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 a dog 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 geraniaceae.com 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 adenophylla AKA 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".

Friday, January 6, 2017

Can Shamrocks be Hoity Toity?

The flowers of Oxalis Grand Duchess versicolor
(candy cane shamrock) are tiny.
An unassuming plant with a hoity-toity name caught my eye on the Easy to Grow Bulbs shopping site.  Oxalis Grand Duchess versicolor  was a dry-looking nub of a bulb when it arrived. I planted it as indicated and waited. The wait seemed too long and I figured it was never coming up so I planted a cutting of Brazilian plume flower (Justicia carnea) in one of the small pots.
Candy cane shamrock's unsightly stems.

How the candy cane shamrock got its name.
Eventually, weedy, spindly stems emerged. By now I had an overabundance of pots in my limited space, having acquired more Pelargonium and a few other full-sized plants plus the Amaryllis bulbs. So I ended up pitching two out of three pots containing these weedy stems that had no leaves on the first 2 inches and were flopping over the sides. The one with the plume flower cutting was saved. Finally, the three remaining bulbs in the one pot bloomed. The flowers were as adorable as shown in the source's photos, providing candy cane color on both furled and unfurled blooms. But there were fewer blossoms, and they were dangling clumsily over the side of the pot. I'll keep the pot after they've finished flowering, let the foliage whither by holding back water. If they come up next year I'll give them more light and see if they provide another crop of flowers on stems less ungainly.

Oxalis adenophylla blooms in 10 weeks.
Silver shamrock, or Oxalis adenophylla really tried my patience. My first attempt to grow these little beauties was successful, providing adorable leaves in a delicate, silvery shade of green that topped stems just 2 - 3 inches tall.

I planted the tiny bulbs in mid-November, and by the end of January, I had both leaves and flowers. Silver shamrock could be grown for its leaves, but its flowers are worth waiting for. Unlike most common shamrocks, its flowers are bigger than the leaves, and painted with a thumb-smudge of pale purple at the edge of each petal.

Oxalis 'Plum Crazy' is easy to love.
The easiest shamrock to grow was one I bought already in full leaf at the Porter County Master Gardeners Gardening Show, held in late January each year. Its name is as interesting as its leaves--'Plum Crazy', a diminutive cutie with purple-pink leaves that steal the show from its ho-hum flowers.

Oxalis 'Plum Crazy' is one tough plant. After making it through the winter as a houseplant, I grew it outdoors in a planter with other residents where it held its own and spread an appreciable amount. There is nothing to worry about with this Oxalis becoming to aggressive, as it is not hardy north of Zone 8.
Oxalis Iron Cross accents this
gaudy Scadoxus flower.

Another extremely easy shamrock to grow from a bulb is Oxalis tetraphylla Iron Cross, or lucky shamrock. I planted the tubers around the outer edge of a pot that held a Scadoxus (blood lily) bulb around mid-March, and the leaves began to poke out around four weeks later.

Give Oxalis Iron Cross full sun outdoors in summer for a flower reward.
Oxalis Iron Cross hails from Mexico and enjoys a long, hot summer, which is when it puts out a succession of rose-colored flowers.

Whether you grow shamrocks for indoors or out, for their leaves or for their flowers, they're charming little bulbs to try and are more readily available than used to be.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Streptocarpus: You Can Grow That!

The Streptocarpus I ordered came in plastic shot glasses.
Happy New Year! Here is to eventually being able to call myself a neophyte in growing gesneriads. First of all, the term "neophyte" is from the Greek, meaning literally, "newly planted." What is a gesneriad? The term refers to plants like African violets, Gloxinia, and Streptocarpus among others. It's like the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals share the same division (East) within the National League team structure. (This is my contribution to the sports-themed analogies that most people seem to spout, like, "it's the size of a football field," which just means "big.")
Streptocarpus 'Bristol's Boomerang'

One of the best-known gesneriads is the African Violet (Saintpaulia), which I have been struggling to grow for awhile. Another member of the group--Episcia--has also come here to die. If you think that, just because they're in the same group they'd have the same requirements, you'd be wrong.
I finally seem to have hit upon a plant in this group that actually likes it at my house. Streptocarpus is really easy to pronounce once you know how. I think of strep throat-toe-fish-infection. (Okay, so maybe that's not the best way to remember, but maybe it will help someone.)

I ordered two from the Violet Barn, an online shop in Naples, NY that carries a nice selection of gesneriads. These two were hybridized by the shop's owners, Ralph and Olive Robinson, and are designated with the preface "Bristol." I really don't know how I was able to limit myself to just two plants--the variety is astounding!

Streptocarpus 'Bristol's Sally Mander'.
Okay, so they've only been under my care for a little over two months. But they weren't blooming when they arrived and they're blooming now and showing no signs of stopping. I left them in their little plastic shot glasses with the holes in the bottom and slipped them into small ceramic planters filled with between 1/4 to 1/2-inch of drainage material. (In this case, decorative crushed seashells.) This layer serves to keep the pot out of excess water, and brings the plant up to viewing level.

I grew them adjacent to a plant light that was about 10" above them until they started to bloom, which is when I moved them both to my office where they receive light but no direct sun. This is just temporary, a move that will allow me to give myself a pat on the back while I'm ever-so-gently tweaking their really cute little petals. As for culture, I let them get pretty dry before I water them with a dilute fertilizer for blooming plants. 

Streptocarpus 'Bristol's Boomerang' and 'Bristol's Sally Mander'.

After an hour or so of bypassing the completion of this blog, I paid $25 for a one-year membership in The Gesneriad Society, because I wanted to learn more about this fascinating group of plants.

Even if you have trouble with African Violets, give Streptocarpus a try. It's the theme du jour, kind of a post-holiday battle cry:

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Off the Rails Pierogi Recipe

I know this has nothing to do with plants, but I'd like to share the recipe and instructions for making Auntie Mary's Pierogi recipe. This is a recipe passed along several generations, culminating in this one given to my husband, Dave, from his Auntie Mary, one of the sweetest ladies I've ever met, and whose sister, Eleanor, Dave's Mom, was one of the most generous and selfless people I've ever had the pleasure to call Mom.

For those who would like to go to the trouble to make pierogi, here is Auntie Mary's recipe with instructions gleaned from the years I learned to make them with Dave, his Mother Eleanor and Dad Don. I snapped photos and wrote instructions down for a magazine in 1992, and luckily, kept a copy.