Friday, March 24, 2017

Hellebores First to Bloom

Hellebore 'Peppermint Ice' offers just a hint of pink in its petals.
I love it when the mornings are warm enough to meander through the garden, coffee in hand, looking to see if anything broke through during the night. My coffee chills before I’m ready to come inside, so I set it down and find a sturdy stick to use as a gentle probe, pushing aside leaves and litter to find little surprises. My husband says he sees my lips moving, and I imagine he’s right. A mumbling stream of consciousness sounds like this: “What? Oh. Primrose? Hmm.. Which lily is this? I don’t remember putting this there. Yay! The green peony has six stems!”
Hellebore 'Spanish Flare' blooms with a flair.

After planting my first Hellebores--one with flowers of a magenta color and one of a very deep purple shade, I learned that I much prefer lighter colored flowers because they stand out so much better. After all, they're one of the first blossoms in the garden and it isn't often clement at that time. 

Another feature I've come to love about some varieties of Helleborus is outward facing flowers. While many seem naturally nodding, it's tough for a regular-sized person to see them unless they slither around on their bellies. 

Not that I haven't done this--camera in tow--in order to take photos of these pretty springtime harbingers. Looking to the future, which is coming increasingly closer, I hesitate to assume my body will allow such a posture for much longer. So, with all of the varieties whose flowers show their faces, why waste space with the sulking types?

I added one to my collection last year that looks like it will be an upfacing type. It's from the Winter Jewels series and it's called 'Cotton Candy'. The name is appropriate, as its double petals give it that extra-fluffy look. It seems that the double varieties could have more difficulty keeping their heads up, but
Hellebore 'Cotton Candy' hold its head up quite nicely.

I planted Winter Jewels 'Rose Quartz' in 2014, and it's really putting on a show this year. Even though it hasn't opened its flowers yet, I can see the picotee edges, one of the reasons I chose it.

My latest Hellebore acquisition is one called 'Spanish Flare'. It's part of the Honeymoon Series by Walters Gardens. I planted three that I received from Walters Gardens as a trial. I planted them in different spots in the garden to compare conditions. The one in bloom isn't getting any more or any less sun or moisture than the other two, but it's the only one with a flower. Its leaves suffered a bit of damage to their edges from when it got really warm and returned to really cold. No big thing. The plant will produce more leaves during the summer.

Even before opening 'Rose Quartz' shows off its rose-colored edges.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The $92 Plant

The as-yet-unknown bromeliad at Berridge Nursery.
Some plants are all about the flowers. It certainly can be said about one we spotted while on vacation. Berridge Nurseries was on my list of places to visit while we were in the Phoenix area. The greenhouse contained lots of treasures, including a batch of orchids, a collection of African violets and plenty of nice-looking pots.

We both spotted it at the same time, tucked into a display of foliage plants. The electric flower spike refused to be ignored--it was something we'd never seen before. The tag was vague, indicating it was a bromeliad from Kent's Bromeliad Nursery, a wholesaler located in California. We didn't even know what it was, but my husband had to have it.

We later learned it was Aechmea 'Del Mar', a hybrid by Bullis Bromeliads of Princeton, FL.

My husband paid the proprietor $26 for the plant and asked her to attach a piece of cardboard at the soil level of the pot so that the soil wouldn't escape in case the plant tipped in transit.

I must say here that I advised against it, but I'd already set a precedent when I paid $150 for an intersectional peony and brought it home as a carry-on item from Oregon. But this plant was a different story, I told my smitten spouse. Its leaves have spines that prick you whenever you touch them. And we worried the flower spike would snap off, negating the reason for its finding its way into my plant menagerie. While we continued our vacation, we mulled over the carry-on conundrum.

The situation required a trip to a hardware store, a shipping store, and a Home Depot, where my clever husband found a concrete form tube. The tube was 48" tall, about a foot taller than we needed, so he also bought a reciprocating saw blade (total: $15.87) and a roll of duct tape. He later lost the saw blade and had to buy another ($3.05).

The day before we left to come home, my husband realized he couldn't carry the unwieldy monstrosity--that had turned into a 36" tall, 8" wide tube that weighed around eight lbs.--onto the plane. We went to a local shipper in Sedona. The bill included $3 worth of packing peanuts and came to a total of $47.96 including tax.

He's a bit bummed about the $92 price tag for a plant, but there is only one way to look at it. The flower supposedly lasts for up to six months. For something that pretty/unusual/colorful, it's a bargain, even if we never get it to bloom again.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Freesias Make March Magic

Freesia alba blooms in late winter-early spring.
We came home from a week in Arizona to a heavenly scent. I'd hoped as much, but worried the Freesia alba that was ready to bloom when we left would be cloying and unpleasant.

Actually, I was concerned they'd smell like scented tampons. Years ago, I'd purchased a box of Freesia-scented tampons and hated them. It was as if the scent was emanating from inside my body. Wait a minute! It was!

Anyway, I won't go down that road, which luckily I no longer have to travel. Suffice it to say, adding the chemically-created scent that supposedly mimicked a flower's fragrance was like turning a Led Zepplin song into elevator music. Enough said.

Removed that image from your minds? Good. First, just the vision of this particular Freesia promises good things.

Somewhat succulent and just a touch of sparkle that white, thick-petaled flowers have. The golden centers and fuzzy white anthers add more charm and draw you in for a sniff.

Three stems of Freesia alba.
If the scent and beauty recommendation is enough to make you want to try it, jot it on your calendar for next fall. I planted the 10 Freesia alba corms in one pot in mid-October. Counting back around 18 weeks from planting to bloom, you could plant them through mid-December for flowers as late as May.

Two things I'd recommend for good growth and bloom are lights and soil with great drainage. You'll need supplemental light for these African sun-dwellers.

I used a soil mix that included half good potting soil and half a mixture of chicken grit, perlite and coir.

If you have a soil mix that you use for cacti, add some good compost type potting soil to it and you'll have the perfect mix.

Freesia leaves sprouting after just two weeks.
After planting the pointy corms 2 inches deep (between October and December in the Northern Hemisphere), water lightly and put the pot in a sunny spot. The trickiest thing about growing bulbs in the winter is that, many of them, like Freesia, actually prefer cool temperatures. But cool temps and wet soils are a recipe for fungus. I keep my house around 64 degrees F during the winter. But I use a heat mat for newly planted bulbs, which keeps the soil from remaining in a soggy state. My Freesia corms sprouted in about two weeks, and in a month, the leaves were about 8" high.

Strangely enough, the other varieties I'd planted at around the same time as this one are not doing well at all. My guess is they don't like the pot they're in. For the Freesia alba, I just used a thin plastic pot.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Agapanthus: From Africa to Indiana

This might be one of the warmest winters on record for the Chicago area. But to a bulb from Africa, it's not saying much. On a 65 degree day in February (yes, I'm talking the Midwest), I decided to check on some of the bulbs I'd attempted to overwinter in the garage.

I was amazed over how well the Agapanthus fared. It had grown and bloomed last summer in a pot that barely contained its bulk. I left it in its pot, cut back the leaves and tucked it into a cardboard box lined with more cardboard and put it on an out-of-the-way shelf in the garage. Just three months later, it's ready to start without me.
Newly repotted Agapanthus is raring to go.
Its new leaves were pale but perky, and seemed not to care that they didn't get any light. It's why they're nearly white--they can't photosynthesize without sunlight. I knocked the plant out of its confinement and, using a sharp knife, cut its root ball in half. Each half ended up the perfect circumference for my bloemBagz planters.   I've used fabric grow bags before and had mixed results, however, I wasn't really sure what to expect. I thought they'd be perfect to sink into a larger planter in order to be able to pull the plant in the bag out later. It didn't work, probably because the soil surrounding the cloth pot turned it into a non-breathable barrier, which led to rot.          
So this year, I'll be leaving the bloemBagz planter out on its own. If it starts to dry out too quickly, I can place it into a larger plastic, fiberglass or ceramic pot. I potted them so the soil level leaves about an inch of material all around.
Bloem has stepped up the fashion on their planters, which are made from recycled water bottles and other recycled materials. It's double-layered yet breathable, so it should be ideal for plants whose roots don't like to be constantly wet. I used two red planters for the split Agapanthus. After watering the plant in, the bottom of the pot became so saturated, and I had to find something to put it on before bringing it inside for the night (Wet roots + 40 degree temps = bad things). The pots eventually soaked up the saturation so that I could put them directly on the heat mat under the lights. 

Here in the Midwest, where winters are no walk in the park, Agapanthus would rather die than bloom.  I've learned that, unless you buy one that is in bloom and/or incredibly ready-to-pop-out-of-its-pot root bound, it will take another season or more before it's ready to give you some flowers. 

The Agapanthus I divided is the only one that has any chance of blooming this year. Dividing it will promote root regeneration and growth after it settles into its new digs. Which is where the bottom heat and indoor culture comes in. Thanks to the unseasonable weather, I was able to perform the really messy job of dividing and repotting it in mid-February. So it has at least a month's head start. 
Variegated Agapanthus in September, 2016.

Variegated Agapanthus in February, 2017
Another Agapanthus has been growing indoors since I potted three small plants up into a clay planter. It's called Agapanthus 'Neverland', and it's basically a short variety with variegated leaves. Last September, I was given three plants in 2" pots to try. I planted them all into a 12" diameter clay pot and have been growing the potted plants under lights all winter long. It hasn't grown that much on the surface, but judging by how quickly it dries out, its roots are busy bulking up for the next round. I will be very pleased if it gets pot bound in another seven months. Perhaps it will bloom in 2018. When you're growing a plant that comes from the other side of the world, you have to be patient.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Flowers Make the Winter Wane

In the first three months of the year, even the tiniest flowers mean a lot. Sure, it's easy to wax rhapsodic about a plant's gorgeous leaves when the sun is shining and it's above 70 degrees. But on four-layer days when you're looking for your down vest, it's flowers that are called for.
I'm glad I took cuttings of my Pelargoniums last November. And ordered a few more this year. And I'm really glad I kept my Lachenalia happy throughout the summer when it required warmth and dryness. Lachenalia are easy to grow once you get the hang of it. Plant the bulbs and forget about them until they start to grow. I discovered they make great cut flowers, too. They last in a small vase for more than two weeks! And I found that Pelargonium leaves make good "collars" for encircling the flower stems.  
Pelargonium ‘Cerise Carnation’ is an ivy geranium hybridized in the U.S. in 1955.

 As for the pellies, I can't say they're blooming their little heads off, but many of them are pushing out buds and opening up to bring me joy in a colorful package. One of my theories about their ability to bloom without too much trouble is that they don't require a lot of humidity. If you've ever tried to grow things like Gardenias or even fuchsia indoors, you've suffered the frustration of watching a bud form over a period of weeks, plumping up to a promise, and finally, dropping off like a run-on sentence. 
Pelargonium 'Mosaic Silky' in bud.
If light is scarce, get some lights. Plants that bloom indoors in the dark of winter are scarce. If you have a sunny window--I mean a window that consistently lets sun in--you might just have success. My lights are set up above tables that are just inside a bank of south-facing windows. I could have put the lights anywhere, but I figured I might as well take advantage of the natural light.

I won't say no to the flowers of Pelargonium 'Mosaic Silky'. 
Natural light - the kind that comes through the window - signals the plants it's time to wake up and grow. In case you hadn't noticed, the days are getting longer. The plants notice and are perking up like dogs with a new toy. They're drying out more quickly, partly because their pots are filled with more roots than they had when I first planted them.

Oxalis adenophylla
I purchased Pelargonium 'Mosaic Silky' from in late November. The leaves on this zonal type are certainly enough to make this plant worth growing. But the flowers are nothing to sneeze at, with their ruffled party dress pink blooms popping open from stems that reach just above the leaves.

One plant I've come to love enough not to be without is Oxalis adenophyllaAKA silver shamrock. It's grown from a tiny bulb that takes its sweet time emerging. I planted them as soon as I got them--late November. They take nearly three months before you can see anything, and then they slooowwwlllyyy grow up to about four inches tall--leaves and flowers at the same time.

It doesn't seem to matter where you put them or whether you keep them dry or toss a little water on them when you think about it. It just takes that long.

Freesia alba
It's easier to anticipate blooms when you see the buds. In the case of Freesia, which I planted in late November, I'm finally seeing flower buds appearing as if between the leaf stalks. These are tricky to water, especially if you grow them in a plastic pot, leaving less margin for error. They prefer it dry and cool; in their native southern Africa they bloom in winter in sandy locations. The one that is the most vigorous is the species F. alba, described in Cape Bulbs by Richard L. Doutt as having the most primitive form and the most fragrant flower. I hope to post photos soon.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Houseplant Basics

If you grow plants indoors, they're called "houseplants," even if they're the type of plant that spends the summer outside. Whatever you call them, growing them well will keep you and the plants much happier. Here are just a few basics that will serve you well when growing just about anything indoors in a pot.

1. Turn towards the light. It's what plants do, especially if that light isn't directly overhead. I have too many plants to keep them all right under the lights, so I have to turn them. It might sound anal, but it's good to turn them in a clockwise direction. Always. The reason is simple: who can remember which way you turned them last time? 

2.  There is no such thing as a dormant leaf. It's either bringing home the nutrients or it's not. A browned or yellowed leaf isn't doing anyone any good, so it's best to remove it. 

3.  When potting up plants in the fall or winter for growth indoors, use potting soil with gritty amendments. Unless you keep your house in the 80-degree range, your plants' soil will stay moist for a long time--especially if they don't get the light they're used to. I buy a good potting soil and add vermiculite and medium chicken grit, which you can buy from your local feed store. 

4.  Use a heat mat. Although some plants prefer it on the cool side, many seem to like it hot. I keep the heat-lovers on a heat mat, which can raise the soil temperature 10 to 20 degrees F above the air temperature.

5.  Learn everything you can about the plant you're growing, even if you only know its common name. Google its name and gravitate toward university extension services for the most accurate information, including the plant's botanical name. Then Google the botanical name.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Grow Exotic Flowers from Africa

Who knew I'd finally be learning geography in my 60s? It was never a strong suit for me. Like history, it just never interested me in grade school. It wasn't until I started to travel that I began to peek beyond the borders of my "homeland."

It was in my ever-widening search for more plants that I discovered Africa. South Africa that is, specifically the southern Cape region.

Some really cool plants come from there, and many of them bloom in the winter and early spring. I'm happy to say the Lachenalia I purchased and bloomed last year is flowering again. The variety is 'Rupert', and it's a luscious lilac purple color.

In its first year, planted early November. By Dec. 21,
Lachenalia 'Rupert' put out some impressive leaves.
According to Cape Bulbs by Richard L. Doutt, this Hyacinth relative is pronounced lah-shel-ahl'-ee-a, named in 1784 for professor of botany, Werner de La Chenal in Switzerland.

First its leaves emerge--each as substantial as a leather strap, in a vivid green with irregular spots of deep burgundy.

It was the Lachenalia's need for supplemental light that led me to purchase lighting fixtures. When the leaves appear, they'll tend to be floppy, especially if they don't get enough light.

Chubby little flower spikes emerge slowly.
At this point, these drought tolerant little bulbs get thirsty. I perform two tests to make sure the soil is dry enough to benefit from a deep watering. I feel the leaves. If they're soft and somewhat limp, I'll sharpen a pencil down to fresh wood and stick it into the soil, just under half way. If it comes out dry or with a dry soil residue, I water it well. Although they enjoy more moisture than you'd think for a bulb with such succulent leaves, they will easily rot with too much water.

Lachenalia 'Rupert' grows flower spikes that lengthen as they mature to a height of around 10".