As summer comes to an end, it’s tempting to bring tropical plants indoors for the winter. It’s not a bad idea, but as you probably already know, some of them don’t do so well in our cool, dry houses for months on end. The key is to offer the right amount of care, which sometimes means a lack of care, depending on the plant.
If you want to try to keep tropicals alive so you can bring them outdoors again in the spring, there are three ways to do it:
- Bring the plant in and let if just keep on growing in a warm sunny spot.
- Put the plant in a cool, dark place and let it go dormant.
- Take cuttings from plants you like, root them and pot them up so you can enjoy those new plants in the spring.
Going with option one means you need to have a sunny window where temperatures are between 60 and 75 degrees during the day and not below 45 at night. Jasmine, hibiscus, bougainvillea and small citrus trees are just a few of the plants that can survive the winter this way. If you don’t have that sort of sunny spot, you can always put plants under fluorescent lights or grow lights, but make sure you set a timer so they get about 12 hours of light daily.
If plants grow enough to get leggy, prune them back at least once. And do worry about a few dropped and/or yellowed leaves because that’s bound to happen, particularly right after you brings plants indoors. Water as needed, but don’t fertilize plants until spring. And be sure to inspect plants regularly for pests. If you find some they can usually be controlled by plopping the plants in the sink or shower and giving it a good blast with water.
Letting plants go dormant takes more of an understanding of plants’ individual needs. Good information on that can be found in the book, Bulbs in the Basement Geraniums on the Windowsill: How to Grow & Overwinter 165 Tender Plants by Alice and Brian McGowan. Basically, it all depends on whether the plants are woody, soft-stemmed or bulb-like. For example, elephant ears and caladiums should get a little bit frost nipped before they come inside so they understand that the season is over and it’s time to go dormant. They can either be stored in a cool, dark place right in their pots and your job is to keep the soil slightly moist until spring. Or, you can take them out of their pots, remove the stems and foliage and store only the bulbs. Read up on how to do that: everyone seems to have a way they like to do it.
Taking cuttings from plants that are difficult to overwinter, like coleus and geraniums, is easier than it sounds. If you’re going to do this, take the cuttings in the fall and toss the main plant (sometimes called the “mother” plant) in the compost bin. Instructions for taking cuttings and rooting them can be found in books, online and of course there are YouTube videos.
It’s fall cleanup time again. I’ve already started tossing tired annuals into the compost bin and putting away the fertilizer. Right now, plants need to be focusing on root development and storing energy rather than putting on new growth.
September is also a good time to finish dividing and moving plants since, ideally, most plants need a minimum of six weeks to establish enough of a root system to get them through the winter. That’s not to say, of course, that you should pass up a good plant sale. Heck, I’ve plopped plants into the ground a week from Halloween and crossed my fingers many times. That hasn’t always worked out so great, but it’s worth a try if there’s a good sale or you just couldn’t manage to get everything into the ground before it got cold.
If you collect seeds from some of your plants, October is a good time to do that. I’ll have the seed library going again in October so if you have extras, please consider dropping some off for others to share. If you don’t know where the seed library is, just email and I’ll give you the address. If you’re not interested in collecting seeds, consider leaving some perennials, like coneflowers and black-eyed Susans, standing for the winter. Birds will thank you for the snacks and the plants will look nice in the snow, at least for a while.
If you’ve still got energy for projects and are tired of dealing with sandy soil, fall is a good time for change. Sandy soil drains well, too well, really. So the soil is low in nutrients and moisture. To help, turn in things like composted manure, kitchen compost, shredded or mulched leaves and coconut coir (an alternative to peat moss). For areas that are just too large to change with amendments, try planting things that actually like sandy soil, such as hyssop, prairie onion, columbine, wild ginger, butterfly weed, common milkweed, whorled milkweed and many types of asters.
For those of you who are looking around your gardens and wishing there was more going on, here are some plants that you can go out and get now and enjoy next year. Helen’s flower (Helenium autumnale), which is also known as sneezeweed even though it won’t make you sneeze, has pretty blooms that are yellow, red and orange. New York asters (Aster novae-belgii) and New England asters (Aster novae-angliae) are both hardy and attractive to pollinators. When shopping, pay attention to how tall these can grow. Some varieties are under 2 feet tall, which I prefer, while others can grow as high as 4 to 5 feet and get a little bit gangly. Also check out aromatic asters (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), which have bluish purple flowers and grow to only 1 to 3 feet tall.
Boltonia (Boltonia asteroides) is a great fall-blooming perennial that you don’t see very often. Plants can get as tall as 5 feet, but usually a bit shorter, with delicate stems and leaves. Flowers resemble daisies and can be white, pink or lavender. Blanket flower (Gaillardia) is another good option with its yellow/orange blooms that last well into the fall. I love turtlehead (Chelone), which blooms in white if you go with the native variety. I want more color in the fall so I plant a cultivar with pink blooms called ‘Hot Lips’.
Vines are overlooked as a source of fall color but they shouldn’t be. Virginia creeper is absolutely stunning in the fall, as is Boston ivy, silver lace vine, sweet Autumn clematis and climbing hydrangea.
At this point in the season, tomatoes are either doing great or tipping toward disaster. So in addition to offering some growing tips to help make tomatoes happy and healthy, I’ll explain some of the common things that can go wrong.
Probably the most important thing you need when growing tomatoes is sunlight—8 hours or more is best, but 6 will allow plants to produce a fair amount of fruit. If you don’t have a spot that gets even 6 hours of sun and someone is home a lot during the day, consider buying a few round, rolling plant stands. I got mine (which look like metal Frisbees on wheels) at Ikea, but most garden centers sell them now, too. Put your tomatoes in large pots, set them on the rolling plant stands and move them into the sun as it moves throughout the day.
Soil is key to tomato success too. They thrive in healthy soil, so it’s a good idea to work some compost and composted manure into the area before planting. If you’re planting in pots, just add those things into your potting mix. Halfway through the season, scratch a little more compost into the top of the soil around plants, but don’t add more manure. Too much nitrogen (N) will give you lots of leaves and little fruit. You want a fertilizer with more potassium (K) than nitrogen in it. Phosphorous (P) can also be on the low side, usually, since compost supplies a good amount of that. Product labels always show the N-P-K ratio like this: 10-10-10 or 5-2-1. You want something more like: 1-0-4 or 1-1-3. Seaweed (powdered or liquid kelp) is a great choice and is usually 1-0-4.
Tomatoes like water, but not too much. Water plants deeply but not so often, or so much, that you end up with soggy soil. That can lead to disease problems and, later in the season, to tomatoes that don’t taste like much because all that water got channeled into the plant’s fruit. If you’re growing tomatoes in pots, stop watering when you see water running out of the bottom of the pot. Watering consistently, every few days in hot weather—more often if plants are growing in pots—will also help prevent the dreaded blossom end rot. You know you have this common problem when your tomatoes have black spots on their bottoms. Consistent watering allows the fruits to get the calcium they need from the soil to develop properly.
Did you bury the stem at planting time? If not, do that next year by gently plucking off the plant’s branches below the top flush of leaves. Depending on the size of your transplant, you’re usually burying 2 to 6 inches of stem, and that’s a good thing because new roots will sprout all along that stem and help your tomatoes be strong and healthy.
Pruning tomatoes doesn’t need to be as complicated as it is often described. Tomatoes are classified by growth habit: determinate tomatoes—also called bush tomatoes—are bred to be more compact, usually about 4 feet tall while indeterminate varieties—also known as climbing or vining types—can grow to 6 feet tall or more. Determinate tomatoes don’t need much pruning beyond removing all of the suckers below the first flower cluster. Indeterminate tomatoes benefit from some pruning, but you don’t need to grow crazy. Basically, if you pinch out suckers and pare plants down to around stems, you’ll get bigger fruit and less sprawling growth. If you let plants be more unruly than that, you’ll get more fruit but you’ll have to deal with a more tangled mess of vines. Either way if fine, so don’t sweat it a whole bunch.
Are the leaves on your tomato plants curling up in hot weather? Don’t worry, that’s probably not a disease. It’s just how some tomato varieties react to the heat. This type of leaf roll usually starts on lower leaves and works its way up. It doesn’t look great, but it shouldn’t affect fruit development. Watering regularly and mulching the ground beneath your tomatoes can help keep this problem at bay.
Well gardener friends, at this dark time when we are up to our eyeballs in bad news about pretty much everything and politicians are compounding our worries by behaving like raised-by-wolves toddlers, let me offer a spot of sunshine. In case you haven’t heard, two positive things have happened for the planet—or at least our local slice of it—in recent weeks.
Good thing number 1: At long last, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has confirmed that neonicotinoids, a commonly used group of pesticides, are highly toxic to honeybees—even when they are used in accordance with the law. How is this good news? You ask. Well, despite mounting evidence, the suggestion that neonics are likely one of many things contributing to the decline of honeybees remains heatedly disputed.
Now, investigators from the state Department of Agriculture have found that in fact the hives of two beekeepers were decimated by toxic dust that drifted from the cornfield of a neighbor. The seeds the neighbor planted had been coated with clothianidin, a neonicotinoid that is routinely used to coat agriculturally grown corn and soybeans in the United States. The insecticide protects the seeds from insects in the soil. It also protects the plants themselves because all parts contain the toxin, making the whole corn or soybean plant poisonous.
According to a Star Tribune story on March 20, Bayer CropScience, the maker of neonic pesticides, has acknowledged that toxic drift from cornfields planted with treated seeds can be harmful to bees and other pollinators. However, they say the problem is rare. Beekeepers and bee researchers beg to differ, countering that drift is a common and ongoing issue.
Both beekeepers will be compensated for the loss of their hives under a 2014 law that enables beekeepers to collect damages even though, technically, no law was broken because seed treating is not currently considered a pesticide application. What? Anyway, yes there is much to be done on this issue, but the Department of Agriculture’s action makes Minnesota the first state to declare, as a finding of fact, that neonics are harmful to bees.
Fellow gardeners, the seeds available to us are not coated with neonics, but we can continue to do out part to help bees and the Earth by saying NO to plants that are sprayed and/or soil-drenched with the neonicotinoid pesticides. Ask before you buy. Together we can make a change.
Good Thing Number 2
On March 16, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) voted to stop using glyphosate (the active ingredient in the weed killer, Roundup) in neighborhood parks. Activists have been calling on the park board to ban chemical use in Minneapolis parks for several months. (See the Southwest Journal story I wrote on the issue in October for more information.) Little progress has been made so far. But during a park board meeting on the 16th, more than 40 people showed up to voice their opposition to the use of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals in public parks. Many others called and emailed.
This public outpouring of concern about the health effects of glyphosate and other chemicals, in addition to a recent update board members received on when and where staff use chemicals, seems to have sparked the move to stop using Roundup. But eliminating the use of one chemical in neighborhood parks is a long way from the shift to chemical-free, organic park management that activists would like to see.
In the absence of glyphosate, which has been increasingly linked to health and environmental problems, the board is free to continue using many other pesticides and herbicides that could potentially cause harm. The vote also allows them to continue using Roundup in regional parks at Lake Calhoun and Minnehaha Falls, as well as on ball fields and golf courses.
Based on what has been said about the issue, only commissioner Brad Bourn is openly in favor of moving to an organic approach to managing Minneapolis parks. Commissioner John Erwin strongly supports reducing the use of chemicals. The rest of the board—all of them elected by the public—don’t seem to see chemical-free parks in our future. Do you? If so, now is the time to email the commissioners, particularly Scott Vreeland, who has repeatedly said this is an issue that only activists care about. From what I hear from neighbors and readers who frequent our parks with their children and dogs, I am certain he is mistaken.
Hello dear readers. It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted a blog. Life gets too busy sometimes and you have to let go of at least a few things or you’ll go batty. (At least that’s how I work.) Now that the load has lightened up a bit, I’m back and I’ll try to post much more regularly going forward—at least during the growing season.
First off, happy spring! If you live nearby I want to let you know that the Little Free Seed Library is up and running again at my house, so please come on over and leave some seeds to share with others. Or take some home for yourself. This season, I’m happy to say that we have a few more items to share thanks to Do It Green! Minnesota.
The Minneapolis-based non-profit has long been committed to sustainability and promoting healthy communities, and with support from the Gannett Foundation they started up their own Do It Green! Seed, which provides free native and organic seeds to Twin Cities residents. They also distribute educational information about seed saving and other topics, and when they heard about my seed library, they kindly gave me a variety of seeds to share with you. They also gave me many copies of two handouts: One explains how to choose quality seeds and save seeds, and the other covers the different types of milkweeds home gardeners can plant to help monarch butterflies.
Both handouts will be in the library as long as supplies last. Or, you can print your own copy of Do It Green!’s Seed Saving handout by clicking on a link you’ll find on their website. Their site also offers a link to a very nice seed label that you can print and use on your own envelopes when saving seeds at home. Those of you who visit the library at my house will see that label on the seed packets donated by Do It Green!, which include swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and organic China rose radish, garlic chives and cilantro.Read More»
I love gardening, but once September comes, I admit I’m ready to start packing things up and settling in for winter when I can get back to other things I enjoy like reading. That being the case, I tend to get an early start on doing things like tossing spent annuals and vegetables in the compost bin. While I’m doing that, I try to give away plants I’ve got too many of or don’t like anymore—I finally gave away that dreadful Vanilla Strawberry hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Renhy’) I’ve been complaining about forever. Honestly, it’s a gorgeous plant in many ways, but the huge flower heads spend most of their time hanging down like the noggins of pouting children. Not. For. Me.
The other thing I do, which I’m sure looks kind of strange, is talk to my plants. Yes, it’s true that scientific studies have produced mixed results on whether talking to and/or playing music for plants has beneficial effects. But I don’t care. I enjoy crawling around on my hands and knees talking with my garden. ‘You don’t look very happy here, so how about we move you over there,” I’ll say to perennials that clearly aren’t blooming well because they need more sun now that the honey locust has gotten taller. Or, ‘I’m sorry, but I simply can’t let every single goatsbeard seedling grow up into a giant 4-foot-tall shrub, so you’ve just got to go.’ Neighbors joke: “Talking to yourself again?” I laugh, ha, ha, ha, knowing that no, I’m doing something so much weirder. I’m talking to (or maybe with) my plants.
I wouldn’t try to explain this to non-plant people, but I figure you wouldn’t be reading this blog if you didn’t love plants. So you probably understand what I mean when I say that I think of my gardens as a living creature, maybe even a friend in some ways. That being the case, when my husband, Mike, kindly offers to help with fall cleanup by using the hedge trimmer to more efficiently cut back plants, I cringe. “The hedge trimmer!” I can almost hear the plants scream. Still, I let him have at it on a couple of areas full of hostas. And then I just can’t bear it, so I go on working with my hand pruner, cutting to the ground leafy things while leaving perennials with seeds for the birds like black-eyed Susan, grey-headed coneflower, globe thistle, Joe Pye weed and golden rod.
As I move slowly from bed to bed in the fall, I take the time to do things like pull weeds along with stray maple and oak seedlings, dig up and toss out plants that are diseased and take note of sparse or overgrown spots. Like you probably do, I have a plant wish list and I’m always looking for an opportunity to squeeze something new in somewhere. Topping the list right now is Persicaria, not the variety with white flowers that you may think of as knotweed. I’d like to get ‘Firetail’, which is commonly known as mountain fleece. Hardy to our frigid Zone 4, ‘Firetail’ has pretty pink/red blooms that last from June to October. Plants are bushy, loved by butterflies, and grow 3 to 4 feet wide and tall in full sun to part shade. But I digress.
Let’s get back to plant whispering. Even if you don’t believe that talking to plants is helpful to them, it probably will be to you. Kneeling in the dirt, thanking plants for their brilliant fall leaves and interesting seedpods while apologizing for my role in their powdery mildew problem and other troubles, I feel calm and happy. Hours go by and it seems like only minutes. And all of the list making, teeth grinding, rush, rush, rush of life slips away as I enjoy the breeze, the sun on my face and watching the butterflies and bees taking the last sips of the season. Everyone should be so lucky to have a love they can get lost in.