As I mentioned last week, it’s too early for most gardeners to start most types of seeds. If you must get some seeds planted, try something unusual that takes a lot of time to mature. But for things like tomatoes and marigolds, patience is your friend.
I miss getting outside away from everything (like my husband’s TV) for hours at a time. I do try to get outside for a little bit every day. But my arthritic joints do not appreciate work outside in cold weather. I’m lucky enough to have lots of plants inside to putter around with. And at this time of year- deep winter- the inside plants can always use a little attention.
I have 3 different hibiscus in bloom today. The fuchsia in my office room is blooming like crazy and I have 2 others blooming in another room. I have begonias, geraniums, streptocarpus and holiday cacti in bloom. An impatiens plant came up from seed in one pot and is now blooming.
The pothos in the living room window has grown tremendously and is creating a dilemma. It sits on a shelf up high on the window and is growing downward. It’s rapidly covering all the space in front of the window and is cutting down the natural light for some other plants. Should I cut it back or let it continue its conquest of the space? It’s a living curtain. I’ll never get it outside in the spring.
The diascia I brought inside didn’t make it. It bloomed nicely for a while but then fizzled out and died. So that experiment is over. I am thinking about buying a bay tree-Laurus nobilis. It’s actually a shrub that is easily kept pruned. It’s the plant we get bay leaves for cooking from, but I am using bay leaf for another reason. Recent research has found that bay leaf helps regulate blood sugar and lower triglycerides.
You don’t hear much about bay leaf as an herbal remedy, so I am experimenting on myself. I’m using high quality powdered bay leaf in gelatin capsules I fill myself. I do believe it’s helping with the blood sugar, I’ll have to wait until my next bloodwork to check on the triglycerides.
I’d like to grow my own bay tree, supposedly the Romans kept it as a houseplant 2,000 years ago. It’s supposed to do well in cool sunny conditions inside. But I’ll have to see how much bay I would have to grow to get the amount of powder I need to see if it’s feasible.
Why not try your own experiment this winter with plants? Not necessarily bay leaf or even a medicinal herb. But something unusual to grow, something everyone doesn’t have. Winter is a good time to research ideas and start such an project.
Thirty years ago, when people wanted answers to gardening questions, they usually picked up a reference book and looked up the information. Today when people want an answer they go online and ask some social media group. Now if they are asking the right group, people with knowledge of the subject and using science-based facts and not folklore, they may get good answers. But so often that’s not the case.
In many of these posts the answers are as varied as the folks writing them. Some folks know what they are writing about others are parroting junk information they picked up somewhere else. Folk remedy solutions to problems, often useless, sometimes harmful, abound. And there are whole websites built around attracting “hits” which are filled with bad information even though they may seem professionally done. These are often the sources quoted by people answering questions.
It’s not possible to get all the information you need on starting a vegetable garden for instance, by asking on a garden FB page “Can you tell me how to start a vegetable garden?” This type of question requires a much longer answer than a FB post can give. And if you are new to gardening how do you pick out answers that are accurate from those that are not?
Even asking for plant identification is hit and miss on social media. Any post like this will often have dozens of different answers. And don’t count on apps to identify plants either, especially if you don’t know how – or can’t take a good clear photo. Those apps are rarely more than 50% successful. Identification of pests, diseases and other problems is probably even less accurate from most social media and apps.
So, if you are a gardener with a plant problem or want to know about how to grow a certain plant where do you go for information? Well, you might want to head back to those reference books. Garden and plant reference books should be in every serious gardener’s home. If you choose books by reputable authors your chances of getting good advice and answers to problems are much higher than asking on a FB page.
Every gardener should have several plant reference books to look up answers and to help them identify plants. Good gardeners know the names of the plants they own, maybe not the cultivar name, like “Blueberry Sundae” daylily, but the species and common name, like Echinacea, or coneflower. There are books that can help you identify common garden plants, houseplants and weeds.
Before you buy a plant, you should know what planting zone it’s hardy in and what growing conditions it requires. But many plant purchases are impulse buys, and the gardener will need to find this information after they get the plant home. Plant tags are helpful, but often don’t provide enough information. Books that help you with site selection, culture, growing tips, pruning and problem solving are invaluable.
Personally, I rarely buy fiction books in paper formats anymore but when I buy a reference book, that’s what form I prefer. Ebooks are harder to find information in and sometimes not available when you need them. But even electronic book versions are better than random social websites.
I have a whole shelf full of plant reference books and I still use them, especially for identification of plant species I don’t commonly see. Even if you are an experienced gardener a good reference book will teach you something. I’m going to list some books I have or that I know are good reference books.
Most of the books below can be found on Amazon and at many other bookstores. You may want to look for them at book sales or resale shops. You can get some of them at a library, although having your own copies is always nicer. There are other good books on gardening and plant identification out there and if you have one you like and it isn’t listed, you can list it in comments below.
Just as social media has made it easy for everyone to seek and give advice, self-publishing books has given lots of people the ability to write a book – and some of these aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. A pretty cover is easy to do now, so don’t rely on that when picking books.
When you are looking for plant reference books check to see if the book has been published by a well-known publisher. Commercial book publishers usually print information from people they have determined are knowledgeable. The books are also edited so you aren’t wading through misspelled words and terrible grammar. Rodale Press, Storey Books, Penguin Group, and Wiley Publishing are some publishers known for nonfiction books about gardening.
Also check book reviews to see what others think of the book. Older books have a lot of valuable information so don’t pass up good deals on them. (Do remember that over time, research can change what is considered the best cultural practices). And some of the better seed catalogs also have a lot of good information on culture- especially for those interested in vegetables.
Other sources for learning about plants are garden classes, like Master Gardener classes or classes sponsored by public gardens and arboretums. Sometimes these classes will even give you reference books with the class fee. Your local County Extension office may have a garden hotline or a horticulturist which can give advice.
I’m not saying you should never ask for advice on a garden webpage. There are many times when people like to hear other people’s suggestions, tips and opinions. But for basic care and identification of plants reference books can educate you so that you can determine what advice is probably sound and factual rather than myth and misunderstanding.
The Houseplant Expert Dr. D.G. Hessayon
Practical Houseplant Book- Zia Allaway and Fran Bailey
The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual: Essential Gardening Know-how for Keeping (Not Killing!) More Than 160 Indoor Plants-Barbara Pleasant
Gardening Under Lights: The Complete Guide for Indoor Growers Leslie F. Halleck
The Kew Gardener’s Guide to Growing House Plants: The art and science to grow your own house plants (Kew Experts)
The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible 2nd edition – Edward Smith
Vegetable Gardening For Dummies-Charlie Nardozzi and The Editors of the National Gardening Association
Homegrown Herbs: A Complete Guide to Growing, Using, and Enjoying More than 100 Herbs- Rosemary Gladstar and Tammi Hartung
Caring for Perennials: What to Do and When to Do it- Janet Macunovich
Designing Your Gardens and Landscapes: 12 Simple Steps for Successful Planning- Janet Macunovich
The Well-Tended Perennial Garden- Tracy Disabato Aust
Manual of Annuals, Biennials and Half- Hardy Perennials – Alan Armitage
Flower Garden Problem Solver – Rodale Press
Garden Insect, Disease and Weed Identification Guide- Rodale Press
Dirr's Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs- Michael Dirr
Native Woody Landscape and Restoration Plants of the Eastern United States-Michael L. Dorn
Houseplant tips- cleaning your houseplants
Do you dust and bathe your plants? In the low light levels of winter dust on a plant’s leaves can impact it’s ability to absorb light and make food. Take the time to dust off plant leaves if they look dusty.
Many houseplants would love a shower occasionally if you can arrange it. If you can put them in a tub or sink and spray them off it is very beneficial to the plant. This can help a lot if you have trouble with spider mites, which like dry environments. It removes dust and dirt and acts like a good rainstorm outside does to perk up plants.
Use mildly warm water and no soap in that plant shower. If you worry about the potting medium getting too wet slip a trash bag over the top and tie it around the plant base. If your pot has good drainage it won’t be a problem if the potting medium gets wet.
Do not use leaf shine products, milk, oils or anything else on your plants leaves. These products can clog stomata – the pores in the leaf that regulate the passage of water vapor and other gasses. This can be harmful to your plants.
Should you trim off yellow or browned leaves? If the plant has a lot of leaves and a few are yellow or brown just trim them off. It’s not unusual for healthy plants to have a few yellow leaves. All leaves eventually die and are replaced. Dead crunchy leaves and stems should be removed. They aren’t coming back and don’t help the plant. It’s also ok to trim off any brown tips on leaves, which are common in houseplants in low humidity environments.
There are some people that feel if a plant has few leaves and is struggling to survive, that any leaf that still has some green left in it should be left. They believe that the plant needs those remaining green areas to produce food. It’s a judgement call I think, because removing dying leaves also stimulates the plant to produce new ones. And in some cases removing dying leaves also removes insect pests.
If you have corrected the problem that caused the yellow or browning leaves, then removing the yellow and brown leaves will stimulate the plant to produce new, healthy leaves. If you aren’t sure what caused the problem, and the plant has few leaves left, leave any that still have some green until new leaves appear. Once new leaves appear remove the dying leaves.
It’s also important to remember that in some plants leaves remain green for a while after they die. Norfolk pines are an example of this. If the leaf or branch snaps easily or your touch makes it fall off the plant, it’s dead. Usually, close inspection will reveal the dried, dull looking state. Those leaves may have some dull green left, but they aren’t producing any food, and should be removed.
The modern trend of winter sowing generally has a gardener sowing seeds in something like a milk jug. Then the containers are set outside. In earlier times the seeds were simply sown in the ground in the fall or in a cold frame. Almost any plant that will self-seed in the garden can be sown in the fall right in the ground.
I suggest gardeners use a cold frame, rather than milk jugs or other small containers if you want to try “winter “ sowing. Those small containers can work if you are lucky, but they are much more prone to wide temperature fluctuations and they don’t give plants much room to grow.
In the spring as the sun grows stronger, they heat up rapidly, the seeds sprout and begin growing. Then we have a cold snap, with cloudy weather or the nights fall to very low temperatures and the plants die. Plants can also be cooked in those plastic containers during warm spells. And the sun and heat rapidly dry out the soil in the containers, which may kill the plants. If they are left open they may get too much water.
A cold frame is simply a box on the ground with a clear lid, and sometimes a clear south side. You can also use hoops or tunnels to promote early seed starting. A gardener can simply construct a wooden box with a Plexiglass or glass lid or make a lid covered with heavy clear plastic film. Old windows can make good cold frame tops.
The box should be at least eighteen inches deep to allow plants to grow. The walls should be thick or well insulated. You can add a floor or simply have them sit on the ground. Cold frames should receive full sun all day.
Some people add soil and plant directly in the box, but plants transplant better if started in pots. Square pots use less space. Don’t start seeds or plants in a cold frame too early in the spring. The weather should be ready for them to be planted in the garden when they outgrow the frame. Planting in a cold frame can usually begin six to ten weeks before your last expected frost. Or you could sow the seeds in fall inside the frame, and leave it open until near spring.
The most important thing to remember about cold frames is that even though it is in the upper thirties outside on a sunny day, it will be much warmer inside the box with the lid closed. If temperatures get too hot the plants will die just as quickly as if they got too cold. On sunny days the lid must be raised at least a little. That’s where those devices that will raise the lid when the temperature gets to a certain point inside and lower it when it drops are handy. They can be purchased in garden supply stores.
If you do not use a thermostatically controlled opener you must be diligent in raising and lowering the lid depending on weather conditions. If extremely cold weather threatens after seeds sprout the whole cold frame can be covered with a blanket.
Winter seed sowing is not a bad idea. It mimics natural conditions for many seeds. Some seeds need cold, moist conditions for several weeks before they will germinate. But sowing the seeds in small, enclosed containers like milk jugs is not a good way to go about it. Even in a cold frame care must be taken so seedlings don’t get too hot or cold.
Just sowing the seeds in the place you want them to grow in the fall, and marking the spot, is probably the best solution. You may need to cover the area with row cover or fencing to protect the seeds from critters. The seedlings may come up a little later than those in cold frames, but they generally catch up quickly.
The color of springtime is in the flowers; the color of winter is in the imagination.
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And So On….
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