Jan 11

Sunroom Activities

February 27: Sowed some cool weather vegetables in flats. Lettuce seedlings will be transplanted by the end of March (I hope.)

February 15: My recommendation to anyone who wants to start a garden is to make a list of things you want to grow, design your ideal planting bed size, and then cut everything in half. I’ve had more failures over the years than I care to admit. Looking back I now realize that I did not; prepare properly, maintain the beds, or take the time to research specific plant growth requirements.

I now believe that gardeners should grow what they know, grow what they like, and experiment with something new every year. For example; about eleven years ago my experiment was a hardy hibiscus, Old Yella, “Creamy yellow buds open to 12″ luminescent creamy colored flowers.” I had not seen hardy hibiscus offered in previous years, so naturally I had to have one.

The hardy hibiscus is not to be confused with the tender sweet scented tropical hibiscus that we overwinter in the house along with their aphids that multiply and infest the other house plants and seedlings, ruining the summer before it begins…; sorry.

No, the hardy hibiscus looks like a peony on steroids; a herbaceous perennial that sends out large stems up to five feet tall, terminating with multiple blooms. In the fall the stems die back to the ground storing energy for the following year’s growth in their roots over the winter.

I planted mine on the south side of the house, giving it full sun exposure. Two seasons later, it was everything the catalog said it would be. Chest thumping, bragging rights; look out!

Then, an elderly neighbor stops by and comments; “Oh, a rose mallow I haven’t seen one in years.” “Excuse me, a rose who, mallow what; this is a hardy hibiscus.” “That may be, but when I was a kid they were called rose mallows and they were everywhere.” I wasn’t going to take that from anyone. I’ll look it up and show her who was right.

It turns out she was; the tropical hibiscus and hardy hibiscus (or mallow), are relatives of the Rose of Sharon. The Wise Garden Encyclopedia published in 1936 identifies new forms of the native species having been developed with large showy flowers popularly being referred to as Mallow Marvels; and the 1949 Garden Flowers in Color calls it the Common Rose-mallow. Common, well just pop my chauvinist balloon.

In my defense, the mallow fell out of favor for a number of years and has come back strong this past decade with; new varieties specially developed for abundant, larger blossom, continuous blooms in spectacular colors. At least that is what the catalogs say.

Last summer we were cruising along Route 1a inMaineand stopped for lunch in a small town. As we walked around we noticed a lot of these plants; confirming to us their renewed popularity. Now that I know what I am growing and like what I grew, I feel like I have to play catch-up. Let’s see, Cranberry Crush, Lord Baltimore, Blue River II; maybe I should do some more research.

February 7; February is normally the toughest winter month, usually the time when cabin fever is the lead topic on the nightly news.

The football season is over and there is a void to fill. I know, I know, we still have basketball and hockey, and the equipment trucks are on their way south; but how do those things fill our requirement for vitamin D?

We can go outside and enjoy snow shoeing and cross country skiing; oh wait, there isn’t any snow. Well, how about pruning the fruit trees? No, I haven’t been sniffing too much fertilizer. Late February early March is the best time to prune fruit trees, and this year we will not have to stand in knee deep snow when doing it.

Fruit trees are notorious for sprouting new growth straight up along the top edge of branches. These sprouts, or “Suckers” do not produce blossoms or fruit; they need to be removed, all of them. While you are at it, remove any broken branches remaining from last October’s snow storm, and any lateral crossing branches. These are smaller branches that are rubbing against or growing into neighboring branches.

If the lateral branches are thicker than broomsticks, just remove those that are, or could, cause problems. If you are alone while you are pruning the tree it is okay to talk to it; say nice things and ask for lots of apples this year; don’t worry, nobody will hear you.

Save the branches. An old gardener’s trick is to stick them in the ground of the pea bed to support the vines. After the peas are harvested everything gets pulled up and composted.

My yard is vertically challenged in winter. Once the perennials die back and the tender bulbs and annuals dug up, there is nothing above soil level. The yard has no visual appeal; in fact there are some areas that are just plain ugly. So I am taking the opportunity to walk around and note improvements that I can make this summer with some shrubs or hard scapes.

The In-box is filling up with questions about starting seeds; “When can I start,” “Can I grow …,” “How do I grow…” The answers are now, yes and do some research. Gardening courses are being offered at schools, recreation departments and garden nurseries; some have already started. Even the Flower Shows have begun, walk the aisles and ask the experts.

Really, get going. Hey, if you want to play baseball in April you start practicing now. Pitchers and catchers are reporting for Spring Training next week and aren’t you secretly working on your backswing? Baseball, golf, gardening, it’s all the same; practice makes perfect; buy some potting soil and germinate a few seeds.

Start cool weather crops; broccoli, lettuce, cabbage; and flowers like calendula, nasturtium and petunia now for transplanting into the garden late March after the snow is gone. The difference between starting some plants now and direct sowing into the garden in April is crisp sweet leaves available all through May versus wilted bitter tasting leaves in June.

January 8: Started sowing seeds for my gradeschool workshops.

January 3: The first seed package came in the mail. I will be starting seedlings for my gardening courses tomorrow.

December 28: I had to moved some tender bulbs out of storage, they came out of dormancy and started growing. Too soon for this.

December 14: I was with a client walking along the corridor in her office building and noticed a number of plants of all types, what we call house plants and some geraniums, on the windowsills. They looked like something out of a low budget science fiction movie. The stems were long and serpentine devoid of leaves except for the tips where they were tiny and stunted. With some miniature furniture placed in the pots they could start shooting film.

A quick look at the shadows outside told me that these were west facing windows and the plants were not receiving enough sunlight, but that was not the only problems.

Somewhere in your employment history you probably had, or still have, a co-worker who filled their personal workspace envelop with plants. A few of these people did a fantastic job maintaining the plants and justifiably earned a Green Thumb label, but for the most part the plants around the office were probably a dismal failure.

I will guess that you remember the brownish green thing in the pot surrounded by a sea of mud, and the owner saying, “It is dying so I am giving it more water to help it come back.” No, it is drowning and you are pushing it under for the third time.

Or maybe the plant was in a desert, the soil dry with white salt outcrops throughout and along the rim of the pot. “I think I over watered and I am letting the soil dry out.” No, all that salt is from over fertilizing and now the soil is sucking the moisture out of the plant. You need to flush the soil with plain water, or repot the plant in fresh potting soil.

 How about the philodendron with leaders following the top of the office partitions like some mutant man-eater seeking prey? Now in its native habitat, the plant does creep along the ground and wraps itself around and up tree trunks; but your office is not some tropical paradise (or maybe it is, but that is the subject of a different column).

The point is that house plants are not some separate type of species. Kingdom, Plantae; Order, Alismatales; Family, Araceae; Genus, House. They are plants that have survived on their own for millions of years and will perform well under artificial conditions provided that they are properly maintained. Artificial is the operative word.

The plants are not in their native environment or close to it outside during the summer months, where the sun is not filtered and the air has some moisture. Inside the air is dry and the sunlight lacks intensity. You have to artificially create the conditions that are healthy for the plants. Take advantage of south facing windows, move them away from heaters, and provide some humidity by laying out pie plates filled with water and misting every other day.

There are many reasons for growing plants indoors; they dress up a room, improve air quality, lower your stress and blood pressure, and make you happy. The smart contractor that I am, I did not offer any advice; I looked at my client and said, “Nice plants.”

December 12: I checked on the tender bulbs in storage yesterday and the dahlia are sprouting; a few did that last year. Other gardeners have had similar experiences this year. Temperatures are running four degrees above normal and the ground still has not frozen, I wonder, if this is the new normal can I leave the plants in hte ground over winter?

November 28; I found some antique handtools this weekend. I plan to take them apart and bring them back to live. Working with a good hand shear is way better than a noisy power tool.

November 21; Hava a few weeks to kick back and relax. I was cutting into an avocado and had a flashback to our first apartment where we germinated a seed. So I decided to try to germinate this one.

November 4; A few years ago our daughter came home with a Christmas cactus; a young plant, nice, compact and in bloom. After the flowers died off, we kept the plant watered and in the summer placed it outdoors against a north facing wall protected from direct sunlight.

We brought it in with the other house plants at the end of September, placing it in the sunroom where it received sunlight in the morning. That year, and for the next few years, it bloomed in November. Friends told us the reason for the earlier blooms was because the plant was not a Christmas cactus, it was a Thanksgiving cactus. Okay, sure; and there is probably a cactus cultivated for every holiday right?

Well this year when the plant bloomed a second time in the spring that I decided to do some research. Did I own a Christmas, Thanksgiving or Easter cactus?

There is a ton of information available, it turns out that I have a Christmas cactus; but the Thanksgiving and Easter cacti also exist. They even have their own fancy Latin names; Schlumbergera bridgessii, Schlumbergera truncates, Rhipsalidopsis gaertnerii respectively. All descended from the same Family, Cactaceae.

The individual plants are identified by their leaves. Christmas cactus has a wide leaf with blunt teeth. Thanksgiving cactus has a longer narrow leaf with sharp teeth, and the Easter cactus has no teeth. If you can believe it growers sometimes substitute one plant for another. The Thanksgiving cactus has a long blooming period running into January so it is sometimes sold as a Christmas cactus. In addition they are thermo-photoperiodic where the bud development is triggered by temperature and daylight. The process is called photoperiodism, the plant activity controlled by relative changes in daylight hours.

Whoops sorry, falling asleep, isn’t that true of all plants? Given their preferred growing conditions they will flower? Exactly, the cacti are grown for market in greenhouses where the water, temperature and lighting can be controlled artificially to have them blooming to coincide with the holidays. For example, those Easter Lilies at Easter and the big purple hydrangea plant for Mother’s Day; check the labels many of them come from greenhouses inCanada, amazing.

Cactus is no different than any other plant. Did you save a Geranium, Coleus or Fuchsia from the compost bin? All of these plants can be grown and brought to bloom over winter. They can all be propagated from cuttings, sometimes accidentally.

This spring the cactus fell and several stems broke off. Just for grins I bunched them together, stuck them in the ground next to a fern, and forgot all about them. A couple of weeks ago when I pulled them they were all rooted. I plan to give them away as gifts, but I have a problem.

When I took the parent plant (remember the original Christmas cactus) into the house, it bloomed, in October. So, when I present these plants to friends should I be referring to them as Halloween cacti?

Oct 2, 2012:  In upstate New York the late winter period is referred to as the Gray Gloom. The Great Lakes do a number on people’s psyche; sending up clouds that block out the sun and dropping tons of snow. Piled up along the roadways, darkened by soot and sand, everything is gray.

Here, north of Boston, at least we have competitive sports teams to divert our attention from the cold weather and shortened daylight hours. Even so, people who do not embrace the winter; skiing, snowshoeing and enjoying other outdoor activities; can be brought down by cabin fever.

One solution is to head south for the winter; a less expensive solution is to bring the outdoors in.

Plants are a great compliment to any room, even the man cave. You don’t need flowers, just a lot of foliage to clean the air and give off some moisture. Something like, oh I don’t know maybe a dracaena, the Mother-in-Laws Tongue.

Shoe envy aside, you can build a walk-in closet for your walk-in closet; but the question on the tour will be about how you got the geraniums to bloom indoors. And when that cooking show host tells you that they only use fresh herbs in their recipes you can tell the television that your chives are doing just fine on the kitchen greenhouse window thank you very much.

The straight lines of built-in bookshelves on the accent wall in the living room will look great with a variegated philodendron; its’ vines falling off one shelf and a tall ficus standing guard on the opposite corner. Coleus comes in a variety of colors and cuttings from your backyard, (or your neighbor’s) root easily to become beautiful accent plants in any room.

You can even create a micro-climate by concentrating several plants in the corner of a room. Indoors or out, plant respiration stays the same. They take water up from the roots, inhale carbon dioxide through the leaves and exhale water and oxygen into the room. Place an easy chair among the plants; sit down with a book, and by page three you will be sound asleep. All that oxygen and humidity making you forget all about cabin fever. Athletes pay big bucks for portable hyperbaric chambers, artificially producing what you are getting naturally.

I remember our first plant, a spider centered in front of the guestroom window. The glass was frosted by the moisture given off by the plant while the radiator under the window provided just enough warmth to keep the spider happy. Stolons cascaded down from the pot with baby plants at the tips ready to take root themselves, and easily accomplished by me placing them in a cup of water; my first propagation.

When we move to Burlington we immediately added a sunroom and a lot more plants. Over the years we continued to make renovations, including taking out the wall between the garage and sunroom and converting the garage into a den. Now it is one big room generating solar heat to half the house.

I was sitting in my corner hyperbaric chamber reading a home improvement article one February afternoon; the snow two-feet deep, sun shining in, frosty cold outside, comfy cozy inside. The article contained many illustrations of different projects and additions that could be accomplished to increase the property’s value. There wasn’t a single discussion about sunrooms or greenhouses.

My immediate reaction was that the authors knew what they were writing about. If sunrooms did not add value they must be money pits never returning anything near the investment cost. What am I going to do? Then, I fell asleep.

Jan 20; Time to start getting ready to plant seeds indoors. Need to clear the potting table and grow light. While I am at it I think I will pull some calla lillies out of storage and pot them up.

Jan 15; The sun is moving higher on the horizon making the sunroom brighter and warmer. The plants are reacting to the change, sending out new growth. It is time to be more vigilant about spraying with a soap mix and inspecting for insect damage.

Jan 19: Cleaned up all of the dead material on the plants and in the pots. Took cutting from my favorite geraniums. The pineapple lily has overgrown the pot. It has already started sending out new shoots so I need to split it. It has been in the same pot for three years, so this is a good time to replace the potting soil. I guess I will be giving out some bulbs in my gardening classes.

Jan 20: I did not realize just how overgrown the lily had become. This is a 10 inch pot, clearly it was time to separate the bulbs. You can see the new growth starting. There was a surprise waiting under the nine bulbs when I took them out of the pot, seven additional bulbs.

Bulbs in Pot Bulbs Removed From Pot

Jan 27: Activities are at a standstill; the cuttings are just sitting in the potting soil, I can’t perform the tug test for a few more weeks; (tug test, that’s a technical term. If the cuttings have developed roots you will have resistance when you try to pull on it. If there are no roots the cutting will come up when you pull.)I separated the pineapple lily bulbs, after the wounds scab over I will share them.The Christmas Cactus is blooming again. Over the years it has bloomed for Easter, Halloween, Thanks Giving and Christmas. I keep reminding it that it is a Christmas Cactus but it won’t listen. 

Jan 31: Took the Delphinium flat out of the refrigerator and placed it under the grow light; have to wait at least two weeks to see how successful I am. Must remember to keep the soil damp. 

Feb 9: I sowed some lettuce seed just for grins a few days ago. I knew I would be waiting a few weeks for the delphiniums to germinate and needed to see something; the little cotyledons are already up.A couple of the calla stems are over an inch long and the geranium cuttings look good. I will be cranking it up starting the cool season crops soon and need to make room at the potting table. It is amazing how much stuff gets piled up in just a few months. Why are there loppers in the house? 

Feb 13: Cotyledons are the seedling energy source. Sometimes referred to as seed leaves, they keep the plant alive until it develops true leaves and can begin generating it’s own food through the process of photosynthesis.

Cotyledons breaking the soil surface

Bibb Lettuce seedlings

Cotyledons breaking the soil surface

In this next image, foreground second seedling from the left, you can see the true leaf growing up between the cotyledons.True Leaves Coming Up Between Cotyledons

Row of Bibb Lettuce seedings

True Leaves Coming Up Between Cotyledons

Here you can see the calla stems have already come up, four weeks after planting.

Calla growing on light table

Callas beginning to appear

The potting table ready for a new planting season. The loppers are out in the shed.Potting table cleaned up and organized

Potting table cleaned up and organized

 Feb 24; transplanted the lettuce seedlings into two-inch pots and started another flat.

Planted 8 caladiums into individul pots. The soil temperature has to be above 60 degrees. The temperature in the sunroom is in the 80′s on sunny days, and stays above 70 at night, so I should be okay.

March 2; sowed coleus seeds Monday and they already germinated. Second flat of lettuce is up. Thinking about sowing some tomatoes next week.

March 14; busy couple of weeks. Got basil, cosmos, bachelor buttons, and seven varieties of tomato sowed in flats. Dissappointed with the potting soil, looked too much like top soil and not enough like soil-less mix. Ended up adding peat and perlite. 

Took more geranium cuttings, pulled the canna and gloriosa lily out of storage.

Caladiums are popping up in their 4-inch pots, have to make sure they do not receive direct sunlight.

March 23; My tomato seedlings are up and beginning to produce true leaves. I may be able to transplant them into individual pots next weekend. I might also sow the peppers this weekend.


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One Comment

  1. Peter says:

    Too much non-gardening related items piled up on the potting table. Loppers belong outdoors in the shed, not the house.

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