be all red or all black.  They have 10 antenna segments and two spike-like projections in the constricted area before the abdomen.
The fire ant has a bite that feels like fire as the name suggests, and it’s very aggressive. It uses its jaws to grasp and hold onto a victim then injects them with an alkaloid venom called solenopsin from a projection on the abdomen, (like a bee stinger). On a human this cause a red painful area with a white pustule in the center. If an animal or even human gets enough bites it can kill them.  They often kill ground nesting birds and baby animals on the ground.
Fire ants may build large mounds in open areas similar to the Allegany ants but they also nest underground, often in moist areas near ponds, ditches, rivers and under piles of brush and debris and so on.  They may nest under concrete slab foundations or patios. You do not want to get close to these nests without protection because the ants will pour out and attack anything that disturbs their home.
After heavy rains and flooding the ants may be seen migrating in huge clusters to a better place.  In flood waters they may form rafts of ants.  You want to stay well away from these migrating/floating groups.
Fire ants feed on tender plant growth and can cause considerable damage to gardens and crops.  Because they damage wildlife populations, crops, and are a hazard to humans they should be eliminated in any area they are found in.  Since they are dangerous it’s best to call a professional exterminator to kill these ants.
The red areas are where fire ants already exist.  Blue and purple areas are thought to be the extent of where they can successfully live.
Crazy Ants Nylanderia fulva,
Fire ants have caused much grief for southern gardeners since they worked their way up from South America many years ago.  Now a new invading ant is taking over fire ant territory, and since it may survive cooler weather better than fire ants, might become a problem for northern gardeners if it is carried north. This ant is also called Rasberry Crazy ant (named for the discoverer, not the fruit, hence the spelling) but the official common name is Tawny Crazy ant.  It too comes from South America.  It’s a non-descript, reddish brown medium sized ant.
They get the name Crazy ant because of the huge erratic colonies they build up; often the Crazy Ant population in an area will be 100 times more than all other ant species combined.  They also seem to move erratically in their search for food. They eat anything, including other ants, and eliminate all competing species, even fire ants.  The worst thing about them is that unlike fire ants they invade homes, often in the thousands, and are very hard to control.  They often damage electrical systems and equipment by eating components or shorting them out.  
The key to keeping them from spreading north is to watch for ants hitchhiking in things like potted plants, camping equipment and RV’s.  These ants do not fly at any stage of their life so their spread is solely by foot travel or hitchhiking.  Be very careful with nursery plants you receive from the south, particularly those from Texas and Florida.  While they may have been inspected, there’s always a chance a crazy ant could slip through.   And if you visit the south please be very careful not to bring ants back with you.
Now let’s discuss some ant myths as well as control.
Ants and peonies
When people look at peonies and peony buds they often notice ants on them and that makes for some interesting conversation.  Ants are neither bad for peonies nor good for them.  Peonies have many nectar glands, they occur in the flowers reproductive parts, starting when the buds enlarge and lasting at least to the green seed pod stage.  Ants enjoy this nectar.  But peonies don’t need ants to eat the nectar.  Ants don’t help the buds open by eating “sticky” nectar off and they don’t generally pollinate the peony flower either.  Ants do defend a food source to some extent and may keep things like caterpillars from eating the flowers.  But this is a minor benefit in most cases.
Peonies without ants will open their flowers just fine.  And the ants don’t harm the flowers so there’s no need to control them. There’s plenty of nectar for everyone.  Using pesticides in this case, even organic ones, is not good environmental stewardship.  I saw a recommendation to sprinkle powdered sugar on peony buds to remove ants.  That would probably bring a whole lot more ants, because ants love sugar.  And that kind of tinkering might well prevent peony buds from opening well or looking good.  It might also cause mold to form.  Please don’t try that nonsense.
Ants don’t show up on every peony plant.  Some varieties seem to attract more ants than others, and what’s available in your area for ant food may determine whether you have ants on your peony flowers or not.  If you object to ants being on flowers you are cutting for a bouquet you can shake the flowers or dip them slowly into cold water upside down to remove ants.
Ants and cornmeal
Here’s another common myth concerning ants.  Someone wants an organic solution for getting rid of ants and someone else recommends sprinkling cornmeal- or grits- where the ants are to get rid of them.  Somehow the idea that ants eat cornmeal or grits then bloat and explode got started and it’s hard to make that false idea die.  There’s no evidence that ants ever die from eating cornmeal or grits.  And the biology of the ant’s digestive system makes that explosion pretty much impossible.
Ants don’t digest solid foods they may gather, like pollen grains, pieces of dead caterpillars, leaves and so on.  The solid bits go into a special pouch area and get carried back to the nest where they are fed to the ant larvae, which do digest solids.  The larvae then regurgitate a liquid which is shared through the colony of both worker ants and larvae.  There’s no gas build up since they have the ability to regurgitate.  Researchers have fed cornmeal and other substances to ant colonies with no problems. 
The nonsense of cornmeal killing ants probably got started because cornmeal is often used in ant pesticides as an attractant.  A poison is liquefied then added to cornmeal which absorbs it.  The cornmeal makes it easier for the ants to carry the poison deep inside a nest and the starch in cornmeal is tasty to ants.  But the cornmeal needs to be saturated with poison before it kills the ants.
When you sprinkle cornmeal around in the garden you aren’t killing pests, you are attracting them.  You’ll get ants as well as mice and squirrels and other critters.  And cornmeal can also mold and look and smell nasty.  When you hear someone recommending using cornmeal to make ants explode just laugh.
Controlling ants
By reading the section above you now know cornmeal doesn’t kill ants.  So lets talk about how you can get rid of them.  We’ll call it controlling ants because you are never going to totally eliminate all ants in your environment.
First thing to try is disruption of their food supply and nesting areas.  This is pesticide free and generally environmentally friendly.  In the home eliminate food crumbs, food left out on counters, even spills that aren’t cleaned up on counters and tables. An ant colony can feast on a smear of jelly left on a counter.  The cookie crumbs under the highchair are like a banquet.
If you have a large ant problem you can put pet food dishes in a slightly larger dish filled with water to make an ant moat.  Some ant species are attracted to sweets and others to protein sources. Since ants follow a scent trail of other ants to food sources clean counters and floors frequently.
Now disrupt their nesting areas.  Inside that may be drying out wet areas to get rid of carpenter ants and replacing wet damaged wood. There may be a rotting tree close to the house outside, or a pile of old lumber or firewood that needs to be removed.  The small household ants may nest in crawlspaces, basements, under carpets, even flower pots.  Try to track them to where they are coming from and eliminate their home.  Yes, some will just relocate but if you eliminate their food sources and constantly disturb their nests they will relocate farther away, out of your home.
Outside eliminate ant mounds in the yard as soon as you see them, before they get large.  Rake over them with a sturdy rake and pour a bucket of hot soapy water on the mound area. Contrary to popular media belief, hot soapy water probably won’t kill many ants, but if you disturb their nests often enough they may relocate to an area far away.
Remember to be very careful disturbing the nests of fire ants. They can seriously harm you if you get enough bites. It’s probably best to hire an expert if you suspect you have fire ants.
Let’s just get the boric acid/borax thing over with first.  It’s the most common “home remedy” for ants circulated in social media and among gardeners.  And yes, boric acid kills ants, it’s one of the most common ingredients in commercial ant control products and get this- it’s a registered pesticide!  When you use boric acid, whether you buy commercial products or mix up some concoction you read about, you are applying a chemical pesticide, not a “natural” product. 
And despite all the claims boric acid is not harmless to children and pets.  It’s not always safer than other chemicals either. It’s a moderately safe pesticide if used correctly.  And many of the home remedies that include mixing borax acid or a close sub, borax (they are not the exact same thing by the way) are much less safe than a commercial product.  Here’s why.
Boric acid in commercial pesticides is mixed with attractants that attract ants or cockroaches but aren’t that attractive to pets and kids. The directions, which you should follow because in pesticides they are the legal way to use them, will tell you the appropriate way to apply the product and how much to use. These pesticides are often packaged in a way that makes it less likely a child or pet will consume them, such as in the little ant buttons or other types of bait stations.
When people go to the drugstore and buy some boric acid or the grocery to buy borax, a laundry product, and then mix it with jelly or honey they are making a pesticide that is attractive to kids and pets.  When you are spreading it on trees or other things outside, like some media posts urge you to do, you are also attracting bees and other helpful insects and wildlife, all of which can be harmed or killed by the product.  It kills all insects, not just harmful ones.
Boric acid used to be prescribed as an eyewash and as a douche.  Medical experts have quit advising it for those uses because frequent exposure to the product has been found to cause kidney damage and other problems.  In the late 80’s there was a popular folk remedy floating around that advised moms to coat a pacifier with honey and boric acid to ease sore gums.  This caused seizures in infants.  A nursery disinfectant with boric acid caused the deaths of several babies in the 1960’s.
Boric acid is not absorbed easily through the skin except on wounds.  Boric acid powder can be inhaled, and chronic exposure will cause problems. Getting powder in the eyes will cause severe damage. But the most common way to be poisoned by boric acid is by consuming it.  Normally pets and children would not eat enough boric acid to make them terribly ill but when someone mixes it with jelly, honey or maple syrup they may consume enough to become seriously ill or die.
Consumption of boric acid (and borax) causes vomiting, diarrhea, listlessness, fever, skin rashes, seizures, kidney and other organ damage, coma, and death.  Young children seem to be affected more severely. Children have died from boric acid poisoning. There have been many pet deaths from boric acid poisoning. Boric acid causes fetal abnormalities in animals and possibly humans. It causes atrophy (shrinking)of the testicles in animals. Poisoning can be acute- from one large dose- or chronic- from repeated small doses.
Boric acid is not harmless to plants either.  Boric acid products on plant foliage will dry it out and cause leaf death.  Too much boric acid in the soil causes plant death.  This can happen when boric acid products are leached into the soil by rain or irrigation.
So, the bottom line is boric acid is a pesticide and can cause poisoning like all other chemical pesticides.  If you mix up concoctions with it, they must be placed in containers that pets and children cannot get into.  Sweet mixes should not be openly spread around in the environment where they can kill bees, helpful insects, and wildlife.  If you use a powdered mix pets should not be able to walk through it.
Here’s some links about toxicity of boric acid.
Other pesticides for ants
There are several commercial pesticides on the market for controlling ants. They may be sprays, powders or baits.  If you follow the label directions, they are as safe as the home or commercial remedies with boric acid.  Active ingredients can contain imiprothrin and cypermethrin, Indoxacarb, hydramethylnon, and orange peel extract among other things.  Read labels carefully, some products can’t be used inside or near food or food crops. 
Carpenter ants and fire ants, possibly crazy ants may require professional exterminators for best results.  They have access to chemicals and methods homeowners do not.
Pepper Primer
Peppers are a poplar plant in gardening circles now.  There are hundreds of cultivars on the market and there’s an ongoing contest to produce the hottest pepper for some reason. I think many people plant peppers as a hobby rather than a food crop.  There are some beautiful ornamental peppers out there that look good in flower beds and containers also.
Ornamental pepper

When I talk about peppers here I am not talking about the pepper common in shakers on tables everywhere, the pepper in “salt and pepper”, often referred to as black pepper.  That pepper is from the plant Piper nigrum, which is not related to the peppers we eat the flesh of. The dried berries of Piper nigrum are ground into a coarse powder to form the spice pepper.
This article will be about growing peppers whose fleshy fruit we consume, the peppers we refer to as green peppers, sweet pepper, Chile peppers, cayenne peppers., Jalapeno peppers and so on. These are varieties of Capiscum annuum and other Capiscum species such as Capsicum baccatum, Capsicum chinense, Capsicum frutescens, and Capsicum pubescens.
Peppers are native to Central and South America and southern Asia.  Many countries have a favorite type of pepper that is featured in local cuisine.
Pepper plants generally form a bush shape from 2 to 4 feet high. When allowed to grow more than more year the stems of pepper can become woody.  Pepper leaves are generally oblong and usually shiny green although there are peppers with variegated foliage grown as ornamentals.
Pepper flowers are either white, or in a few species lavender or purple.  They have 6 petals.  Pepper fruits, (the part we eat), start out green, sometimes with purplish streaks and mature to a wide variety of colors.  The fruits also come in a variety of shapes from the blocky bell pepper shape to tiny berry shapes to long slender shapes.
One thing that must be mentioned here is that pepper fruits are neither male or female and the lobes on a bell pepper do not tell its sex, or whether it’s sweeter because there are 3 or 4 lobes.  There is a widely circulated picture on social media that proclaims this amazing “fact”.  It’s absolutely false.  Fruits do not have sexes. The lobes on a bell pepper are different in different varieties and growing conditions may also affect whether a pepper fruit has 3 or 4 lobes.
Pepper fruits generally have white or tan flat seeds attached to a white membrane.  In some species the seeds are dark colored. The seeds can pass through the digestive systems of animals and still sprout, which is a way wild plants are able to distribute their offspring.
Pepper heat
The heat or pungency of a pepper depends on the species and how it has been selected in different cultivars.  The heat comes from a phytonutrient called capsaicin. There is some heat in the flesh of a pepper but the part of the pepper that is the most pungent is the white membrane inside the pepper that the seeds are attached to. Originally nature probably perfected the the heat in a pepper fruit to discourage animals from consuming them.  Most peppers get more pungent when they are fully ripe.  Dried peppers are hotter than fresh.
Pepper heat is no joke.  The amount of capsaicin in a pepper determines how hot it is.  A lot of capsaicin sends a message to the brain that something toxic has been eaten and many people respond to really hot peppers with vomiting.  The digestive fluid in the vomit with the chewed peppers may cause chemical burns to the mouth and digestive tract. The body responds to capsaicin with an inflammatory response that can damage the gastrointestinal system.  
Eating extremely hot peppers causes you to sweat, the nose to run and sometimes causes breathing difficulties with the throat swelling or an asthma attack.  After eating extremely hot peppers having a bowel movement can also become painful.  I don’t understand why people put themselves through the pain.  A little spice is nice but feeling like your mouth is on fire is not.
If you are foolish enough to bite on these extremely hot peppers your mouth will feel if as if it’s on fire.  (One note- use milk, not water to try and remove the burning sensation.) If these very hot pepper’s juice gets on the skin it will first feel like it’s burning, then the area will go numb.  Blisters can actually form on skin from the body’s response to the nerve damage. These very hot peppers should not be handled without gloves and care must be taken not to get juice from them near the eyes.  The pain usually lasts about 20 minutes but can last a lot longer.
Pepper heat is measured by the Scoville scale, with higher numbers being hotter. The hottest pepper now officially known is the Carolina Reaper with 1.5 million Scoville units.  However, a Scottish man claims he has developed a hotter pepper, the "Dragon’s Breath" chili. This new pepper supposedly has a Scoville scale rating of 2.4 million heat units.  A bell pepper has a 0 Scoville rating. 
People for some reason, keep selecting peppers to be hotter and hotter, even though we are pretty much at the limit to what people can tolerate.  While tolerance builds up over time to the heat because you damage your taste buds, medical professionals frown on consumption of the really hot peppers, especially in contests where as many are eaten as possible and as quickly as possible. 
There are reports that people eating the very hot peppers sometimes have seizures and heart attack like symptoms.  People can die from an extreme inflammatory/immune system reaction and there is concern among medical professionals that contests involving the extremely hot peppers may result in death.  There is a child’s death attributed to ingesting too much chili powder.  I would never leave these extremely hot peppers where children or pets could get them.

Choosing varieties
There are some broad categories in peppers other than their ranking on the Scoville scale. Varieties developed from Capsicum annuum include many common garden peppers such as: bell peppers, sweet/Italian peppers, serrano, cayenne, paprika and jalapeños. 
Varieties developed from Capsicum chinense includes all of the Habaneros, Scotch Bonnets, Trinidad Scorpions, the Bhut Jolokia (ghost pepper) and the Carolina Reaper.
Capsicum baccatum, is the species that produces aji peppers, and a few other varieties and Capsicum frutescens, is a sometimes debated species which produces the tabascos.  (Some botanists believe this is not a separate species but a variety of Capsicum annuum).  And many ornamental peppers are derived from Capsicum pubescens, which has purple flowers.
When you look in a good garden catalog you’ll see dozens if not hundreds of pepper varieties.  First decide what heat value you are interested in.  Then look for disease resistance, and the suitability to your climate.  If you are interested in bell peppers you may want to see what color the “green” pepper ripens into.  A variety of colors makes salads and other dishes interesting. Peppers both sweet and hot come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
If you are not interested in saving seeds don’t worry about mixing hot and sweet peppers in the garden.  While some may cross pollinate it won’t affect the flavor or heat of this year’s crop. A sweet pepper stays sweet even if it’s pollinated by a hot pepper nearby.  If you saved seed and plant it next year you may get some peppers with the traits of both parents.  If you want to save seed plant different varieties 15-20 feet apart.
Here’s a link to a guide to crossing peppers to get new varieties.

Starting peppers from seed
Peppers require warm soil to germinate well.  Soil temperature of 80 degrees or slightly higher is ideal and will probably require the use of a heating pad under the seedling tray.  Use a sterile seed starting mix for starting seeds. Start seeds indoors about 8 weeks before your expected last frost date in spring. It’s not recommended to start seeds directly in the garden.  At 80 degrees soil temperature seeds should germinate in 7-10 days.  If the soil is cooler it will take longer.
You could start peppers in flats but since that will require early transplanting into separate pots I prefer to start 2-3 seeds in a 2 inch pot, cutting off all but one plant after germination.  Otherwise transplant seedlings into a 2-4 inch pot, one to a pot, when the first true leaves appear. 
Keep the seedlings in full sunlight or position grow lights a few inches above the tops of seedlings. They need at least 14 hours of light.  Day temperatures should be 70 degrees and nights around 60 degrees. 
After the plants have their third set of leaves some people like to lower the night temperature to around 55 degrees for a month.  This is thought to encourage earlier and more flowering.  However, you want to keep pepper plants from setting flowers before transplanting.  Peppers transplanted with flowers seem to suffer more from transplanting shock.
If the soilless mix you started the peppers in did not contain fertilizer, begin fertilizing seedlings once they have 3 sets of leaves. Use a water-soluble fertilizer lower in nitrogen but containing phosphorus and calcium.  A tomato fertilizer works well.  Follow label directions for seedlings or transplants.
Let the soil surface dry slightly between watering.  Try to water from the bottom while seedlings are small. 
Transplanting peppers into the garden
Harden off seedlings before transplanting them outside.  This means moving them outside for a few hours every day in a lightly shaded spot protected from the wind. Do not expose them to full sun for several days. Make the outside time longer every day.  Make sure they don’t dry out.  A week of hardening off will make transplanting much easier on the plants.
To do well peppers need warm soil.  You may want to wait a week or so later than transplanting tomatoes when you plant peppers.  Pull back any mulch in the planting area a few days before planting to let soil warm up.  Plants should be about 2 feet apart in rows 2 feet apart.
If the day temperatures are less than 70 consider a little extra protection for the plants.  I generally use a tomato cage around each pepper plant for support during the growing season. I put it in around the plant when I transplant them.  If it’s cool I wrap the cage with row cover, trapping a little extra heat.  Burlap could be used.  Leave the top open.  You could also use stakes around the plant to hold a screen.  Remove these “screens” when day temps are above 80 degrees.
Try to transplant on a cloudy day. If plants haven’t been hardened off before transplanting, you’ll need to shade them for a few days.  Keep plants watered well as they adjust to outside.
General culture
Peppers prefer slightly acidic organic rich soil.  They are heavy feeders, that is they like to be fertilized for good production.  A high nitrogen fertilizer will produce bushy plants but few fruits. A fertilizer for tomatoes is usually good for peppers.  It will have phosphorus and calcium which peppers appreciate.  Fertilize according to label directions, about once a month.
Some pepper varieties may need staking or a cage, especially when loaded with fruit.  Water if it’s dry and hot, plants need about an inch of water a week.  Try to keep water off foliage and water well before sundown so plants dry off before dark.
In some pepper varieties, like bell peppers, the fruit is picked before it’s ripe, in others the fruit is allowed to ripen.  Fruits usually start out green and change to various colors such as red, orange, yellow, purple, or black. Even bell peppers commonly referred to as green peppers will change color if allowed to ripen.  Ripe peppers are either sweeter or hotter than the green stage, depending on variety. Keep ripe peppers picked if you want the plant to keep producing.  
To avoid disease problems, rotate the spot where you plant peppers every year.  Do not plant them where tomatoes and eggplants, which they are related to and share disease with, grew the year before.  Peppers can be grown in large containers.
Insects rarely bother peppers. Aphids and stinkbugs can be a problem and plants should be treated for them as they spread other diseases.  Use a registered pesticide for food plants. Occasionally tomato hornworms will also attack peppers.  These can be picked off by hand.  
Bacterial spot is a bacterial disease of peppers that can cause problems.  Look for resistant varieties and seed companies which test and certify their seed as the disease can be carried on seeds. It causes black or brown spots on leaves, stems and fruit.  The spots may be raised and look like a scab. Leaves may yellow and fall off. Production is greatly decreased.  Home gardeners have no good treatments for the disease.
Anthracnose is a fungal disease of peppers that affects all stages of pepper fruit, leaving black or gray moldy looking, rotting areas on them.  It can be prevented by using a fungicide on the plants as fruit begins to form.
Cucumber mosaic virus affects more than cucumber and, in the Northeast, often causes problems.  It causes yellow and pale green blotches on leaves. Leaves may curl. Plants will grow slowly and don’t produce well. It’s spread by aphids and many common weeds harbor the disease.  There’s no cure and plants must be destroyed to keep it from spreading.  Keeping peppers weed free and treating for aphids helps prevent the disease.
Other disease sometimes occurs, and different areas of the country may have different diseases flare up.  For help diagnosing plant diseases contact your county Extension office.

Peppers are perennial in warm climates.  They can be over-wintered or grown in heated greenhouses in pots.  To get fruit in winter there also needs to be 10 or more hours of good strong light.  I have seen people bring in the smaller ornamental peppers for winter growing as houseplants with various degrees of success.

Culinary uses of peppers
Peppers are consumed in a variety of ways around the world and a major flavor component of many styles of cuisine.  Peppers are eaten fresh in salads and cooked into a huge array of dishes.  They are grilled and baked.  Some cuisine calls for specific types of peppers and they do have different tastes and levels of heat.  Some peppers have a fruity undertone. Peppers are now being put into beverages.
Peppers can be fermented, canned, dried, pickled, or frozen for storage. 
Other uses of peppers
Many cultures developed medicinal uses for peppers.  Some medicinal uses call for specific varieties of peppers but if a pepper has capsicum, which is one of the medicinal component of a pepper it can probably be substituted. Other helpful compounds in peppers include, carotinoids, flavonoids, and steroid saponins.
Cayenne pepper is often cited as a treatment for upset stomach, toothache, fever, menstrual problems, hay fever, lowering blood sugar and heart disease prevention.  For this use dried powdered pepper is generally used and made into a tea.  You can also buy it in capsules.  Medical studies are inconclusive for most of these uses.  There are promising medical studies using capsicum for migraine and cluster headaches.
If you are taking pepper orally in amounts used medicinally and also use prescription medications, you should consult with a pharmacist.  Oral pepper medications combined with some prescription drugs can cause blood thinning and excessive bleeding.
One of the most common uses for capsicum is in a topical cream applied to the skin for pain relief for arthritis, neuralgia, neuropathy, sprains, muscle spasms and back pain.  Some people will get a rash from applying capsicum cream to the skin.  A cough may also develop from it’s use if the person is taking ACE inhibitor medications. Medical studies have proven capsicum can help some people with these conditions.
You can make a type of capsicum salve by finely processing moderately hot peppers like jalapenos and mixing them with oils like jojoba or olive oil and beeswax and heating them to infuse the pepper into the oil.  But it’s simpler to buy a capsicum cream at the drugstore. 
Always start slowly with any capsicum remedies, using them in small amounts until you see how they affect you.
Capsicum is also used as a weapon, in pepper spray and in military grade chemical weapons. It’s sometimes recommended as a deterrent to animals and other pests in the garden, but this use is rarely effective. Many birds actually like hot peppers for instance. Many animals ignore it.  It is easily blown or washed away and relatively expensive to use this way.
Every food producing gardener needs a pepper plant or two.  They can even be mixed into a flower garden as many varieties are quite ornamental, especially as they fill with colorful fruit.  So plant a pretty pepper plant so you can pick a peck of peppers.
Free MG lesson-Houseplant basics
In the Master Gardener program I generally taught about houseplants in conjunction with plant propagation.  I would bring in my office plants, and occasionally a donated plant and we would hack them up. People would leave with houseplants of their own, even if they didn’t have them before.
I can’t give all of you reading this article new houseplants although I wish I could.  But if you were thinking about adding houseplants maybe this will help you decide.  It’s the very basics of course and you should research each new species of houseplant you get to find out it’s individual needs.
Why you need houseplants

In the seventies having your house full of plants was the “in” thing.  Every store you went in had aisles of houseplants, pots, soil and macramé hangers.  Many new types of houseplants were introduced to feed the public interest.  While the interest in house plants has waned a little, there is still good reason to have plants in the home and office.
Several studies have proven that people prefer rooms with plants over rooms without them, that they feel calmer and happier.  Studies of hospital patients have found that patients report less pain and are able to go home sooner if the room has plants.  Malls, hotels, casinos, medical buildings, office buildings and other large buildings usually feature some kind of indoor landscaping, because of the stress reducing and mood lifting qualities plants have, as well as their beauty.

Our indoor air is filled with pollutants. Gasses volatize off wood products, paint, inks, plastics and other things and fill the air with toxins like formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethylene.  Smoking, cooking and burning candles release toxins and tiny particles into the air that irritate the lungs. Newer, airtight homes are very prone to “sick air” from all the toxins swirling around inside with few drafts to provide clean, fresh air.

Plants pull that polluted air through them, using carbon dioxide to make food, neutralizing toxic chemicals and releasing pure oxygen into the air.  Microscopic particles floating in the air are stored in the plants vacuoles, tiny water filled sacs in plant cells, until the plant dies, removing them from the air you breathe.  The soil in the plants pot also absorbs and holds toxic chemicals in the air.
NASA thinks so highly of the plants ability to clean the air that they placed plants on space missions.  The common spider plant was found to be an excellent air cleaner. Other good air cleaners are chrysanthemums, peace lilies, philodendron, pothos, dracaena and snake plants.  Now plants can’t clear a room of smoke or absorb all toxins, but houseplants will help clean the air.

There is a houseplant to suit every room condition.  Even offices without windows can have plants if they are well lit.  While just the green foliage of plants is soothing there are houseplants that light up your world with flowers.  Plants make excellent hobbies for people confined inside during long winters.
While retail outlets for houseplants are not as numerous as they were in the seventies houseplants are still sold in many garden stores and nurseries, often during the winter when the perennials and annuals are gone.  Houseplants come in all price ranges but even some large potted plants can be purchased for less than $20.  Beautiful pots and other accessories turn plants into decorating assets.

All plants will require some care but most only require a few minutes of time each week.  Choosing the right houseplant for your light and temperature conditions will help assure the plant will grow and thrive for you with minimal care. Most will only require water, fertilizing a few times a year and occasional dusting of the leaves.

Even if you keep your home cool to save energy - 50 -55 degrees at night, there are houseplants that will thrive.  In fact, cool air holds more moisture, which most plants like.  Some plants that like cooler temperatures are English Ivy, geraniums, spider plants, cuphea, yucca, Cast Iron plant, Sansevieria (snake plant), parlor palm, Norfolk Island pine, and tradescantia.  Some cacti will thrive in cool areas in the winter months.

There’s no good excuse not to make your house a home or your office more appealing with houseplants.  People and plants belong together, inside and out.  Whether it’s an elaborate indoor landscape or a few pots on the windowsill, plants in the home will make you healthier and happier.

What do houseplants need?

If you choose your houseplants like you are supposed to choose your outside plants- right plant right place- then your plants should thrive.  If you must have a certain plant because you like how it looks then at least know its needs so you can try to modify your conditions to suit it.

How do you know what a houseplants needs are?  First, all plants need three things, light, water and essential minerals.  Most houseplants you buy come with a care tag, read it.  If the plant is a gift from a friend or doesn’t have a tag at least try to identify it so you can look up its cultural requirements.  This site has some articles on individual houseplants (look at the article list on the right of the blog), and this article is going to give you some general guidelines for houseplant requirements.


The most important factor in plant growth is light.  The light can be artificial light although sunlight is a plants best friend.  Plants vary in the intensity of light they need, and some plants also have needs for a certain “day length” if we want them to put on new growth or flower.

When choosing houseplants pay attention to what type of light they prefer.  Plants that require high light or full sun will need to be in a south facing window.  South facing windows may actually have very intense light in mid spring and fall, when the suns angle strikes just right, and plants will need to be watched for burning.  Solarium, sunrooms and green houses will generally have high light- full sun conditions.

Plants that require bright light do well in east or west windows or about 2 feet away from south windows.  Flowering plants are most likely to require high light or bright light.  Both high light and bright light conditions, especially when accompanied by warmer temperatures, will need higher humidity for plants to function optimally.

Moderate light would be close to but not directly in front of east or west windows.   Some brightly lit offices with no windows still give plants moderate light.  Rooms that are painted white or have many reflective surfaces increase the light plants get.  North windows sills also afford moderate light.  Moderate light may be called partial shade on plant tags.

Dim light or shade would be in areas far from windows, or in areas not as well-lit from artificial light.   You should still be able to read in these areas for plants to grow.

These conditions describe indoor light.  When houseplants are moved outside for the summer even high light and bright light plants should go into light shade until they acclimate.
Staghorn fern

If you have plants that need bright light and only have moderate or dim light conditions in your home or office, you can supplement natural light or room lighting with spot lights on the plants.  For most foliage plants any incandescent or fluorescent light will work.  For flowering plants and growing seedlings a “grow” light bulb would work best.

Below are lists of common houseplants and the conditions they prefer.  Some plants are suitable for many areas.  The names used are common names generally used.

Plants that will grow in or need high light or full sun include, cacti, fruiting plants like tomatoes and strawberries, fruiting figs, citrus trees, hibiscus, ornamental peppers, pomegranate, miniature roses,and  window sill herbs like basil, thyme, chives. 

Plants that will grow in or need bright light include:  abutilons, African violets, Agave, aloe, amaryllis, asparagus fern, azaleas, bamboo, begonias, Boston ferns, bridal veil, cacti, Christmas cactus, citrus trees, coleus, corn plants, crotons, dieffenbacia, English Ivy, ficus, gardenias, geraniums, gloxinia, hoya, impatiens, jade plants, kalanchoe, Norfolk Island pine, orchids(some), oxalis, palms, prayer plant, peperomia, pilea, poinsettia, polka dot plant, pothos, rosemary, rubber tree, sensitive plant,  schefflera, spider plants, split leaf philodendron, swiss cheese plant, tradsecantia, zebra plant, zebrina. 

Plants that will grow in or require moderate light include:, aralia, bamboo, bridal veil, cast iron plant, Chinese evergreen, dieffenbacia, dracaena, English ivy, heart leaf philodendron, Parlor palm, pothos, prayer plant, orchids (some), rex begonias, peace lily, spider plants, split leaf philodendron, snake plant, rabbits foot fern, most ferns except Boston. 
Plants that will grow in dim light include: cast iron plant, Chinese evergreen, peace lily, snake plant.

How to water houseplants

Long northern winters just cry out for homes and offices to be filled with the restful, cheerful green of houseplants.  But some people just can’t seem to keep houseplants thriving in the home or office and a great deal of the problems can be traced to improper watering. Learning to water your houseplants correctly can turn brown thumbs into green ones.

First- don’t water on a schedule.  Don’t say that every Wednesday you will water the plants.  You might schedule a day to check the plants to see if they need water but don’t just automatically go around and water each pot.  Some plants won’t need water on the same day each week, and some may need it more often to remain healthy.

Plants may need less water in the winter when temperatures are cooler, the light is less, and plants slow down their growth.  When warm weather arrives, and the light is strong and growth vigorous they will need additional water. Plants in plastic or metal pots usually need less water than those in porous clay or ceramic pots.

Symptoms of watering problems

The symptoms of over watering and under watering are often the same – wilting.  Wilting can happen because the soil is dry, and the top parts of the plant don’t get enough water.  Or it can mean that the soil in the pot is saturated with water, the plants roots have rotted, and the top of the plant isn’t getting any water through those rotted roots. Feel the soil to see if it feels dry.  Don’t just touch the top- push your finger in the soil about an inch- or more for deep pots.

When a plant looks wilted you should immediately feel the planting soil to see if it feels dry.  Don’t let the plant wilt on a regular basis just so you know when it needs water.  Some plants recover pretty well each time, but it takes its toll on the plants health and disease and insect resistance will be reduced.  If you touch the soil and it feels very wet, then the pot needs draining and drying, not more water, even if the plant is wilted.

Signs that the plant is suffering from dry soil other than wilting include yellowing and dropping leaves, dry leaf tips and poor flowering. If you notice a swampy smell from your flower pots you are probably keeping them too wet.
If you don’t trust your sense of touch to let you know if a plant needs water, there are many inexpensive tools on the market that will tell you if the soil is too dry.  And remember that each species of plant has a different requirement for water.  Some like to dry out between watering or even prefer to remain on the dry side. 

If a plant needs water use room temperature water.  Rain water and distilled water are best for house plants but either city water or well water can be used.  Both softened city water and well water have “salts” in them that can build up in the planting soil. More about that in a minute.  And chlorinated city water should sit for 24 hours before being used on plants; it allows much of the chlorine to dissipate into the air.  Fluoride in water is only a problem for certain species of plants.

The type of pot that you use for houseplants is crucial to their health.  It must have good drainage.  Do not use a pot without drainage holes even if you add gravel or broken pot pieces to the bottom.  After a while soil washes between the pieces and the small reservoir you created is lost. And this method creates what is called a perched water table, water collects in the soil at the top of the gravel layer and rots plant roots.  If you have a pretty pot without drain holes that you want to use find a slightly smaller pot with good drainage that will fit inside the pretty pot. Then put your plant into the smaller pot.

Pots should neither be too small or large for the plant.  Large pots are hard to water correctly, the water moves down out of the reach of the plants roots or the top layer remains dry and the bottom is saturated and damaging plant roots.  Pots that are too small and are filled with roots will need watering much more often than people realize and may be impossible to keep them watered as often as they need it.  They will need to be re-potted.

When a plant is allowed to get very dry, the planting medium may shrink away from the sides of the pot.  This creates a small gap between the soil and the pot and when you water the water goes right through the pot without soaking the soil.  If you notice water pouring out the drainage holes as soon as you pour water on the plant that is usually what is happening.  To fix this place the pot in a larger container of water and let it soak or put it in the tub and let water drip on it for a couple of hours.  The soil should saturate and expand.  Make sure the pot drains well after a couple of hours.  Then try not to let the pot get that dry again.

Reducing salt build up

Both hard and soft water have chemical salts that get into the potting soil when we water plants.  Fertilizers also contain chemical salts.  Outdoors excess salts usually move through the soil and out of the range of plant roots, but in a pot they have nowhere to go.  They end up burning the plants roots and stunting its growth or even killing it.  Often a whitish- yellow crusty build up on top of the soil or even on the outside of the pot will be noticed.

Signs of excess salt damage include stunted growth, sometimes reddish or yellow discoloration of foliage, dry, browned leaf tips and loss of lower leaves and wilting from burned root tips. 

To keep salts from building up use distilled water or rainwater to water plants if possible.  If not water the plants and then empty the saucers that collect the excess water after an hour or so.  Salt that is washed through the pot when you water won’t then be absorbed back into the pot as the soil dries out again.  This is usually not enough to totally stop salt build up, especially if you regularly fertilize your houseplants. 

Every few months pots watered with soft city water or hard well water should be leached.  The pot needs to be placed in tub or sink with drainage and flooded with water continuously for a couple hours.  Let the water run slowly through the pot so soil doesn’t get washed away too. In some cases of heavy salt build up it may be better to repot the plant with fresh potting soil.


In cases where more than one person is interested in the indoor plants it is a good idea to agree to let one person be responsible for watering plants in the home or office.  At the least everyone should care only for the plants in their personal space and only one person waters the plants in common spaces.  Too many people watering isn’t always great for the plants and one regular caretaker gets a better feel for when a plant needs water.

The way to keep from over watering is to check the soil first before watering and not to water on a schedule, only by need.   Another way to keep from over watering is to use pots that have good drainage. Properly watering your houseplants along with choosing the right plants for the conditions will result in beautiful lush plants you will be proud to display.


Water is important to plants in another way.  Most houseplants like a humidity level above 60% but most homes have much drier conditions, especially when furnaces or air conditioners are running.  In general, warmer air holds more moisture and the warmer the plants are the less humidity they will need. There are some plants that like drier conditions and there are many ways we can increase humidity around plants that need higher humidity to be happy, or that are in hot environments.

Humidity can be increased by grouping plants, by placing plants on screens over water filled trays or adding a humidifier to the room. Misting is helpful for some plants, that’s putting water in a spray bottle and spraying plants.  Bathrooms are generally more humid than other rooms.

Plants that need high humidity include: Boston ferns, gardenias, most orchids and calathea.

Minerals- fertilizing houseplants

Plants make their own food from photosynthesis in the presence of light.  They do need some essential minerals that generally come from the soil when plants are growing in their natural environment to help with this process. Many potting soils contain no actual mineral soil at all but are mixtures of things like shredded bark, peat and other products.  These potting soils are sometimes “fertilized” by the maker, but in other cases you will need to add a little fertilizer to the mix.
Plants vary in their mineral or fertilizer needs by variety and growing conditions and what we expect them to do for us.  Flowering plants generally need more fertilizer and plants growing in ideal conditions in the spring and summer months may need more fertilizer.  But too much fertilizer in the houseplants limited environment can also be a problem. Most foliage houseplants need very little fertilizer.

If a plant is already touching the ceiling and sinking it into the floor isn’t an option, then it’s probably not a good idea to fertilize it.  However, if the plant isn’t growing well, appears weak and sparsely leafed, then fertilizer may be needed.  If you have flowering plants like African violets, geraniums, or begonias, fertilization will allow them to put on a good bloom show.  

Fertilization may also increase the plants resistance to disease and insects, just as vitamins boost our immune system.  However, if a houseplant is already struggling with an insect infestation like scale or spider mites, or a disease, fertilization shouldn’t be used until it’s starting to recover.

To fertilize houseplants, use a water-soluble fertilizer formulated for houseplants or a general-purpose plant food that includes houseplants on its label.  Read and follow the label instructions carefully for mixing the fertilizer with water.  There are even organic houseplant fertilizers such as fish emulsion on the market.
Do not make the fertilizer solution too strong!  Most commercial fertilizers are formulated with various “salts” and these build up in the medium or soil of houseplants over time.  You may notice the buildup as a crusty whitish-yellow substance on the soil surface or on the pot.  After a while this accumulated salt will harm the plant roots and cause the plant to grow poorly or die.  See how to leach out salts under the watering section above.

Houseplants need fertilizer once or twice a month from March until the beginning of September.  After September, most houseplants slow their growth because of lower light intensity and shorter days.  Fertilizing then may cause more salt build up in the soil.  There are exceptions to this rule, usually for flowering houseplants or plants under intense artificial light.

Lush, beautiful houseplants are usually carefully fertilized by their owners.  Your houseplants may only need that little extra boost to really shine.


The temperature is also a factor in houseplant happiness.  Most plants will survive between 45 and 85 degrees but within that range there are points at which various plants will grow best.  In order to flower many plants need the nights to be at least 10 degrees cooler than the days, which isn’t uncommon in thermostat controlled homes. But if you keep your home quite cool to save energy you’ll want to choose plants that thrive in cooler temperatures.  The ideal temperature for most houseplants would be 65-75 degrees.

Plants that grow well in the cooler range 45-60 degrees include: Chinese evergreen, chives, Cast Iron plant, geraniums, parlor palm, peace lily, rosemary, spider plant, tuberose begonias.  These plants must have the correct light conditions also.

How to reproduce houseplants

Many houseplants and some garden plants can be reproduced from stem cuttings, a piece of stem that is removed from the parent plant and rooted to produce a new plant.  The new plant will be exactly like the parent plant.  Many greenhouses reproduce hundreds of types of plants from cuttings.   It’s also an easy and fun way for home gardeners to reproduce plants.

Softwood cuttings are taken when the plant is growing and has leaves.  These are the cuttings generally taken from houseplants all year round and herbaceous perennials in early spring.  The best softwood cuttings or stem cuttings come from growth the plant put out in the last few months.

Basics for all cuttings

All cuttings need at least two nodes on them.  Nodes are points along a stem where a growth bud is, usually leaves are found at the nodes.  Some people refer to nodes as “joints”. In some plants there are many nodes close together and in others there are fewer nodes farther apart.  For each cutting there must be at least two nodes. One will form the upper part of the new plant or shoots, and the other will form the root system.  You must be careful not to damage the nodes when you cut pieces off the parent plant.   Longer cuttings with many nodes are not necessarily better.  Cuttings longer than 4 inches may not root well.

If cuttings are from the tip of the plant or the end of a plant piece, they are called terminal cuttings.  Terminal cuttings usually grow faster than other stem cuttings. The new growth will come at the end of the cutting, at the tip. If a piece of a plant is cut into several smaller pieces, one piece at the end is the terminal cutting and the other pieces are called stem cuttings.  These stem cuttings will produce new growth from the side of the node.

Plant cuttings will root best if the end of the cutting inserted in the soil or water to form roots is the end which would have been closest to the main stem of the parent plant.  This is especially true when making hardwood cuttings.  When dividing a stem into several pieces for cuttings make sure you leave a small “handle” of stem above the top node of the section. This is generally cut on a slant.  Pick up the cutting by the handle so you don’t damage the node which will become the upper parts of the plant.  Beneath the bottom node of the cutting cut the stem straight across as close to the node as you can without damaging it.  This part will go into the rooting medium.

For rooting all cuttings the medium – or “potting soil” should be a soilless mixture or milled peat or vermiculite.  Don’t use garden soil or compost.  Buy a light weight potting mixture for best results.

Some houseplants will root in water.  If you root them in water they may have a hard time adjusting to being planted in soil later.  You can keep some plants in water indefinitely, adding a little fertilizer from time to time.  But if you intend for your plants to be potted in soil it is best to start them in a solid medium.

Soft wood cuttings

Softwood cuttings can be rooted at any time.  Prepare the cuttings by removing all but one or two leaves at each above ground node and all the leaves from the nodes that will be underground.  If the plant has very large leaves cut the leaves in half.  Dip the bottom of the cutting in rooting hormone, which can be purchased at most garden stores.  Make a hole in the moistened planting medium; do not push the cutting into the medium because this can damage the node that will make the roots.  Firm the medium around the cutting. 

Several cuttings can be placed in one container.  Most people enclose the container in a plastic bag or place it under a glass jar to increase the humidity.  Make sure that the cuttings do not touch the sides of any covering as the pieces may rot at the spot.  If the enclosed area gets extremely wet remove the covering for a few hours.  Place these covered containers in bright light but not in direct sunlight.

Don’t tug at cuttings to see if they have rooted.  If several new leaves have developed the root system probably has too.  Carefully dig up the cuttings and pot them individually.  Fertilize the new plants lightly and move into sunlight if the plant requires it.

One special note- cuttings of succulents and cacti should be given a day or two for the cuts to heal and form a callus before being inserted into rooting medium.

Leaf cuttings

Certain plants develop little plantlets along the leaf edges.  When these are knocked off or plucked off and placed on potting medium they will grow roots.  In other plants leaves easily fall off and if they land on soil or potting medium they may begin to grow roots and develop into a new plant.  In some plants a mature leaf with its stem can start a new plant.  In still others a leaf can be cut into pieces and the pieces will start new plants.
Many of the plants that start from a leaf are succulents. Jade plants (Crassula argentia), echeveria species, kalanchoe species, sedum species, and String of Beads (Senecio rowleyanus), are examples. Sanseveria species can be started from a leaf or pieces of a leaf.

Peperomia species can be started from a leaf.  African violets, (Saintpaulia species), some streptocarpus species, Rex begonias and some other begonias also can be started from a leaf.  The forest or holiday cacti, Rhipsaldopsis species, Rhipsalis species, Zygocactus will start from stem segments, which look like leaves.

Rex begonia
When you want to propagate one of the succulents it’s best to remove a mature leaf near the bottom of the plant.  If you accidently knocked leaves off a plant you can use those too. Succulent leaves generally do not have stems or have very small stems. Let the leaves of succulents sit in a warm dry place for 2 days before you attempt to root them.  This forms a callus on the place where the leaf detached from the stem and the process of making the callus brings plant hormones to that area which will help rooting.  The callus also keeps the leaf from losing too much water.  You probably won’t notice this callus though.

Fill a small pot with a good potting medium that’s been moistened.  Don’t use garden soil or compost as these can bring in bacteria or fungi that may cause the leaf to rot or bring in a disease.  On top of the moistened media you can add a thin layer of fine gravel (parakeet gravel works) or sand.  This helps keep the surface drier, and leaves are less likely to rot.  This isn’t absolutely necessary, as long as you don’t keep the potting medium too moist. 

For succulents I don’t think it is necessary to use rooting hormone on the callus end before inserting them in planting medium.  But if you have rooting hormone already it can make your success rooting the leaf a little more likely.  Don’t push the bottom of the leaf into the potting medium, make a hole with a fork handle or pencil first.  Insert just the very bottom of the leaf and firm the potting medium around the leaf.  That’s it.  You can use the same technique with the holiday/forest cacti stem segments.

Some very tiny succulent leaves, like those from Burro’s tail, string of beads, and some sedums can just be laid on top of the moist potting medium, without sand or gravel, and lightly pressed against the medium and many will root.  You will need to water carefully so the tiny leaves aren’t being disturbed as they try to put down roots.

For peperomia, African violets, begonias, and streptocarpus remove a mature leaf near the bottom of the plant leaving as long a stem as possible.  These do not need to form a callus or be left out, they can be planted immediately.  A leaf that’s been lying around for a day or two may still root but it’s chances of surviving may be less. 

These types of plants are more likely to root when the leaf stem is dipped in rooting hormone before planting.  Many garden stores carry rooting hormone.  Fill pots with moistened potting medium as described for succulents above. The base of the leaf of these types of plants should not touch the potting medium or rot is likely to start.  So, for them using gravel or sand on the top of the medium is a good idea.

Sanseveria and rex begonias can be started from just pieces of leaves.  For sanseveria chose a mature leaf and cut the long leaves into several pieces about 2 inches long. As you cut each piece make a little notch on the bottom of each piece, the side that was closest to the root on the original plant.  The notched side is the one you insert into the planting medium.  They root better if “down” is kept down, in the original growing orientation.  Place them in potting medium as described above for succulents.  (One note; for some reason variegated leaves cut into sections usually produce plain green sanseveria plants.)

There are a couple of ways to cut a leaf of rex begonia for propagation.  Choose a mature, larger leaf.  Turn it over and make several small cuts with a razor across the raised veins of the leaf.  Lay the leaf on moist potting medium with the cut side down. Weigh or pin the leaf down so it is snug against the medium.  You can use small rocks, large staples, marbles, bent pieces of fine wire and so on.  Hopefully a new plant will develop at each cut.

Rex begonia leaves can also be cut into several sections.  Each section needs a portion of a bigger vein.  Like sanseveria the pieces seem to root better if the original orientation of the leaf is kept, with the down side inserted in the medium.  The vein will usually be thicker at that end.  Pots of rex begonias you are trying to root should be enclosed in plastic bags to increase the humidity.  If the bags get coated with moisture droplets open the bags for a few hours to lower the humidity.

When several new leaves have developed on your original leaf or leaf piece you know the plant has rooted.  It should look like a baby plant near the base of the old leaf. You can carefully transplant them now if needed and move them into full sunlight if that species prefers it.  Not every leaf will root even in the most propagation friendly plants.  If the leaf looks like it’s rotting instead of rooting, toss it.  Use new potting medium if you try to start more leaves. (The old medium can be used to pot up other mature plants.)


Some houseplants can be reproduced by division.  That is taking one large plant with several crowns and dividing the plant.  Only plants that have what looks like multiple smaller plants in the same pot can be divided.  You can’t successfully divide plats with a woody, single stem, and even some plants with multiple stems are not good subjects for division.

To divide a houseplant, you need to slide it out of its pot and gently wash away much of the soil. Then you can carefully tease apart the root ball with your fingers or use a knife to cut the root ball apart. Each new plant must have above ground stems and leaves and roots. 

Pot the new plants in good potting soil and water carefully, they won’t need a lot of water until they have established roots, but they shouldn’t get too dry.
Some plants produce “pups” or “daughter” plants at the base of the plant attached to the stem.  These can be carefully removed after they have grown a bit to start new plants.  Some plants like spider plants, produce plantlets at the end of dangling stems.  These can be removed and potted.

Houseplant pests and diseases will be discussed next week because this blog is getting really long.

Stuffed peppers with sauce

This recipe uses several different peppers but isn’t too spicy. If you want it really spicy add a drop or two of tabasco sauce to the sauce mix or some finely diced jalapenos to the meat mix.  It’s often served by putting each stuffed pepper on slice of buttered toast but that’s not necessary. I have seen people place a slice of pepper jack cheese over each pepper before pouring the hot sauce over it.
If you are freezing some of this freeze the cooked stuffed peppers separately from the sauce.

6 green or red bell peppers, well washed
1 cup tomato sauce
1 cup hot cooked rice
½ pound of cooked hamburger finely crumbled
1/8 teaspoon paprika
½ cup bread crumbs
1 teaspoon flour
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 tablespoon vinegar
½ cup boiling water
3 egg yolks beaten
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon grape jelly
Salt and pepper to taste


Cut the stem area off the pepper and core out the membrane and seeds inside.
Parboil the peppers for 3 minutes in boiling water.  Lift out and drain.
Mix together the rice, hamburger, paprika and tomato sauce.
Fill the peppers with the hamburger mix.
Arrange peppers in baking dish and sprinkle bread crumbs over them. Add 3 tablespoons of water to the dish.
Bake for 30-40 minutes at 350 degrees, until crumbs are brown.

Prepare sauce while peppers are cooking.
Mix together flour and mustard and then stir in melted butter.
Add the vinegar, boiling water and eggs, stir well
Place in a pan over a another pan with water (double boiler).
Cook and stir until the mixture thickens.
Blend in the cayenne and salt and pepper, then add the jelly and stir until melted.  Keep warm.
Pour the mixture over the peppers when they come out of the oven and serve immediately.

"The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day.
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You're one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
a cloud come over the sunlit arch,
And wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you're two months back in the middle of March."
-  Robert Frost, Two Tramps in Mud Time, 1926 

Kim Willis
 “He who has a garden and a library wants for nothing” ― Cicero

© Kim Willis - no parts of this newsletter may be used without permission.

And So On….

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