Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Fourth Season of Gardening

Ficus Benjamina

Alexandra Wiens – Prince Edward County

This is the fourth season in the gardening calendar: the time when houseplants refresh our senses. Whether it is a window ledge with several different colours of African violets, or a clump of paper white narcissus or the glossy green leaves of the Benjamina fig; indoor plants bring a little of summer to our environment during the cold season. Most gardeners are familiar with several of the more common houseplants sold at nurseries and garden centers. At one time or another, most of us have owned a spider plant, wandering Jew or cactus. But, as Master Gardeners know, there are many other indoor plants not seen as often that are equally deserving of space in the indoor garden. Here are five of my favourites.

Crown of Thorns (Euphorbia splendens) this thorny plant has lovely branching stems with irregular spines, hence the name. It has bright green oval leaves lining the branches and red flowers. It is usually sold as a fairly small plant but can get quite large over time. Fortunately it is easily pruned. The best time to prune it is during the summer months when it can be done outdoors because the cut stems leak white sap, similar to that from poinsettias. I usually prune mine a bit before I bring it indoors in the fall. If you must prune it inside, do so on newspapers and cauterize the cut stems with a lit match to stop the dripping of sap. Crown of Thorns enjoys a warm environment so keep it away from window sills where the temperature fluctuates. It can go without watering for some time and is forgiving if you forget to water it. It will lose its leaves but they will return as long as the stems have not been allowed to shrivel. This plant is originally from the island of Madagascar.

Ficus Benjamina, the weeping fig or laurel fig is a tropical evergreen tree from India. It can be found at most nurseries and has arching branches and glossy oval leaves which taper to a point. Although generally sold as a small specimen, it can grow into an indoor tree over a number of years. Careful pruning will give it a graceful shape. It can often be found in a “braided form”: two trunks twisted together that gives it an interesting look. Ficus enjoy summering outdoors and usually grows profusely during our humid summers. They are less tolerant of dry indoor conditions so try to add extra humidity with a pebble tray (for small specimens) or a room humidifier. In our climate, the indoor humidity in the winter is usually about 20% which is drier than the desert! Ficus are long lived, but they do require regular watering and fertilizer. In the late fall and early winter they tend to lose leaves as the low light conditions require them to shed top growth. In late January, if in a bright sunny area they will begin showing new growth which is a signal to begin regular fertilizer. They can grow in the same container for many years as long as fresh soil is added from time to time.

Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) this is plant used by the ancient Egyptians for making paper. This plant is a perfect choice for anyone who tends to over-water their indoor plants and I often recommend it for people who do that. Papyrus lives in water. It does best in a pot without drainage holes so it can constantly have “wet feet”. It has lovely vertical stalks which rise delicately from the root. The top of each stalk has an umbrella of green leaves. It can get quite tall but requires some time to achieve full height. It prefers a sunny location and is fairly tolerant of temperature fluctuations.

Tahitian Bridal Veil is one cultivar of several plants that go under the Latin name Bacopa. The plant has tiny delicate white flowers that seem to “float” over the foliage. It grows fairly quickly and likes to hang over the pot making it an ideal choice for a hanging plant. The light airy foliage contrasts nicely with other houseplants. It is fairly easy to propagate from cuttings so if you cannot find it at the garden center see if you can obtain a cutting from a friend. The cuttings can be rooted in water in a similar fashion to impatiens. It originates from South Africa and prefers a moist, humus rich soil. It likes frequent watering but prefers not to be left standing in water.

Rabbit’s Foot Fern (Davallia fejeensis) has become harder to find in recent years but is one of the easiest indoor ferns to grow. It thrives in indirect light and average room temperatures. The plant has elegant fronds which create lush mounds. The most striking feature of this plant is its long furry rhizomes which resemble rabbit’s feet. These rhizomes crawl across the surface of the soil and hang over the edge of the pot. Rabbit’s Foot Fern prefers to be in temperatures above 55 degrees F (12 C). In the winter, cut back on watering and keep it away from heat vents which will cause the “feet” to dry out. In warm weather the rhizomes can be misted every day. If it loses leaves, try raising the humidity with a pebble tray.

When growing any plants indoors try to match temperatures and light conditions to the particular specimen. Temperature can vary widely within a room, hot and dry near heat sources, cold next to windows (even those with storm windows) and drafty near doors or fireplaces. Window ledges above vents are especially prone to extreme fluctuations. Never locate plants there for fear of shocking them. Plants grown in air that is too dry will begin to look pale and their leaves will curl under and may turn brown around the edges. Giving plants more water will not help; what they need is moisture in the air around them.

Take time to explore the wonderful variety of houseplants available to us in Canada. Experiment with some new types this winter. You may find a new favourite to lift your spirits and enrich the fourth season of gardening for you.

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