Category Archives: Gardening Articles

Houseplant of the Month: Phalaenopsis Orchid

If you are lucky enough to have a Phalaenopsis, you are about to enter the wonderful world of growing orchids! Phals are one of the easiest orchids to grow in the home. If you follow a few basic requirements, these plants will reward you with several months of beautiful blooms.

Water
How often you water will depend on the potting medium. Bark retains less water than moss. If your phal is potted in bark watering once a week is generally sufficient. If your plant is potted in moss, water when the top feels dry. The amount of light and heat your plant receives will also affect how soon your phal needs watering. Summer months will need more frequent watering, winter will need less. After a few watering, you will be able to tell by the weight of the pot whether or not it is time to water again. If in doubt, wait a day.

It is best to water in the morning. Place the plant in the sink and use tepid water. Do not use salt-softened or distilled water. Let the water run through the plant for a minute or so. Be sure to let the plant drain completely.

If any water remains in the crown (where the leaves join in the center) use a paper towel to blot the water to avoid crown rot.

Light
Phalaenopsis are ‘low’ light orchids. They grow beautifully in an east window and can be grown in a south or west window if protected by a sheer curtain. A phal’s leaves should be olive green. If they are darker it means the plant is not getting enough light; red tinged leaves mean the plant is getting too much light. Once the plant is in bloom you can place it anywhere in your home out of direct sunlight. If your plant does not re-bloom, increase the amount of light that it receives.

Continue watering and fertilizing while waiting for the blooming cycle to begin!

Temperature
Phals are easy to grow because they enjoy the same temperatures we do – above 60º F at night and a range of 70º F to 80º F or higher during the day. 95º F is the maximum temperature recommendation. Keep in mind that temperatures close to the window on a windowsill will be colder or hotter than your general house temperature. Fluctuating temperatures can cause bud drop on plants with buds ready to open.

Fertilizer 
Any balanced orchid fertilizer (look at the numbers on the container, 20-20-20, etc.) can be used to fertilize your orchid. Feeding weakly (half strength) weekly works well. Once a month, use clear water to flush any accumulated salts from the potting mix.

Humidity 
Use a shallow tray of pebbles filled with water to increase humidity around your plants. Be sure the pot does not sit in water as this will rot the roots.

Cutting the spike
When the blooms are finished, you can cut the spike down to the level of the leaves and the plant will bloom with larger flowers and a strong stem within a year. You can also cut off the stem leaving two nodes (those little brown lines on the stem below where the flowers were) on the stem. One of these nodes will then initiate and generally produce flowers within eight to 12 weeks. 

Continue watering and fertilizing while you are waiting for the blooming cycle to begin again! Repotting is usually done every one to three years.

Indoor Gardening with Kids

When the outdoor garden is tucked away for the winter — the saplings supported, the grass seed sown and the spring bulbs tucked snugly away in their flower beds — it’s time for indoor gardening fun!

Many plants can be successfully grown indoors by children, including the pits and seeds of many grocery items (who hasn’t seen an avocado pit supported by a toothpick in a plastic cup on a window sill?).

One of the most fun and satisfying indoor gardening projects, however, is forcing flower bulbs.

Forcing projects are an easy, inexpensive way to keep little hands busy for hours on a rainy day. Bulbs can be potted up as “I made it myself” gifts for friends, teachers or grandparents.

They can also give young people a real feeling of accomplishment. Imagine their pride when Grandma “ooohs” and “ahhhs” over her magnificent pots of blooming amaryllises!

As bulbs mature into flowers, the seeds of myth and magic can grow in a child’s imagination. A three-year old, for example, might thrill to the “wonder of it all.” A “more serious” 12-year old might play the budding botanist, growing various colors or experimenting with different treatments of light and temperature.

Though the flowers are wonderful, the real joy comes in the child’s anticipation, as each morning she rushes to the kitchen window to see “her” green stalk yet another inch taller.

Guided by an enthusiastic parent, growing these plants the Dutch call “guaranteed miracles,” can offer a metaphor for and an introduction to the wonder and mystery of the natural world.

You Can Fool Mother Nature

The term “forcing” might be better expressed as “fooling.” For what you really do is fool the bulb into thinking that winter is over and it’s time to flower. The two easiest bulbs to force are paperwhite narcissus and amaryllis (hippeastrum). Other fun bulbs for easy forcing include colorful hyacinths, crocuses and narcissi. These require a bit more attention, but they too can offer the young gardener an enchanting indoor experience.

To begin with the easiest:

Paperwhite types are especially easy to grow. They can be bought as loose bulbs or as part of a pre-packaged forcing kit. They are often found in displays along with gravel, containers and other bulbs for forcing.

Paperwhites are best forced in a shallow pot or bowl with no drainage holes in the bottom. Fill the pot two thirds full with gravel, stones or even fun things like marbles! Place as many bulbs as will fit on the gravel with the pointed side up. Then fill in gravel around them leaving the tops exposed. Add water up to the base of the bulbs and maintain water at this level.

Place the container in a cool place. Within days roots will appear. As they grow, they will sometimes push the bulbs upward. When the green shoots appear, move your project to a cool, sunny spot. The shoots will develop rapidly and in about three more weeks, you’ll have masses of heavily-scented sweet white flowers.  

Amaryllis bulbs are very large but also very easy to grow. These big bulbs are normally planted one to a pot and are also often available as complete pre- packaged kits. Begun early enough, amaryllises can be easily brought to flower for the holiday season. By staggering your start-up times, it’s possible to have amaryllises blooming in the house from December through April.

Loose amaryllis bulbs can be planted in any kind of container you like, but a drainage hole (and a saucer to catch the water that drains!) is required. The pot circumference should be not much bigger than the bulb itself.

Spread a shallow layer of gravel, pot shards or other drainage material at the bottom of the pot (this is a good way to recycle those annoying plastic foam “peanut” packing materials). Add several inches of soil and place the bulb in the pot, pointed end up, with the neck and “shoulders” of the bulb just peeking over the top of the container.

Fill in with soil and gently pat down, leaving the neck of the bulb exposed. Water well. Place in a cool bright spot. Water sparingly at first. After the first sprouts appear (about two weeks), keep soil moist but don’t over water. In about eight weeks, you and your young gardener will be proud to show off your plants with their huge, exotic-looking flowers of velvety red, pink, white, peach, orange or even multi-colors.

Magnificent amaryllis grow tall and top-heavy. To keep your child’s amaryllis upright as it blooms, try “double-potting” it by using a lightweight plastic flower pot placed inside a heavier decorative container. Kids’ containers should be fun, such as toy buckets, large kitchen tins or inexpensive crockery pots. Just about anything that pleases a child can be used as an outer container.

Forcing many other bulbs, especially hyacinths, crocuses, grape hyacinths (muscari) and narcissi (you probably know these as daffodils) is also easy but may take a little longer and require some free space in a refrigerator or in an unheated garage or storeroom. Do not store near ripening fruit.

Spring-flowering bulbs normally spend the winter underground outdoors because they require a period of cold temperatures to kick off a bio-chemical reaction inside them that starts the flowering process.  Indoor forcing induces that reaction artificially. 

Hyacinths can be grown without any soil or gravel. Special hour-glass-shaped hyacinth glasses are available from many catalogues and retail stores. Such containers allow you to grow these fragrant flowers righ t on water. The growing roots, which can be seen clearly through the glass, add a special interest. Pre-cooled hyacinths can be purchased, cutting about two to four weeks off time needed for the bulbs to flower, making it possible to have hyacinths for the holidays if you begin in September or early October. Methods for forcing hyacinths are about the same as for other spring bulbs that need cold treatment. 

Hyacinths can be grown without any soil or gravel. Special hour-glass-shaped hyacinth glasses are available from many catalogues and retail stores. Such containers allow you to grow these fragrant flowers righ t on water. The growing roots, which can be seen clearly through the glass, add a special interest. Pre-cooled hyacinths can be purchased, cutting about two to four weeks off time needed for the bulbs to flower, making it possible to have hyacinths for the holidays if you begin in September or early October. Methods for forcing hyacinths are about the same as for other spring bulbs that need cold treatment.
 

To force daffodils small and tall, delicate crocuses, and many other spring-flowering bulbs, it is important to look for types that will force readily. This information is usually provided when you purchase your bulbs. To prepare, use regular flower pots or other containers with drainage holes. Add a layer of gravel or drainage material and a layer of potting soil to a depth of about two inches. Use as many bulbs as will fit in the container, then fill in with enough soil so just the tops of the bulbs are visible. Water thoroughly. Wait two days then water again.

Put a piece of tape with the date written on it on each pot. Place your pots in a dark cool place (between 40 and 50° F) and keep moist for twelve weeks. If you have room in your refrigerator, cover the pots with an open plastic bag; this will reduce the need for watering. Two “musts” to remember: keep the pots moist and no fruit in the refrigerator! Ripening fruit gives off a gas that can kill the bulbs.

When the cold period is over, move the pots to a warmer area in indirect or low light. Keep them there a week or two, then move them to a cool, sunny area where they should flower — to everyone’s joy and amazement — in about six weeks.

Bulbs that need cooling periods are a bit more work than paperwhites and amaryllises, but they can be a great project for older children, especially those who have shown an interest in doing projects.

These simple winter garden projects offer children an insight into the workings of nature. A hyacinth bulb cut in half will reveal the embryonic flower bulb in its center. The process of chilling the bulbs, the effects that water and sunshine can help stimulate a child’s interest in natural chemistry.

But most important: it’s fun.

Whether for entertainment, education or both, forcing flower bulbs and other indoor gardening projects are activities the whole family can enjoy together.

Rediscovering a Classic – A Variety of Hydrangeas

Certain plants have the ability to conjure up memories, emotions and feelings of special times and special places. For many the hydrangea’s fairy-tale blue clusters remind us of carefree summer days spent lazing on the Cape, where the showy blooms dress up cottage gardens. We plant hydrangeas in our own beds for the restful feelings they inspire, as well as for the beauty of their opulent midsummer blooms.

Although the most familiar, the blue hydrangea, or more properly, Hydrangea macrophylla, is just one of over a hundred known cultivars of Hydrangea. Along with Hydrangea macprophylla, other varieties that do well in our area include H. paniculata grandiflora and H. anomola petiolaris. Hydrangeas are generally easy to grow, are hardy to zone 6 or in areas of temperate winters, and require little care or maintenance.

Hydrangea macrophylla is divided into two main groups: hortensias, which feature the globular blue, pink, red and white blooms of Cape Cod fame, and lacecaps, which are distinguished by flatter clusters of sterile, papery petallike sepals. Both types can be propagated by suckered division. They are long-lived plants that are relatively trouble free.

As a group, hortensias feature thick, erect, and unbranched stems that easily reach full height in just a single season. Their glossy foliage is striking in its own right, but the plant is characterized by its showy round clusters, which range in color from blue to white to pink, the color varying with the pH level of the soil. Here in the Northeast, our acidic soil (pH range of 5.5 or lower) gives blooms a blue tone. As the soil pH neutralizes, the color of bloom graduates to white, then pink and finally to a near red shade. Adding aluminum sulfate to lower the soil pH results in blue blooms, while raising the soil pH with ground limestone produces pink/red hues. The plants prefer a sunny to partly sunny location, with moist soil that is rich in organic matter.

In recent years, lacecaps have seen a resurgence in popularity as an old-fashioned favorite. Like hortensias, they prefer a sun to part sun and rich, moist soil. The plants benefit from having the stems, that have flowered, removed while the plant is dormant. A more vigorous thinning (as opposed to pruning, or cutting back) will produce larger flower clusters.

Another old-favorite is the Hydrangea paniculata grandiflora or “pee gee” hydrangea. This fast-growing treelike shrub features a mop-head-like flower cluster in mid-to-late summer. The flowers open to white in summer, turn a pinkish hue in September and fade to tan by fall. They are outstanding as a dried flower, sometimes lasting years in dried arrangements. Because pee gee hydrangeas bloom on new wood, prune hard when the plant is dormant to produce larger flowers the next summer. An easy to grow plant, it is extremely long-lived and has been a favorite of gardeners for generations.

The climbing hydrangea, or Hydrangea anomola petiolaris is another versatile performer. Clinging to tree trunks or brick by aerial roots, it can grow to 60 feet, and once established, this plant takes off! Its fragrant white flowers nearly cover it in summer and it does well in the shade of most deciduous trees. Planted at the base of an elm or an oak, this climbing hydrangea will wind its way up the trunk and provide spectacular color all summer long.