Friday, February 29, 2008

Soil for Seed Starting


It is one of the many paradoxes in gardening that the best soils for starting seedlings indoors contain no real soil at all. Ordinarily, weed seedlings sprout and grow in profusion in any speck of open ground. So what's the big deal with using some topsoil for starting seedlings? Why can't we just dig up a little good earth and set it aside for our winter work.

As simple and as natural as that answer might seem, the truth is that using real topsoil brings several problems to container culture and especially to seed starting. Outdoor soil is too heavy and too compact for good air circulation. It also holds too little air and carries too many disease organisms.

True soils—which are mostly minerals with perhaps 5% to 10% organic matter if the soil is very rich—are heavy, prone to compaction and hold relatively little water. But even more important, natural soils are very likely to harbor the disease organisms that cause damping-off and root-rot diseases in seedlings.

If you use real soil, you risk losing your seedlings, unless you pasteurize the ground with heat—not an easy task and not something you want to do in the house because of the horrible odor invariably produced. So instead the world has turned to soilless mixes. On this point the largest commercial growers and most of the best gardeners agree.

Today's soilless mixes are mostly sphagnum peat moss, plus vermiculite and often a little perlite. The sphagnum peat used in good seed-starting and growing mixes is a very stable organic material that holds a great deal of water and air and does not decompose quickly. Both vermiculite and perlite are natural minerals that at very high temperatures pop like popcorn. Once expanded or popped, they are very lightweight and porous. In a soil mix, they improve both air circulation and water drainage. Perlite retains no water itself, vermiculite a little. All three of these basic ingredients are naturally disease-free.

The movement away from real soil in potting ms began about 60 years ago, in an attempt to eliminate soil diseases that were plaguing the nursery industry. The first alternatives were mixtures of sand (or very sandy soils) with ground-up (or milled) sphagnum peat. But these still needed to be heat-treated to kill disease organisms that came in on the sand. The effort culminated in the early 1960s in research at Cornell University that produced the "peat-lite" formula.

Classic peat-lite is half milled sphagnum peat and half vermiculite, though sometimes a small portion of the vermiculite is replaced by perlite. Although you can buy true peat-lite mixes from many suppliers, most of their formulations will contain a higher proportion of peat, around 75 percent, simply because most growing-mix producers are peat bog owners, and they have more of it than anything else.

Firms that serve the nursery industry, such as Pro-Mix, Fafard or Baccto, may offer as many as 10 slightly different formulations, all essentially slight variations on the peat-lite formula. Most variations have arisen to suit local preferences of commercial growers or to allow the producers to make use of the resources at hand. These high-peat mixes work just fine, both for starting most kinds of seed and for growing the transplants on in larger containers.

All good growing mixes also contain a very small amount of ground limestone (usually dolomite) to correct the acidity of the peat and to help buffer against the varying acidity and alkalinity of local water supplies. Dolomite supplies some calcium and magnesium to plants. The mixes also include a wetting agent (tested to be safe for plant growth) to help wet naturally water-resistant dry peat. Most mixes contain a very small amount of fertilizer, often referred to as a nutrient charge, as well. Most of this will leach out within two weeks after irrigation starts. In fact, many suppliers recommend that liquid fertilization begin as soon the first true leaves appear on seedlings.

What to Buy
You could easily get confused with all the choices on the shelf in garden centers and nurseries. The root of the confusion lies in a fine old gardening term "potting soil." Many mixes good for seed starting are labeled potting soil. But other things called potting soil are not very good at all for seed starting and are sometimes inappropriate even for container growing.

You can be most sure of what you are getting in mixes labeled "seed starting" or "germinating." The ingredients of germinating mixes are the same as in peat-lite: high-quality sphagnum peat, fine vermiculite and often perlite, a very small quantity of limestone, a wetting agent and enough fertilizer to last through two or three waterings. What defines a germinating mix, beyond these ingredients, is that the mix has been screened to be very fine. Germinating mixes are designed for very small seeds like petunias or impatiens and for filling small-sized containers and plug cells quickly.

But a germinating mix is not the only product offered that will serve well to start your vegetable and flower seeds. You might want a growing mix with larger particle sizes. For one thing, germinating mixes are more expensive. For another, they are not suitable for filling larger containers for growing through the season. Because they are so fine, they hold more water and eventually compact more than coarser mixes do. They stay too wet and hold too little air for good long-term root growth. (When starting seed in a germinating mix, the container should be deep enough to allow for at least one and a half inches of soil, deep enough to keep the topmost layer dry and aerated and lower layers moist.)

Unfortunately, some products traditionally labeled potting mix can include a multitude of ingredients, not all of which are particularly good for seed germination and root growth. You must read the label to know what's really in the bag. If the label doesn't say, stay away. The primary ingredients in the kind of mix you want should be milled sphagnum peat (typically from 50 percent to 80 percent), vermiculite and perhaps perlite. Avoid mixes containing sand, manure, topsoil or muck peat. These materials are too heavy and do not have the water- and air-holding properties of a good germinating or growing mix.

Fortunately, the trend toward clear and useful labeling recently has come to the growing-mix industry. Though neither mandatory nor completely uniform, the labels of most reliable suppliers describe the content of their various mixes clearly. The most common ingredient is listed first (often with the percentage), followed by the lesser ingredients in descending order. Labels do not always indicate whether the mix contains a starter fertilizer, because doing so would subject the mixes to regulations for fertilizers, which clearly the mixes are not.

Soilless growing or germinating mixes are sold in plastic bags. The material will be either loose (in a broad range of sizes from one quart up to a 40-pound bag) or in compressed bales (about 70 pounds). Compressed bales yield almost twice the volume on the label when you dig out the amount you need and fluff it up.

Where to Buy
You can buy mixes in three very different places. Superstores with gardening sections -- Home Depot, Lowes, Kmart, Wal-Mart and countless others -- will have a wide choice of brand names and will offer smaller packages. At local nurseries and garden centers, the choice in brand names will narrow, but there will be a full line of soils, some of them in larger sizes.

At a retail nursery that produces at least some of its own plants from seed or cuttings, you have the narrowest but perhaps best choice of all: the mixes that professional growers use themselves. Very often the owner will sell a bale or large bag. These materials cost from $8 (for a 40-pound bag) to $14 (for a 70-pound bale) wholesale. So even if you pay twice that, you are getting a tremendous bargain if you can find a grower willing to sell some, and increasingly many growers will do that.

If you keep the bag tightly closed and protected from the rain, the material will keep well for more than one season. The plastic covering on commercial-sized bags and bales is usually treated with ultraviolet light inhibitors, giving the material about a one-year life when stored in the open. But all materials should be kept closed tight to keep out disease organisms and maintain the moisture level of the material in the bag, which should be just very slightly moist.

Where to find a good seed mix: The following companies manufacture high-quality seed germination soil mixes. If you can't find one of them at your local garden center, call or write the manufacturers and ask them to help you find the nearest supplier.

Baccto: (800) 324-7328
Fafard: (800) PEAT-MOSS
Good Earth Organics: (716) 684-8111
Hoffman: (800) 877-0848
Jiffy Products: (800) 323-1047
Lambert: (800) 463-4083
Premier Pro-Mix: (800) 667-5366
Scotts (same as Peters): (800) 543-8873
Sungro Sunshine: (800) 665-4525

Making Your Own Seed-Germination Mix
The quality of professional seed-starting and growing mixes is so high that there is little reason for anyone to bother with the dusty job of mixing their own. Still, if you somehow can't find a good one to buy, the recipe for a peat-lite mix is very simple: Make the blend between half and three-quarters milled sphagnum peat moss and the rest horticultural-grade vermiculite. For maximum air circulation and water drainage, substitute perlite for half the vermiculite.

If the peat is coarse or lumpy, break up clods and take out large pieces with your hands, or use a 1/4-inch screen. Mix in some dolomitic limestone, at the rate of five pounds per cubic yard of mix. It's important to incorporate the lime thoroughly through the mix. At least one day before you plan to plant, sprinkle the mix with water to allow it time to permeate the peat. Rather than trying to mix in fertilizer, it's better to wait until seedlings are up and then begin feeding with a nutrient solution right away.

Editor-at-Large Shep Ogden grows many hundreds of seedlings each year in his capacity as president and chief evaluator for the Cook's Garden seed company. "A few years ago," he told me recently, "I did an absolutely minute analysis of the costs involved in making my own seed-starting mix. I did time studies and I did it down to fractions of a cent. And as much as we would all like to make everything from scratch from a purist's standpoint, there's no way I could justify mixing my own potting soil." Ogden now uses Pro-Mix for most flowers and all vegetables.

Care for Crispy Gardens: How to diagnose and treat a too-hot garden or lawn


This time of year, gardens and yards are just this side of crispy if you aren't ardent with the watering or blessed with slow, steady rain. But there is hope in warding off fried, dried effects that the heat and sun can cause. First, learn the warning signs, next, brush up on the basics and last, know how your watering gear works.

Warning Signs of Too-hot Plants
Some of the telltale signs to look for are leaves that curl or crinkle up or old leaves that are dry and turn brown and begin to drop off. Another indication that the plant is stressed and needs water is when new growth begins to wilt.

As for grass, it's too dry when you can see footprints on it. Another way to check is to use your small hand trowel to dig down below the sod and see if the root area is moist. If it's crusty or hard the grass needs water. But remember not all areas of lawn require the same amount of water. Sun-drenched expanses of lawn or those affected by drying winds will need more water than those areas tucked away in the shade.

Watering Know-how
How well your soil holds water determines how often watering is required. In general, sandy soils require more frequent watering than clay soils because sand is porous and lets water flow through it while soils with clay retains moisture.

The frequency of your rainfall is the next big factor. A nice long gentle soaking rainfall is a gardener's delight because there's a steady supply of rainwater and time for it to seep deep down into the roots. The same is true for watering techniques. A sporadic short burst from the garden hose encourages shallow root growth. Proper watering encourages deep root growth that helps anchor a plant into the soil and keep it healthy and strong. As a rule of thumb, you can figure that your lawn or garden needs at least one inch of water a week.

If you can't count on rainfall, know that the best time to water is early or late in the day when the temperatures and wind tend to be the lowest. Cooler temperatures and calm winds reduce the amount of water that will evaporate into the air during watering. And remember, if you live in an area where water is restricted follow local regulations, which you can learn by contacting your water department.

Watering Systems
Getting water to your plants and lawn on a regular basis can be accomplished in several ways. You can use a garden hose and oscillating sprinkler, a soaker hose or install a drip irrigation system. Of course, you can drag your hose around to individual plant beds and areas of the lawn and use a spray attachment to sprinkle spot areas. But that's not necessarily the most effective method. Instead, know how much water your garden or lawns requires, and then follow a schedule that provides just the right amount.

How Much Water Is Your Lawn Getting?
In general, lawns and gardens need 1 inch of water at each application. To find out how much time that requires using a sprinkler, take three plastic gallon milk bottles and cut off the top necks. Draw a line on each bottle one inch up from the bottom with a waterproof marker. Place the jugs in the path of the sprinkler and turn the sprinkler on, noting the time. When the water level reaches the 1-inch mark, look at your watch to see how long it took to get there. Use that time to set your watering schedule.

Get to the essence of flowers: Favorite garden plants are also tops for perfume


A delicate wisp of freesia, appearing just in time for holiday cheer, can perfume an entire room for days. For Mother's Day, a heavy bouquet of fuchsia-tinged Stargazer lilies has the same voluptuous effect. And a heady Valentine's Day vase of roses might seem an extravagantly perfumed gift. But none of these perishable bouquets can come close to the number of flowers it takes to scent one long-lasting vial of cologne.

Mankind has a long and odiferous history of creating scented products, particularly in ancient Egypt, Rome and China, where incense was widely used. But it wasn't until Avicenna invented steam distillation in 1100 that extracting plants' essential oils was possible, leading directly to the creation of liquid scents.

Today, most perfumes are scented with synthetic oils. But there are still some perfume makers that stick to plant materials, among them the ultra-luxury company House of Creed and the ultra-traditional Yardley of London, which debuted its Yardley's Lavender fragrance in 1780. Among the flowers that remain most popular for fragrances are several you might have growing in your own garden:

Roses. Clearly the romantic favorite, the highest quality rose oil comes from Bulgaria, the south of France and Morocco, whose hot, dry summers produce roses with a stronger fragrance than those grown in other climes. Red roses also contain more oil; the most commonly used types of roses are Damascus rose and Rosa gallica, used mostly in Bulgaria; and in the South of France and Morocco, Rosa centifolia.

Lavender. This familiar spicy-floral oil is used in soaps, candles, bath salts, bath oils and sachets as well as perfumes, is commercially grown in the Mediterranean region, Bulgaria and the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Some is also grown in the British Isles, mostly Lavandula angustifolia, English lavender.

Violets. While many floral scents are extracted from flowers, the fresh, woodsy scent of violet essential oil is often drawn out of its fleshy green leaves. Alternatively, oil extracted from orris root (Iris x germanica var. florentina) is often used as a substitute for true violet oil.
Lavender has been used for centuries as a fragrance and a medicine.

Can't I do it myself?
It is actually possible to build a homemade still and extract scented flower waters in your own kitchen. Whether it's worth the time and expense is an entirely separate matter.

You can get started with nothing more than a length of rubber tubing, an enameled teapot with a tight-fitting lid, and two bowls -- one with ice water in it, the other empty to catch your odiferous extract.

Attach your tubing to the spout of the teapot, drape it into the ice-water bowl and hang the other end into the empty bowl. Next, fill your teapot with flowers, then fill with water to cover and bring it to a low boil. As the flowers cook, oil-laden steam will come through the tubing, be condensed in the ice-water bath and come out the other end. Let this liquid sit until the essential oil separates from the water; you can collect the oil, and use the leftover flower water as a nice-smelling skin tonic.

You'll be slaving over the stove for a while before you get any appreciable amount of oil, though -- about 250 pounds of rose petals go into producing an ounce of attar of rose. If you try this, be sure not to use flowers that have been sprayed with pesticides or other toxic treatments, which will show up again in your finished product.

Easy Roses: Want beautiful roses with less work?


In the beginning, roses grew wild. From China through central Europe, they flowered with abandon for hundreds of years, needing neither fungicide nor fertilizer. Then hybridizers started fooling around with them, creating new plants that had beautiful flowers but were more prone to diseases. When these new varieties were marketed in climates where they had no business growing, roses gained the reputation of being finicky, fussy and easier to kill than to keep.

It's an unfair label, and fortunately one you don't have to accept, says Henry Everett, the president of the Greater Atlanta Rose Society.

In Everett's Southern backyard, steamy, humid summers provide prime conditions for the most devastating of the rose diseases: black spot, downy mildew and powdery mildew. And while there are very effective fungicides on the market, he says, not everyone wants to go out and spray their roses once a week. "So the question becomes, 'What will look nice without that care?' There are a lot of roses that meet the criteria." The solutions apply for most every growing zone.

Hardy Heirloom Roses
The obvious place to start when shopping for a disease-resistant rose is with heirloom, or old roses. "There's been a resurgence in the idea of the romance in growing 'roses of yesteryear' so now they're very available," Everett says. "Those roses lived in people's gardens before rose sprays were ever invented, so they survived for a long time without the benefit of any spraying." Look for these hardy, resilient roses at your local garden center. Check the label to ensure it's a true heirloom plant.

Healthy New Varieties
Everett's next recommendation is to look at the very latest varieties available on the market. Hybridizers have recognized that low-care roses have a wider market than the disease-prone kind, and have introduced roses to appeal to that trend. "Some of the newer varieties are really very deliberately bred to be disease-resistant and yet pretty," Everett says.

Shopping Advice
When purchasing your rose bush from a garden center, Everett recommends looking for a bushy little plant with lots of leaves. Check to make sure the foliage doesn't look dried out, wilted or droopy. No broken branches should be falling off, and the branches should all be green as opposed to dried-out and gray. And if you're still not sure what kinds to plant, go to a rose show in your area to scope out the options.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Gardening Made Easy


There is a simple way to make your plants and flowers flourish

So many people are intimidated by gardening. Rather than believing it can be fun and easy, they assume it's instinctive -- you've either got a green thumb or you don't. Well just like many other things in life, you can garden the hard way, or the easy way. But why make it more difficult than it really has to be?

Believe it or not, there is a way to make your yard the talk of the neighborhood -- and it's much easier than you think. With some simple planning, and a bit of dedication, you can turn your brown thumb green.

Gardening the Easy Way:
Before you buy the first seed packet or seedling, make a plan. Do you want a vegetable garden, flowers, drought-tolerant natives or a lush lawn? Will you plant a huge vegetable garden or settle on a few tomato plants and petunias in pots?

Once you've decided on the size and type of garden you want, put it all down on paper, including a rough sketch of your design. Make adjustments as necessary. Take your plan with you to the garden shop to head off wild, impulsive buying.

If you have weeds in the yard, then you have fairly healthy soil, after all the weeds are thriving. Still, you'll need to make sure to pull or hoe all the weeds, and tidy up the growing area.

Spread a four-inch layer of organic matter over the planting area you've cleared. There are several types of organic matter -- some are homemade, others are sold commercially by the bag or cubic foot. Well-rotted, homemade compost is ideal, but you can buy mushroom compost, manure, redwood soil conditioner, sand or leaf mold from most landscape supply outlets.

For large spaces, use a rototiller to turn the soil and organic matter to a depth of eight to 12 inches. The tilling is rigorous work -- no kidding -- and hiring someone to do the job might be a smart idea. If you're planting in a small area, you can simply turn the soil with a spade to the depth of the shovel head.

Use planting mix for large containers or raised beds. Potting soil is the best bet for small containers.

If you are lucky enough to live in an area where summer rains do the watering, all well and good. But remember the lesson of last year's drought: You can't count on rain alone. In areas where watering is needed, put in drip irrigation for flowers and vegetables, and use soaker hoses on established trees and shrubs. If you plant in a new lawn, make sure it gets plenty of water from the sprinkler.

For smarter watering, group plants with similar watering needs. Annuals need more water than perennials, and perennials need more water than bulbs. Herbs are nearly drought-tolerant; roses are not. Once established, trees, shrubs and native plants need watering only a few times in summer.

Spreading a two-inch layer of fine mulch over all exposed ground also helps conserve water. And keep an eye out for new weeds. They rob plants of water and nutrients.

Like a growing kid who is always hungry, plants need a steady food source. The choices range from home-brewed manure tea to general all-purpose fertilizers. Many flowers, herbs and vegetables do well with slow-release fertilizer (brand names such as Once, Osmocote), which last for three months. However, a general all-purpose fertilizer with even numbers (such as 10-10-10) works well when applied every four to six weeks. Roses, azaleas, citrus and fruit trees all have their own special needs.

Avoid confusion by reading the fertilizer's label to be sure it's ideal for the plants you are growing. And, don't overdo it. There is no advantage to giving a plant double the recommended feeding; you'll simply be throwing away your money.

After all your work effort comes the fun part: planting. The soil is warming up, and the key planting time is May and June in most regions. Put in transplants of annual and perennial flowers, but use seed for sunflowers, cosmos, nasturtiums, wildflowers and hollyhocks.

Sow beets, onions, lettuce, chard and other leafy vegetables. Wait two more weeks to set out transplants that need very warm weather to mature, including tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers and melons. Put in the herb garden.

Trees and shrubs in containers can be planted next, and you can also plant a new lawn. Plant citrus, avocado and other tender trees in regions suited to their survival, and also plant vines, ground covers and summer bulbs.

Once everything is planted, you can't stop there. You have to make sure everything continues to get enough water, sunlight and nutrients. You've devoted your time and hard work to get your garden growing -- don't neglect it once it is finally established.

The rest is the easiest part of all -- enjoying the fruits of your labor. And when your family and friends ask how you managed such a fine garden, just tell them, "It was easy."

Gardening with aromatic foliage just makes scents


A rose is a rose is a roseuntil it withers and dies, losing its beguiling scent forever. But savvy landscape designers know they can count on year-round fragrance if they pack their gardens with aromatic foliage. Long after the blooming season ends, the scented leaves fill the air with a distinctive perfume of their own.

"A garden without fragrance is hardly a garden at all. You might as well just get silk or plastic plants," says landscape architect Shirley Kerins, manager of plant production and sales at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.

Unlike scented flowers, though, most scented leaves must be rubbed or bruised to unlock their fragrance. For this reason, Kerins says, aromatic foliage is best placed where it will be touched. The most common locations are beside paths, where you brush against leaves as you walk past, and between pavers, where you crush leaves lightly underfoot.

Because chemical concentrations responsible for fragrance vary from plant to plant and because everyone's sense of smell is different, Kerins recommends getting a whiff of each plant before adding it to your garden. "Something that smells wonderful to one person might smell medicinal, like Vicks VapoRub, to someone else," she warns.

The list of aromatic foliage is long and tempting, so you will want to let your climate, your soil and your nose be your guides. Here are a few tried-and-true possibilities worth considering:

  • Lavender: The evergreen shrub's potent purple flowers conjure up the sun-splashed South of France, but its gray to gray-green leaves also exude a pleasing scent. Lavandula augustifolia 'Hidcote' and L. intermedia 'Provence' are good choices.
  • Rosemary: This Mediterranean native's dark-green needle-like leaves have been a pungent culinary ingredient for centuries. Try Rosmarinus officinalis 'Prostratus' or a similar low-growing variety called 'Lockwood de Forest.'
  • Crimson-spot rock rose: The deciduous rock rose Cistus ladanifer is known as a natural air freshener on very hot days, when you needn't handle it to release its heady scent. A good thing, too, since its dark-green leaves are sticky.
  • Lemon verbena: The aroma of leggy Aloysia triphylla's narrow bright-green leaves, often used in beverages and jellies, calls to mind tangy lemons.
  • Sage: Hundreds of exotic annual and perennial sages, cousins to common sage, grow throughout the world. Most bear floral spikes and gray-green foliage with a decidedly astringent fragrance. Salvia leucantha (Mexican bush sage) and S. greggii (autumn sage) have a wild look.
  • Thyme: Between stepping stones, thyme becomes a magic carpet of a ground cover. Not only do its tiny dark-green to gray-green leaves give off a sweet scent but they also cushion the feet. Look for creeping thyme and woolly thyme.
    You can brew the leaves of mint into tea, or use it to garnish cold drinks.
  • Mint: Nothing rivals the toothed green leaves of Mentha piperita (peppermint) and M. spicata (spearmint) when it comes to clean, bracing fragrances.
  • Scented geraniums: The aroma of mouth-watering apples, pineapples, lemons and limes emanate from the velvety, sometimes variegated, lobed leaves of these shrubby perennials. Pelargonium tomentosum (peppermint geranium) and P. 'Fragrans' (nutmeg geranium) are spicier alternatives.
  • Breath of heaven: No plant has a more enchanting common name than coleonema. An evergreen shrub from South Africa, it sports wispy leaves with the fresh smell of myrtle.

Once you've narrowed your foliage choices, Kerins encourages planting them in creative combinations. She, for instance, cultivates pineapple sage next to coconut scented geraniums in a kind of horticultural piƱa colada. And who can blame her for having such fun? With so many scented leaves within easy reach, you won't mind either if you can't stop and smell the roses.

Protecting Trees During Construction

You have to begin planning even before the lot is cleared. If you buy a "spec" house from a builder, you may be disappointed a year or two later to find he was not careful, and your trees are dying. You are faced with the expense of removing dead trees. If you paid a higher price for the lot because of the trees, you've also lost your investment.

Saving trees around a house or building that you're constructing is a big plus for beauty and the pocketbook.

You probably enjoy the shade and beauty trees offer, but you may not know saving trees saves money. Shade trees cut cooling and heating costs, and can add from five to ten percent to the real estate value of a home.

Unfortunately, many who try to save trees around a new home or building are disappointed later when the trees die. But, with careful construction your trees can survive.

Construction damage kills

The number one killer of trees during construction is damage. Those clearing your lot sometimes damage the roots or trunks of trees. Or, they may smother the roots by packing the soil with heavy equipment or with fill dirt over the roots. To make way for concrete slabs and driveways, construction crews sometimes cut roots, and installing underground utilities or grading the lot can cut roots.

Most of the vital feeder roots of trees are in the top foot of soil and extend even beyond the drip line of tree branches.

Supervise closely

You must be firm with the builders. Even then, supervise them closely. Insist on proper care during lot clearing. Build barricades around trees to prevent damage. Crews may need to clear most of the lot by hand and use heavy equipment only on the house site itself.

Clear lots during dry weather. Heavy equipment damages roots more during wet weather.

Have equipment enter and leave the site from one location, preferably the driveway site.

Try to have underground utilities laid away from tree roots. But, if they have to pass close to a tree, insist that corridors be tunneled under major roots instead of trenched. You should ask to have all utilities laid in one corridor, if possible .

If you have to change the drainage pattern or grade of the lot, use retaining walls to protect your trees.

For driveways, walks, or patios that extend over root zones, use a pervious material such as turf-stone, gravel or shell.

If you're thinking about buying a house already under construction, look for symptoms of construction damage. Look for injuries to tree trunks, exposed or cut roots, a slab too close to trees or a patio surrounding them. Other clues are thinning and yellowing of leaves, or die-back at the top or on branch ends.

Sometimes trees can be doctored back to health after construction.

Corrective care

Fertilization, watering and aeration of compacted soils are all good medicine for trees suffering from construction stress. Other aids are wound repair, dead limb removal and pruning to compensate for root loss.

Live Oaks, Fertilization With proper care, live oaks will grow fast.

The first two growing seasons are the most critical for the live oak. Don't allow a tree to show stress before you start watering it.

You may believe that the next generation will be the only people who benefit from a live oak tree planted now, however, that's not really true. With proper care, a live oak will grow faster and will provide more benefits than you may think in only five years.

Fertilize and water

Fertilizer and water are the keys to whether a live oak grows as rapidly as it can. At least one major feeding in late winter or early spring is essential for this rapid growth. Apply a complete fertilizer at the rate of one and a half pounds for each year of the tree's age. A complete fertilizer is one such as 8-8-8 or 10-10-10. You should put the fertilizer in small holes under the canopy of the tree.

The second feeding should come in mid-summer and this will help young trees because under good conditions, a second spurt of growth is likely at this time. Nitrogen is especially important for this second growth stage.

Once established

Large, well-established trees should have only one application of fertilizer a year. In fact, trees which have become as large as they need to be, probably shouldn't be fertilized more than once every other year. When the tree gets large, you should be more concerned with keeping it healthy than helping it grow larger.

The first two growing seasons are the most critical for the live oak. Don't allow a tree to show stress before you start watering it. Maintain moist soil at all times.

Smoke Tree: Spring Beauty

Some nurseries and garden centers carry this tree as Purple Smoke Tree or the Velvet Cloak Smoke Tree. They will retain an unusual purplish cast to the leaves throughout the summer

One of the very spectacular late spring flowering trees is the Smoke Tree. This very attractive large shrub or small tree gets lost among the other spring flowering trees.

Its flowers, which are 6 - 8 inch misty panicles or clusters, give the tree the appearance of being enveloped in a cloud of greenish white or purplish smoke depending upon the variety or species. Some nurseries and garden centers carry this tree as Purple Smoke Tree or the Velvet Cloak Smoke Tree. They will retain an unusual purplish cast to the leaves throughout the summer.

Transplants easily

It is quite easy to transplant, vigorous growing, and responds well to pruning. It is more often used as a specimen tree for its unusual cloud-like appearance when flowering.

Adapts to soil and sun

Smoke trees are adapted to a wide range of soils and prefer full sun even though they will tolerate very light shade. Follow the usual practices when planting. Better growth will occur if soils are improved. Dig large holes two to three times the size of the root ball. Do not add fertilizer at planting. Wait until growth is well in progress.

When to fertilize

Fertilize young trees in March, May and July. Use fertilizer sparingly with one third to one fourth cup of a complete balanced fertilizer such as 8 8-8 or 10-10-10 or 12-48 for a tree 6 to 8 feet in height or 1- 2 inches in stem diameter. Spread the fertilizer uniformly over the soil extending 18 - 24 inches away from the tree trunk. Water in thoroughly and check for watering needs once per week throughout the growing season.

Small trees do not require staking, however to prevent blowing over, it would be wise to stake the tree for the first two years.

Pruning Crape Myrtle: You may Choose Between a Shrub or a Small Tree

The Crape Myrtle's small tree form will usually have one or two main stems or trunks. All side shoots on the main stems are kept pruned off up to the head or top of the plant. All growth activity is channeled into the development of a healthy full head.
Far too many gardeners neglect pruning Crape Myrtles. Those that do prune, seldom practice sound pruning practices.

In landscape design, Crape Myrtles are used as a specimen shrub or small tree form. Those plants grown as shrubs are pruned differently from those grown as a small tree. Those that are grown as shrubs are pruned yearly down to 3 inches or 4 inches above the ground and usually have several stems. The small tree form will usually have one or two main stems or trunks. All side shoots on the main stems are kept pruned off up to the head or top of the plant. All growth activity is channeled into the development of a healthy full head.

The trunks of the Crape Myrtle small tree form provide interesting color and texture during the winter months. The cinnamon or light chocolate color plus the smoothness of the bark are very attractive.

Prune

Regardless of whether your Crape Myrtle plants are to be handled as shrubs or small trees; they will have one pruning or grooming practice in common. As flower heads fade, they should be cut or pruned away. This will give repeat bloom during the summer. Because this practice is often ignored, most Crape Myrtle plants seemingly have one large peak bloom in early summer. If the old flower heads are kept removed there will be several blooming cycles.

Fertilize

Along with correct pruning and grooming a regular fertilization program can make your Crape Myrtles the picture-look plant often visualized by gardeners. A fertilization in March, May and July for young plants, or once per year in late March or early April for mature plants will do the job. Use a complete balanced lawn or garden fertilizer such as 8-8-8 or 10-10-10.

Water

Follow each fertilization with a thorough watering, and water once per week during dry weather. Thoroughly soak the soil. You can accomplish this best by laying your garden hose underneath the plant. Do not leave nozzles on your hose. Turn on a slow or soft stream or drip so that all of the water soaks into the soil rather than flowing away. Allow the hose to run for 2 - 3 hours. You will use less water and get better utilization if you follow this practice.

Lawn Care: Lawn Renovation

Renovating a lawn may take one of several directions. It may involve reseeding or plugging areas where existing sod has been killed by insects or disease. Or it may mean destroying the existing sod and reseeding or resodding with new material.
Partial renovation

In cases of partial renovation, remove all grass in the dead areas by raking or some other method. Lightly re-till the affected area before reseeding or resodding. Water these reseeded or resodded areas until the new grass is established.

To renovate completely

If you want to change to a different variety of grass, you'll need to renovate the area completely. Follow these general procedures:

  • First kill the existing grass with a herbicide such as gIyphosphate.
  • About two weeks after applying the herbicide, till the area to a depth of two to three inches. During the tilling process, incorporate lime and fertilizer according to soil test directions. Your county agent can give you information on soil testing

After leveling the area, sprig, seed or plug the new grass. Maintain proper moisture until your new grass is established.

Lawn Care: Rye Grass Planting

For a glorious green lawn Georgians favor rye grass. A rye grass lawn provides a strong contrast color in the environment in the winter and is attractive as a background for spring flowering bulbs and early-flowing trees and shrubs.

If you would like a new, green lawn during the winter you should consider sowing rye grass during late October and November. Rye grass flourishes in Georgia's relatively mild winter.

This type of grass is nice in landscapes where there's not much green in winter and especially in sites where there are many trees and shrubs which lose their leaves.

A rye grass lawn provides a strong contrast color in the environment in the winter and is attractive as a background for spring flowering bulbs and early-flowing trees and shrubs.

Fertilizer hungry

However, rye grass will compete with permanent grasses for fertilizers. So, it's recommended that you apply a complete fertilizer when you plant the seed. Fertilizer applications should be repeated two months after planting and again four months after planting. If you don't fertilize the rye grass, it won't perform as it should and the permanent grass will be weakened.

Sowing the seeds

Before you sow the rye seed, cut the permanent grass to a height of about three-quarters

of an inch to an inch. Make sure the soil is moist before you sow the seed. Sow about three to five pounds of rye grass per 1,000 square feed of lawn surface. Use a mechanical spreader so the seeds are spread evenly, otherwise you could end up with a patchy appearance. For more uniform distribution, sow half the seed in one direction and the other half from the opposite direction.

Planting too much seed results in a heavy, matted turf that is hard to maintain. Since the cold weather in the state lasts such a short time, the rye grass can grow for about three months. If this growth becomes too heavy, the growth of permanent grass will be slowed at the start of spring. Even though high temperatures will destroy rye grass, this usually happens only after the permanent grasses have started growing.

Don't sow rye grass seeds in flower beds or in other areas where you can't use a lawn mower... you'll end up having to hand weed that area. Also, don't let leaves accumulate to any extent on the lawn after the seed geminate. This will damage the new grass.

For more information on planting rye grass, contact your local County Extension Office.

Lawn Care: Garden Trimmers

Be aware of the trimmer's impact.

It's not uncommon to see shrub borders damaged and dying because of the improper use of garden trimmers.

Garden trimmers which use a monofilament line to cut weeds and grass may damage trees, shrubs and vines if you don't use them correctly. These gardens trimmers can be very useful...but they should be used for the jobs they were meant to do.

A useful tool

Garden trimmers are excellent for trimming weeds and grasses along driveways, walks, fences, around garden beds and the foundation of your house. However, if you allow the cutting line to hit stems of small trees, shrubs or vines, you're likely to lose part of bark off that plant.

Watch for girdling

A ring of bark removed from around these plants results in what is called girdling. Girdling of the stem causes a situation in which food can't move from the leaves to the roots. Gradually, the roots die, next, the top of the tree turns brown and eventually, the entire plant dies because it can't get water from the roots and the roots can't get food from the leaves.

Trim carefully

It's not uncommon to see shrub borders damaged and dying because of the improper use of garden trimmers. Remember, when you use one of these tools, be sure you stay far enough away from the trunk of small trees, shrubs and vines so that the line doesn't strike the stem of the plants.

For more information on garden trimmers; contact your local County Extension Office.

Lawn Care: Brown Patches

Georgia lawns suffer most from brown patch. Generally, brown patch attacks only the leaves and stems of the grass, but it can cause severe damage if uncontrolled .

The most serious disease in Georgia lawns is brown patch. It's caused by a fungus which attacks almost all species of grasses during the warm, humid early spring or fall weather. Brown patch is especially serious on St. Augustine and centipede grasses.

Brown patch factors

Several factors can make grasses more susceptible to brown patch. Excessive application of nitrogen fertilizer promotes lush growth that is readily attacked. Another condition that leads to severe disease development is watering late in the afternoon . This allows the grass to stay wet for a long time, which makes it easier for the fungus to grow.

Symptoms

You'll recognize brown patch by the development of irregular circular areas from a few inches in diameter to several feet in diameter. These areas begin as brownish orange to yellow discolorations in the lawn. These scalded-looking areas spread rapidly and become large brown areas. Generally, brown patch attacks only the leaves and stems of the grass, but it can cause severe damage if uncontrolled .

Chemical remedies

To control brown patch, be sure to avoid overwatering and overfertilization. Use chemicals to control the fungus, if necessary. The recommended chemicals are: Benomyl, Terraclor, Daconil 2787 and Chipco 26019.

For more information on brown patches; contact your local County Extension Office.

Controlling Lawn Insects: Chinch Bugs

The adults are small, black bugs 3/16" long with white wings and reddish legs. The nymphs are smaller than adults, wingless, brick red in color with a white band on the back.
The damage is irregular shaped yellow patches, 2 to 3 feet in diameter, which turn brown and die out. Non-grass plants may survive in the affected area. The insects keep moving out from the infested area so are most likely to be found at the edges of the spots.

Chinch bugs are usually not serious on well watered lawns so watering properly will help control them. Severe infestations will require applications of Aspon, Carbaryl (Sevin), Chlorpyrifos (Dursban), or Diazinon. Apply the chemicals according to label directions. Apply pesticides in late April to control overwinter adults, early to mid- June to control first generation nymphs, or in mid-August to control second generation nymphs.

Bluegrass Billbug

Adult billbugs are dull gray to black or brown beetles with a snout or bill. The wings are scaly textured but the insects seldom fly. The larvae are white, humpbacked grubs with a yellow to brown head.

Symptoms are irregular patches of dead grass, especially near sidewalks or curbs. The dead grass pulls out easily and has hollow stems. The larvae are present under the grass and brown sawdust-like frass is present in the root zone. The adults can be found in the grass near the dead areas.

Apply controls for adults in late April or early May before egg laying begins. Larval controls should be applied in mid to late June or July when early injury may be apparent. Use properly labeled formulations of Carbaryl (Sevin) or Diazinon.

Sod Webworm

The larval stage causes the damage. The larvae are grayish brown to dirty white and have 4 parallel rows of dark brown spots on the abdomen. The adults are grayish tan moths that fly in a zig-zag pattern in the evening.

The symptoms are brown patches where the grass blades are missing and not simply dead. The larvae can be found in silk-lined tubes they have made in the thatch layer.

Apply controls between June 10 and 20 or August 10 to 20, depending on which generation is causing the damage. Use acephate (Orthene), Aspon, carbaryl (Sevin), chlorpyrifos (Dursban), or Diazinon according to label directions.

White Grubs

White grubs are the larval stage of one of several beetles. The most common white grub seen in the soil is the C shaped larvae of the May or June beetle. These larvae feed on the grass roots and when numerous can cause dead areas in the lawn.

Symptoms are dead areas in the lawn. The grass in the affected area can sometimes be easily pulled out. Roll back a section of sod to see how many grubs are under the lawn. If many grubs are found, controls may be necessary.

Use properly labeled formulations of chlorpyrifos (Dursban) or Diazinon according to label directions.

Controlling Moss in the Lawn

Moss grows in the lawn when shade, low fertility or poorly drained soil are present. The moss does not kill the grass, the growing conditions are so unfavorable to the grass it dies out. Moss will grow on acid soil but this is not the main reason it will grow in a particular area. Do not add lime to try to control a moss problem unless a soil test indicates a need for lime.
Shade and poor drainage can only be corrected with some difficulty. Low fertility can be corrected by using a lawn fertilizer.

Moss can be killed by spraying with copper sulfate or iron sulfate at the rate to 2 to 5 ounces in 4 gallons of water. The 4 gallons is sufficient to cover 1000 square feet. Killing the moss without correcting the conditions that favor its growth will not prevent a reoccurrence of the problem.

Where shade is quite heavy it may be easier to plant a shade adapted ground cover rather than try to grow grass.

Controlling Lawn Moles

Moles can be the most common and frustrating lawn pest problem. The animals eat soil insects such as grubs and earthworms. They do not feed on flower bulbs or plant roots.
There is currently no satisfactory chemical control. Trapping is at present the best technique for mole control.

Moles have two types of tunnels. One type is used only once, the other type is used regularly. The trap must be set on those tunnels the moles use regularly.

A less scientific method is available when the tunnels can be observed for a day. Step on those regularly used tunnels so they are completely pushed down. Look at the tunnels often through the day. When the tunnel is being pushed up, turn on the garden hose and push it into the tunnel near where the mole is working. The mole will be forced to the soil surface where it can be killed.

Fertilizing Lawns

Fertilizer is essential for good lawn growth. Depending on the grass grown, 3 to 6 fertilizer applications should be made during the growing season.
Lawn fertilizers vary in analysis and price. The ideal analysis for a lawn fertilizer has a 4-1-2 ratio, for example 20-5-10. Most available lawn fertilizers will not have this exact ratio but will still give good results.

The price of the fertilizer relates somewhat to the analysis and the nutrient carriers used on the fertilizer.

Cheap fertilizers are usually water soluble thus have a high potential to burn the grass. Water soluble fertilizers will give a response for 4 to 6 weeks. Many of these fertilizers have disclaimers on the bag stating they will not burn the grass if the directions are followed. The directions usually state that the fertilizer must be watered-in immediately after spreading. Because these fertilizers are water soluble they become available in the spring when temperatures are still cool.

More expensive fertilizers are not water soluble, have low burn potential and give a response for up to 8 weeks. These fertilizers rely on micro-organisms in the soil to release the nutrients. Since the micro-organisms are not active when the soil is cool, the fertilizers will not become available early in the spring.

Where lawns are watered regularly, especially on sandy soil, the more expensive types of fertilizers should be used. Heavy watering will dissolve water soluble fertilizer and flush it below the root zone of the grass plants.

Apply fertilizer with a fertilizer spreader. Spreading fertilizer by hand will always cause some spots to be over- fertilized and others to have none. When using a spreader be sure to get complete coverage of the lawn. Any missed spots will appear quite yellow.

Most lawn fertilizers are packaged so that the right amount of nutrients are applied per 1000 square feet. Generally about 1 pound of nitrogen is required at each fertilization. Do not fill the spreader when it is sitting on the lawn. Fertilizer spills are inevitable. Spilling water soluble fertilizer causes a large dead spot that persists for weeks.

Begin applying the fertilizer by making "header" strips around the border of the lawn. Then start at one edge and go back and forth across the lawn. Make sure each strip overlaps the previous strip. Turn off the spreader when the header strip is reached. Do not turn the spreader while fertilizer is dropping through onto the grass. Such corners are over-fertilized and the grass could be burned.

Use caution when applying fertilizer combined with herbicide, especially with broadcast spreaders. These spreaders can throw the material into flower beds where the herbicide can injure desirable ornamental plants.

Proper Lawn Mowing

Proper lawn mowing involves the interaction of the height and frequency of mowing.
Most lawns should be mowed no lower than 1 1/2 inches and up to 3 inches. Shaded lawns need the taller mowing height. The personal preferences of the homeowner usually determine the exact height selected.

The lawn should be mowed often enough so that no more than 1/3 of the leaf area is removed at one time. For example, a lawn mowed at 1 1/2 inches should be mowed when the clippings will be less than 1/2 inch long.

It is not necessary to remove the clippings at each mowing. Clippings do not contribute to thatch development. Collect the clippings from diseased lawns to help prevent the spread of the disease. Also collect excessively long clippings to prevent them from piling up and shading spots of grass.

Dull mower blades shred the grass blades rather than cut them. The shredded ends dry out giving the lawn a brownish cast.

Dead grass appearing in the tire tracks from riding lawn mowers can be a hot weather problem. These occur when the lawn was mowed during a time when it was dry. The injury is most evident where the mower turned corners or on slopes. The lawn will recover once it starts growing again.

Selecting Lawn Grasses

A beautiful lawn is not maintained year after year without some effort. Before planting a lawn consider whether or not its worth the time and expense required to keep it beautiful.

A lawn can be as low maintenance as mowing whatever grows and letting nature do the rest. At the other end of the spectrum is the lawn that needs monthly fertilization and regular watering. If the lawn is watered and fertilized regularly it will need more mowing and dethatching. The maintenance required for these two types of lawns is vastly different.

The maintenance level of the lawn is determined by the grass selected, the desired lawn quality and the site. Be aware that some landscape features are incompatible. For instance, you can have a very shady landscape or a high quality lawn but not both. Grass does not grow well in the shade.

A good lawn becomes possible when a proper mix of grasses is planted. Most lawns are combinations of Kentucky bluegrass, creeping red fescue, and perennial ryegrass. A mixture of three different grass species provides the maximum amount of pest resistance and environmental adaptability. Each of these three grasses has distinct traits.

Kentucky bluegrass is the most common lawn grass. Blends of Kentucky bluegrass cultivars can provide a very high quality lawn but such lawns usually require above average maintenance levels. The spreading growth habit helps fill in bare spots but the grass goes dormant during hot, dry, summer weather.

Creeping red fescue has thread-like leaves and is the most shade tolerant lawn grass. This does not mean the grass grows only in shade or that it will tolerate total shade. It grows well in full sun and in fact requires some sun during the day.

Only named cultivars of perennial ryegrass should be used in lawns. Common perennial ryegrass often dies during the winter and does not mow well.

A fairly adaptable mix is listed below. It is unlikely that it can be matched exactly but a number of mixes will come close. This mix will provide a good quality lawn with below average to average care. The mix will provide a lawn suitable for sun or partial shade.

50% creeping red fescue

30% Kentucky bluegrass

(can be 15% each of two cultivars)

20% named perennial ryegrass

Under some conditions the mix can be varied. If the lawn will be subjected to heavy traffic increase the bluegrass to 50% and reduce the fescue to 30%.

Less desirable grasses are available and should be avoided. Here are the most common problem grasses.

Annual ryegrass is often sold as the major component of some very low priced grass seed. It will die out during the winter so forms a lawn that lasts for a single season.

Rough bluegrass is often found in shady grass mixes. It has a light green color and does not blend well with other lawn type grasses. It does however do well in moist, shaded sites.

Tall fescue is one of the two worst lawn weeds. Yet seed is available in most stores. The grass blades of a clump of tall fescue always seem to stay taller than the rest of the lawn. There is no selective control for this grass as the chemicals that kill tall fescue also kill other lawn grasses. Pure stands of this wear tolerant grass are often used on playgrounds or roadsides.

Zoysia is a warm season grass that turns brown early in the fall and stays brown until late into the spring. It is not better than the cool season grasses more commonly used in Michigan.

Bentgrass becomes established in a lawn and is the other of the two worst lawn weeds. The grass can tolerate very low mowings as on golf greens. At normal lawn heights it is shaggy and often kills out during the winter or during hot dry weather. There is no selective control for the problem.

Vegetable Gardening: Faba Bean, Fava Bean, Broad Bean, Horse Bean

Fava beans are available only a few months of the year in areas that have a representation of people with Italian, Greek, and Middle Eastern heritages.
The fava bean looks somewhat like a huge, overgrown green pea. Inside, the pale green, velvety pod is tightly packed with about six to eight beans that resemble large round limas. As with limas, the pods are edible only when they are very young and immature. As a rule, the pods are discarded. Fava beans, if available, arrive in spring and are out of season by early summer. California and New Jersey produce most of our crop.

Some people are allergic to raw fava beans and ingestion of the uncooked favas can result in mild or acute discomfort and, in rare cases, can induce a coma. The cooked fava is not toxic.

The quality of the fava bean is not as good as the lima bean but it tolerates cold better than does the lima. The plants grow 3 to 4 feet tall and are planted as soon as the soil can be worked. Plant them 8 inches apart and 1 to 2 inches deep in rows 2 feet apart. When the lower flower clusters fade and set pods, pinch out the tip of the plant to encourage earlier and better quality pods.

Harvest fava beans when they are 6 to 8 inches long.

Annuals Gardening Tips: Saving Annual Seed

Seed saved from hybrid plants may produce plants of inferior quality. Such plants may have true flower color but the flowers may be smaller and the plants less vigorous.
Extra seed can be stored in a cool dry place in a tightly sealed jar. The extra storage time will reduce germination so saved seeds should be planted thicker. If the seeds are not left in the packets, copy the plant name and its cultural requirements and place it in the container with the seeds. Two tablespoons of dry powdered milk in 2 layers of tissue will help keep the seed dry.

Annuals Gardening Tips: Planting Annuals

Do not plant in the garden until the danger of frost is past, or the soil temperature is 60 degrees. Indoor planting times are 6 to 8 weeks earlier than anticipated outdoor planting dates.

Buy short, stocky, dark green plants not yet in full bloom. Large plants in full bloom do not transplant as well as the smaller plants

During hot weather plant in the evening when it is cooler.

Most purchased plants are grown in containers with individual compartments for each plant. Remove plants by gently pushing on the sides and bottom of the compartment. Try to plant as soon as possible after purchasing. Plants allowed to sit around may be damaged by sun or dryness and may not recover.

Tear off the top of peat pots or bury them completely at planting time. If any of the peat pot sticks out of the soil it acts like a wick and dries out the rest of the pot. Roots have a difficult time getting through the dry, brittle peat.

Set plants at the same level they were growing at in the flat or container. Some individual plants have deeper planting depths suggested.

Once the plants have been set they need water.

Bleached leaves on newly planted transplants indicates insufficient hardening off.

What Are Annuals and Perennials?

Annuals complete their life cycle in one growing season. Seed germinates in the spring, the plant grows, flowers, produces seed and then dies.
Perennials live for more than one growing season. There are two types of perennials. Herbaceous perennials generally die to the ground at the end of the growing season but send up new shoots the following spring. Woody perennials, such as trees and shrubs, do not die back to the ground but get larger each year.

Annuals Gardening Tips: Starting Seed Indoors

Seeds started indoors usually germinate, but the resulting seedlings are sometimes weak from lack of light and perform poorly when placed in the garden. Gardeners wanting only a few plants are probably better off purchasing them from a local garden center.
Damping-off is a fungus disease common on seedlings started at home. The disease causes seedling stems to shrivel and turn brown at the soil line. Infected plants fall over. At first, only a few fallen plants are seen then more, until practically all the seedlings are dead. Damping off is more of a problem on overwatered plants growing in poorly drained soils.

Using pasteurized soil is another way gardeners avoid diseases. Fill a pan or metal tray with a 4 inch, or less, layer of moist soil. Bury a one and a half inch diameter potato in the center of the soil, then cover the pan with aluminum foil, and seal the edges. Punch a small hole in the center of the aluminum foil and insert the bulb end of a candy thermometer. Place the pan in an oven at 180 to 200 degrees. After the thermometer reads 180 degrees, leave the soil in the oven 30 minutes then remove and allow it to cool. The potato will be cooked if the soil is properly pasteurized. Pasteurizing the soil is useless if dirty containers are used. Pasteurizing soil in the oven can create an odor some people find offensive. Clean clay pots can be sterilized by baking while the soil is heated. Pots can be sterilized by soaking them in a solution of one part chlorine bleach and nine parts water. Rinse, and allow the pots to dry thoroughly before filling them with soil.

An alternative is the purchase of new, plastic or fiber, disposable trays or flats. Plants grown in peat pots suffer little setback when transplanted into the garden.

Use a loose, well-drained, fine textured soil mix that is low in nutrients. A suitable mix is equal parts of pasteurized garden soil, sand and sphagnum peat moss. Commercially prepared mixtures may also be used.

Fill the containers about two thirds full with soil. Level the soil and soak it thoroughly. Sift more soil mixture through window screening to form a layer that fills one fourth to one half of the remaining depth of the container.

Make a furrow one fourth of an inch deep in the sifted soil. Sow large seeded plants directly into the bottom of the furrow. Before sowing small seed, fill the furrow with vermiculite, then sow small seed on the surface of the vermiculite.

Sow seed in flats at the rate recommended on the seed packet. Sow two to four seeds per peat pot if the seeds are large. After planting, cover the furrows with a thin layer of vermiculite, then mist with water. A fine mist prevents washing the seed out of the soil. Some seed should not be covered. To be sure, check the cultural suggestions for each plant before sowing the seed.

Once seeds are planted, place a sheet of plastic over the containers and provide temperatures between 70 and 75 degrees. The containers need no more water until the seed germinates. Under no circumstances should plastic covered containers be placed in direct sunlight.

Once seedlings are growing, remove the plastic and provide proper growing conditions. Give the seedlings adequate light. Even the sunniest windowsill provides varying amounts of light and only from one direction. Windowsills often lack adequate humidity and are too warm for best seedling growth. Cool white fluorescent lights placed three to six inches above the seedlings are a good light source. The length of time the lights are on varies with the type of annual grown. Some general guidelines are given here, but read the seed packet for additional information. A time clock will make sure the daylengths are regular. If only one light fixture and time clock are used, the plants must have compatible growth requirements.

These plants need 10 to 12 hour days and temperatures between 60 and 65 degrees; calliopsis, china aster, cornflower, gaillardia, petunia, phlox, poppy, rudbeckia, salpiglossis, scabiosa, snapdragon, and verbena.

Most other plants need 18 hour days. On short days they form flowers and never produce good flowering plants outdoors. These plants are grown under 18 hour days at 65 degrees; cockscomb, cosmos, dahlia, marigold, morning glory, scarlet sage, sunflower, and zinnia.

Annuals not included in the above groups are grown under 18 to 20 hour days.

After removal of the plastic, the seedlings must be watered frequently and fertilized. Water when the soil surface begins to dry and use a house plant fertilizer according to label directions.

Seedlings in flats should be transplanted to other containers at wider spacings once two true leaves have developed. Handle the seedlings very carefully as they are easily injured. Use different flats but the same sterile soil mix. Use a spacing of one and a half inches between plants.

Annuals Gardening Tips: Flower Bed Preparation

New flower beds should be prepared the autumn before the first planting of annuals. Poorly drained soils must be improved by adding organic matter to the soil. Peat moss, compost, or well rotted manure are common sources of organic matter. Spade the soil to a depth of eight to ten inches, turning it over completely. Respade three to four times at weekly intervals. Work the fertilizer in prior to spring planting. Peat moss and other soil amendments may also be worked in at this time. For ordinary soil, work in one to two inches of peat moss. In sand or heavy clay, work in two to four inches of peat moss. Use one and a half pounds of 5-10-5 fertilizer per 100 square feet. Rake the soil smooth and the bed is ready for planting. Soil test results may suggest some fertilizer other than 5-10-5.

Comparisons Of House Plant Fertilizers

A variety of house plant fertilizers can be found in most supermarkets. In this study, the Phosphorus (P2O5) and the Potassium (K2O) analyses have been multiplied by 43.6% and 83% respectively to obtain the actual amounts of these two nutrients. Water-insoluble nitrogen would slowly become available over a three- to five-month period. The cost range documented is the cost of each fertilizer divided by the least expensive fertilizer. For example: for cost per ounce of 1% water-soluble nitrogen, Jobe's House Plant

Spikes cost about 72 times more than the least expensive product (Rapid Grow = 1x). The gelatin does have to be mixed up so it is comparable to the other dry fertilizers, but it costs three to five times more when total nitrogen and total actual nutrients are compared.

Following is a table of various fertilizer characteristics:



KNOX Un- Jobe's Liquid Plant Rapid
flavored House- Sunshine Marvel Grow Schultz
Gelatin plant
spikes


KNOX Jobe's L.S. P.M. R.G. Schultz

----------------------------------------------------------
Fertilizer|15-0-0|10-4-5|2-1-2|12-31-14|23-19-17|10-15-10|
Analysis | | | | | | |
----------|------|------|-----|--------|--------|--------|
Percent | | | | | | |
Water- | 3 | 2.92 | 2 | 12 | 23 | 10 |
Soluble N | | | | | | |
----------|------|------|-----|--------|--------|--------|
Percent | | | | | | |
Total | | | | | | |
Actual | 15 |15.894|4.096| 37.136 | 45.394 | 24.84 |
Nutrients | | | | | | |
----------|------|------|-----|--------|--------|--------|
Cost of |$2.79/|$.99/ |$1.39/|$1.59/ | $1.69/ | $1.89/ |
Product | 8 oz.|.53 oz 16 oz.| 8 oz. | 8 oz. | 12 oz. |
----------|------|------|------|-------|--------|--------|
Cost/oz. | | | | | | |
of Product|$.35 |$1.88 | $.09 | $.20 | $.21 | $.16 |
----------|------|------|------|-------|--------|--------|
Cost/oz.of| | | | | | |
1% Water |$.117 |$.644 | $.045| $.017 | $.009 | $.016 |
Soluble N | | | | | | |
| | | | | | |
Cost range| 13x | 72x | 5x | 2x | 1x | 2x |
----------|------|------|------|-------|--------|--------|
Cost/oz of| | | | | | |
1% Total N|$.023 |$.188 |$.045 | $.017 | $.009 | $.016 |
| | | | | | |
Cost range| 3x | 21x | 5x | 2x | 1x | 2x |
----------|------|------|------|-------|--------|--------|
Cost/oz of| | | | | | |
1% Total | | | | | | |
Actual |$.023 |$.118 |$.022 |$.0054 | $.0046 | $.0064 |
Nutrients | | | | | | |
| | | | | | |
Cost Range| 5x | 26x | 5x | 1.2x | 1x | 1.4x |
----------------------------------------------------------

Indoor Air Pollution

As modern weather-proofing techniques make homes more air- tight; pollution from household chemicals such as cleaning agents are becoming an area of concern, due to the health hazards they may pose. In the past, these internal air pollutants were of little concern, because their noxious gases could escape through cracks and crevices or through the heat or ventilation system. Today, many of these 'escape valves' have been plugged to prevent the escape of heat, resulting in increased air pollution.
Green thumbs, however, may have little need for concern. Scientists at the National Space Technologies Lab in Mississippi have tested several houseplants for their ability to clean the air, including such common houseplants as the Spider plant, the golden pothos, and the Chinese evergreen. Their research showed that a spider plant sealed in a chamber with formaldehyde can reduce the concentration by 85% in 24 hours; while other pollutants that plants were found able to cleanse from the air included carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide. However, scientists speculate that as few as 15 plants in an average size house might significantly cleanse the air.

SOURCE: "Weed 'Em and Reap" publication October-November 1986 Washtenaw County Cooperative Ext. Service

Watering: Key To Houseplant Success

Watering is a key factor in the successful growth of houseplants. Surprisingly, overwatering is more often a problem than underwatering in hampering this growth. Most plants are growing little if at all; consequently they need no fertilizer and need less water than they needed when they were growing vigorously. Too much water applied too often means the soil will stay saturated for long periods, causing the roots imbedded in the waterlogged soil to begin to rot and die. With their roots gone, plants wilt as if they're parched; as a result these plants won't perk up when they're watered. If the soil is kept saturated with water, it contains no air so the roots can't function and eventually rot.
Some plants are exceptionally susceptible to damages cause by overwatering. These plants include: cacti, which are essentially dormant in the winter and succulents, which need to dry out between thorough waterings. However, even plants that generally prefer moist soil can get too much water and suffer damage.

Using pots with drainage holes in the bottom is the first step in avoiding watering problems. The holes allow excess water to drain out of the soil; the excess water should be discarded so it isn't absorbed back into the soil.

There are a variety of watering methods, all of which have an effect on the amount of water the plant receives. Water may be poured in on top of the potting mix or the pot set in water, watering from below; both of these are popular methods that will work with most plants. There are some plants affected more drastically by the watering method than others - cyclamen and African violets are sensitive to water in their crowns and on their leaves and fare better when watered from below. When watering from above, the water should be added until some comes out the drainage hole. If the potting medium has dried and pulled away from the sides of the container, the water will run straight through without moistening it. When this happens, leave the container sitting in water until the soil surface is moist, then discard the remaining water as in watering from below.

When determining the watering needs of houseplants, it is important to take cues from the plants themselves. If the potting mix feels bone-dry and has shrunken in the pot, it needs water. Dry media are lighter colored than moist soil mixes and more light weight. A wilted, flabby plant most likely needs water; however this also can occur in a plant that is wilted because of overwatering, when the roots are rotted away and the plant can't take up water anymore. The most reliable way to check for dryness involves feeling the potting medium. If the surface is dry, feel a little deeper. The decision of watering should be based upon the watering needs of the particular plant.

SOURCE

"Watering Is Often the Key to Houseplant Success" by Lee Taylor Extension Horticulture Specialist Michigan State University MSU Cooperative Extension Service

POINSETTIAS Plants

Poinsettias are traditional Christmas flowering plants whose blooms will last throughout the Christmas season. And with proper care, poinsettias may be grown on to flower again the next year.
When selecting a poinsettia, it is recommended to choose a plant that has dark green foliage; as fallen or yellow leaves indicate poor fertilization or a root disease problem. Flower bracts (red, pink, or white) should be of good size and have little or no pollen showing on the actual flowers (those red or green button-like parts in the center of the colorful bracts). The plant should be well wrapped when taken outside for the ride home; exposure to low temperatures for even short periods of time can cause leaves and bracts to turn brown and fall.

During the Holiday season, poinsettias should be placed near a sunny window or other well lighted areas, where they do not touch cold window panes. A temperature between 60 degrees and 70 degrees F. is desirable; higher temperatures will shorten the life of the flower bracts. Plants should be kept away from drafts (radiators, air registers, and open windows or doors). In order to preserve the blooms for the maximum length of time, plants should be placed in a cooler area (55 to 60 degrees F.). The soil should be examined daily and watered only when dry. Water should be applied so as to soak the soil to the bottom of the pot, and excess water should be discarded. If there is not enough water applied, the plant will wilt and the lower leaves will drop. If too much water is applied, the lower leaves will yellow and then drop. A soluble fertilizer is recommended, such as is used on house plants, once a month according to the recommendations of the manufacturer.

After the Holiday season, the plant may be kept and will bloom again the next. If the plant is too large for the old pot, it should be repotted a larger pot. The soil mix recommended is a mix of 2 parts garden soil, 1 part peat moss, 1 part sand, vermiculite, or perlite, and 1 tablespoon of superphosphate. This mixture, when thoroughly mixed in with each pot-full of soil makes a good mixture for poinsettias. After the danger of spring frost is past and night temperatures exceed 50 degrees F., sink the poinsettia pot in the ground to the rim in a will-drained, slightly shaded position out-of-doors. Between July 15 and August 1, the terminal portion of all shoots should be cut off. These can be rooted in a mixture of half peat moss and half sand, and flowered for Christmas using the procedure described next.

Fall care of poisettias is crucial to assuring beautiful Holiday blooms. The poinsettia plant should be taken inside before the first frost (usually around Sept. 15 in lower Michigan), and placed in a sunny window as before. In order to flower a poinsettia, you must keep the plant in complete darkness between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. daily from the end of September until color shows in the bracts (almost mid December) Temperatures should remain between 60 and 70 degrees F. If this procedure is followed, the poinsettia will be in flower for Christmas.

The growth cycle of the poinsettia is as follows: DECEMBER: Full bloom. FEBRUARY: Flower fades. Lateral growth starts. MARCH : Remove flower. Cut stems to 6 inches. Many laterals will start below break. JUNE 1 : Repot in larger pot if necessary. Plant outside in pot. JULY : Pinch all lateral shoots to 4 inches. Root shoots if desired, then pot. E AUGUST: Take inside.

SEPT.20 TO DEC.1: Keep in light only from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

REFERENCE: William H. Carlson and J. Lee Taylor Department of Horticulture Extension Bulletin E-554

Insects in House Plant Soil

Insects can live in house plant soil. The most common of these is the fungus gnat. The adult lays eggs that produce small white maggots. The maggots eat fungi growing on the organic matter in the soil but they can feed on the roots. The insect is most likely to be a problem when the soil is kept too moist. The maggots can be seen wriggling on the soil surface when the plant is watered.
A malathion drench will control the insects but the pesticide may be more harmful to the plant than the insects.

Mealybugs on House Plants

House plants are often infested with mealybugs. These insects appear to be little tufts of cotton on the leaves and stems. They are most common on the undersides of leaves and at the point where a leaf attaches to a stem. The insects can be hard to control on plants where new leaves emerge from a sheath. The insects get inside the sheath so are protected from sprays. The fluffy appearance is due to white wax filaments. The wax will repel pesticides and makes the insects somewhat difficult to control.
Light infestations can be controlled by touching each insect with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol. House plant insect sprays will control mealybugs if the grower is persistent. Systemic insecticides will also give good control.

House Plant Leaf Drop

House plants drop leaves for many reasons but most are related to improper care or poor growing conditions.
Either over or under watering will cause leaf drop.

Extremely low humidity will cause sensitive plants, such as gardenia, to drop leaves. Most common house plants will not show leaf drop in response to low humidity only.

Plants is pots that are too small will drop leaves. There may not be enough root room to support all the leaves the plant tries to form so the oldest leaves are dropped off. Because the roots room is inadequate the plant may not be able to absorb enough water and nutrients.

Some leaf drop occurs when plants are subjected to a big change in environment. Such changes occur when plants grown outside for the summer are brought inside for the winter. Greenhouse grown plants may drop leaves if placed in dimly lit house conditions. Leaf drop brought on by a change in environment should last about 3 weeks then stop.

A cause of leaf drop related to environment is that caused by chilling. Tropical plants are sensitive to low, but above freezing, temperatures. Plants on window sills may be exposed to chilling temperatures.

Hot or cold drafts may be a problem to some plant. The prime example of a plant that drop leaves due to exposure to drafts is the poinsettia.

Insects and diseases can cause leaf drop but they are not as common as the previously listed causes.

Some leaf drop on house plants is normal. Older plants should be expected to drop a leaf occasionally. When a plant drops leaves check to see if any of the previously listed causes has occurred. If not, consider how the plants has been taken care in relation to its cultural requirements. It may need more light or fertilizer.

Terrariums And Dish Gardens

Terrariums and dish gardens require some special consideration. In time, the plants become crowded and some plants begin to dominate. All plants in a terrarium or dish garden ought to be compatible. Cactus should not be mixed with tropical plants. Select plants which remain small or tolerate pinching.
Terrariums have additional problems. They are often overwatered. This is especially true of covered terrariums. It is not true that terrariums never need water, they just need it less often. When a covered terrarium fogs up, take off the cover for a day. The condensation is an indication of too much water in the terrarium. Apply water it in small amounts until it can be seen running into the drainage material at the bottom of the container. The temperature inside the glass will get too high if the terrarium is set in direct sun. Set terrariums in bright light but not direct sunlight.

House Plant Cultural Problems

Several common problems fall under the category of cultural or environmental problems. There is no control for these problems other than manipulating the plant environment and care program.
Odema is common on several house plants in winter. Plants most often affected are peperomia, ivy geranium, shefflera, begonia, and swedish ivy. The most common symptom is leaf spot. Sometimes corky blisters form on the undersides of leaves but this is not always obvious. Give affected plants slightly less water, slightly more light, and increase air circulation if possible. Providing a warmer growing area may also help.

A rapid change in one or more environmental factors can cause leaf or flower bud drop, or failure to bloom. Stationary plants may be subjected to rapid environmental changes or plants can be moved from one environment to another. An example of the first situation, plants growing on window sills in winter, has been mentioned. An example of the second instance occurs each time a plant is taken home from a greenhouse. Another example is moving house plants into the house in autumn after a summer outdoors. Plants adapt to the changes if left in one place long enough and if the new environment meets their minimal growth requirements.

House Plant Pests

House plants can develop many problems but most have environmental or cultural causes. If something is actually attacking a house plant it is usually an insect. Diseases are not common on most house plants.
Insects most often encountered are mites, aphids, mealybugs, scale, whitefly, and various soil insects. Some pesticides which control insects are harmful to the plant. Be sure to read the pesticide label and follow all instructions. Any single pesticide does not usually kill all pests and repeat applications are usually necessary.

Mites or spider mites are hard to see. They are extremely small and a magnifying glass is usually needed to see them. Plants infested with mites lose their green color and appear bronzed or washed out. In severe cases, the mites will form a fine webbing that may cover all or part of the plant. Once a plant is infested with mites, control will be difficult. Mite infested leaves may have a gritty feel, or look like they are covered with a fine coat of ashes.

Aphids are common on house plant insects but fortunately, are easily controlled. Aphids suck sap from the plant and can cause new growth to be distorted. Aphids are found on new growth and the undersides of the leaves. Heavy infestations cover the plants with a sticky syrup called honeydew. Aphids can be controlled with most commonly available house plant insect sprays.

Mealybugs look like little white tufts of cotton so are often mistaken for a disease. They are normally found on the undersides of leaves or on stems at the point where a leaf joins. The white, waxy coating protects the insects from sprays, making control difficult. Add 1/2 teaspoon of household detergent to each gallon of spray solution to ensure the mealybugs are wet.

The adult whitefly is a small white "fly" while the immature stage is scale-like and doesn't move. Moving infested plants causes the adults to fly away. Controlling whitefly is difficult and repeated sprays will be needed. Avoid plants such as fuchsia that are favored by the insect.

Scale insects often build up to large numbers because they go undetected. Their shell protects them from pesticides. Scales are usually found on stems and the undersides of leaves but can be on top of the leaves. Small infestations can be removed by touching each insect with a cotton swab dipped in alcohol.

Soil insects are noticed when brought to the surface during watering. Adults and larvae of several insects may fly or crawl around on the soil surface. In most cases they do no real harm to the plant. Large populations can cause wilting and poor plant growth due to minor root pruning. Unfortunately, pesticides used to control soil insects may be as harmful to the plant as the insects.

House plant diseases are not seen as often as insects. Diseases such as powdery mildew or various root and stem rots are encountered, but can be controlled to some extent with proper plant care. Most problems resembling diseases are the result of improper care.

House Plant Propagation

Indoor gardeners may want to propagate a house plant. Some plants get too big and need to be started over. Each plant will only respond to a few or only one of the many propagation techniques. Some methods of propagation are easy, others are more complicated. Know what methods work with a particular plant then use the one that seems to be the most effective.
A stem cutting is a terminal growing point on a plant. It is 4 to 6 inches long and is cut off at a node. A node is the point on a stem where a leaf is attached. The bottom leaves are removed from and the lower end is inserted into the rooting medium. Remove any flowers or flower buds that may be present.

Leaf section cuttings are made by cutting a leaf into pieces. Keep track of which is the lower end by notching the top of the cutting when it is made. Cuttings inserted into the rooting medium upside down will not root.

Entire leaf cuttings are used with plants such as rex begonia. All of the leaf blade is used but not the leaf stem or petiole. About 1/3 of the leaf blade is inserted into the rooting medium.

Leaf petiole cuttings are made up of the leaf blade plus the leaf stem or petiole. African violets are often propagated in this way. Do not use very young leaves. The petiole is inserted into the rooting medium.

A leaf bud cutting is made when part of the plant is cut off and sectioned. Each stem section has a leaf, or set of leaves, attached. The length of the attached stem can range from one to several inches, depending on leaf size. The stem is buried horizontally in the rooting medium with the leaf sticking up. If the leaves are in pairs on opposite sides of the stem, the stem may be split down the middle.

Cane cuttings are also called stem section cuttings. Cuttings are made by cutting a stem into sections. Each section must have a bud on it. Place the sections horizontally in the rooting medium with the bud side up and only the bottom side covered with soil.

Air layering is useful when plants become too large for their growing area. Air layering is the rooting of a stem terminal while it is still attached to the plant. First, cut the stem at a point just below a leaf. The cut should be about an inch long and go about half way through the stem. Insert a wooden match stick or toothpick into the cut to keep it open. If wood is not inserted into the cut, it may heal without rooting. Next, wrap the cut in moist sphagnum moss. The ball of moss should be about the size of a large orange or small grapefruit. Cover the moss with aluminum foil or plastic and secure the ends with string, tape or wire ties. Check the moss every few days to make sure it is still moist. When the roots are well developed, cut the stem below the root ball and pot up the new plant. Air layering is slow, taking as long as two to three months.

Division is one of the easiest methods of plant propagation. A crowded plant can be removed from its pot and cut into two or more sections. Each section is potted up separately. Division involving separating small plants may be more complicated. The best divisions will be those with good root development. When there are enough of these to furnish the desired number of plants, there is no problem. If more plants are wanted, it may be necessary to save small, poorly, rooted divisions. The rootless divisions are potted up and treated as cuttings. They will develop roots but take longer to develop into good plants.

All propagation methods require a rooting media that can be one of several things. One of the possibilities is vermiculite. This material is light, readily available, and easy to work with. Check it often for dryness. It drains well and many plants will root very nicely in vermiculite. Good, clean, sterilized sand can be used. Water is sometimes used to root plants. The roots formed in water are not the type formed in soil-like rooting media. Consequently water is not suggested as a rooting medium.

Cover rooting cuttings with a plastic tent. The tent keeps the humidity high and prevents drying out. Do not completely enclose the cuttings in plastic as some air circulation is necessary. Place sticks or wire in the pot to support the plastic. Drape the plastic over the supports, leaving it open at the bottom.

Once rooted cuttings can be potted up and placed in their new growing area. Do not delay potting until the plants are large with extensive root systems. More root injury will result from waiting.

Transplanting House Plants

Transplanting house plants is an often abused practice. It should only be done when the plant is truly potbound. Instead, house plants are often repotted when something is wrong with them. This practice can kill the plant. In the short run, transplanting is harmful because roots are broken and injured. A healthy plant will grow out of the initial harmful period. An unhealthy plant may already have damaged roots so may be killed by transplanting. House plants the problems should be transplanted after the problem is corrected and the plant is healthy.
Transplanting is done when a plant becomes potbound. Some plants grow best if slightly potbound, so should not be transplanted too soon. Several clues may be used to determine when a plant needs repotting. The best method is to take the plant out of the pot and look at the roots. If a mass of roots and but little soil is visible, the plant needs repotting. If the soil falls off the root ball, don't repot. Other clues may be used but may not be reliable. Roots growing out the drainhole is sometimes suggested as guideline. Roots often grow out the drainhole even when the plants are not potbound. The failure of a plant to grow or bloom with other plant of the same type is another clue. Especially if the plant does not grow during a normal growth period or fails to bloom when it should. However other reasons may cause a plant to fail to grow.

Transplanting is done before a growth period in spring or early summer. Use only the next size larger pot. Use of an excessively large pot may lead to overwatering. Use the same type of soil the plant is already growing in. Two different soil types may dry out at different rates and create watering problems.

Used pots should be washed with soap and water. Salt accumulation in the pots can be removed by soaking in water. Before using a new pot soak it in water to keep it from absorbing soil moisture.

Pots For House Plants

Plants are probably easiest to grow in regular red clay pots. Moisture will pass through the sides of clay pots. This trait will help overwatered plants dry out more quickly. Plastic pots and glazed ceramic pots do not allow water to pass through. Personal preference is usually be the major factor determining the type of pot used.
No matter what the pot is made of, it should have a drainhole. Salts will accumulate in the soil in undrained containers because they can't be flushed out. Plants in undrained containers are easily overwatered because excess water can't drain out. When an undrained, decorative container is desired use it as a jardeniere. The drained pot containing the plant can be set inside the decorative undrained container.

Soil For House Plants

The potting soil can contain several ingredients but must be well drained. Add organic matter such as peat moss for plants requiring more soil moisture. Packaged potting soils often contain much organic matter and may require additional perlite, sand or vermiculite to improve drainage.
Each indoor gardener needs to experiment to find a soil mix that works best for them. People who tend overwater may want to add about 1/2 to 1/3 perlite or vermiculite to packaged potting soil.

Potting soil high in organic matter may shrink if it dries out. Then, when the plant is watered, the water runs off the soil and down the space between the pot and soil, without ever soaking into the soil. To solve the problem, set the plant in a container of water. Once the soil is wet, take the plant out of the water and let it drain. Then firm down the soil around the rim of the pot to close the gap.

Humidity For House Plants

Humidity refers to the amount of moisture in the air. Some plants are sensitive to low humidity. Most common house plants, given an otherwise favorable environment, will not be injured by humidity levels found in most homes.
Humidity levels will fluctuate during the year. When the furnace is on in winter, the air will be drier. This will be the time when sensitive plants show low humidity injury. Low humidity means plants lose more water and may need more water in winter. If the air is so dry, plant roots can't replace lost water fast enough, the leaves will drop or die back part way.

Indoor gardeners may combat low humidity problems in several ways. Perhaps the most obvious solution is to run a humidifier. Humidity levels of about 40 percent will be sufficient for all but the most sensitive plants.

Another solution involves trays, or shallow pans, with stones or pebbles in them. Set plants on the stones and put water in the tray. The water should not reach the bottom of the pots. The water in the tray evaporates, raising the humidity around the plants. Check the water level in the tray frequently.

If the plant is both very sensitive and small it can be grown in a terrarium. This provides high humidity and works while the plant is small enough to fit in the container.

There are two other methods of raising humidity but they are not as effective. One is misting. Misting is only effective when done at very short intervals. This is not practical in most home situations.

The second method is called double potting. This method also reduces the loss of soil moisture through the side of the pot. Select a pot, or other container, which is one or two sizes larger than the pot the plant is in. Damp sphagnum moss is put in the bottom of the larger pot. When the pot containing the plant is set on the moss, the rim of the larger pot should be slightly above the rim of the smaller pot. Fill the space between the two pots with more moist sphagnum moss. The moss is kept damp at all times.