Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah
image Attractively arranged houseplants can be a great addition to any home decor year-round.

December 1, 2016
Bring the greenery inside

It’s been an interesting week. It’s been both fall and winter, with a bit of spring thrown in for good measure.

It’s given me an opportunity to complete a few more things outside, as well as pull some more weeds to give the chickens more fresh green treats before that comes to an end. I’ve got a stand of Jerusalem artichokes right beside the chicken house on the west side to act as a wind and sun block in the summer. All the tops have died off now, but there’s a bounty of tubers that I’m pulling up, a bit at a time, and giving them to my egg layers. They enjoy the treat and it saves on the feed bill.

When the snow really flies in the next few days, the remaining treats will wait until early spring.

I’ve been working in the shop quite a bit over the last few weeks, building some furniture. The chill in the air is offset by the crackle of a fire in the shop woodstove, and the scent of the fire. It’s a treat I look forward to every year.

I’m cooking and baking more as well these last few weeks. The short days fit nicely with more culinary activities. Heck, my neighbor and friend Theresa brought us over her customary “first snow day” cinnamon rolls for Maggie and I to enjoy. I told her, “you’re part of the reason I’m wearing this” (I was pointing to my belly). She replied in her usual witty way, “That’s why I only brought two rolls!” As you might imagine, they were delicious.

Even with all these really enjoyable transitions to the cold weather, I start to miss the green pretty quickly. One way to offset this is to bring some of it indoors. These can be either ornamental or edible, year-round residents or over-wintering guests.

There are plenty of great plants to choose from and many are readily propagated with cuttings from other plants you may already have or a specimen you’ve admired at a friend’s home. Generally speaking, all benefit from having a good dose of sunlight, ongoing moderate water, and a bit of fertilizer from time to time. Of course, there are exceptions, so check for care needs of any exotic or unusual houseplant you may have. Other than that, caring for your houseplants doesn’t need to be a big deal.

There are several simple practices to make use of to give you the best chance of success with your houseplants. For instance, they will need regular watering. However, keeping them wet or soggy will lead to problems. If the soil is too wet, oxygen will not be readily accessible to the root fibers. The plant will not thrive, and rot can set in. Additionally, soil that is kept moist constantly, without a drying cycle between watering, is an open invite to gnats and fruit fly type species. They need the moist conditions to lay eggs. Deprive them of that, and you are halfway to controlling these pests in your home.

Because days are shorter in the winter, and the sun is low in the southern sky, your plants will work harder than usual to access the light. Consequently, they can become “leggy” and off-center. To reduce this, rotate your plants every week or two, placing a new portion of the plant towards the light. If the plant gets too tall, prune it back just above a bud that is facing the direction you want a new sprout to grow.

Plants appreciate diluted fertilizer as part of their usual watering routine. In a pot, they have only a small amount of soil to draw all their needs from, so the soil needs ongoing nutrition added to it in small amounts. I like to add a drop or two of dishwashing soap to the water. This breaks down the surface tension of the water, in essence making it “wetter.” Soil or potting mixes can have organic materials, like peat, that tend to be a bit oily or resistant to accepting moisture. The mildly soapy water overcomes this, allowing the water to soak into to soil readily.

Another good practice to keep your plants thriving is to add more potting mix to the top of the soil from time to time. Add an inch or two, and lightly mix it in with a small gardening spade or fork. Not only does this add new material, but is opens up the soil a bit more and aerates it.

Of course, repotting is necessary from time, as the plant continues to grow. Most plants can be kept compact with selective pruning. If you do have a plant that has become sizable (intentionally or not), you may need to re-pot it. To do so, keep the root ball intact, and shake off the old potting mix. I don’t recommend you use the mix again. It tends to be depleted, have an undesirable texture, and may be host to insect eggs and disease. Don’t throw away the old mix; it’s a great addition to your compost pile.

Now, place your plant in its new home, a larger pot with a drainage hole and saucer. Add new soil mix all around the root ball after gently scoring several of the surface roots with a sharp knife. Don’t go very deeply; you are simply stimulating new root growth. This is especially important if the plant is “root-bound,” where the roots have circled the surface of the root mass against the interior of the previous pot. Severing these fibrous roots will create new growth that is finer and has more surface area to better nourish the plant.

Be sure to water in the plant well during this repotting. You need to get the roots moist and get any voids in the potting mix eliminated. While you’re at it, determine if the plant can benefit from any additional support, such as a bamboo pole, or small trellis.

Many of us tend to have only one type of plant in a pot. Why not mix it up a bit and try some combinations? The same look that we enjoy in our outdoor gardening beds is just as appealing here! Try plants with different colors, heights and leaf shapes. A taller plant with vine type plants spilling out over the edge is a great look and lends a bit of bio- and visual diversity.

Now for a bit of unpleasantness. Those of you that are feline lovers have likely had the unsavory experience of finding that your cat decided to use your houseplant as a “cat box.” Realistically, a plant can take that from time to time and do just fine. However, once the cat gets started thinking that one or several houseplants exist for their use, it doesn’t usually turn out well, for the plant or the flooring around the plant where soil is raked out.

Besides having a readily accessible and clean cat box, you can discourage the cat from using your plants as a toilet with a couple simple practices. First, eliminate open soil by having either other low growers along with a taller plant, or placing rocks on the surface. Better yet, bury a piece of wire mesh, just under the soil and cut to the shape of the pot with generous space around the stalk of the plant. A cat will try to dig first before relieving itself, and if it is thwarted by the wire, or not able to get to open soil readily, that plant is not likely to be a future target.

As for varieties of houseplants to grow, that’s up to you. There are so many species that to give you a set of recommendations would almost be worthless. I do try to grow some semi-tropical plants for their larger leaves and interesting shapes, as well as succulents, and some culinary items, like mint. Mint has become one of my favorite flavors, and a mainstay with some of the Asian food we prepare that I told you about recently.

Sure, it may be cold and snowy outside, but a smaller version of the garden is doing just fine here in the house. My wife always has a small pot of succulents in the kitchen window that bloom all winter. It will sure help with the cabin fever that is sure to develop in a few months, and many of our houseguests will once again be a great addition to our front porch when spring comes back around.

Jay Cooper can be contacted at jay@dirtfarmerjay.com, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.

Jay Cooper

Garden Spot Columnist at Tooele Transcript Bulletin
Jay Cooper is a new contributing writer for the Garden Spot column. He replaced Diane Sagers, who retired in November 2013 after writing the column for 27 years. Also known as Dirt Farmer Jay, Cooper and his wife have been residents of Erda since 2001 after moving to Utah from Tucson, AZ. A passionate gardener and avid reader of horticultural topics, for several years he has been a member of Utah State University’s Master Gardeners Program, and served as chapter president in 2013. Cooper says Tooele County has an active and vibrant gardening community, and the Garden Spot column will continue to share a wide range of gardening, landscaping, home skills and rural living themes.

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