Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Problem with Houseplants

People think I have a green thumb.  But I have to tell you the truth - it's probably only because they haven't seen how many plants I've killed.

At least when gardening outdoors, Nature helps quite a lot.  I can dig a hole, amend the soil, put a plant in a spot where it is most likely to survive, water occasionally when there hasn't been rain for awhile, and the odds are good for survival.  But houseplants... houseplants are an entirely different beast.  They depend entirely on me for survival.

Them odds aren't as good.

I closed my greenhouse up for the winter, as it got too expensive to heat for the few plants I had in there.  So in came all the cuttings and the few tender plants I had.  I also got a few houseplants this fall from another gardener that was moving away.  Many of these went into the guest room, with a few houseplants scattered on windowsills or ledges around the house.  After a while, however, I've noticed many of them haven't been doing too well.  I spent a few days in denial, but finally resigned myself to diagnosing the problem.

Turns out I have several of them.

Problem #1:  Spider Mites
I hate Spider Mites.  They are so tiny that it takes forever to figure out what the problem is.  A couple tell-tale signs of Spider Mites are speckling of leaves from all the little hordes of mites sucking the juice out of them...

...and a fine webbing that appears around the plants, much like spider webbing.

But by the time you finally figure out that there are Spider Mites, you are in a war for the survival of the plant.  In two weeks, a female Mite can lay up to 300 eggs.  In a warm, dry climate (say, the climate of a heated house in winter), the eggs can hatch and grow into adults within 5 days.  At which point, of course, the cycle repeats, and before you know it, a bazillion Spider Mites now call your plant home.

Did I mention how much I hate Spider Mites?

Problem #2:  Fungus Gnats
Since noticing those little black gnats that like moist soil flying around my plants, I've tried to let the plants dry out between waterings, but that is hard with some of the small cuttings and seedlings that I have. I've also gone to my go-to solution of watering the plants with water that has Bt in it. (Bt is the bacteria in Mosquito Dunks and other products that kills larvae.)  My Bt must be old or have expired, though, as the Fungus Gnats have only increased in the last few weeks!  Ack!

Problem #3:  Aphids
Really?  How in the world did I get Aphids?!!  As if I didn't have enough problems with the Spider Mites...

Problem #4:  Root Rot
So far this has been limited to one of the plants given to me by another gardener.  She did tell me that it was fine with neglect.  I obviously showed this plant way too much love and care, and it got overwhelmed.  Or overwatered.  Back to the neglect route... I think I can handle that.

Problem #5:  This one is the largest problem of all.  Literally, the largest.  This one pest weighs about 13 pounds, and its sharp teeth and claws allow it to eat and destroy an entire plant in around 5 seconds.  (See my poor defoliated plant in the white and blue dragon pot near the top of the post for reference of the damage.)

This one problem is also the main reason I don't usually keep many houseplants.

I have two cats.  One comes begging when I make tuna fish, like a proper cat.  This one, on the other hand, comes begging when I make salad.  Boy, oh boy, does she love her greens.

I managed to rescue this plant with a few leaves intact (mostly).

So, my solutions?

#1 Spider Mites: I have been giving my plants showers to try to knock some of them off the leaves.  I also have been spraying with Neem Oil once a week.  That seemed to slow them down but not stop them.  I have now been trying Insecticidal Soap.

#2 Fungus Gnats:  I have bought new Bt and have started watered with that to kill the larvae.  I have also put sticky tape around, which the flying adults land on and get stuck to.

#3 Aphids:  Same solution as #1.  Also, whenever I see one, I squish it.

#4 Root Rot:  I removed part of the plant and am going back to the neglect route.  We'll see what happens.

#5 My plant-eating cat: I have resorted to caging...

Anyone else having problems with houseplants?
Anyone have some good suggestions for getting rid of the pests?

Anyone want a free cat?
(Just kidding)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Blizzards and Birds

A large winter storm has hit Massachusetts, causing blizzard conditions.  It started snowing yesterday around noon and isn't supposed to let up until tomorrow morning.  School for the kids is cancelled today for the blizzard, and tomorrow so that we can all dig ourselves out.

Downy Woodpecker
We've been out with the snowblower twice, trying to keep up with the storm so we've got a chance of getting our cars out whenever this ends.  The snow was up to my knees and rising.

American Robin
We are lucky to be able to hole up in our nice warm houses.  The birds, on the other hand, still have to venture out for sustenance. 

Even with the wind whipping wildly, the bird feeders have been seeing a steady stream of business, offering an easy source of food.  

The birds also stop for a drink at the new local watering hole - the new heated birdbath I just got last month.  Even in a blizzard, they still enjoy some water.

Tufted Titmouse
A thick rim of ice has formed around the edges, though, due to the storm.

American Goldfinch
Some of the smaller birds have been having a little trouble reaching the water because of the rim of ice, especially the Juncos.  I've noticed a couple of them trying to reach the water, then giving up and swallowing some of the snow on the rim instead.  When I was out earlier I tried to knock off the ice, but to no avail.

Dark-eyed Junco, trying to figure out how to get a drink
Some of the smarter ones, however, have figured out how to use the rock that I keep in the birdbath to their advantage.

Tufted Titmouse
It is now snowing harder than ever with huge, fluffy flakes.  It is beautiful to watch, but I'm glad I'm not out in it!  I imagine that come night the birds will find a tree hollow or birdhouse or maybe some thick evergreen branches to shelter in against the cold.  

And hopefully by tomorrow morning, the storm will be over.

Eastern Bluebird
I hope everyone is staying safe and warm out there!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Obstacles and Perseverance

Great works are performed not by strength,
but by perseverance.
~Samuel Johnson

I recently looked at some photos of some impressive trees in downtown Boston that I had taken last winter.  I hadn't taken the photos because the trees were impressive in size or in beauty.  They were, however, notable in their tenacity to keep growing despite their harsh environment.

Being next to a busy street and sidewalk was not the ideal situation for the trees.  Litter piled around the roots, something or someone had broken half of its branches, and the trees were stuck in a tiny strip between the sidewalk and a chain link fence.  The fence was obviously an impediment for the trees, as they struggled to stretch towards the sunlight.

But the trees, in their monumental effort to grow towards the sun, actually grew through the fence, enveloping the metal links in their very wood.

Honestly, looking at how all of the branches had been broken off on this side of the fence, the tree was probably safer growing into the other side of the fence.  The other side of the fence promised more sun and safety. This is one case where the grass was actually greener on the other side of the fence, and the tree knew it.

To overcome their obstacle and achieve their goal, the trees must have had to start out slowly.

Each day they needed to reach for the sunlight, growing just a little bit closer, melding and inching slowly into the fence, 

persevering over the days and weeks and even years...
...until finally making it to the other side.

Looks almost like Nature is demonstrating some sort of lesson, doesn't it?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Four Seasons of Sassafras

I've written before about the fascinating history of the North American native Sassafras Tree, how it became a medicinal fad for Europeans who thought it a cure for STD's, and how it's used as a flavoring for homemade root beer, tea, and gumbo.  But beyond its cool history, I love my Sassafras albidum just because they are some of the prettiest trees in my yard, all year-round.

In Spring they are one of the first plants to flower, making it a food source for early pollinators.

Their Summer leaves serve as food for the caterpillars of several different moths and butterflies, including the Spicebush Swallowtail and Tiger Swallowtail.  

Sassafras has several really awesome nicknames.  A couple nicknames are based on its uses as a flavoring, such as 'the Tea Tree' and 'Cinnamonwood'.  My favorite nickname for Sassafras, however, is 'the Mitten Tree'.  Sassafras has three differently shaped leaves, one of which is shaped like a mitten, which makes the tree easy to identify!

Sassafras leaves
Like Hollies, Sassafras are dioecious, which means they have separate male and female trees.  The female trees produce berries in late summer, which the birds enjoy.

Late Summer
It's hard to pick which season Sassafras Trees look most beautiful in, but it might be Fall.

The colors are simply gorgeous.

But I think the time I appreciate the Sassafras Trees in my yard the most is during Winter.  There's not a whole lot going on in my yard in Winter, but the bare branches of the Sassafras in my back yard have an amazing structural beauty.

The branches twist and curve, crookedly drawn lines that form a beautiful silhouette.

Sassafras trees do not transplant very well due to its taproot, but you can get smaller-sized saplings from native nurseries and online.   They do sucker into a grove, but can be grown as a single tree if the suckers are removed for the first few years.  They often grow in open woods, but they are also a pioneer species, one of the first to grow after a fire or in abandoned fields.

Some more stats on Sassafras
Native Range: Eastern North America
Planting Zones: 4 - 9
Height: 30 - 60 ft. (10 - 20 m.)
Spread: 25 - 40 ft. (7 - 12 m.)
Sun: Full sun - Part shade
Soil: prefers moist, acidic, loamy soil
Tolerates: poor, dry, sandy, or clay soil

I love my 'Mitten Trees' in all their forms.  I must admit, however, that as beautiful as the bare branches are now, I am looking forward to seeing the Sassafras Tree branches heralding in Spring with their yellow flowers.

Aren't they pretty?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Some Very Creative Captions...

One advantage of the bare winter yard is that it's actually easier to spot wildlife.  I love seeing what the birds and critters are getting up to in the winter (well, except for when they are munching on things I don't want them to eat...)  I also loved seeing the captions these people had for the photos in my last post:

Alistair: Come on then, put out the grub!
PamYou must have eyes like a hawk to get this picture.
JaneDoes my bum look big in this?

PamWhat IS Indie up to?
Alistair: Cooee is anyone there?
JaneDoh! She's spotted us!
Rose"And this, Bambi, is the best dinner buffet in town!" 

Alistair: Sniff, sniff, I asked for a nutty bagel.
MichelleWhat no cream cheese?
PamWhere's the lox?
DonnaWhere's the Cream Cheese?
JaneNom nom, scoff, scoff

Thank you to all of you who came up with the great captions!  You guys are more creative than me!  It's a cooold day where I am, so I'm sitting inside while enjoying watching the birds swoop around the bird feeder.  I hope everyone is staying warm!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Contribute your Creative Captions!

And now for some weekend fun!  Anyone have any good captions for these photos? 

One is of a Sharp-shinned Hawk that landed on my bird feeder,
the next is part of a herd of deer that keeps coming into my back yard,
and the last is, yes, a photo of a squirrel eating a bagel
(ah, the things that go on in my yard...)

Contributed captions will be posted next week :)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A New Year and a Naked House

Ah, it's a brand new year!  Time to enjoy flipping through the seed and plant catalogues and dream about how great the garden is going to be this year.  Sometimes I think planning and dreaming of the future garden is half the fun!

Winter is a good time to look back and take stock of how the garden went - and then look forward and make plans!   I have several things on my list already: starting my new shade garden, growing new fruits and veggies, and adding more good dirt and amendments to the veggie garden, since last summer the plants didn't grow as vigorously as I liked.

It's also a good time to look back and see how the existing flower beds did.  The front garden is the most mature part of the yard; we started it right after we moved into our house two summers ago.  This summer it did pretty well, full of successions of flowers, just like I like it.  In Spring, the bulbs were in flower:

With Summer bloomed the Salvia, then the Hibiscus, masses of Coneflowers, and, finally, the riotous Cosmos.

The Cosmos bloomed into Fall, when the berrying Winterberry shrubs and all the Autumn leaves put on their display.

And now it's Winter.  They say that winter is a good time to get a feel for the 'bones' of the garden, or the structure of it.  Let's see how my front garden is doing...

Uh, wow.  Well, other than some leftover Christmas decorations, there is pretty much, um, NOTHING going on in the front.  All I see is a sad, barren, exposed foundation!  There is one small, lone stand of River Birch trees trying to provide some winter interest on the right hand side of the house, and on the far right we do have a little Blue Spruce, which will be a great winter focal point in... oh, a decade or so :)

Other than that, my poor house just looks... naked.

Well, I think this year's plans will now include enlarging the front gardens and adding some evergreen bushes!

I did plant the River Birch, as well as some Red-twig Dogwood shrubs in front for winter interest; however, both of those are really only noticeable up close.  In general I love and tend to plant deciduous bushes and trees.  Deciduous bushes are exciting and sparkly - they change with the seasons and often have beautiful flowers or fall foliage. takes awhile before they get large enough to add much structure to a garden.

Grow, little trees, grow!
I really do need some bushy evergreens with some nice mass and, well, coverage, to hide my house's bare foundation.  One of my missions this year is to add some shrubs that provide some structure year-round!

Anyone have any favorite evergreen shrubs to suggest?

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