Holiday Survival Action Guide

Stay Healthy(ish) & Sane This December

(Disclaimer) You should consult your physician or other health care professional before starting this or any other fitness program to determine if it is right for your needs.

This holiday season I want to help you do something to take care of yourself. While I want to make this as easy as possible, understand that taking care of yourself is something that you will have to be mindful about, even if the action steps are done for you.

After you read through the information You are likely going to say something like “Wow that’s a lot of great information and seemingly actionable but it still seems like too much”

Don’t worry before the end of this I’m going to have a Done For You way to personalize your action plan.

So, if you are ready lets jump in with 7 Actions You Can Take To Survive The Holiday Season With Health And Sanity!

- Robin Mungall NSCA CPT

Results One Habit At A Time
Robin Mungall Fitness
www.rmfit.com

Rescuing A Stray Cat

A few weeks ago we started to notice something strange out by our receiving docks. Paw prints were appearing in freshly fallen snow, making a trail from our outdoor storage area to our dumpsters and back. It wasn't long before we had sightings of a shy, stray cat living in behind the building.

So many of our staff are animals lovers that we knew we had to do something. Our warehouse manager Paula and her sister Melissa set out help this kitty get away from the cold. They built an overnight shelter box, insulating it with styrofoam, cardboard, and straw and placed it close to where they knew he was hiding. With dry cat food inside, this would give him a place to spend the night in and keep him safer from the winter cold.

Paula checked on the shelter daily and while he ate the food and slept in the box, he never came out when people were around.

Of course we wanted to get him out of the cold altogether so a humane live cat trap was set out during the day. These traps are designed to trap a small to medium animal safely, without harming the animal. It took many patient days, but we are all pleased to say that our patience was rewarded:

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Our stray friend was understandably scared at first, having been brought inside to a new place, with many new people. Paula and Melissa made him his own safe space in the warehouse office, where he could eat, sleep and stay warm. The next day he was taken to the vet and found to be in relatively good health for a stray, only needing to be treated for a mild case of worms and ear mites.

In the past few days he's warmed up to people, and has started to play and sleep on Paula's desk. Right now Paula, Melissa and many of the staff are taking care of him and we are looking to see if he has any previous owners. If you recognize our stray friend please let us know, we would love to reunite him with his family! If it turns out he needs a new forever home, don't worry, we already have several people interested in providing him with a safe and warm home!

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Pets and Poisonous Plants - The Overblown Myths

A few times a month I get calls or queries about poisonous houseplants and garden plants and people's pets. Most often it is about their cat has eaten a plant they have determined to be poisonous. 

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Most recently a customer came to me about her cat who was eating and chewing numerous plants that she read were poisonous and her cat was still very healthy. She was mystified why her cat was still doing well and would continue to chew plants that were suppose to be bad for her. 

After speaking with this lady I explained the whole poisonous plant myths. Take poinsettias as an example, every year I hear people who would never have a poinsettia in their house because of their cat. A cat could never consume enough poinsettias leaves to kill them. The leaves have a sticky sap and I have eaten some to prove they are not this deadly plant that kills pets and people. 

Over the last 50 years we have had several dogs and cats roaming our greenhouses when they were filled with poinsettias. Never did any one of them become poisoned by poinsettias or any other plant. 

We have grown thousands of other varieties of trees, shrubs, bedding plants, perennials, and houseplants in those years. 

The most common problem I have experienced with people and most often their cats, is they are damaging their plants by scratching, digging in the soil, and chewing off leaves. 

These problems are usually easy to solve by relocating and changing the plants. In some cases simply add rock to the soil surface, raise the plant, wrap the stem in a protective cover and prune it. 

One thing we must remember with pets is that they have evolved and survived by simply not eating too much of any plant and most have the ability to quickly vomit up anything that is discomforting.

In the last 50 years, we've found that healthy and safe homes can have both pets and plants living together with very few problems. 

Favourite Herbs: Borage

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Borage

Borago officinalis

Hardy annual; self-seeds readily

Height 60 to 90 cm; spread to 60 cm.

Prolific species with hollow stems, hairy ovate leaves, and blue or purple star-shaped flowers.

Try these!

Borago officinalis (common borage) is the most common variety and is widely available.

Planting

Seed borage directly into the garden or, to get a jump on the season, set out young plants purchased from a garden centre.

How much: At least two plants.

When: After the date of the average last spring frost.

Where: Full sun; will tolerate some shade. Prefers sandy, well-drained soil; will tolerate poor soil. Space plants at least 60 cm apart.

Care & Nurture

Borage is easy to grow! Although borage is drought-tolerant once the plant is established, young plants need lots of water. Don't give borage too much nitrogen. {WHY?}

Harvesting

Fresh borage leaves can be harvested continuously, like spinach. The flowers grow in clusters called racemes; harvest individual flowers rather than the whole raceme.

For best flavour: Remove the pistils and stamens (the black centre) before you eat the flowers.

Leaves: Harvest as needed by cutting from the stem.

Flowers: Harvest as they open. Clip the flower stalk where it attaches to the plant stem; discard stalk.

Preserving the Harvest

Use only fresh borage leaves—they do not store well. Borage flowers can be frozen in ice-cubes.

Tips

  • Borage is prone to aphids.
  • Any vegetable crop that needs pollination—squash, cucumbers, and the like—will benefit greatly from a nearby borage plant, because borage flowers are a favourite of bees.
  • If you choose to grow borage in a container, choose a large pot. The plants grow rapidly, so they need lots of room. Half whiskey-barrels are perfect.

To Note:

  • Borage looks much more attractive when it's grown with other plants. It looks wonderful when used as a feature plant with other culinary herbs surrounding it. The other plants can even help support the tall borage, which can be blown down by strong winds.
  • Borage is rich in potassium, calcium, and vitamin C.
  • Dried borage flowers add a lovely blue colour to potpourri.
  • Borage is often called "bee bread" because it attracts bees; indeed, borage honey is of very high quality.
  • When burned, borage may emit sparks and slight explosive sound, like fireworks. Some speculate that the potassium nitrate content in the plant is responsible for the phenomenon; others feel it might simply be the volatile oils burning off.
  • Native to the Mediterranean and western Asia, borage was purportedly planted by Columbus' men on Isabella's Island.

Favourite Herbs: Lemon Balm

Lemon Balm

Melissa officinalis

Semi-hardy perennial; usually grown as an annual in colder climates

Height 20 to 80 cm, can reach 1.5 m; spread to 60 cm.

Loosely branched, with upright growth habit.

Try these!

Melissa officinalis (common lemon balm) is the most common variety and is widely available.

Planting

Lemon balm may be started indoors from seed or grown from young plants purchased from a garden centre.

How much: At least two plants.

When: Early spring; can withstand a light frost.

Where: Full sun; will tolerate part shade. Gold or variegated types prefer partial shade. Prefers well-drained, sandy soil. Space plants 30 to 45 cm apart.

Care & Nurture

Lemon balm is easy to grow! Prune regularly to promote bushiness. Cut plants to ground level when flowers begin to appear. Where lemon balm grows as a perennial, it should be divided every three to four years in the spring or fall to encourage new growth. Lemon balm is susceptible to powdery mildew.

Harvesting

Leaves can be harvested throughout the growing season, until the flowers begin to bloom.

For best flavour: Harvest only young leaves: older leaves have a stale, musty flavour.

Leaves: Clip individual leaves as needed. Cut sprigs and use whole, or strip the leaves. Discard leaf stalks.

Flowers: Edible, but not normally eaten.

Preserving the Harvest

Lemon balm is at its best used fresh: the leaves lose their intense flavour when dried or stored. Preserve by drying.

Tips

  • Lemon balm self-seeds and spreads easily, so you might want to grow it in a pot or isolate it in a section of your garden.
  • Like all lemon-scented herbs, lemon balm’s flavour is more intense when grown in poorer soil, but the overall plant growth will be lusher in rich soil.

To Note:

  • As the name implies, the leaves of this herb give off a strong lemon scent when crushed. It’s a wonderful plant for attracting bees; in fact, the genus name for lemon balm, Melissa, comes from the Greek word for bees.
  • Lemon balm may be used in aromatic herb baths. Dried leaves add a lemon scent to potpourris and herb pillows.
  • Lemon balm is the basis for the famous Melissa cordial Eau–de-Mellise des Carmes. It is also important in Benedictine and Chartreuse liqueurs.
  • In the language of flowers, lemon balm symbolizes sympathy.
  • Lemon balm is reputed to repel flies and ants.
  • An infusion of lemon balm may be used as a facial balm and as a rinse for greasy hair.
  • The London Dispensary in 1696 stated that “Lemon balm given every morning will renew youth, strengthen the brain and relieve languishing nature.” The Swiss physician Paracelus called lemon balm the “elixir of life.” He believed that the herb could completely revive people.
  • The word balm is a contraction of balsam, traditionally considered the king of the sweet-smelling oils.

Favourite Herbs: Basil

Basil

Ocimum basilicum

Very tender annual

Height 30 to 60 cm; spread 30 to 45 cm.

Highly aromatic branching herb that forms large, lush mounds in the garden or container.

Try these!

Ocimum basilicum ‘Sweet Basil’ is the standard, familiar green basil; it’s prolific, with nice fragrance and colour.

Ocimum basilicum ‘Dark Opal’: Nice spicy flavour, strong flavour and scent; leaves deep purple and bronze

Ocimum basilicum ‘Genovese’: Extra-large leaves with great fragrance and flavour; great pesto basil; originated from the Genoa area of Italy

Ocimum basilicum ‘Sweet Dani’: Very fragrant lemon scent, especially when leaves are rubbed; an All-America Selections winner in 1998

Planting

Basil can be difficult to grow from seed. If you enjoy a challenge, start indoors from seed; otherwise, grow from young plants purchased from a garden centre.

How much: Two or three plants; plant up to ten if you intend to make pesto.

When: Two weeks after the average last spring frost date.

Where: Full sun, sheltered. Excellent in containers. Needs rich, well-drained soil. Space plants 30 cm apart in the garden.

Care & Nurture

Basil requires extra care to grow well. Overwatering can cause root-rot. Pinch off shoots to promote robust new growth and a bushy form. Basil tends to get woody when it gets old.

Harvesting

For the most bountiful harvest, prune flowers as soon as they appear. Basil's flavour grows much stronger as the leaves age, losing much of their delicate, sweet scent.

For best flavour: Choose young, small tender leaves for mild aroma and taste. Harvest mid-morning, after the dew has evaporated and before the day gets too hot.

Leaves: Harvest individual leaves by clipping the leaf stalk where it attaches to the plant stem. Cut sprigs and use whole, or strip the leaves. Discard tough stalks.

Flowers: Pick just as flowers emerge. Clip the flower stalk where it attaches to the plant stem; discard stalk.

Preserving the Harvest

The best way to preserve basil is to freeze it: frozen basil retains nearly 100% of its essential oils. Blanch the leaves quickly in boiling water, dry them on paper towel, and freeze them in sealed plastic bags. A short-term way to preserve basil is in oil. Wash and dry the leaves and then pack them into a clean, dry glass jar. (It's important to use a glass jar, as plastic will leach out the flavour of the leaves.) Sprinkle salt over each layer of leaves, and when the jar is full, fill it with olive oil to cover the leaves. Close the jar with a tight-fitting lid and store in the refrigerator. The leaves will keep for 7 to 10 days.

Tips

  • Here are some other basil varieties you might like to try:
    • Ocimum basilicum minimum ‘Green Globe’ is a very dense, rounded basil with a uniform growth habit.
    • Ocimum basilicum ‘Nufar’ is a new sweet basil hybrid that has shown excellent resistance to fusarium; it’s a Genovese-type basil with great fragrance and flavour.
    • Ocimum sp. ‘Siam Queen’ was an All-America Selection in 1997; it has deep-purple stems and flowers that contrast with its dark-green leaves, and its flavour is spicy with an anise-licorice scent and flavour.
    • Ocimum ‘African Blue’ has a different growth habit and leaf form from sweet basils: its leaves aren’t as smooth and have a slight bluish tone, and the leaf veins, stems, and flowers are purple; it has an unusual flavour with a sweet camphor scent. African Blue is probably the easiest basil to grow indoors because it is not susceptible to fusarium.
  • Basil seed often harbours a fungal disease called Fusarium oxysporum. Fusarium affects germination and causes sudden wilting of leaves; the stems turn brown, and the plant eventually topples and dies. The fungus can be caused by both contaminated seeds and soil, and spreads easily through contaminated soil and leaves. There is currently no way to control this disease, but some seed companies are attempting to eliminate fusarium from basil seed.
  • Basil is among the least frost-tolerant herbs. Around the greenhouse, we joke that you should never walk by basil with a tray of ice cubes, lest you freeze it. Shadier locations cause the plants to stretch, leaving them weak, gangly, and more susceptible to disease.
  • To promote leaf growth, pick off flower shoots as they appear, unless you want to harvest a few flowers, which taste like the leaves, only milder..
  • Avoid adding compost to the soil where basil is to be grown: compost tends to increase root rot problems.

To Note:

  • Smaller varieties of basil can be used as edging for garden borders. In pots or hanging baskets, basil can serve as a foil for brightly coloured bedding plants.
  • Basil's common name is derived from the Greek word for king—"basilikon." In ancient Greece, only the sovereign was allowed to cut basil with a golden sickle.
  • In India, basil is sacred, dedicated to the gods Vishnu and Krishna. It is commonly grown in pots near temples. Recognizing its importance in Indian culture, during the colonial era the British used it to swear oaths upon, much like a Bible.
  • Basil is considered a symbol of fertility in Western culture. For example, in Romania, when a young man accepts a sprig of basil from a girl, it signals their engagement. In Italy, when a woman puts a pot of basil on her balcony, it means that she is ready to receive suitors—in fact, basil is referred to as "Kiss Me Nicholas" in some regions of Italy.

Bone Density Rebuttal

Two weeks ago I wrote about 4 exercises to increase bone density. Wow, what a response! It took a few hours to sort through and respond to all the emails I got back. 

I would like to address some of the questions openly as I think it would be to the benefit of many.

First of all, thank you to those who asked about the typo in the pushup recommendations where I made a typo in the amount of sets to perform. The article says 203 sets but the it's actually supposed to be 2-3 sets. I couldn't imagine someone doing 203 sets of 10 pushups. If you did that 3 times a week that would be 6,090 pushups a week. That beats my record for sure :) 

One of the questions came up that if you have arthritis or a joint problem that requires low impact, are lunges ok to do?

As alway I think it's important to first check with your doctor, and if you can get a proper assessment done from a professional certified fitness trainer who can make sure you are doing things safely. My advice, and what I practice with all clients weather you have a joint problem or not, is never do movement that causes pain. So if the movement you are doing is causing pain, don't do it. There are always alternatives to every exercise. 

Having said that, all of the exercises I mentioned, brisk walking, squats, pushups, lunges/step ups are easily modified to suit your current level of fitness. 

A few others asked me how would I program this into a weekly schedule. While the best schedule is the one you can be most consistent with, making the exercise work 3 days a week on non-consecutive days is best. 

Here is how your bone density program can work on a weekly basis. 

Everyday - Brisk Walking 20-30minutes total. Aim to get it in at once for best bone density results, but a 10 minute walk after breakfast lunch and dinner would be just fine as well.

Monday:
Squats 2-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions
Pushups 2-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions
Brisk Walk

Wednesday
Lunges or Step Ups 2-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions
Pushups 2-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions 

Friday or Saturday:
Squats 2-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions
Pushups 2-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions
Brisk Walk

It's a simple program, but effective. Now once you are able to complete a two exercise workout consistently, the next step would be to add more exercises in that compliment and balance the entire body. If you would like me to write about how to create you own balanced workout, just send me an email, with enough replies it might just have to be the next article I write :)


- Robin Mungall NSCA CPT

Results One Habit At A Time
Robin Mungall Fitness
www.rmfit.com

Related: 4 Exercises to Increase Bone Density by Robin Mungall

Indoor Plant Basics: Temperature, by Jim Hole

In an ideal world, you would make your houseplants feel at home by adjusting the temperature of their indoor environment to mimic their natural environment. The reality, however, is that, your comfort is likely to come before that of your plants. And even if you were to choose your plant’s comfort over your own, homes have warmer and cooler spots just waiting to present problems.

Because there are so many species of indoor plants, it follows that there is a wide range of ideal growing temperatures. Fortunately, plants are reasonably tolerant of variations from the ideal. As a general rule, keep nighttime temperatures a few degrees cooler than daytime temperatures: 18–27°C during the day and no less than 15°C at night.

The cooler nighttime temperature is important because it allows plants to store energy. When nighttime temperatures are hot, plants have no choice but to burn a portion of the energy that they worked hard to accumulate during the day. Flowering plants are especially appreciative of a cool rest in the evenings because it prolongs flower life and colour intensity.

Here is a list of conditions houseplants generally dislike:

  • Extreme changes in temperature
  • Cold drafts from windows or exterior doors
  • Hot air blasts from fireplaces, heat registers or radiators
  • Close proximity to hot or cold window panes
  • Night temperatures that dip below 14°C
  • Daytime temperatures in the upper 20°C to lower 30°C range

-Jim

9 Steps To Repotting Houseplants, by Jim Hole

In nature, roots go where the living is good. They search for water and nutrients in the soil and don’t stop until they find them. Because houseplants are restricted to pots, their roots can spread only so far. In order to support plant’s root systems, it’s necessary to repot to a larger container from time to time.

An easy way to tell whether a plant needs repotting is simply to tip it upside down (while cradling the plant in your hand) and tap it gently out of its pot—if a plant is large, this may take a team of people to accomplish. If the bottom half of the container contains mostly roots and very little soil, it’s time to repot. The reason is simple: at this stage, the roots have penetrated nearly every pore space in the soil, leaving little room for air or water. By repotting the plant, you’re giving it much-needed physical space and a fresh supply of soil and essential nutrients.

Other signs that indicate it’s time to repot include exposed roots, yellowing leaves, slow growth or little new growth and top-heavy plants that tip over easily.

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How to Repot a Plant

Repotting a plant isn’t as difficult as it may seem. All you need
to do is plan ahead and follow a few easy steps.

1. Do the prep work.

A little preparation can save you a lot of cleanup. Moments after you’ve started removing the plant from its container is a bad time to realize you’ve forgotten to pick up potting mix, so make a list of everything you need to get the job done properly: potting mix, water, a bigger container, gloves and scissors. I tend to get soil everywhere, so for me a huge drop cloth is also essential. I also recommend using a beneficial fungus, available as a product called myke. It contains mycorise fungi that colonize on a plant’s roots, increasing phosphate uptake, which in turn stimulates root development (the fungi colonize on most plants, with the exception of members of the Crassula, Orchidaceae and Ericaceae families).

2. Water your plant the day before you plan to repot.

Watering will soften the roots, leaving them pliable and easy to manipulate.

3. Select a pot.

Choose a practical container that is only one size larger than the one you are currently using. There are lots of decorative containers, but sometimes beauty and creativity must bow to functionality. One of our staff members found this out when he planted a collection of cacti in a strawberry pot. It was an impressive display and seemed like a great idea until it was time to repot. There was no way to get the plants out without breaking the container—and no way to break the container without damaging the cacti.

4. Take it outside.

Repotting can become quite an ordeal, so whenever possible, make the mess outside. If going outdoors isn’t possible, line a table or countertop with newspaper that can be rolled up and discarded when you’re done. Dishwashing basins also make great portable potting sinks.

5. Be brave.

Getting started is sometimes the hardest part, so be confident and go for it! Put on gloves if you require them, and then tip the plant out of its container and into your hand.

6. "Tease" the roots.

Gently tease tightly bound roots free to encourage them to explore the new potting soil. If the plant is very rootbound, use a gardening claw to loosen the rootball.

When the roots have been gently loosened, use scissors to cut away any damage.

7. Prepare the soil.

Shake 3–4 cm of soil mix into the bottom of the new container. Gently insert the plant into the pot, ensuring that it sits at the same height as it was in the original pot. If necessary, remove the plant and add more soil.

8. Gently fill the pot around the plant with soil mix.

Use hand movements that mimic those you would use to tuck a shirt into your pants. Be sure not to pack down the soil. If you do, you’ll end up with drainage problems.

9. Water the plant thoroughly.

Don’t stop until water flows out from the holes in the bottom of the container.


Not sure you're up for the task?

Hole's Greenhouses provides FREE houseplant makeovers with the purchase of any Scheurich pot. Our experts are here to help. Click here for more information.

Pruning & Deadheading Indoor Plants, by Jim Hole

It’s surprising how easily even tough houseplants can be damaged. When leaves or stems are damaged or broken, it’s important to reach for the scissors. You might be tempted to let the plant repair itself, but that will only leave it vulnerable to diseases and pests.

Here are some other reasons to prune your houseplants:

  • For shape: Prune back plants that become overgrown or straggly. Dieffenbachia, for instance, have a tendency to run out of ceiling space. To remedy this problem, simply prune the top at the spot where you would like to encourage branching. Throw the top away, or reroot it in a new pot. In the case of tree-form plants, prune branches that cross through the centre of a plant. It will help maintain a pleasing form and allow sunlight into the centre of these plants.
  • To encourage growth: Keep in mind that the biological purpose of all plants is to reproduce. When you deadhead (remove spent flowers), you are also removing the seeds. By doing so, you trick the plant into thinking it hasn’t fulfilled its reproductive goal. The plant responds by producing more flowerbuds and, eventually, more flowers.
  • To remove disease: Yes, it’s that simple—prune out disease. It’s a good habit to clean your shears after every use, but it’s especially important to wipe them with a solution of water with 10% bleach after pruning out disease. Dry your shears to prevent rust.

Truth & Fiction

It never ceases to amaze me how much bad information gets passed on from generation to generation. I’m not sure what makes us so eager to cling to bad advice, but we all seem to do it.

In an attempt to dispel some of the myths floating around the indoor plant world, here is a list of advice to set the record straight.

  • No, you shouldn’t use milk to shine leaves (a soft cloth will do).
  • No, pebbles won’t help with drainage in a pot (buy pots with drainage holes).
  • No, poinsettias aren’t poisonous
  • (but that doesn’t mean you should eat them).
  • Talking to houseplants will not make them grow (but it might make you
  • feel good!).
  • Plants won’t take the oxygen out of the room (in fact, during photosynthesis they release oxygen).
  • Soil doesn’t have to be moist before you fertilize plants (parched plants won’t absorb more water than they need, so their fertilizer uptake is still controlled).
  • Fertilizer doesn’t cause plants to grow (but light does).

Pets & Plants; Facts & Myths, by Jim Hole

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Keeping houseplants and pets in the same space can create its own special brand of frustration. Houseplants are magnets for curious pets. As sweet and obedient as our cats and dogs may be the majority of the time, there are some cases when no amount of scolding can deter our four-legged friends from doing what they want. In a battle of keep-the-plant or keep-the-pet, there is only one winner—and nine times out of ten, that winner has four feet.

In dealing with stubborn pets, it comes down to a balance between compromise and conceit. Are we higher on the food chain? Yes. Do our pets care? Not in the least. The good news is that all is not lost. There are things you can do to keep pets from eating, digging in and toppling houseplants.

  • Keep tempting or tasty plants up and out of the way. Cats love to nibble on or bat at long, cascading foliage. Whether your cat is seeking roughage or entertainment, it can easily be deterred from nibbling if you simply move your plants to locations that are up and out of the way. Depending on the age, agility and determination of your cat, a trek to a high shelf or countertop might prove too much of a bother. Although dogs have less of a penchant for batting around plants than cats do, they are more likely to knock them over. If your dog plays hard in the house, keep your plants away from high-traffic areas—and remember, those areas aren’t always the spots that see a lot of traffic from us. Most dogs have favourite paths that lead to windows or doors. They often navigate these paths at full speed, cutting corners a little too tightly and occasionally miscalculating when it’s time to lay on the brakes. By keeping plants out of these areas, you greatly reduce the likelihood of having a rambunctious dog topple a plant.
  • Supervise your pets. There are many commercial sprays and home-spun deterrents (like placing double-sided tape on planters) designed to keep pets away from plants, but the best prevention is supervision. Puppies in particular need lots of watching. Besides being incredibly curious, they are also teething, which makes them more likely to search for a plant to chew. Of course, supervision is not always possible, but knowing where your pet is at is often the best way to know where it shouldn’t be.
  • As a last resort, grow cat grass. A pot of cat grass might be all that’s needed to keep your favourite feline away from your houseplants. It is available at most garden centres and pet stores, and it is easy to grow. All you need is seed, a shallow container and a sunny window. Your cat will take care of keeping it trimmed. While it doesn’t discourage your plant from eating indoor plants, cat grass does focus your pet’s attention on a single plant.

Poisonous Plants

Safety is always an issue when it comes to houseplants. Whenever people ask me about toxic plants, I always end up saying, “It’s the dose that makes the poison.” What this means is anything taken in sufficient quantity will eventually poison you. Even the consumption of too much pure water (a condition known as hyponatremia) has resulted in deaths. That said, I would by no means suggest that we shouldn’t be concerned about accidental poisoning. In fact, I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to know what kind of plants he or she has and whether or not those plants are toxic. After all, we wouldn’t let our families and pets venture about in an unsafe outdoor environment, so why wouldn’t we make them as safe as possible in their own homes?

Toxic is not an absolute term. We tend to think of it in an ingest-and-die way, but it can also refer to less dire symptoms, such as skin irritations, photosensitivity, soreness of the mouth and cramps. If you have concerns regarding plant toxicity, consult your local poison control centre.

Going on Vacation

Whenever my family and I go away on vacation, there’s always that initial dread of “Who will water the plants?” Let’s face it, sometimes having to ask someone to water your plants is as bad as being the person who is asked. To make the experience a little less traumatic for all involved, plan ahead, put the right person in charge and leave detailed watering instructions. After that, the rest is up to chance.

What to Write

Regrettably, the watering instructions we should leave are rarely the ones we do leave. The problem is that most people are afraid to sound obsessive or bossy. And as tempted as you might be to draft a note that begins with, “Please water the plants once a week—not when you feel like it, or when you remember to,” and that ends with, “When you ‘check’ my bathroom for a plant I may have neglected to tell you about, please keep your nose out of my medicine cabinet,” fight the urge! There are better ways to increase your likelihood of coming home to happy, healthy plants.

Plan Ahead

  • Make time to give your plants a proper once-over before you leave. Cleaning even a few of the leaves will allow you to check for pests or diseases that could cause problems in your absence. While you’re cleaning, don’t forget to deadhead any spent flowers and to remove any unsightly foliage. Follow that up with a proper watering and you’re halfway there.
  • Move small plants to a temporary holding area in one room. This is a great option if you’re not keen on having someone walk through your entire house. If you’re lucky enough to have a bright bathroom, you can gather your small low-light plants and give them a temporary home in the bathtub. It’s an option that removes any worries about water spills and messy cleanups.
  • Plan for disaster. It never hurts to leave a few bath towels out and ready for accidents that might require cleaning up. Leaving out a broom and a dustpan is also a good idea.
  • Pre-measure fertilizer. If you’re going to be gone for an extended period, pre-measure your fertilizer and leave it in disposable baggies, marked with clear application instructions and then put them back in the fertilizer container to prevent mishaps.

Leave Detailed Instructions

  • Be clear about how much water each plant needs and how often each needs it. Writing the schedule on a calendar is a great way to deal with this, but I think anyone asking someone else to water their houseplants must specify both the quantity and the frequency of water each plant needs. If nothing else, it takes the pressure off friends and family who worry about wiping out your plants and goes a long way toward sustaining good relationships.
  • Make note of any plants or issues that require special attention. If you have a saucer that tends to overflow, for example, mention it.
  • Note whether any window coverings need to be opened or closed.

Home Again, Home Again

So you gave it your best. You planned ahead. You wrote the perfect note. You still came home to sickly-looking plants. Now what? Unfortunately, not all plants can be resuscitated, but you can increase your plants’ survival rate by following the emergency revival techniques in the following section

The Ultimate Guide to Houseplant Pests & Diseases, by Jim Hole

Caring for Seasonal Plants

Holiday plants are hard to resist. Not only are they readily available, but their beauty and great value make them perfect guests in our homes. Yet the holidays are hard on plants, too. One of the reasons that holiday plants take such a beating is that most people think of them as disposable—and, for the most part, they are. Of course, we all know people who manage to keep a poinsettia from one year to the next, but the bragging rights that come with that coup are usually more impressive than the plant itself.

The secret to keeping a holiday plant looking healthy isn’t really much of a secret. Simply make time to water and deadhead. It comes down to recognizing that you don’t need to grow the plant—you simply need to maintain the status quo. What I mean is that a holiday plant is on holiday. It has spent months working and growing to its peak of perfection, and now all that it has to do is retain its beauty. This fact makes your job relatively easy—putting the plant in the right environment and watering properly is often all that is required. It does take a bit of effort and patience on your part, but no more than it does to be nice to well-meaning relatives and friends who overstay their holiday welcome.

Pests & Diseases

Dealing with pests and diseases is difficult because the process involves considerable diagnosis. It’s natural for people to focus on the remedy that promises to ‘cure’ a sick plant, but the cure is only one piece of the puzzle. To put the whole puzzle together, you have to know what kind of a plant you have, the kind of insect that’s attacking it, the treatments available and the frequency of those treatments. If you miss even one of these pieces, you lessen your chances of solving your problem. With that said, don’t lose hope! Knowledge is the key to identifying and dealing with pests and diseases, and you’re about to acquire it.

Pests

The joy of purchasing a beautiful houseplant quickly fades when the first ‘pet’ is discovered on a leaf. The pet I am referring to, of course, is
not the four-legged, furry kind, but rather the six (or more!) legged
variety that loves plants as much as we do.

When most people try to take on the insects and pests that attack houseplants, their goal is usually to annihilate them—to destroy every last one! While I agree that eradication is the ultimate goal, I have yet to see an instance where anyone has successfully implemented a program without first having a thorough understanding of the enemy.

The good news about insect and insect-like enemies is that of the millions of insect species in the world, only a handful are pests of houseplants. The bad news is that handful is a bit like the Dirty Dozen—a tough bunch to kill. Many of the pests we battle have adapted extremely well to our attempts at controlling them, pesticide resistance being a prime example. But, by far, the number one reason I see pest control fail is due to a failure to understand the pest.

Part of understanding pests is understanding their place in nature. It’s hard to look past the fact that pests cause a lot of frustration, but they are part of the ecosystem—not extraneous to it. In nature, pests are kept in balance by a well-functioning system of predators and prey. Of course, household environments can’t support the diversity required to keep plant pests in check, so the inevitable result is an exploding pest population and a trail of dead and dying plants.

So beyond seeking to help you identify your pest problems properly, I hope to inspire in you an unlikely appreciation for the pests themselves. Now, I didn’t say love; I said appreciation…as in new-found respect. After all, as much as their destructive tendencies drive us crazy, they are fascinating enemies and amazingly successful creatures—despite our best efforts to obliterate them.


Spider Mites

Physical description: Spider mites—just one of the many types of mite that attack plants and probably the worst of the lot—are generally 5 mm long and oval shaped, varying in colour from yellowish to greenish and even reddish to brownish. Spider mites are difficult to see, so they usually go unnoticed until they become a full-blown problem.

The damage and the signs: Spider mites are polyphagous (meaning they eat many different plants) and spend most of their time piercing plant tissue and feeding on sap. The first indication of a problem is usually mottled leaves. Heavy infestations produce frail, silky webbing that can cause plants to die.

Where to look for them: Spider mites live on the underside of leaves.

Seriousness of the problem: Severe if not controlled early. One of the reasons mites spread quickly is that they produce threads that act as crude parachutes, enabling mites to glide on drafts from one plant to another. They can also hitch a ride on our clothing.

Preferred environment: Spider mites like hot, dry conditions, so they are well suited to living indoors. They prefer plants with soft easily pierced tissues and tend to avoid those with foliage that is waxy.

Treatment and prevention: Spider mites can be challenging to get rid of. Because the eggs are resilient to most sprays, treatments must be applied at five- to seven-day intervals. For best results, use a good insecticidal soap and cover these pests thoroughly.

Spider mites have truly amazing fecundity (reproductive rates) that is second to none
in the arena of houseplant pests. The typically male-to-female ratio of offspring is roughly three females for each male. But don’t let the shortage of males fool you—spider mites don’t need to mate to produce offspring. Fertilized females produce both males and females, while unfertilized females produce only males.


Scale Insects

Physical description: Scale insects earn their name because their protective shells look like scales. They are difficult to see without a magnifying glass, but even when you can see them, you’re not seeing their bodies per se but rather their shell-like, waxy protective coverings. Most scale insects are 1.5–3 mm in diameter and round or oval shaped. To the naked eye, scale looks like brown scabs.

The damage and the signs: Scales cause discoloration, stunting and even leaf drop if the infestation is bad enough. The greatest problem is usually the honeydew (the clear, sticky secretion the scale leaves behind) and the sooty mould that grows on it. Unfortunately, the scales tend to stick to the plant long after the insect is dead.

Where to look for them: Scale insects can be found on stems, leaf veins, undersides of leaves and leaf joints.

Seriousness of the problem: Scale problems are often overlooked for two reasons. First, they look like part of the bark, and second, they are immobile for a good part of their lives and conceal themselves in the plant.

Preferred environment: Scale insects don’t like extreme weather and prefer warm, humid, shady conditions.

Treatment and prevention: Females can lay a huge number of eggs—up to 3000 over several weeks. The crawlers that emerge from the eggs are most sensitive to sprays because they haven’t developed their protective shell-like armour. Scale can be removed with your fingers when the insects are adult size, but you’ll have the best chance of controlling the problem if you apply a thorough coating of insecticidal spray or horticultural oil on the young crawlers every 7–10 days until all signs of these pests are gone. As hard as scale is
to battle, you can get rid of it.


Mealy Bugs

Physical description: Mealy bugs have soft, slender, waxy bodies that are 12 mm long and dusty looking. Many mealy bugs are covered with waxy threads. Females are wingless and tend to move very little.

The damage and the signs: Mealy bugs suck the sap from leaves and leave behind a trail of sticky honeydew. Other signs of damage are yellowing or dropping leaves.

Where to look for them: Mealy bugs can live on the undersides of leaves, on leaf joints, below the surface of the soil or on newly pruned stems.

Seriousness of the problem: A mealy bug’s waxy coat keeps it well protected from predators and pesticides, so controlling the problem is a serious issue. Because pesticides are often absorbed through the exoskeleton, the waxy coat on a mealy bug acts like a safety suit, shucking off the spray and rendering many pesticides useless.

Preferred environment: Mealy bugs tend to inhabit leaf axils (the spots where leaves meet stems) and leaf veins. They reproduce quickest in warm, humid environments but manage to survive in less than ideal environments.

Treatment and prevention: Mealy bugs are easy to deal with on a bug-by-bug basis, but if neglected they can become a big problem. Simply picking off offenders when you notice them
and following up by dabbing rubbing alcohol directly on the insects will often do the trick. For bigger infestations, aim for a thorough application of horticultural oil or insecticidal soap, every 7–10 days for as many applications as needed.

Although mealy bugs are notorious pests, one species produces bright-red pigments that have been used as a dye. In fact, I’m willing to bet that if you have ever had strawberry ice cream, chances are good that you have eaten mealy bugs—the pink colour of the ice cream was often intensified with the dye extracted from the cactus-loving cochineal mealy bug.


Thrips

Physical description: Thrips are insects from the order Thysanoptera, which means fringed wings, and are generally just a few millimetres long and a fraction of a millimetre wide. They are also very mobile and able to run, fly and jump. Most thrips are tan or dark coloured.

The damage and the signs: Thrips feed on foliage, buds and flowers by scraping and piercing the cells of plant tissue and drawing out the nutrient-rich contents. Infested leaves have a silvery, stippled appearance that resembles the damage caused by mites. An easy way to distinguish a thrip infestation from a mite infestation is to look for the brownish specks of excrement that thrips leave behind where they feed. Besides causing leaves to shrivel, thrips transmit viruses that can cause more damage than the pests do.

Where to look for them: Thrips can be found on leaves, buds, flowers and under plant
debris. Females make slits in plant tissue and lay the eggs within. When larvae mature, they often fall into the soil to pupate before emerging as adults.

Seriousness of the problem: Thrips aren’t a problem for tropicals with tough, waxy leaves, but they love to live and feed on flowers. Although they feed on both pollen and petals, petals are at greatest risk of becoming stippled from the thrips’ rasping mouths. Yellow flowers are particularly prone to attack.

Preferred environment: Thrips prefer direct sunlight and very warm temperatures. These pests are thigmotactic, meaning they love to be in tight spaces, literally ‘hugged’ by plant tissue.

Treatment and prevention: Prevention is the key to controlling this pest. Once thrips get into the flowers, there are few options for control other than snipping off the damaged flowers and disposing of them. Thrips are far worse when the weather is hot, so growing plants in cooler temperatures can slow thrip damage substantially.


Fungus Gnats

Physical description: Fungus gnats are generally 3–4 mm long; the adults resemble small fruit flies.

The damage and the signs: The lifespan of an adult fungus gnat is only about three weeks. Adult fungus gnats are unable to feast on plants, but the larvae eat the young tender roots, allowing the entry of root rot. Pull plants out of their pots and check the soil for chewed roots and small, white larvae with black heads. Damage is usually restricted to the plant’s roots, but tender stems can also be attacked.

Where to look for them: Fungus gnats live in the soil.

Seriousness of the problem: Although fungus gnats do minimal damage to plants, they are notorious for flying around and annoying people.

Preferred environment: Damp soil is a fungus gnat’s favourite place to live.

Treatment and prevention: Fungus gnats love moist soil surfaces, so avoid infestations by not overwatering. Pesticides are also available and are very effective
if applied to the soil surface.


Aphids

Physical description: Aphids are pear shaped and usually green, but watch for them in shades of black, brown, grey, yellow, red and purple. It’s interesting to note that aphids come with and without wings. Wingless aphids are called apterous, and winged adults are called alate.

The damage and the signs: Aphids seek protein and, therefore, feed on plant sap, but because sap is sugar rich and protein poor, aphids must extract large quantities to get enough protein. Aphids rid themselves of the excess sugar by excreting it in the form of visible sticky honeydew. Aphids may also transmit viruses to plants through their saliva, sometimes causing malformation of leaves. Another sign to watch for is the white skins that aphids shed as they grow.

Where to look for them: Aphids prefer to cluster on stems and under leaves.

 Seriousness of the problem: Aphids have a huge capacity for rapid reproduction, and young aphids reach maturity in only six
to seven days.

Preferred environment: Aphids react to plant leaf colour and prefer those that are yellowish-green. They also prefer to live on new growth. Some species are very specific feeders, while others are polyphagous (eat many different species of plants), like the green peach aphid.

Treatment and prevention: An insecticidal soap works best. Apply the soap thoroughly and often until the problem is under control. If the soap doesn’t cover the aphids’ bodies, it won’t kill the pests.


Whiteflies

Physical description: Whiteflies have wedge-like wings and are commonly described as looking like tiny bits of ash. When infested plants are disturbed, clouds of winged adults swarm into the air.

The damage and the signs: Whiteflies feed by sucking juices from leaves. The leaves often become covered in a sticky honeydew, turn yellow and fall off. Leaves may also appear covered in sooty mould. Because whiteflies need a lot of protein for development, they consume large amounts of plant sap. Thus, like aphids, whiteflies secrete a large amount of
honeydew on which sooty mould often grows.

Where to look for them: Look for wingless nymphs on the underside of leaves and for adults on stem ends and the tops of plants.

Seriousness of the problem: Whiteflies can transmit plant
viruses. They are similar to aphids and mites in that their populations can explode. Although they are slow moving, whiteflies spread to nearby plants quite effectively.

Preferred environment: The optimum relative humidity for whitefly is 75–80%. Eggs can survive for only a few days at slightly freezing temperatures, but even moderately sub-freezing winters will kill whitefly in any of its developmental stages.

Treatment and prevention: Thorough applications of insecticidal soap, neem oil and botanical insecticides can be used repeatedly to spot-treat heavily infested areas until the infestation is under control. Yellow sticky traps are also useful for trapping and monitoring the presence of adult whitefly populations.

Whiteflies aren’t really flies at all. In fact, they are more closely related to aphids. As their name suggests, whiteflies have a waxy coating on their bodies that give them a white appearance.


Diseases

When it comes to plant diseases, prevention, not cure, is the operative word. This is the reason most treatments for plant disease usually involve protecting plants before they get a disease rather than trying to eliminate a disease once it has established itself.

There aren’t many products available to control diseases, so the principles of disease control are rather simple: always start with healthy, disease-free plants, don’t introduce disease to those plants and always grow your plants in a healthy, stress-free environment.

Once again, knowledge is key to identifying and dealing with

disease problems, so take the time to learn about what you’re battling. It’s important to know what you’re up against and whether you can beat it.

Biotic Diseases:

Powdery Mildew

What is it? Powdery mildew is a fungus that forms a white powder-like growth on leaf and stem surfaces. It also commonly appears as dry, brown, papery leaf spots. There are numerous powdery mildew species that infect a wide range of plants, but as unattractive as they are, they are rarely fatal. Large amounts of powdery mildew can, however, impair photosynthesis. The one good thing about powdery mildew fungi is that they are fairly host specific, meaning the powdery mildew on your umbrella plant isn’t going to spread to your African violet.

What causes it? Powdery mildew is caused by fungi that survive in dead and decaying plant materials. Spores are often carried to plants by both wind and insects. Contrary to popular belief, powdery mildews aren’t caused by a wet environment; however, they do require high humidity for spores to germinate and invade plant tissue. Grouping plants too closely together and depriving them of adequate air circulation will also encourage a powdery mildew problem.

Control and prevention: Powdery mildew loves thin, weak, leaf tissue, so providing the best growing environment possible goes a long way to preventing an invasion. Unfortunately, fungicides are effective only prior to the mildew becoming established, so stay on top of the problem and remove infected growth as soon as you notice it.


Root & Crown Rot

What is it? Root and crown rot is a catch-all term for a series of plant diseases that attack plant roots and the transition zone between roots and stem, known as the crown. Fungi are usually the culprits, but bacteria can also cause the damage. As the name suggests, root and crown rot causes stems, crowns and roots to turn brownish-black and become soft and mushy. Lesions will normally form on stems near the surface of the soil. When it comes to African violets, the symptoms are slightly different. Watch for older outer leaves that show signs of drooping and for younger inner leaves that are stunted or are turning brownish-black.

What causes it? Root and stem rot diseases are caused by micro--organisms that live in the soil. The disease organisms are, by and large, various species of fungi, but they need the right environment to do their dirty work, such as soil that doesn’t drain easily or has been over-compacted. In fact, I would say 90% of root rot problems can be eliminated by choosing high-quality potting soils and watering properly.

Control and prevention: Your best means of control and prevention is to use high-quality pasteurized soilless mixes, to avoid over-watering and not to repot plants too deeply.


Gray Mould

What is it? Gray mould (or Botrytis sp.) is a fungal disease that forms a fuzzy, grey mould on young foliage and flowerbuds—old, tough, waxy leaves are rarely attacked. For gray mould to get established, it must find foliage that’s had free water sitting on it for a few hours. If there is no free water, it is impossible for gray mould to attack plant tissue. African violets and begonias are susceptible to gray mould. Stem and crown rot may also occur as a result of this disease.

What causes it? The gray mould fungus requires water sitting on susceptible plant matter for an extended period of time. Over-watering, extended periods of cool, damp conditions and improper maintenance (such as lack of deadheading) can all lead to a problem with gray mould.

Control and prevention: Water your plants close to the soil level. Letting water shower over the leaves creates the moist environment in which the Botrytis fungi loves to live—dry leaves are a poor environment for the mould. Let the soil dry out slightly between waterings and space susceptible plants to allow for adequate air circulation. Removing infected leaves and
tissue won’t get rid of the disease, but will slow its spread. Use a proper fungicide. Remember
that the fungi tend to thrive on weakened or injured tissue, so keep plants healthy by deadheading and maintaining an appropriate fertilizing and watering schedule.


Trunk Gall

What is it? Gall looks something like a brown knot and is usually found growing on the tree’s crown or trunk. Most galls won’t kill a tree, but they will disfigure it.

What causes it? Gall is caused by the soil-borne bacteria Agrobacterium tumafaciens, which enters the tree through wounds in the crown or stem. In most cases, gall is not lethal. If the gall cannot be cut out without extensively damaging the tree, I suggest leaving it alone.

Control and prevention: The best way to prevent gall is to use high-quality, pasteurized soilless mixes and to take care not to nick or wound the crown or trunk of trees.


Environmental Diseases (Abiotic):

Edema

What is it? When plant cells absorb more water than they can transpire, the cells literally burst, leaving cork-like swellings on the leaves and stems.

What causes it? Edema is caused by high humidity, over-watering and cool air temperatures.

Control and prevention: Improving light levels so that plants photosynthesize at an increased rate can help prevent edema. Increasing air circulation and allowing plants to dry out slightly between waterings will also help.


Chlorosis

What is it? Chlorosis is a nutrient deficiency that causes leaves and stems to look pale. When nutrients are lacking, chlorophyll, DNA, RNA, proteins and lipids cannot be manufactured. As a result, enzymes are less able to carry out important chemical transformations. Growth is slowed and susceptibility to disease may increase. Infected flowering plants may become dwarfed and produce fewer flowers.

What causes it? Chlorosis may be caused by a lack of nutrients in the soil, poor functioning roots, cold temperatures and water-logged soils.

Control and prevention: Maintain plants in the healthiest condition possible, and be sure to fertilize when needed. Chlorosis is often caused by iron deficiency and soil pH that is too high, so have a soil test done if problems persist.


Leaf Drop

What is it? Leaves dropping off plants.

What causes it? All plants shed leaves, but if a plant suddenly drops healthy green leaves, it is usually an indication of low light. If the dropped leaves are brown or yellow, you might be dealing with soil that is too dry or too wet, natural shed or even disease or insect problems.

Control and prevention: Give the soil a scratch before you water it. Soil that appears dry on the surface may have plenty of moisture below. Green leaf drop is common with plants that are brought indoors after having spent the summer outside. Plants may take a while to adjust to the lower light levels indoors (usually two to three weeks). Remember also to repot plants when necessary—a pot that is too small won’t hold enough soil to support proper leaf development.


Leaf Scorch

What is it? Leaf scorch results when intense sunlight hits leaves that aren’t adapted to high light conditions—such as when low light plants are suddenly moved to high light areas. The result is patches of dead tissue on the areas of leaves that are most exposed to the sun.

What causes it? During hot, dry weather, a plant’s stomata or pores close up and heat builds up. Strong sunlight can destroy chlorophyll in leaves. Prolonged exposure to these environmental factors, combined with an insufficient amount of water, will cause leaves to become scorched and dried out.

Control and prevention: Be vigilant about watering plants during hot, dry spells. If you take plants outdoors for the summer, be especially mindful of leaf scorch. Mulch the soil surface to improve its water-holding capability, and use a high-quality potting mix. Provide diffused light for your plants during months when sun is most intense. There is no ‘cure’ for leaf scorch. When tissue turns brown, it is dead.


Click here for a professional plant diagnosis, or bring a photo and plant same to Hole's Greenhouses to have it diagnosed!

-Jim

Indoor Plant Basics: Fertilizer, by Jim Hole

Fertilizer rules and recommendations

Plants need fertilizer to supplement their diets. Although they feed on light and the nutrients in the soil, a boost of fertilizer can help promote and support strong, healthy growth.

Fertilizers contain three major nutrients to support stem and leaf production, flowering and healthy roots. These elements are nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K). When you look at a container of fertilizer, pay special attention to the fertilizer analysis represented by three hyphenated numbers (for example, 20-20-20 or 10-6-16). The first number represents available nitrogen. The second number represents available phosphate, and the third number represents available potash. The higher the number, the greater the percentage by weight of that nutrient. Plants require nitrogen for leafy growth, so as a general rule, plants grown primarily for their foliage are given a fertilizer with a high first number, a lower second number and a third number that is comparable to the first. Plants grown primarily for their blooms are given a fertilizer with a high third number (K or potash) that promotes flower development. 

Fertilizers are most beneficial to a plant during its growing season (February to October). During winter months there is less light, so hold back on fertilizing unless your plant is showing signs of new growth. A plant’s fertilizer consumption follows its growth curve, which in turn follows a light and temperature curve.

General Rules for Fertilizing

  • Granular and liquid fertilizers work similarly. Be sure to read the instructions and to mix and feed accordingly.
  • Hold off fertilizing for
  • at least a few weeks after plants are repotted. It’s not that the plants don’t need food; it’s that they need only so much. Most soils contain unknown amounts of fertilizer and it’s easy to overfeed your transplant.
  • Water until water flows out the bottom of the container. This step will help flush any buildup of soluble salt deposits. As salts become more concentrated, it becomes harder for a plant to take up a proper supply of water.

Containers

Your plant needs a suitable home to live successfully indoors. That’s why container choice is so important—and there’s a wide range of containers from which to choose.

The two most important factors to consider when choosing a container are size—in both depth and diameter—and drainage. Aesthetics are also a consideration.

Size

Make sure your plant has the proper root-to-soil volume. This means choosing a container that will accommodate a plant’s root system and a sufficient amount of soil to sustain it. An oversized pot holds more soil than is needed, and that soil can easily become saturated with water, disrupting the air/water balance and increasing the plant’s chance of dying of root rot. Never increase soil volume by more than one pot size when repotting.

Drainage

Unless you’re growing an indoor water garden, be sure to choose containers that have drainage holes. Water must be able to drain through the soil and out of the pot. Without proper drainage, a plant is likely to die. If you’re thinking about putting rocks at the bottom of your pot to help with drainage, don’t! It’s a point that you’ll hear repeated in this book—basically because it’s worth repeating. Pebbles shorten the column of soil, allowing the soil to become more easily waterlogged.

Beauty

Just because a container has to be functional doesn’t mean it can’t be attractive, too. Garden centres are full of beautiful containers that fit any style and budget. The right container can make just as big an impression as the plant -itself, so take your time and pay attention to those finishing touches—they have a way of making all the difference.

Tips

  • Remember to buy a saucer or tray to go under a container (many containers are sold with a matching saucer).
  • Add caster wheels to the bottom of a large container for easy mobility.
  • Use decorative moss, pebbles and driftwood on the soil surface to create visual interest and to discourage pets from digging.
  • Conceal less attractive pots and saucers in decorative baskets, crocks or plant stands.

Did you know?

The theory that layers of pebbles at the bottom of a pot is good for a plant is older than it is wise. Pebbles actually hinder drainage by reducing the soil depth. Most people who add rocks to a pot without drainage holes assume that the rocks will create a reservoir for the water to accumulate. While this is true, excessive salts will accumulate in the reservoir over time. Further, when you displace soil space with pebbles, you reduce the amount of living space for roots. To give your plants the best home possible, leave the rocks out of the bottom of their pots.

 

Indoor Plant Basics: Humidity, by Jim Hole

Plants have several basic needs: light, comfortable temperature, humidity, soil, water, fertilizer and physical space. Placed together on one list, the basics look a little daunting, but understanding their significance requires a very small (but thoughtful) investment of your time. And when it comes to plants, a little knowledge really does go a long way.

Humidity

Relative humidity is simply a measure of the amount of water the air will hold at a given temperature. The reason it becomes an important factor in plant health is that it affects plant moisture loss.

Ideal relative humidity for most houseplants is about 60%, but during the winter months when our homes tend to be far less humid, a much more realistic percentage to aim for is about 25%. I have yet to see a plant that has died due to low relative humidity, and I don’t even want to think about the condensation my windows would collect during the winter if I tried to keep my home at 60% relative humidity. So although your plants might appreciate your efforts, don’t fall into the trap of believing you can’t grow beautiful plants in a dry home or office. Remember, there are both deserts and rainforests in nature, and plants thrive in both environments.

Here is a list of ways to maintain ideal humidity:

  • Use a humidifier.
  • Group plants closely so they can benefit from one another’s transpiration.
  • Keep plants away from heat sources like registers and fireplaces.
  • Grow especially humidity-sensitive plants in terrariums—if they’re small enough.

Symptoms indicating that a plant may be suffering from a lack of water (including relative humidity) are brown leaf edges, abnormally small leaves, misshapen plant growth and drooping or wilting.

Note: in most cases, the real culprit at work is a lack of soil moisture—not low relative humidity.

-Jim

 

"How do I safely clean my houseplant?" by Jim Hole

Neglect seems to be inevitable when it comes to caring for houseplants. Let’s face it, there are days—occasionally weeks—when just getting one’s self ready and out the door on time is a feat of heroic proportions. Because plants don’t whine, bark or leave messages on our answering machines, they occasionally fall victim to neglect. To ensure that your plants are around to enjoy years of life in your home or office, set up a maintenance schedule and do your best to stick to it.

Cleaning

Always clean or mist plants with tepid water. Cold water can cause leaves to spot, and hot water is damaging.

Plants clean the air for us, so it’s only fair that we take a turn cleaning them. When a plant’s leaves are dirty, they can’t absorb as much sunlight, which makes photosynthesis more difficult.

Cleaning a plant not only removes sun-blocking dust and helps it to look its best, but it also gives you an opportunity to inspect leaves for general health. Although the job may sound like a lot of work, it’s a great way for plant enthusiasts to get closer to their plants and for gardeners to keep their green thumbs in shape for the next growing season.

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"How often should I clean my plants?"

Aim to clean your plants every month. You probably won’t get around to doing it that often, but the more often you attempt it, the more likely you are to get it done. Depending on what kind of heating system you have, you may find that your house gets dustier at certain times of the year than it does at others.

Tips for cleaning

  1. Dry dust delicate, fuzzy-leaved or crinkly leaved plants with a soft paintbrush.
  2. Use tweezers to remove debris from cacti. Tweezers are ideal for reaching between hairs and spines, and your hands are sure to thank you.
  3. Plants with small, smooth leaves that can’t be practically wiped down can be cleaned by placing a plastic bag over the pot and gently cinching it around the plant’s base with your hand to protect the soil. Hold the plant under a gently running spray of tepid water.
  4. In warm weather, take plants outside and give them a good shower—just be sure to use tepid water and to let it drain before you bring plants back into the house.

-Jim

Indoor Plant Basics: Light, by Jim Hole

Plants have several basic needs: light, comfortable temperature, humidity, soil, water, fertilizer and physical space. Placed together on one list, the basics look a little daunting, but understanding their significance requires a very small (but thoughtful) investment of your time. And when it comes to plants, a little knowledge really does go a long way.

Phototropism.jpg

Light

Plants, like people, need energy to grow. But whereas people seem to obsess over avoiding carbohydrates, plants obsess over making them. I am, of course, referring to photosynthesis—the process by which plants take energy from the sun and convert it into sugars that can be used to grow. This process has been called the most important chemical reaction in the world.

Measuring Light

Light is the single most important factor in determining whether your houseplants will thrive or die. Unfortunately, it is also the most poorly understood factor. It comes down to understanding that the amount of light your plants receive will determine whether they are rapidly dying plants, slow-dying plants, status quo plants (neither gaining nor losing growth), slow-growing plants or rapidly growing plants.

Because light can’t be held in one’s hands or poured into a glass and measured, you have to think of it in terms of intensity, quality and duration.

  1. Intensity of light: the strength of light available
  2. Quality of light: the wavelengths or colours of light
  3. Duration of light: the amount of time plants are exposed to light in a 24-hour period

The relationship between these three factors is important. For example, if the quality of light is high, but there isn’t much of it (intensity), or it doesn’t last very long (duration), will your plant do well? Not on your life! Ideally, you want to give your plants the perfect intensity of the highest quality spectrum light for the optimum amount of time. But that will never happen. So the situation comes down to compromise and manipulation. The fact is, as wonderful as a short burst of perfect light is, 12 hours of lower quality light is better.

Light Factors

By far, the greatest challenge you’ll have is providing your houseplants with enough light. Providing the ideal quantity of light seems like a fairly easy task initially, but consider the complicating factors that reduce the amount of natural light that gets to a plant’s leaves.

  • Not as much sunlight enters your home in the winter as it does in the summer. In fact, winter light may be 20% of summer light. This, of course, is because the days are shorter and the sun is lower in the sky.
  • Moving plants even a few extra feet away from a window will cause a dramatic reduction in sunlight. A few feet doesn’t sound like much, but it is not uncommon to see a 100-fold drop in light when a plant is moved from a windowsill to a table a few feet away.
  • Windows are not a source of sunlight—they merely allow light to pass through with, at best, 93% sunlight transmission. The sunlight transmission may drop to less than 50% if the glass is tinted.
  • South-facing windows usually provide the greatest amount of sun exposure due to the sun’s apogee (or track across the sky). For us in the northern hemisphere, the sun tracks across the southern sky with a high angle in the summer and a low angle in the winter. Because of this angle, south-facing windows tend to get the greatest amount of year-round light exposure, with west-facing and east-facing windows coming in second and third respectively. North-facing windows receive little, if any direct light but can capture enough indirect sunlight to grow a few low-light plants.

Other factors that contribute to inconsistent natural light:

Many other factors may contribute to inconsistent natural light throughout the year, including fog, cloud cover, elevation, drapes and window treatments, the presence of ultraviolet-blocking coatings, dirt or dust on the window, reflections from light-coloured interior paint and the presence of awnings, overhangs or shade trees near windows.

Artificial Lights

Fortunately for plant lovers, artificial lights can be used to supplement the natural light that windows provide. What’s unfortunate, however, is that there tends to be a lot of confusion about what artificial lights can and cannot do.

The majority of the lights available in garden centres are referred to as grow lights, implying that they have some magical ability to grow plants above and beyond that of standard lights. The reality is that virtually every common household light is a grow light. In other words, they all emit at least some light in the visible light spectrum—otherwise, why would we use them? Some of these lights are better than others when it comes to light spectrum, but all of them (with the exception of those used by professional growers) are quite wimpy. What I mean by that is typical grow lights from hardware stores kick out very little total light energy and, therefore, may starve your plants. Many so-called grow lights do have plant-friendly light spectrums, but they are equivalent to one wonderfully flavoured, but Lilliputian-sized appetizer at a dinner party—something that will satisfy your tastebuds but starve you if it’s the whole meal.

To give you an idea of what grow lights can and can’t do, let’s compare some of the common ‘grow lights’ you might find in a store.

Fluorescent Lights:

  • Cool white-light fluorescent tubes: Cool white-light fluorescents emit a high percentage of blue light and green light (which is why people’s complexions look a little dull under them). These lights are convenient, economical, energy efficient and—best of all—don’t produce excessive heat. Although these lights stimulate some of the processes needed for growth, they don’t provide enough of the entire spectrum of light that plants need to grow to their full potential.
  • Warm white-light fluorescent tubes: Warm white-light fluorescents are slightly better than cool white-light flourescents in that they provide a greater portion of the light spectrum (specifically the red band), but these lights don’t entirely meet a plant’s needs either.

Incandescent Lights:

  • An incandescent light is any light that has a filament. Although incandescent light is the light people tend to prefer, plants don’t really value it. Most of the electrical energy from an incandescent light is converted to heat, and only 6–12% is converted to usable light. Because incandescent lights produce a lot of red light, they need to be used in combination with fluorescent tubes in a ratio of about 1:3 to prevent plants from becoming stretched and lanky. So for 100 watts of fluorescent light, provide about 30 watts of incandescent light. This ratio ensures a better red-to-blue light balance.

Note: the intensity of light drops dramatically as distance increases between light bulb and plant, so height-adjustable fluorescent tubes are ideal for tweaking that optimum distance.


Did you know?

Chloroplasts are structures that contain chlorophyll and give plants their green colour. The primary duty of chlorophyll is to take electromagnetic energy (sunlight) and change it into chemical energy. Without this conversion, electromagnetic energy can’t be turned into the usable energy we call food.


Managing Light Levels

It’s important to realize that a plant that requires low light can be placed in a room with bright southern exposure. The key, however, to keeping that plant from becoming stressed is moving it an appropriate distance away from the window. The closer a plant is to a window or skylight, the more light it receives. Just remember that light intensity and duration change with the seasons.

Outdoors, the intensity of sunlight cast in the middle of a summer day may average between 10,000 and 12,000 foot-candles. Indoors, light intensity depends on a combination of artificial and natural light. The best way to measure light is with a light -meter.

A light meter can show how light levels change as you move away from a window. At one time, light intensity for plants was measured in foot-candles, but that is a term more suited to measuring the human eye’s sensitivity to light than it is to measuring the light energy that plants use. The correct term for plant light intensity is a bit of a tongue twister—photosynthetic photon flux. The actual units are measured as micromolecs per square metre per second. If this sounds complicated, try thinking of measuring light as we do raindrops. The volume of water that hits each square metre every second can be measured and quantified.

-Jim

 

Indoor Plants & Selecting The Perfect Soil, by Jim Hole

The quality of potting mix can mean the difference between life and death for a houseplant, so invest in a high-quality mix—one that offers the correct balance of water and oxygen. This balance is important because the soil must be able to retain moisture long enough to sustain a plant between waterings yet also allow for proper drainage.

Don’t reuse soil from the pots of ‘plants past.’ If the plant died because of pests or disease, the soil could be contaminated. Even if the plant died because you dried it out, chances are the soil has too few pore spaces (pockets of open spaces that can be filled with water) to sustain a new plant. As soil decomposes, it starts to lose pore space and becomes too dense for air to infiltrate and for roots to grow properly. Pots can, however, be reused—just be sure to scrub them clean and then soak them in a solution of 10% bleach and water.


If I wear one snobbish indulgence proudly, it has to be my penchant for correcting people when they refer to soil as dirt. Soil is not dirt. Soil is defined as a dynamic natural body composed of inert and organic solids, gases, liquids and living organisms, which can serve as a med­ium for plant growth. Dirt is just the stuff under your fingernails, thank you very much.


Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in the absence of soil. Instead, a plant’s roots grow in nutrient-rich water. Hydroponics might seem like something new and high-tech, but the practice goes all the way back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

 

Potting Mix vs. Soil Mix

Soil is the term most people use to describe the black medium in which we pot plants. But the truth is that most of the ‘soil’ to which we refer is actually soil-less—completely free of what we traditionally think of as garden soil. It looks
like rich field or garden soil and even smells like it but is completely different.

Most potting mixes contain at least one of the following materials: peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, sand and lime (to neutralize the peat moss), bark, pumice or compost. Soil mixes, on the other hand, contain a blend of soil. So when you’re looking for ‘soil,’ be sure to read the bags carefully and choose a high-quality soilless potting mix.

Specialty Potting Mixes

African violets, cacti and orchids require special potting mixes. Because of the popularity of these plants, distributors have come up with special commercial blends of each.

Orchid mixes: To the uninitiated, this planting medium might look unable to sustain anything other than a beaver. Many contain two or three types of bark, coarse sphagnum peat, fine-grade pumice and sponge rock. It’s an odd combination, but one that serves an important purpose.

Some species of orchids grow on trees in their natural habitat. These orchids are referred to as epiphytic plants—those having roots exposed to the air. One of the reasons orchid mixes contain bark and moss is to allow air to move freely through the medium. This air movement allows an orchid’s roots to absorb moisture and nutrients from the humid air.

Cacti mixes: Even someone who doesn’t know much about cacti knows that these plants prefer dry soil. It should come as no surprise to find that the standard potting medium for cacti is composed of coarse sand, potting mix, peat and perlite. Although the formula varies from one commercial mix to another, all cacti mixes are designed to provide rapid drainage.

African violet mixes: African violets like a light, loose, porous soil, so most commercial African violet mixes consist of three parts peat moss, two parts coarse vermiculite and one part perlite. Lime is also often added to bring the pH level to the 5.8–6.0 range. Because African violets hate their roots sitting in water, the loose, porous soil is important for the health of these plants.

-Jim

 

The Basics of Watering Indoor Plants, by Jim Hole

Watering Gadgets

Many homes have great vertical spaces that are ideal for plants. The trouble is that while high ledges and tops of bookshelves are perfect spots for growing plants, they can also create inconvenient watering situations. Fortunately, there are many gadgets designed to make watering a little easier.

My best advice is to keep it simple.
A lightweight stepladder and a long-necked watering can is all you really need. Just be sure to choose a watering can you can comfortably handle. A plastic watering can might not weigh much when it’s empty, but fill it with water, hold it away from your body and watch just how quickly your arm starts shaking.

Hold the Fluoride…and the Chlorine, Please

Plants are not as enamoured of fluoride as we are. In fact, the fluoride in our tap water can be quite a problem for dracaenas, palms and ti-plants. Spider plants (especially variegated ones) are extremely sensitive to fluoride, so watch for signs of damage such as browning of foliage tips. If you want to avoid complications related to fluoride, water with distilled water or rainwater when possible.

If soils have adequate lime and a proper pH level, fluoride in the water will be tightly bound in the soil and not be drawn up by the plant roots.

Chlorine is another nutrient that can be hard on plants. If you grow chlorine-sensitive plants, like African violets, fill your watering can in the evening and let it stand overnight. This will allow the chlorine to evaporate and will also bring the water to room temperature.

There are many tools and gadgets on the market designed to measure soil moisture, yet very few are as reliable or as ‘handy’ as the 10 you
already have. There’s no secret method to checking whether a plant needs water. Just walk over and stick your finger in the potting soil, scratching down 2–3 cm into the soil. Moist soil should feel about as wet as a damp sponge. In fact, the soil should feel a little spongy, too. Even when the top layer of soil looks dry, there may still be plenty of moisture just beneath the surface.

How much water your plant needs and how often your plant needs it depend on the following factors:

  • Type of plant
  • Size of plant
  • Size and type of container
  • Soil composition
  • Humidity of the growing environment
  • Season
  • Location of the plant in the room
  • Average room temperature

Know your plant’s preferences and water accordingly. Don’t forget that although most plants will forgive you if you miss a watering here or there, some plants aren’t as tolerant. Boston ferns, for example, hate dry soil. On the flip side, cacti hate being too wet.

Watering Methods

Most plants get watered from the top, but that says more about people’s preferences than it does about plants. Most plants don’t care whether they are watered from the top or from the bottom as long as they are watered regularly and sufficiently. A general way to gauge whether you’ve given your plant enough to drink is to check for water running through the drainage holes at the bottom of the container. This runoff is particularly important because it flushes excess salts from the soil. Just be sure to drain any water that remains sitting in the base of the saucer.

Watering from the top

• Consider grouping plants together in the bathtub and giving them a gentle watering and shower. After you’ve watered, let your plants stay in the tub for a few hours. This will allow them to drain properly and keep you from tracking water across your house.

• Don’t water from high above your plant. Place the spout of your watering can close to the lip of the container and water from a different side each time. Watering from the same spot each time will wash away sections of topsoil and leave behind craters.

Watering from the bottom

Some plants, like African violets, prefer to wick water through the drainage holes in the bottoms of their pots, essentially drawing up water until the surface soil is moist. This method is particularly beneficial to fuzzy-leaved plants that tend to blemish when they come in contact with water.

-Jim

Jim's Top Tips For Choosing Indoor Plants

There’s nothing new about people telling me their gardening stories; however, I’ve noticed a strange thing happens when I mention the word “houseplant” to people who, moments earlier, were raving about their green thumbs. Like magic, that one word seems to induce a chain reaction of grisly confessions. The interesting thing is that, although there is never any joy attached to these accounts, I don’t think I come across bigger smiles than the ones I see on the faces of people who tell me their favorite I-killed-a-houseplant stories. More times than not, these conversations turn into bizarre competitions of who has the best (that is, most horrific) account.

At first glance, it might seem like people are proud of their failures, but I’ve realized (partly through my own houseplant nightmares) that this enthusiasm has more to do with relief than with masochism. By telling our happily-never-after stories, we get to tend to our enormous guilt and take ownership of our mistakes. It’s a sense of responsibility that runs deep and one that I believe stems from the fact that nature didn’t create houseplants—we did.

A book dedicated to indoor plants seemed like the natural next step in our What Grows Here? series. It’s designed to strike a balance between the desire to bring nature indoors and the knowledge to do it properly. As with previous books in this series, this one offers helpful tips and information about how to select plants to suit a number of diverse locations and environments. Because people’s experiences with houseplants seem to vary from terrific to tragic, I’ve included information for indoor gardeners of all levels, from the basics about light, water and soil to specific details about caring for orchids and grooming topiaries. So whether you’re
looking for a plant for that dark corner in your first apartment, wanting to make a terrarium with your kids or planning to create a plant
border for your office, you’ll be able to find the knowledge you need here.

Like all relationships, the one we have with houseplants
is at its best when it’s cultivated with understanding, respect and good advice. In fact, a relationship is exactly what you’ll find at the core of What Grows Here? Indoors. It’s our goal to turn information into knowledge, hesitation into confidence and problems into solutions.

Choosing Indoor Plants

Plants are often impulse buys. You see a gorgeous display of seasonal plants at the grocery store, and before you know it, there’s a violet or poinsettia sitting in your grocery cart next to the magazine you weren’t going to buy and the bag of potato chips you swore off the week before. The best way to ensure the plant outlasts that bag of chips is to think before you buy. Simply taking a little extra time to think about what you want from the plant—and what it needs from you—will greatly increase your chance of bringing home a plant that you can enjoy for years.

Here are a few tips to make that happen:

  1. Come prepared. Know which directions your rooms face and how much sunlight they get. Light is key to growing all plants, so knowing the intensity of the light that shines through your windows is key to selecting appropriate plants.
  2. Note both the daytime and nighttime temperature of your room.
  3. Consider how much space you have for a plant. Be careful not to select one that will outgrow your space too quickly.
  4. Be honest about how much time and care you have to give a houseplant. If you know you are likely to water irregularly, be sure to select a plant that will be forgiving.
  5. Talk to knowledgeable staff.
  6. Don’t be afraid to ask ‘stupid’ questions. Chances are you can’t come up with anything that hasn’t already been asked. Besides, when you take that little bit of time to strike up a conversation, knowledgeable staff will often offer answers to questions you may not have known to ask.
  7. Describe that plant you have in mind. Even if you can’t remember its name, you can still describe its form and growing habit.
  8. Select plants according to their light requirements. Different plants need different amounts of light, so read tags and note the suggestions.
  9. Inspect leaves for general health.
  10. Keep an eye out for pests and blotches that could indicate fungal or bacterial problems. In general, leaves should look shiny—not dusty or covered in residue.
  11. • Look for new leaves. Sometimes it’s hard to tell a new leaf from an old one, but color is a clue. New leaves are often a lighter and brighter shade of green.
  12. Look for buds on flowering plants. Plants need to be healthy to support bud production, so an abundance of buds indicates that the plant isn’t under stress.
  13. Buy seasonal plants early. They are usually very popular, so get yours before they get picked over.
  14. Ask about delivery. Large plants can be hard to get home, so take advantage of services that are available.

-Jim