Sunday, December 5, 2010



The brightly colored flowers of the Christmas cactus instantly bring warmth during the chilling winter season. When the holiday season is over, it is resting time for the Christmas cactus. Allow it the rest it deserves and prepare it for the next holiday season. These plants are relatively maintenance free, but once you learn its few requirements, you will have a live holiday plant that can be passed down from generation to generation.


This plant is tropical in nature and belongs to the zygo-cactus family. Though the name suggests that it originates from the cactus family, its environmental requirements are quite different from the desert cactus. The Christmas cactus is an epiphyte that is a native to Central and South America and it naturally grows in the crook of tree trunks and branches. The organic matter trapped in the cervices of trees provides the required moisture for the growth of the cactus.

Hybridizers have come up with new Christmas cactus varieties, which has resulted in the introduction of three cacti, which are thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas cactus. Care of Christmas cactus has to be taken to ensure that we enjoy the blooms for a long time.

For the Christmas cactus to grow and flourish, optimal growing conditions must be provided. Though the cactus performs well under average home conditions with moderate care, there are various factors that can deter the plant from blooming.

1. Water: Being succulent in nature, this plant stores a reasonable amount of water in its leaves. Over watering can shun the growth of the Christmas cactus. The best way to see whether the plant needs watering is to use your finger: If it feels dry, water. If it feels moist, wait a day and check again. Try to avoid a weekly or calendar watering schedule, since you may be watering an already over-watered plant. When watering, set the plant in your kitchen sink and use your spray attachment and wash the leaves while watering the soil. A tepid water temperature will avoid shocking the plant with either too cold or too warm water. Allow the plant to drain completely. If the plant is allowed to sit in the drained water or in a tray for too long (I am talking days, not minutes), the roots tend to decay. During the summer season, ensure that the cactus is watered every 2-3 days, while in the winter months, the need is less and so is water.
2. Light: If the leaves of the cactus have turned red, it simply means that it has been exposed to direct sunlight. The Christmas cactus requires indirect bright sunlight. To promote blooming during the fall, the plant needs less sunlight and 12 hours of uninterrupted darkness. In New Jersey I move the cactus outside in spring once the danger of frost has passed, then leave it outside just before the first frost, and under a protected over hang.
3. Temperature: The optimum temperature for growth is between 60 to 70°C. Average to high humidity creates the most favorable conditions. The soil moisture levels can be attained by placing the pot in a tray filled with water and pebbles, making sure that the water level does not reach the bottom of the pot.
4. Fertilizer: Use a liquid houseplant fertilizer (I prefer Schultz 10-15-10 fertilizer + micronutrients, which can be found in most supermarkets and home centers) at half the rate it suggests every 2-3 weeks in the winter. Over use of the fertilizer can burn the roots of the cactus, and remember that during the winter months, the plants are actively growing less than the spring/summer/fall months.

To promote the Christmas cactus to branch out, it is important to prune it. Remove some sections of the stem by using either your fingers or a sharp knife in the spring. To propagate, push the cut sections from your pruning into a 3 inch pot that contains the same soil as the parent cactus. A well drained soil such as an African Violet mix will be perfect. Remember that these are not desert cacti, and potting them into a sandy soil will not work. Ensure that the cut sections have 2-3 joined segments, and push the first section into the soil. The roots will develop in 4-6 weeks.

My Christmas cactus has been a guaranteed bloomer and show stopper every year, and you can have the same success with this maintenance free holiday favorite.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Christmas Tree Tips

You can check the tree for freshness by running your hands from the inside of the tree to the outside, lightly gripping the branch. You will have needles dropping, but there should not be a handful. You have to keep in mind that most Christmas trees, unless purchased at a cut-your-own farm, will have been cut in the beginning to middle of November. They are then kept in cold storage until delivery time to the garden center or corner lot. Also “bounce” the tree on the ground and see how many needles fall. There will be some, because even evergreens lose their older needles which are located towards the inside of the tree. Once you have determined that the tree is fresh, you can move onto tree types.

Pines are the Christmas tree grower’s best plant; they grow rapidly, are ready for sale in a short period of time, and can grow in a wide range of climates and soil types. On the other hand, they do need heavy annual shearing for them to attain that “Christmas Tree” look. With all of this shearing, the stem can be quite thick compared to the size of the tree, so check your tree stand for diameter size before purchasing. The two common pines found at tree lots are Scotch and white pine. Most Scotch pines tend to yellow for the winter, and to compensate the growers will spray a colorant on these trees to make them look greener. Scotch pines also suffer from crooked stems, so always look at the bottom of the tree as well as the top on this type. With it being sheared, this tree is good for a “lights only” display as well as most pines. There are no real spaces for ornaments. White pine is very important to the lumber industry as well as the Christmas tree industry. It is mostly grown in the mid-Atlantic states, and buyers admire it for the soft green color and woodsy fragrance.
Firs are the most popular type of tree grown for Christmas. They have an attractive, deep green color and conical shape and have needles that are flatter and softer in texture. In general, they are the longest lasting tree in terms of needle retention and have the most fragrance. To many on the east coast, a balsam fir is the only Christmas tree. It is naturally cone-shaped with needles that are rich green on top and silvery white underneath. Douglas firs are not a true fir, but do resemble the fir family. They have a blue-green color, excellent needle retention, but be wary of split trunks. I have seen hundreds of Douglas firs that have a split trunk 1 foot from the bottom, which will only complicate the cutting for the stand. Frasier fir needles are short and hug the stem and its growth habit is denser than balsam. This is my personal favorite. Noble fir is an attractive tree which only grows in the Northwest. This fir is the best with needle retention, but the problem arises that it is a slow grower, so not only will you pay more for this tree, but the trunk will be quite large.

Spruces have stiff square needles, rough bark, strong branches which make it perfect for heavy ornaments. On the other hand, it is often too prickly for children to decorate and can drop needles quite quickly. Spruces need to be watered frequently, so get a large capacity tree stand. Blue spruces are known for its landscape use as well as a Christmas tree. White spruce is a nice tree for its green color, but again a heavy needle dropper when watering is not kept up.

There are many new varieties being grown today, and it is really up to your own personal choice. After selecting your tree, only give the tree a fresh cut just before you are going to bring it inside. Make sure you have a large enough stand for the tree. Sometimes it is better to have one too big than too small, for the larger one will hold more water and cut down your watering times. I have also heard to use aspirin, tree fresh and other assorted chemicals to help preserve the tree. The simple, most effective way to keep your tree fresh is to make sure to never let it run out of water...plain and simple. Good luck and have a safe and happy holiday season!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Gardening is for the Birds

Even though November is a very busy month as we put our gardens to “sleep” for the winter, now is the time to think of our fine feathered friends who will either pass through on their way south or stay through the winter on our properties. Birds are very beneficial in controlling insects in the garden, and now is the time to encourage them to put your garden on their map.

Setting up a new bird feeding station can be done at any time during the year. Birds are found at birdfeeders virtually at all times of the year, all over the country, though fall is a perfect time to begin feeding the birds. In fall, bird populations and activities are at its peak. Some birds will be stocking up for their long migrations while other birds that will be wintering in your area will scout out for reliable food sources.

Once birds find a food source, water and shelter for the winter season, they will stay in that territory. The birds will most likely seek other food sources in nearby fields or wood areas, but they will always come back to the feeders that first attracted them. Once you set up a bird feeder, continue feeding the birds until spring when natural food sources become abundant again. Personally I fill my feeders regularly from fall to spring, then let the birds find the insects during the growing year, keeping my plants insect free.

The biggest complaint I have heard from people is that bird feeders can be messy, with excess seeds and shells littering the ground around the feeder. During the winter, place an old piece of carpet around the base of the feeder to prevent the accumulation of seed and remove it first thing in spring. If you feed during the growing season, there are many “no waste” seed blends on the market that will reduce the mess while keeping the birds happy.

Birds will eat a variety of foods during the winter including seeds. Sunflower seed is the most popular seed offered in bird feeders and are eagerly eaten by most large birds at feeders. Millet seed is the best year-round seed for smaller birds. Thistle seed is a good choice of seed for goldfinches. Try to avoid cheap mixes with fillers such as buckwheat. The higher the quality of the seed, the more likely the birds will be happy and healthy.

Grit is needed by birds to help grind up food in their gizzard. In areas of the country where winter provides a complete snow-covered landscape, natural forms of grit are hard to find. In these areas of the country, offer grit in the form of finely crushed eggshells.

In the winter, many birds depend on a high-energy diet. Beef suet is inexpensive and well liked by the birds. Suet can be offered to birds in specialized suet feeders, or on platform / table feeders. Mesh or onion bags also make a great suet feeder. Also there are many varieties of suet on the market today, including berry, peanut, corn, etc.

Kitchen scraps of breads are well liked by birds. White bread alone should not be the only food source for birds since it has no nutritional value (all parents should know this by now). Remove any uneaten bread from the ground to prevent it from spoiling or attracting unwanted animals.

There is not a better picture in the world than a cardinal standing next to a feeder when the snow is on the ground. When everything in the landscape is covered in white, having a colorful show of birds in your garden can brighten even the longest winter day.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Few Final Tasks around the Garden

November is the time of year when all gardeners get a little melancholy. Instead of looking forward to new blooms and green growth, it is time to get the gardens ready for its’ winter nap. The key is to remember that the plants in our garden are only “sleeping”, that is they are still alive and well. During the winter, water and nutrients are still running throughout the entire plant, including deciduous plants. In evergreens, such as rhododendrons and azaleas, this process continues quicker than in deciduous plants, as the leaves transpire, or give off water vapor, through the leaf's pores (stomata). The problem arises when the roots cannot supply enough moisture to compensate what is lost through the leaf’s pores. In rhododendrons, the leaves will roll up to reduce the surface area, slowing down the evaporation through the leaves. We can also help prevent moisture loss in evergreens by applying and anti-desiccant, such as “Wilt-Pruf”. One of the most common questions in spring is why are my rhododendron leaves brown at the edges? The reason is winter burn, caused by excessive transpiration in the winter. A simple application of “Wilt-Pruf” before the arrival of winter (days with a temperature higher than 50 degree) will help eliminate winter burn.

Garden cleanliness is extremely important at this time of year. Most diseases can over winter in the soil of your garden, emerging in spring with the new growth of your plants. A good example is black spot and powdery mildew. These diseases will over winter on leaves that have fallen to the ground. When the spring rains come, the raindrops will “bounce” the spores up onto the leaves, starting the cycle for yet another year. The best way to stop a fungus or disease is to prevent it. Make sure that all of your garden debris is picked up. If you have a compost pile, do not put these leaves into the compost – the disease will over winter in your compost and resurface next year. Most municipalities have a leaf collection service or a disposal site for fall refuse, and this is where diseased material should go.

Once the garden has gone dormant (usually the early part of December), now is the time I like to apply an organic fertilizer to every plant on my property. I apply bone meal for my garden beds. This organic fertilizer will not burn, nor will it create excessive new growth if we have a warm spell. What it will do is work its’ way into the soil, and be available first thing in spring to help green up your garden. The same is true for your lawn. Apply a 10-6-4 general-purpose fertilizer to your lawn once the ground freezes. If your lawn needs lime to help raise the pH, now is the time to do that as well. You may feel silly bundled up in your winter gear applying lawn fertilizer, but your lawn will have the nutrients it needs first thing in spring, greening up sooner than any one of your neighbor’s lawns, making you the King (or Queen) of your neighborhood!

Clean and oil your garden tools for winter storage. Place some sand and some oil in a large bucket, then slide your garden tools in and out of the sand. This will do an excellent job of cleaning them, as well as applying a light coat of oil to prevent rusting. This is also a good month to restock any tools that have seen better days, while the prices are lower.

Lastly, make sure that your power equipment is clean of any plant debris, and gas drained from the tank. Run the equipment after emptying the gas tank to make sure the gasoline is completely out of the carburetor and fuel lines. Clogged fuel lines or gummed up carburetors are the biggest problem when trying to start your engine in spring. Running the equipment until it runs out of gas will eliminate this problem next spring.

These easy tips will help you enjoy the flower show next spring without all of the work.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

It's time to reap what you have sown.....

August is the time to sit back and enjoy what you have created. Even though the dog days of summer have gone (I should do a whole blog post on the true meaning of the dog days of summer), this time of the gardening year allows us a short time of pleasure before our fall work begins, so get out there and enjoy!


Our vegetable gardens are in full tilt right now. Anyone from New Jersey knows that you just can't beat the taste of a Jersey tomato, grown in your own back yard. My father's favorite summer sandwich was a freshly picked tomato from the garden, sliced and put between two slices of bread with a dab of Miracle Whip (and the tradition has carried down through the gene pool). Vegetable plants are in full production right now, so peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and other plants will probably give you more vegetables than you know what to do with. Please, please remember your local food bank. With the economy in the toilet, food banks are being used more than ever, and fresh produce is gratefully accepted. Since 1995, American gardeners have donated over 14 million pounds of herbs and vegetables to feed the hungry in our local neighborhoods and communities. For more information on Plant A Row, is a part of the Garden Writers Association, of which I am a member, go to for ways you can help. Even if your garden doesn't overflow with fruits and vegetables, you can help support the cause with a donation.


Now is also the time to grab a notebook, walk your property, and take note of your landscape plantings. Look at the plantings as a "whole", meaning take notice of what combination of plants that work well together and what ones don't work well. Remember that gardening is a learning experience, and not everything will work well in your specific conditions, even though it may work well in a book or TV show. It is okay, trust me. Also bring your camera and document with pictures your garden, so when the winter comes, you can look at these pictures and formulate your plan for the next growing season.


While you are walking, notice the beauty of the flowers around your property. When was the last time you looked closely at a certain flower, taking note of each individual characteristic? One of my favorite flowers (I have plenty) is the flower of the Buckeye tree (Aesculus glabra).

When you look up close at the flower, it is almost orchid-like and quite beautiful. When you drive by, you just see a clump of pinkish-red flowers on a tree. Sad part is I couldn't find an up close picture of the individual flower, but plenty of the clump or flowers in bloom on the tree. "Take time to stop and smell the roses" can also be retold as "Take time to stop and notice the individual beauty of the flowers". Do both at this time of year and appreciate what you have accomplished this year, Be happy, even if there are more challenges in your garden than you expected when spring came and look at them as opportunities for the garden next year.



Sunday, June 6, 2010

Preparing for summer stress

Stress is a normal condition for landscape plants. While plants can tolerate considerable stress, they may be weakened and made susceptible to attack by insects and diseases. A little TLC during the summer months will go a long way toward keeping trees, shrubs and perennials healthy and vigorous during the heat, drought and humidity of a typical summer.

The first and most important step in plant stress prevention is planting the right plant in the right place. Part of a good landscape plan is selection of plants suited to the various micro-environments of the home grounds. While a juniper will thrive in a hot, dry corner, a dogwood or Japanese maple planted nearby will probably show leaf scorch most years. But planting the juniper in a shady or poorly drained site is a waste of time. Even azaleas will grow poorly in very dense shade. Pruning up a few of the lower branches on over-story trees to provide a few hours of morning sun often dramatically improves the performance of light-starved plants.

When planting container grown trees and shrubs, tease the roots away from the root ball and spread them out in the planting hole. Teasing the roots is much different than taking out a knife and making vertical slices through the roots. Multiple vertical slices may sever up to 50% of the root system, setting the plant up for drought stress when hot weather comes. Root watering crystals (such as Agrosoke) can be a tremendous benefit when added at planting time. These crystals absorb moisture from the soil, but release it back into the soil between watering.

When planting trees with a soil ball (balled and burlapped), make sure that the burlap is not exposed to the air where it will wick water from the ball. Personally I like to remove the burlap entirely, once the plant is in the hole. Do not over-fertilize at planting time. This may stimulate excessive shoot growth at the expense of root growth, making the plant less drought tolerant. Mulching is essential for stress avoidance. It retains soil moisture, keeps the soil cool and eliminates competition from turf and weeds for moisture and nutrients. Compost makes excellent mulch since it provides a source of slow release nutrients, thereby promoting root growth. When mulching, do not pile the mulch around the base of the trunk (aka The Jersey Volcano). This will suffocate the plant, severely decreasing its lifespan. Instead, make a saucer with the mulch, building it up as you get to the edge of your planting area. This will allow water to drain directly to the root system where it is need most.

Don't hole up in the air-conditioned house during the hot summer and abandon your landscape. Check for signs of stress during the heat of the day. Even plants that wilt severely during mid-afternoon can recover by the following morning with a little TLC. But a few days of severe wilting can weaken a plant and interfere with fall root growth and cold hardiness development.

Other signs of summer stress include pale leaves and scorched leaf margins. These generally result from high leaf temperature and can occur even when soil moisture is seemingly sufficient. Careful watering, mulching and protection of Japanese maples and dogwoods from wind and afternoon sun will reduce the incidence of leaf scorch. Watch lilacs and dogwoods for powdery mildew in late summer. This can weaken plants as they head into winter, but can be prevented with a monthly application of Wilt-Pruf (an anti-dessicant that is normally used in the winter to prevent winter burn on evergreen leaves).

In general, the "supplement rainfall to make one-inch-per-week" rule for watering works well to prevent stress. Run a drip irrigation system with 1 gallon per hour emitters for an hour. Also stay away from overhead sprinklers – most of the water will evaporate before getting to the root zone, and is a waste of one of our precious resources. Although I would like to say we would have adequate moisture throughout the summer, our recent history proves differently.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Why Plants Fail to Bloom

Flowering plants that don't bloom as promised can be a big disappointment in your garden. Reasons for lack of blooming are as diverse as the palette of plants from which to choose, but a little detective work can usually pinpoint the trouble. The most common factors associated with blooming, or lack thereof, include light, plant age, nutrition, extreme temperatures and improper pruning.

Many woody plants must reach a certain age before they are mature enough to produce flowers. Fruit trees, such as apples and pears, can require as many as five or six years to become fruitful. Gingko trees can take up to 15 years to bloom (which could be a good thing!). The most common question I am asked is “Why doesn’t my wisteria bloom?” and the reason is wisteria can take anywhere from 7 to 10 years to bloom, so patience is a must. Add a stressful environment (drought, excessive moisture, etc) to a juvenile plant, and flowering may be delayed even further.

Plants that are old enough to flower, or have done so in the past, may quit doing so for a variety of reasons. Flowering may be sparse or completely absent when a plant is under stress, so be sure the plant is positioned in an appropriate location for that particular species. For example, some plants flower best in full sun; others may prefer the cooler conditions found in the shade. Some plants, such as peonies, will flower sparsely or not at all when grown in shade. Similarly, shade-loving plants, such as begonias, will not bloom well in full sun. In gardens where other trees and shrubs are nearby, light conditions can change drastically over time as landscape plants cast more shade, or removal of a large plant suddenly leaves formerly shaded plants exposed.

Some plants, such as chrysanthemums and poinsettias, flower in response to short day lengths, or more accurately, long nights. If the plants don't receive the appropriate break from light, their season of bloom will be delayed indefinitely.

Overfeeding plants with nitrogen can encourage them to produce lush foliage at the expense of blossoms. A lack of nutrients, particularly nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, also may delay flowering. Stick with a balanced, low-analysis fertilizer, such as 5-10-5 or 10-6-4, to apply adequate nutrition without overdoing.

Some gardeners unknowingly remove flower potential from their plants by pruning at the wrong time of year. Landscape plants that bloom in early spring set their flower buds in autumn on last year's growth. If you prune these plants in late winter, you'll also be removing many or all of the flower buds. The rule of thumb is to prune spring-flowering shrubs and vines after blooms have faded.

Mother Nature can deal a blow to buds with extreme low winter temperatures or late frosts in spring after growth has begun. Though this past winter was relatively mild, we did have some spring cool-downs at night. And some plants may be winter hardy, but their flower buds are routinely killed, even by normal spring weather.

So if you have landscape plants that are not performing up to par, do your homework to find the appropriate requirements, and plan to replace the "duds" with plants that are better adapted to your growing conditions. Try moving the “duds” to other areas of your property with different soil, light and moisture conditions. You may be pleasantly surprised! Remember to plant the right plant in the right place. This rule of thumb, as simply as it may seem, is one of the most important.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Plant A Healing Garden

Here's an idea that's growing in popularity: Plant a garden to help you or someone you care about heal physically, spiritually or emotionally.

For most of history, gardens have had a strong relationship to health and healing. Today, people use healing gardens to restore the body, spirit and mind. Gardens create a sense of calm, balance, hope and inspiration, which greatly improve the recovery process. A healing garden is an opportunity to observe and be a part of the life cycle, giving a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Gardens offer fresh air, exercise and sunlight, important for reducing stress, anxiety and depression.

That's why hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and cancer-support centers across the nation use healing gardens for their patients. In fact, doctors at the Jupiter Medical Center in Florida discovered that patients who had a view of the healing garden from their rooms took less pain medication and had shorter hospital stays than those without such a view.

Healing gardens are often used to help women in their battles against breast cancer. That's important, since the National Cancer Institute estimates that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point during her lifetime.

When planting a home healing garden, consider the following to maximize its healing qualities:

• Overall layout: Include places to sit and reflect, pray, meditate or relax, such as a wooden swing. Picture what calms or inspires you and include these elements and items. A small pond, garden art, wind chimes, even interesting rocks might add to your garden's tranquility. Enclose it with shrubs or fencing to create a secluded retreat and include paths for walking.

• Aromatic plants: Sweet-smelling plants can enhance the relaxing atmosphere. Plant herbs such as basil, rosemary, sage, lemon thyme or lavender. Surround your garden with scented trees, such as pine and eucalyptus, to create shade and shelter. A new compact, reblooming lilac, called Bloomerang, has clusters of purple-pink, sweet-scented flowers, making it excellent for creating a fragrant hedge.

• Healing plants: Include medicinal plants to symbolize the health aspects of your garden. Lavender, sage, basil, thyme and St.-John's-wort have been prized for centuries for their medicinal qualities. Fruits and vegetables can symbolize--and supply--nutrition. For example, the fruit of Sambucus, also called elderberry, is rich in antioxidants. An elderberry called Black Lace has intense purple-black, finely cut foliage. Its fruit can be used in jam or even wine.

• Attracting wildlife: Add a birdbath, bird feeders or birdhouses and put in plants that attract butterflies. A new shrub, Lo & Behold Blue Chip buddleia, attracts flocks of butterflies as well as hummingbirds. It's the only miniature butterfly bush with loads of fragrant blue flowers that bloom continuously.

• Color: Plants with bright colors can lift the spirits. To show support for overcoming breast cancer, consider pink flowers. A newly available choice, Invincibelle Spirit Hydrangea, is the very first pink-flowered "Annabelle" hydrangea. You can see more than 100 blooms on a single plant. Its dark-pink buds open to hot-pink flowers, which mature to a soft pink. In addition, for every Invincibelle Spirit sold, Proven Winners ColorChoice will donate a dollar to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

These plants are at better garden centers. To find the one closest to you, see

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Starting Seeds the right way

What could be better than the special satisfaction that comes from harvesting the bounty of a particular plant that was once only a tiny speck of a seed in the palm of your hand? For some, it is knowing that you can buy a packet of seeds which will grow 50 plants for about the same price it would cost to buy one plant. For others, that you can choose exactly the varieties you want for an earlier harvest, a better flavor or a more beautiful color. Or maybe you want to know that you have the healthiest, most vigorous seedlings available to take full advantage of our ever changing climate. Whatever your reason the info below will provide you with some useful, straightforward tips that will help you successfully navigate the seed starting process.

What you’ll need (EQUIPMENT/TOOLS)

SOIL THERMOMETER: Why? So you know the temperature of your soil! Most seeds don't like cold wet soil and will refuse to germinate, even rot! Also since I use a heating mat to give my seeds a head start, I can make sure that the soil isn't getting too hot. The first year I used a plant heating mat, I couldn't understand why none of the seeds were germinating. I check the soil temp and found out that the soil was nearly one hundred degrees! So, I use some wood slats and raised the seed flats off the mats by an inch or two and within a few days, seedlings started to emerge! I learned that since I start my seed indoors and the average room temperature is around seventy, that the mats got too hot when in direct contact with the flats! So by raising them, I got the temp closer to 70-75degrees and the seeds germinated!
For general seed germination, the soil temp should be in the 60-75 degree range. If your soil temp is staying too warm, then the heat needs to be turned down or preferable off in the room where the seed flats are at. Seedlings like a night time temp of 50-60 degrees so the plant can harden off gradually. I had my heat mats plugged into my timer so at night when the lights and fan turned off, so did the heat mats. Once the seeds have germinated, turn off the heat mats permanently. They don't need them and you want your seedlings to grow up stout and ready to go outside in the real world! For outdoor temperatures here is a general rule: Generally speaking, the soil temp stays more consistent that the air temperature and is usually an average of ten degrees cooler in the summer and retains about the same degrees in heat over air in the winter. So, if your daytime spring day temperature is seventy, you can bet your soil temperature is not over sixty. Stick that soil thermometer all the way down in your garden soil to get a true reading before planting seeds outside. Conversely, if your winter daytime temperature is 35, then your soil temperature is probably hovering around 45-50! Good news when you are judging when to pull late fall crops.
HOUSEHOLD FAN: Another reason for seed failure is a fungus called "damping off". The fungus attacks the tender stems at the soil level and before you know it, your precious seedlings have fallen over and are dying. Nothing you can do at that point. So, the trick here is prevention! This is where the household fan comes in. By maintaining a steady low flow of air circulating in your seedling room, you help keep the top layer of soil dry enough that the fungus doesn't grow. I have had no seedling damping off since I tried this years’ ago and continue faithfully to use the fan every spring. I have my fan hooked up to my timer so than when the lights come on, the fan comes on too! Works great!
TIMER: Onto the timer, this is where it gets tricky. Some plants are light sensitive such as marigolds while others could care less. So for simplicity sake, let's stick with tomatoes. I start my seedlings in late February. I will start out my daylight hours with the timer set to eight hours on and sixteen hours off. Then as the plants grow, I gradually extend the daylight hours until I hit twelve and twelve. This seems to work great, especially for tomatoes. By the time they are ready for moving into my outdoor cold frame in April, they are nice and stout, deep green and look fabulous. Also by using a timer, I don't have to worry if we are out of town a few days. The plants will never miss me!
WATERING CAN: Well, this is a no brainer. I use a gallon milk jug often times so I can mix my fertilizer correctly, then pour that mixture into a watering can for individual pot watering. OK, here is the Number One Cause of seed failure!: Overwatering! Don't drown your seedlings. The soil should never be more than slightly damp. If the soil feels damp, don't water!
For fertilizing, I use a liquid fertilizer that is balanced and has all the nutrients that the plant needs. Of course, general products such as Miracle Grow are just fine too, but remember to dilute the solution to half the recommended concentration. I feel that the plants get a sustainable and constant feeding this way. You wouldn't want to go for three days on just water, then get a mega meal to make up! Plants are constantly growing and need nutrients just like children!
PLANT TAGS AND PERMANENT MARKER: A must have before you even start planting. Believe me, you won't be able to remember what every tray has in it. Then when you are ready to transplant, you already have the tag and it goes right in with the plant in it's new pot! Nothing more frustrating than "mystery plants"! .
Try all kinds to see what works for you. Make sure they are clean and have good drainage. If you are using a fiber or peat pot, soak it well before adding soil. Dry fiber pots draw moisture away from the soil.

Container choices.
Convenience, cost, and reusability will determine which containers you use. If you won't be around to water daily or don't plan to transplant seedlings into another container before planting them out, use 2- to 4-inch-diameter containers or flats with individual cells.

Plastic flats with no dividers are an old favorite. They're readily available from garden supply stores and mail-order catalogs, and free when you buy seedlings at nurseries.

Plastic cell-packs and 2- to 4-inch plastic pots, recycled from nursery purchases, are easy to obtain and use.

Peat pots are inexpensive but not reusable. But because you plant out seedlings pot and all, such pots minimize disturbance to roots. Keep them moist (so roots can penetrate them easily).

Plastic foam flats with tapered individual cells are sold by nurseries and through seed catalogs. They come in several cell sizes; some have capillary matting that draws water from a reservoir, making seedling care much easier.

In addition to the containers listed above, you can use household items--plastic cups, yogurt containers, cut-down milk cartons, foil baking pans. Be sure to punch several drainage holes in any container that lacks them, since seedlings will die if water collects around their roots. If you're reusing old pots, scrub them out and soak them for 30 minutes in a solution of 9 parts water to 1 part household bleach to destroy any disease organisms.
There are five basic requirements for successful seed starting: good seeds, good light, good starting medium, proper watering and, finally, a sense of adventure. Most annual flowers and vegetables should be sown 4 to 8 weeks Let’s take a look at these important points one at a time.

No matter how careful you are with all the other aspects of seed starting you will not be satisfied with the results unless you have heeded the call for good seeds. None of the other factors can compensate for seeds that are not strong and vigorous. Most seed companies provide high quality, healthy seeds because their livelihood depends on customers purchasing again next year. (See the IFCGA web page for an extensive list of seed sources.) Even the 10 cent packets are generally good seeds although sometimes the quality is inconsistent. If you have any concerns about the quality of seeds you have purchased or saved it is easy to do a simple germination test:
Take ten seeds and place them on a dampened paper towel.
Roll up the paper towel with the seeds inside and place it inside a plastic bag .
Partially close the plastic bag - do not seal.
Place in a warm place (top of a refrigerator) and check every couple of days. Add moisture to keep towel damp if necessary.
After ten days or so count how many seeds have germinated, multiply by ten and you have the germination rate. For rates under 70% adjust the number of seeds you sow accordingly.

Good lighting is essential to ensure sturdy, strong seedlings ready to take on the rigors of the Idaho climate. Even a bright, sunny window does not provide sufficient light to avoid leggy, weak-stemmed seedlings. The system I have used with excellent results for the last several years is simple and inexpensive: a standard shoplight with one warm white and one cool white florescent bulbs suspended so that the lights are never more than 3 inches from the plants. You can hang the lights from a ceiling or, as I do, from the shelves of a three-tiered plant stand that will hold 12 flats of plants. For optimal growth most plants require 16-18 hours of light (once germinated) with a few hours of rest.( A timer is handy for this purpose.) Special full spectrum bulbs are available but cost about 10 times more than florescent bulbs and in my experience do not improve the results enough to justify the extra cost. As the seedlings grow be sure to repot them in larger pots as they start crowding one another. This not only provides more root space but spreads them out so that the leaves have more surface area exposed to the light. A final hint: replace your florescent bulbs each year with new ones so that the light is as intense as possible.
Some seeds require light to germinate while others prefer total darkness. Your seed packet should tell you what your seed's requirements are. Once germinated, all seedlings need light to develop into strong, healthy plants. Supplement the natural light with florescent bulbs if necessary.

This is an easy one - don’t use soil! Do use any good, light, soiless planting mix, many types of which are readily available at garden centers. A soiless planting medium is preferred for several reasons; it is light and open to encourage those tiny sprouts to push up to the surface, it can hold generous amounts of water without becoming water-logged, and because it is sterilized it will not harbor the harmful bacteria which cause damping off. If you are going to re-use planting containers from last year be sure to disinfect them in a 9/1 water to bleach solution. Nothing beats a good commercial medium because it is sterile and free of unwanted weed seeds. If you want to make your own, here are a couple of good recipes:

Cornell Mix:
4 quarts of shredded peat moss or sphagnum, 2 teaspoons ground limestone, 4 tablespoons 5-10-10 fertilizer.

Simple Mix:
1 part loam, 1 part clean sand or perlite, 1 part leaf mold or moist peat.

This aspect of starting seeds is probably the most troublesome. It requires some practice (and not a few failures) to get the hang of what we gardeners mean when we say ‘Well, keep them wet enough but not too wet’. The best explanation I can offer is that the soil should be consistently slightly moist but not at all soggy. It is OK for the surface to be a bit dry but if the leaves are beginning to droop or a shiny leaf is starting to look dull it is a sign that the roots do not have adequate moisture down deep. While it is probably better to err on the side of too little water rather than too much either extreme will stress the plants and produce a weaker seedling. In my experience the best method for watering seedlings is bottom watering. It avoids wetting the leaves and assures even and thorough watering of the planting medium, as well as teaching the roots to travel downward for moisture and nutrients. Just add 2-4” of water/nutrient mix to the container’s tray and set your pots into the water. The water will slowly filter upwards through the planting medium until the surface is wet. As soon as you begin to see the surface darkening lift the pots from the water, drain for a moment or two and return them to their place under the lights. When the seeds are newly planted and covered with plastic you will need to water much less frequently than when the plants have grown to 5 or 6” and have more leaf surface area transpiring. Watch carefully during your first seed-starting season and you will soon get the hang of it.
Use a fine sprayer to water newly planted seeds and tiny seedlings. If you can,

Getting the seeds in the planting mix is one of the most enjoyable parts of the process. You will need:
Planting containers - I use re-useable, deep, 6-cell planters but you can use almost any container that has good drainage. All nurseries have convenient trays, cell planters and plastic domes.
Plant markers for identifying the seeds planted ( I use plastic milk cartons cut into strips)
A notebook for taking notes on when, how and what you’ve done (you’ll love yourself next year!)
Good seeds!

Fill the containers with planting mix and pack it down gently. Check seed packets for proper planting depth*, plant several seeds in each container, and cover with planting mix according to the directions. (Later, after the seedlings have their first set of true leaves, you will either transplant the extras or clip them out with a pair of small scissors.) Gently water each individual container thoroughly, label each container and then cover with a clear plastic bag or a plastic dome. Put into a warm place like the top of your refrigerator. Some seeds will germinate in 3-4 days so keep a close eye on them because as soon as the seedlings are up they need to be moved immediately under lights. Other seeds can take up to three weeks to germinate so read your packets. Remember to check on the moisture level periodically.
Some seeds require light to germinate so read the packets carefully - sprinkle these on the surface and water very gently.

Fill pots or flats to within 1/4 inch of the top with your potting mixture and level the surface. It's a good idea to water the soil and allow it to drain thoroughly before sowing the seeds. Make a hole for each seed with your finger or a pencil. Keep in mind that most seeds need to be planted four times as deep as the seed is wide. If your seeds are very fine, cover them with a fine layer of soil.

When the seedlings have developed their second set of true leaves, it's time to transplant or thin them. If you don't need many plants, you can thin them in place: just pinch or snip off the excess seedlings, leaving the remaining ones spaced about 2 inches apart. Seedlings in individual pots or cells should be thinned to one plant per pot or cell. If you want to save most of the plants that have germinated, you'll need to transplant them to larger containers for growth to planting-out size. It's best to use individual pots or cell-packs for this purpose, so that seedlings won't suffer much root disturbance when planted out in the garden.
To transplant seedlings, fill each new container with moist planting mix. Loosen the soil around the seedlings (a kitchen fork or spoon is handy for this); then carefully lift them out, one at a time. Or lift a clump of seedlings and gently separate individual plants by carefully teasing apart the tangled mass of roots. Handle seedlings by their leaves to avoid damaging the tender stems. Poke a hole in the new container's planting mix, place the seedling in the hole, and firm soil around it. Water the transplant right away. Keep the containers out of direct sunlight for a few days to let the transplants recover from the move.

Seedling Care
The care you give your seedlings in the weeks following germination is critical. Keep it moist, but not dripping. Small pots and flats dry out quickly, so check it often. If your seedlings are growing in a windowsill, turn often to encourage straight stems.
The first two leaves you will see on the plant are not true leaves but food storage cells called cotyledons. Once the first true leaves have developed, it's time to start fertilizing. Choose a good liquid organic fertilizer and use a weak solution once a week.

Special Seed Handling Techniques
Many seeds require special handling, so there are a few tricks you should know to ensure that your seeds will sprout. The seed packet should list any special requirements.

Scarification - Seeds with especially hard outer shells often benefit from this abuse. Rub the outer shell of the seed with sandpaper or a file. It takes a little practice to make a cut that's deep enough to help, but not deep enough to damage the plant.
• Lupine
• Mallow
• Morning Glory
• Sweet Pea
• Blue Indigo, Wild Indigo

Soaking - Seeds that have a hard outer coat will germinate faster if they are soaked in water overnight.
• Asparagus
• Lilyturf
• Lupine
• Mallow
• Morning Glory
• Okra
• Perennial Pea
• Parsley
• Thrift

Stratification - This process helps recreate the natural seasons so that the seed knows it's time to germinate. For cold stratification, place the seeds in moist peat moss or vermiculite in the refrigerator. For warm stratification, place the container in a warm spot. After the first month or so, examine the seeds regularly for signs of germination. As soon as the small white primary root appears, plant the seed in soil.
• Angelica
• Christmas Rose
• Daylily
• Gas Plant
• Globeflower
• Lavender
• Ornamental Cabbage
• Phlox
• Primrose
• Tahoka Daisy
• Viola, Violet, Pansy
• Wake Robin

Once your seedlings have their first set of true leaves you can begin feeding them at every other watering. Any good plant food with a balanced N-P-K will do but be sure to use it at ¼ strength for the first few weeks and ½ strength later.
It will make you crazy if you successfully get your plants to the point at which they are ready to go outside and then you damage or kill them by skipping this step so even though you are really anxious to get them out of your living room and into the dirt please take the time to follow this step. The process of hardening off readies the plant to withstand the rigors of the outdoors and can be accomplished in about 4 - 10 days, dependent on the weather. Start out by taking the plants outside on a calm day for about an hour. Bring them back under the lights. Repeat the process each day doubling the time until they are out all day. Now they are ready to go into the soil. If the weather gets particularly cold or windy you may want to abort the process and begin again when the weather improves. This is definitely worth doing!
A cold frame is useful for hardening off seedlings. Over the next week or so, gradually increase exposure until the plants are in full sun all day (shade lovers are an exception; they shouldn't be exposed to day-long sun).

This is the final and maybe most important of the five basic requirements I mentioned at the start. Growing your own plants gives you the opportunity to learn about growth and nurturing, about patience and perseverance. It will ignite your imagination and your sense of the possible if you let it. Be willing to try what you haven’t, accept the failures you will undoubtedly experience and realize that, as with most of life, if you stick with it, learn from your mistakes and keep trying you will keep growing and enjoying your own bountiful harvest.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Healing Garden

In the best of times flowers help us celebrate the joyous occasions in our lives—the birth of a child, a wedding, career or personal success. In more difficult times plants give us hope and inspiration to meet the challenges of life.

The role of the plants and gardens in healing is ancient. As early as 3000 B.C. the Chinese were using medicinal herbs. The Greeks built a temple for Aesclepius, their god of healing, set among mineral springs, bathing pools, and healing gardens. Green was a sacred color in ancient Egypt and represented the hope of spring that brought new vegetation and life.

In colonial America, the Quakers felt a deep attachment to nature and believed gardens were a place of creativity for the mind and body. Growing plants was a way to relax and restore the soul. One of the first programs to use plants in a therapeutic setting was established in 1879 at Philadelphia’s Friends Hospital after a physician noticed that psychiatric patients working in the hospital’s fields and flower gardens were calmer and that the gardens had a “curative” effect on them.

In more recent times, advances in technology and new drugs have been the focus of treatment at medical institutions. However, within the past few decades, the medical community around the world is rediscovering the healing power of gardens. Many hospitals and health care facilities are incorporating green spaces, flowerbeds and views of gardens into their surroundings and horticultural therapy programs are often an important part of a patient’s course of treatment.

Healing gardens can be found in a variety of institutions including substance abuse treatment centers, outpatient clinics, long-term care facilities, hospices and retirement homes, as well as in botanic gardens and arboreta around the world. In Cleveland, Ohio the Men’s Garden Club worked with homeless women in temporary housing to create The Serenity Garden, a therapeutic green space that replaced the bleak asphalt paving that had filled the back yard of the facility. The Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis, Minnesota developed their Garden of Healing to aid in the healing process of people who have suffered psychological and physical abuse. Oregon’s Portland Memory Garden provides a safe and enjoyable setting that addresses the restorative power of gardens for patients with Alzheimer’s.

Doctors at the Jupiter Medical Center in Florida found that cardiology patients in rehab who had a view of that facility’s Jacqueline Fiske Healing Garden from their room took less pain medication and had shorter hospital stays than those patients who could not see the garden.

For an individual recovering from a serious illness such as cancer or stroke, gardens can be an important part of healing by providing hope and inspiration. Hope in Bloom is a non-profit organization in Massachusetts that installs gardens at no cost at the homes of women (and men) undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Each garden is developed specifically to the home and lifestyle of each recipient in order to give them a tranquil place to escape from the world of doctors, hospitals and sickness.

Clare Cooper Marcus, Professor Emerita in the College of Environmental Design at the University of California at Berkeley, found her garden had a strong impact on her coping and healing during several bouts with cancer. A gardener since childhood, she has always found the garden to be a comforting retreat—a place where her anxieties dissipate into the ground.

Throughout her illness and treatment Cooper Marcus wrote in a journal and discovered that working in the garden had symbolic parallels to her illness. When Cooper Marcus decided to clear a corner of her garden cluttered and overgrown with brambles, she realized it was similar to the chemo drugs eliminating the cancer cells from her body and making her healthy again. Cooper Marcus now focuses on the therapeutic aspects of gardens and their design through her consulting business, Healing Landscapes.

Whether tending to a houseplant, growing some flowers or turning an outdoor garden into a relaxing retreat, plants have the power to heal our body and our soul. Research has shown that working in the garden can benefit everyone. The physical efforts of gardening—digging, planting, bending and walking—are great forms of exercise to keep the body healthy. Strenuous yard work such as digging or weeding not only burns calories, it is similar to weight training in building bones and preventing osteoporosis. Gardens and gardening activity can also improve mental outlook and our emotional mood by reducing stress, anxiety and depression. Studies have found that gardening can lower blood pressure and cholesterol, which reduces the risk of heart disease. Researchers at the Cleveland Botanical Garden found that the blood pressure of many visitors dropped the longer they stayed in the gardens.

A healing garden can take many forms but always provides interaction with nature. Visually plants provide inspirational colors or peaceful tones. We can hear the relaxing sound of water or the stimulating activity of visiting wildlife. The rich aroma of fresh earth and the delightful scent of perfumed herbs fill the air we breathe, while the fresh flavor of a crispy pea pod or sweet berry tempts our taste buds. We can touch the velvety smoothness of a flower petal or be touched by the movement of leaves in the wind.

Begin to create your own garden of healing today simply by planting a container filled with colorful flowers, a nutritious vegetable, or an herb such as lavender, sage, basil or thyme. In addition to being attractive and aromatic, these and many other herbs have been used medicinally for centuries. Watching and nurturing any plant as it grows provides power and energy to enhance your well-being.

In an outdoor setting, incorporating a few simple design elements turns any garden into a place of healing and inspiration.

•Grow plants that you find pleasing. Are you energized by bright colors? Then include annuals such as zinnias, petunias, sunflowers or cosmos. If you enjoy cooking, incorporate herbs, vegetables and edible flowers into your garden. Plants such as sage or lavender can be harvested and used for aromatherapy.

•Include a place to sit and observe the beauty of nature or a path for walking through the garden. Enclose it with shrubs or fencing to create a secluded retreat.

•Add a focal point for meditation and reflection such as a piece of sculpture, a special plant, interesting rocks, wind chimes or a water fountain.

•Encourage butterflies, birds, insects and other wildlife to the garden for their healing energy. Birdfeeders and birdhouses quickly and easily begin attracting garden visitors. Choose plants that supply nectar and food including coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), butterfly flower (Aesclepias tuberosa) salvias (Salvia spp.), dill, parsley and sunflowers.

The design and development of a healing garden, just like the process of healing and recovery, takes place over time. It is that journey and the time spent with nature that heals our body and soul.

For additional resources about therapeutic gardens, visit the Therapeutic Landscapes Database (, which lists healing gardens throughout the United States and Canada, as well as links to other informational websites and organizations.

Thanks to The National Garden Bureau for this article. These days we all need some healing in our gardens!


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Houseplant Care in Winter

For beginners, let's begin by saying that a home is not perfect growing conditions for most plants. The term house plant is actually a false term – there are no plants that I know of that naturally are found growing in a home. Most are grown in tropical locations where sun light, humidity and nutrients are high and the plants thrive. When they are grown for sale to you, the homeowner, they are grown in the same conditions, in a greenhouse – plenty of sunlight, humidity and nutrients. Now unfortunately most homes are not ideal growing conditions, especially at this time of year. As we all know, the amount of light and the duration is dramatically low, the humidity in our homes is low from the heating equipment which keeps us warm, and sometimes we forget that the soil that our plants grow in needs to be changed about once a year to keep it fresh and free from mineral deposits from watering. In all truth, our homes are closer to being the Gobi Desert than a tropical paradise. There are ways to overcome these obstacles to keep those plants looking a fresh and full as the day you purchased them.

If you add supplemental lighting for your plants and put the lights on a timer to be on for 11 to 13 hours, you will notice a dramatic improvement. Supplemental lighting does not need to be expensive. One of the most inexpensive ways of adding light is to head to your local home center and purchase a 4 foot fluorescent fixture (which is around $10). DO not purchase the fancy Grow Lights at $7 + per bulb. Just purchase one cool white and one warm light bulb. By using both of the bulbs, you will be adding close to the full spectrum of light at about ½ the price, and from my own experience, does just as good a job. If the plants are in a living space and you do not want to hang 4 foot fluorescent fixtures in your living room, just change the bulbs in your current light fixtures to full spectrum bulbs, and again try to leave them on for 11 to 13 hours per day.

There are a couple ways to increase the humidity. Adding a humidifier to your living space will not only improve the plants health, but also your own. In our case we end up drying like a prune in the winter, as well as coughing because of the dryness. Adding humidity will keep our skin soft and our lungs lubricated. For plants, humidity is an additional way for them to uptake moisture. Leaves not only produce chlorophyll, but on the bottom sides have cells which open and close to exchange moisture, CO2 and oxygen. The simplest way of adding humidity to the area directly around your plant is to purchase a saucer or tray for underneath the pot. Fill the saucer with gravel and fill with water, then place the pot on top of the gravel. Make sure that they pot is not sitting in the water, but instead on the gravel. You do not want the plant to have wet feet, possibly creating root rot or fungus.

For nutrients, since the plant is not actively growing during the winter, using a houseplant fertilizer that is balanced at ½ the suggested rate will be fine. I like using Schulz’s house plant food simply because it is balanced and the container is smaller than most, saving on space. Watering is another concern during the winter. Again since the plant is not actively growing, most waterings will last longer than in the spring, summer or fall. Try to stay away from the “weekly” watering schedule and use your finger to be the judge. If the soil feels moist, don’t water - dry, water. It is that simple.

A great way to deal with several of these problems is to put the plant in the shower with tepid water. This will also take care of cleaning the leaves of the dust that can accumulate during the winter. Just let the plant sit in the tub for one hour to fully drain, then move on to the next.

In general, these quick tips will keep your houseplant healthy and lush through the winter.