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      Text and photographs are © by Ellen Spector Platt & Ellen Zachos, all rights reserved.

      Showing posts with label houseplants. Show all posts
      Showing posts with label houseplants. Show all posts

      Saturday, February 4, 2012


      Back, back, back in the day, every florist sold dish gardens to give as gifts, a miniature garden in a bowl with three or more small house plants crammed together with a cheap ceramic figurine.
      The plant choices where never well thought out, each having different sun/shade and water requirements. Within a month one plant usually took over and the others died. I HATED dish gardens as a kid.
      But I was enchanted by the Terrarium Exhibit at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in the Steinhardt Conservatory Gallery through Feb. 26. Though they reminded me of dish gardens, they were both simpler and more sophisticated. Many are planted in lidded glass, but some in open containers, even fish tanks.Designed by Jennifer Williams, a staff designer for the BBG, each seemed like a private world to inhabit, and one made for city apartments.click on the sign above to enlarge for reading.
      We need all the help with survival we can get.On seeing this exhibit, I thought that any kid I know would beg to plant a terrarium for his own, and I yearned to have my granddaughters with me.

      Shall we dance? Just a little moss with branches and bracken.
      For more information visit the bbg blog.

      Monday, November 28, 2011

      Solon shows you how.

      Five years ago, Solon and I went to the local garden center to buy him a plant. He chose an African violet and the African violet thrived. It thrived a lot. We moved it to a bigger pot a few years ago, but this year Solon asked if I could help him divide it. I'm always happy to spend time with Solon AND with plants, so I jumped at the chance. Here's how we did it.

      First, find two (or more) pots in which to plant your divisions. Solon liked this watering-can pot, but he wasn't sure it would work because there was no drainage hole in the bottom.

      Without a hole, excess water wouldn't be able to escape, which could lead to root rot. Instead, we chose two, terra cotta, 4" pots for the two divisions.

      I knocked the violet out of its pot (on newspapers, of course) and told Solon not to be shy. He easily pulled apart the two main clumps of the plant.

      Next, Solon covered the drainage hole with a stone, then poured fresh potting soil into the pot.

      He added more potting mix around the plant, pushing it in deep.

      We thought we'd have two African violets after the division, but while we were pulling things apart, we found two mini-plants, trying their best to push up from underneath the leaves of the larger plants. These clumps didn't have many roots, so we decided to try an experiment.

      We potted them up in 2" pots, then placed each one inside a zip lock bag.

      Solon inflated each bag (after reminding me I should say inflate instead of blow up. Apparently blow up means something different to little boys...), creating a mini-greenhouse for each mini-violet.

      In the end we had two, freshly potted, blooming African violets, and two mini-violets, which Solon has promised to send me regular reports on. He's going to open the bags once a week, check the soil moisture, water if necessary, and re-close the bags.

      Solon asked what he should do if the plants outgrow their bags. I explained that if they start growing, they've established roots and they can come out of their mini-greenhouses.

      Update: Six months later, Solon is the proud owner of four, floriferous African violets. Way to go, Solon!

      Saturday, February 6, 2010


      photo © Larry Hodgson, used with permission
      For Thomas, Shady, Sorsha, Urban Gardens and other who commented on my post of Jan 2010, Baby It's Warm Inside:

      Some of you were pondering the possibilities of a vertical garden at home; as promised, an image provided by garden writer and houseplant expert Larry Hodgson of his bathroom. Other Ellen and and I have been invited to see Larry's creative work in his home in Quebec Province, Canada, but so far haven't been able to take him up on his offer. Now that I see the picture, I'm holding out for an invitation to bathe. Double click on the image (and any other images on Garden Bytes) to see an enlargement and hunt for the two small flamingos that Larry added this year. Note the array of grow-lights that make a permanent installation possible.

      Larry Hodgson, a talented garden lecturer, author, trip leader and raconteur is the author of many books, including "Houseplants for Dummies", "Decorating with Houseplants", and "Your Guide to Healthy Houseplants". My favorite of his books is "Making the Most of Shade", Rodale Press, 2005 to which I refer time and again for inspiration, information and his strong opinions.

      Wednesday, March 25, 2009


      (above, my faithful houseplant, Stapelia gigantea with fly pollinator)
      Winter seems endless in New York City, and to keep my fingernails properly dirty when I have no gardening chores, I’ve made a few wintertime propagation experiments. First I dug up, re-potted, and brought indoors the tender lavender ‘Goodwin Creek Grey’. I also took four, five-inch cuttings from the mother plant, stripped the bottoms of leaves, dipped them in a rooting hormone and stuck them in a soil-less mix. Mother and daughters stayed on my office windowsill through winter ‘08, grew and bloomed summer '08 in my rooftop garden.(above , lavender cuttings on left, lavender mother plant far right, in green bottle, Ming Aralia cutting)

      House Plant Dividend
      At the same time I took a cutting from the five foot Ming Aralia that resides in a corner of my living room. The cutting, about eight inches long, stood in a bottle of water for three months; when fully rooted I potted it in it’s own container. The baby is promised to Diane and Gary the next time they come for a visit. (She had the chutzpah to ask for it.)
      The mother plant was a cast-off, offered by a family in my building who was selling their apartment. Their realtor laid down the law. Get rid of that thing because it takes up too much space and makes the living room look minuscule. The offer was made with full disclosure; the plant looked like it was dying and maybe the building “Plant Lady” could resurrect it. I did, merely by deep watering once a week.(above, Ming Aralia mother and daughter)

      Got Spit?
      My Stapelia gigantea (Carrion Plant) was getting long and ungainly, so three weeks ago, I whacked a piece off,
      let the end heal for a week, while
      warning Ben not to throw it in the
      garbage.This succulent would
      probably root perfectly well in
      potting soil without any special
      treatment, but a friend who seeks
      out heritage roses in unusual
      places swears by the rooting
      properties of saliva. She says she
      carefully puts the end of a rose
      cutting in her mouth and slathers
      it with spit before placing it in
      potting mix. Talk about organic,
      free, and ever-handy, I couldn’t
      resist the spit treatment. Since I
      don’t know the taste and health-
      fulness of the plant, I spit in my
      hand and rolled the end of the cutting in it. I’ll spare you the sight of that, but I experienced the smug feeling that comes from getting away with something. Of course there’s no control group so the fact that the cutting is doing fine is absolutely no proof of the efficacy of the spit treatment.

      A perfect project for a kid’s science experiment, does spit encourage rooting and in which plants? What enzymes or growth hormones are in saliva that would encourage rooting? Anyone out there have any knowledge or a reference? Best answer gets the cutting in a hand thrown stoneware pot; see mother plant in bud above, then in bloom below.

      Sunday, February 8, 2009

      Who has less light than me?

      My guess is very few of you have as little light in your apartments (or houses) as I do. I live in a studio apartment with one window that looks at a brick wall about 10 feet away. I'm on the 3rd floor of an 11 story building and not much light works its way down to my dim windowsill.

      Being a plant-a-holic, I couldn't let lack of light stop me from having an indoor garden. With the help of a very handy friend (thank you Stephen Barnett!) I turned my dauntingly dark windowsill into a plant display. It was surprisingly simple (was that because Stephen did all the drilling?); perhaps a few of you with little or no natural light might give it a try.

      1) Screw 2 x 4s into your window frame, giving yourself a sturdy base for the light fixtures.

      2) Attach fluorescent fixtures to the wooden frame. I used double tube fixtures on top, but only had enough depth for single tube fixtures along the sides.

      3) Tuck the cords up behind the reflectors, run them along the top of the window, and down the side into a power strip. (I needed an extension cord to make everything reach.) Insert bulbs (half cool white and half warm white), then plug the power strip into a timer. Set the timer for approximately 16 hours of ON time and plug the timer into the wall.

      4) Hang lucite or plexiglass poles across the window. By using clear poles, you create an open display space, where nothing distracts from the plants themselves.

      5) Agonize for hours (or days) over the perfect arrangement for your plants. These are primarily Rhipsalis (although there's one Ceropegia in there). Rhipsalis are epiphytic cacti and very drought tolerant (aka low maintenance). In fact I just got back from a two week vacation and everyone looks just fine!

      The truth is these plants probably won't flower in the low intensity of fluorescent lights, but they DO put out new growth. I rotate them every week so each plant has time close to the gro-lights. It just goes to show you that if you really want an indoor garden...nothing can stand in your way.

      Monday, January 5, 2009

      Top five houseplants for...

      The most frequent question I get as a houseplant expert is "What's the best plant for a room with no light?" Ok, if your room really has NO light, your best bet is plastic. But if what you actually have is LOW light, then here are my Top Five:

      6) Fittonia verschaffeltii (snakeskin plant)
      (Yes, I know I said five...you're complaining about a bonus?!)
      This plant grows to be about 6-8" tall. It keeps its color in indirect light or under fluorescents. Variegation can be white or pink. Don't let it dry out; it's a dramatic flopper.

      5) Philodendron selloum (cut leaf philodendron)
      This plant is a living sculpture and deserves a better photograph. It flourishes in a bright northern window and if your northern window isn't bright, it will still put on a decent show. P. selloum gets big: 2' tall x 2' wide.

      4) Ficus pumila (creeping fig)
      This petite beauty grows well in dim light and under fluorescents. It climbs freely and can be trained onto a topiary form if you're into that. (Guess how I feel about it.)

      3) Sansevieria trifasciata (snake plant)
      I won't listen to a bad word about this plant! If you don't like it, it's because you haven't seen it used properly and grown well. This plant is a trouper: it's sturdy, architectural, 2-3' tall, and if you keep it on the dry side it grows well in very low light.

      2) Rhoicissus capensis (oak leaf ivy)
      This vine makes a superb living curtain. It's drought tolerant, grows in low light, and new leaves have a swell reddish variegation.

      1) Aspidistra elatior (cast iron plant)
      Look at the common name.
      This plant survives dark, cold, dry places. Don't overwater it and A. elatior will be your pal for years.

      What should the next Top Five be? Flowering houseplants? Vines? Drought tolerant houseplants? The choice is yours.

      Thursday, December 25, 2008

      The Phalaenopses are in bloom again...

      I'm up in NH for the holidays and there's 2 feet of pristine, white-white-white snow on the ground. It could not possibly be more wintery. Yet indoors, the Phalaenopses are in bloom, blissfully unaware that outside it's 5 degrees.

      Many Phalaenopses (singular = Phalaenopsis, common name = moth orchid) bloom in winter, so now is the perfect time to pick yourself out a winner. It's also the perfect time because tropical beauty is accentuated by juxtaposition with snow and cold. Entertaining for the holidays? Make a Phalaenopsis your centerpiece. People will think you have mad plant skills when all you did was shell out a few bucks for a long lasting, low maintenance houseplant.

      A few basics:

      1) Keep your Phal out of drafts. Although the plant can take temps down to about 55 degrees, when it's in bloom don't let it get colder than 65 or buds may blast (turn yellow and fall off).

      2) Don't overwater! Most Phals are potted in long grain sphagnum moss. It's great for commercial growers because it stays in place when the plants are shipped. But it's not so great for beginning indoor gardeners because it holds moisture SO long. The top feels dry, but if you poke your finger into the moss an inch or two, it's still plenty wet. A Phal potted in sphagnum won't need water more than once every 7-10 days, depending on the temp of your home. If the orchid is potted in a bark mix, check it every 5-7 days.

      3) Remove spent flowers. Phals can bloom for up to 6 months (no joke), although 2-3 is more normal. Flowers open from the bottom of the stem upwards, so remove each flower as it wilts and fades. This keeps the stem looking fresh and new.

      4) Extend your bloom season. When all the flowers have passed and the stem of your Phal is still green, cut the stem just above a node. About 60% of the time the orchid will produce a new bloom spike from the node. When the stem turns brown, cut it off at its base.

      5) Be reasonable. Phals bloom once a year. I get so many calls from people complaining about dead orchids because the flowering has stopped. As the pet shop owner on Monty Python said, "It's not dead! It's just resting!" As long as the foliage is healthy, your orchid is alive and there's no reason to think it won't put on another glorious show next year at about the same time.

      Where to buy? We're lucky in NYC, because in addition to big box stores, botanical gardens, and neighborhood florists, we have the plant district! It's smaller than it used to be, but there's still a block of stores on 28th Street, between 6th and 7th. They used to be wholesale only, but most will sell to anyone these days. Some of my favorites are Holiday Foliage (116 W 28), Foliage Garden (120 W 28), Fischer & Page (150 W 28) and Noble Planta (106-A W 28).

      Thursday, December 18, 2008

      Enter to win big prizes!

      I'm taking a poll. And I'd sincerely appreciate your input. In fact, I'm prepared to bribe you for your participation.

      Some background: My first plant crush was a peace lily. While I've moved beyond the Spathiphyllum, I still love indoor plants and wouldn't be without them. Couldn't be without them. I realize many gardeners take an extended break in winter, putting aside their pruners and gloves till spring comes 'round again, but not me. Now is when I focus on my indoor landscape, and over the next few months you'll be getting your fill of houseplant posts.

      But back to my poll. I'm a houseplant expert. There, I admit it. I'm working on a book proposal for a houseplant book. A very big houseplant book. A houseplant book that includes everything anyone could ever want to know about every possible houseplant. What I want to know is: What are YOU looking for in a houseplant book?

      Send me your ideas and inspirations, and if I haven't already thought of them (you'll have to trust me on this), I'll give you a prize. In exchange for your suggestion, I'll send you a copy of my CD: Green Up Time: A Botanical Look at Broadway. It's a collection of show tunes about flowers and plants; a project that combines my first career (on B'way) with my second (in horticulture). If you want to listen to a few excerpts to see if it's worth your while, go here.

      If you already have a copy of my CD (what are the chances?!) let me know and I'll come up with some other swell thank you gift. I look forward to hearing from you. Really, I do.

      Thursday, December 11, 2008

      Just say no!

      If you're a poinsettia lover, I'll give you a second or two to navigate away from this page, because I'm going on a rant. An anti-poinsettia rant.

      The poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) was attractive before people got their hands on it. It's native to Mexico where it can grow up to 10 feet tall. Its flowers are orangey-red and it's not a bad looking shrub. Alas, that's not the plant you're going to find at your local florist this holiday season.

      Today's poinsettia is a fussy, bloated, short-lived plant, prone to whitefly and bract drop, highly unlikely to bloom again in your home. Yet it accounts for 85% of holiday potted plant sales in the U.S. Why? Because someone is a marketing genius. Pushed as the perfect living holiday decoration/ hostess present, you can pick one up in any corner deli, on your way to the party.

      But take a minute to think. This is a plant that is almost certainly never going to bloom again. Unless you can give it COMPLETE darkness from 5 pm to 8 am starting on about October 1st. And I mean COMPLETE. Walking into the dark room and turning on the light to look for something in the closet, even if it's only for a minute, can ruin the whole thing. Nighttime temps above 70 degrees can also impede flowering.

      If you want to give a plant as a holiday gift there are several alternatives that allow you to maintain the traditional color scheme. All of them re-flower reliably indoors and will live for years without forcing you (or your hostess) to tiptoe around in a dark house.

      Coralberry (Ardisia crenata) is a wonderful plant that produces a long-lasting crop of red berries. (Seriously, these berries can last an entire year.) It flourishes in an east or west facing window and its leaves are a glossy dark green with crenellated margins. It develops a woody stem over time and will probably get to be about 3-4 feet tall as a potted specimen.

      Crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii) is a relative of the
      poinsettia but much less temperamental. It blooms year-round in an eastern or western window and has no special temperature requirements. Yes, it has a few thorns. Don't poke them and they won't poke you.

      Scarlet plume (Euphorbia fulgens) is another poinsettia relative, easy to grow in southern, eastern, or western light, and not fussy about temperature.

      If you're determined to fuss a little, try a holiday cactii (Schlumbergia and Zygocactus species). You can either give them a cool treatment (keeping them at about 50-55 degrees) OR keep them dark (from 8 pm-8am) from mid-October until you notice buds forming. Unlike with the poinsettia, a stray beam of light here and there isn't going to ruin your chances of bloom.

      These plants can bring you joy for years (not weeks!). All of them are less prone to insect predation than the poinsettia, and at least two (crown of thorns and holiday cactus) are easy to find, in neighborhood florists and big box stores. So just say no to the ubiquitous poinsettia and choose a holiday plant that is truly a worthy gift.

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