May 28, 2022

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Home living innovation

Stir-crazy antidotes, Joe’s seedy advice, and what’s ailing the houseplants: This Month in the Garden

Cabin-fever lifters

After nearly a full year of laying low to fend off COVID-19 infection, so-called “cabin fever” probably seems worse than ever this winter.

Gardeners might not be able to wash it away as easily as during peak gardening season, but there are some garden-y activities that can be done now to keep from going completely stir crazy.

The best scenario is taking advantage of warm and snowless spells to get a few things done outside. Yanking any 2020 left-over dead plants, cutting back browned-out ornamental grasses and perennials, and edging the beds are three that come to mind.

While you’re out there, check for any new plants that have “heaved” partly out of the ground from freezing and thawing (tamp them back down) and yank cool-season weeds that have emerged in the bare beds and lawn.

Winter also is a good time to evaluate tree health. Trunks and limbs are easier to see with the leaves off, giving you clues on what pruning or other care might be needed.

Fruit trees are also ideally pruned later in winter.

When the weather doesn’t cooperate, use the inside time to clean and sharpen your tools and buy or order supplies for the coming season (fertilizer, sprays, potting mix, etc.)

If you didn’t do it at the end of last season, how about cleaning the mower, changing the oil, and sharpening the blades?

February is a prime seed-starting month, so buy or order your seeds and begin starting the vegetables and flowers that you plan to plant in spring. (See more on that below.)

For that matter, leaf through books, magazines, and catalogs, and surf the Internet for ideas and inspiration on plants to try this year or other changes you’d like to make in the yard.

Five other cabin-fever antidotes:

* Pay a visit to Hershey Gardens’ butterfly atrium or Longwood Gardens’ elaborate conservatory complex. Even a stroll through the houseplant section of a garden center might give you a brief chlorophyll reprieve. Mask up and social-distance.

* Make babies. Plant babies, that is. Take six-inch cuttings from houseplants or over-wintering tropical plants, snip off the lower leaves, and stick the bottoms in damp potting mix. If they root after a few weeks, you have free new plants.

* “Force” a few branches. Cut foot-long branch tips from spring-flowering trees and shrubs, plunge them into a bucket of very warm water for six hours, then place the bottoms in water-filled vases.

In two to four weeks, many will leaf out and/or flower inside, giving you a free bouquet. Among the best bets: Cornelian cherry dogwood, forsythia, fothergilla, witch hazel, crabapple, cherry, ornamental pear, lilac, magnolia, PJM rhododendron, quince, serviceberry, and willow.

* Take a virtual garden tour. Many public gardens and travel websites have online video tours that let you dream of being in these flower-filled places.

One good launching pad is Garden Visit, a British website with rundowns and links to more than 2,760 worldwide gardens.

  • Read George’s 2020 column for more on virtual-gardening activities

* Bone up on your know-how. Now’s the time to catch up on that stack of gardening magazines you didn’t have time to read in summer or to curl up with a good book.

Or sign up for a gardening webinar or peruse the many, many online sites that provide gardening information, advice, and plant suggestions.

Joe Lamp’l turned his basement into a seed-starting lab to figure out best at-home techniques.

Eight seed-starting tips

Joe Lamp’l, a.k.a. “Joe Gardener,” the host of PBS’s “Growing a Greener World,” did some monumental testing last year of how best to start seeds at home.

He turned his Atlanta basement into a seed-starting lab, crammed with 60 seed trays of 18 to 72 cells each. Then he bought all sorts of lights and grew the seedlings under 14 different lighting scenarios to see what difference that important factor makes.

Some highlights of what Joe learned:

1.) Ordinary workshop fluorescent light tubes (known as T12s) work reasonably well if you’re just growing seedlings for four to six weeks. One cool-light tube and one warm one in each unit improves the light spectrum.

2.) Higher-efficiency T5 fluorescent tubes and newer LED grow lights are markedly brighter, but that doesn’t always equate to best plant performance.

Joe found, for example, that a 2,000-watt, full-spectrum, $300 grow-light LED bulb might be ideal for big plants that you’re trying to get to flower or fruit inside, but the light was too powerful for young seedlings.

3.) Basic workshop fluorescent tubes work best when the lights are kept very close above the seedlings, ideally one inch.

Higher-output T5 fluorescent tubes are much brighter but put out more heat, and so are best kept about six inches above the seedlings to keep the tips from frying.

The height for LEDs varies with their intensity and heat output. Joe says to watch how plants respond and then move the lights up or down accordingly.

4.) To regulate the height, Joe says ratchet pulleys are a better idea than hanging chains from S hooks. These can be raised, lowered, and leveled with a tug and click.

5.) Running the lights 16 hours on and eight hours off is usually ideal.

Joe found that letting them on longer – up to and including all the time – is counter-productive and more light than the plants need.

6.) Don’t start seeds too early and have them grow too long inside.

Joe says maturing plants don’t grow as well in the artificial environment under lights, so starting them too early and keeping them under lights for too long also starts to become counter-productive.

Most plants are ready for the outdoors after just four to six weeks under lights.

7.) Add water to the seed tray and let the roots soak it up rather than dousing the tender seedlings with watering cans from above.

However, don’t let excess water sit in the nested trays after bottom-watering or roots could rot. Limit the water to what the seedling mix soaks up in about 15 minutes or dump any excess water after the surface of the seedling mix becomes wet.

8.) Germination mats and plastic domes are fine for germinating seeds, but once plants are up and growing, stop using them.

Excess heat and humidity can lead to overly tender growth and/or a disease called damping off that causes seedlings to keel over at the base.

Besides removing heat mats and domes, Joe recommends running a small fan or two on low across the seedlings to discourage damping off.

  • Read George’s 2020 PennLive column on how to start seeds on the cheap
Houseplant bug fixes

Wiping bugs off leaves manually and giving houseplants a cleansing shower are two ways to keep houseplants healthy over winter.

What’s wrong with the houseplants?

It’s not easy if you’re a plant trying to grow in a pot inside a dry, light-starved Pennsylvania house in winter.

By this time of year, our houseplants can show their displeasure in a variety of ways. What you should do about troubles – if anything – depends on what’s causing them.

Here’s a guide, based on information from Penn State University’s Department of Horticulture, to help with your plant detective work.

Plants are spindly or “leggy:” Not enough light.

Plant is wilting: Overwatering, roots are dying (or dead) from lack of water, root-rot disease, stem canker.

Leaves are brown around the edges: Too much light, not enough water, soil has excess salt from fertilizer and/or softened water, plant is getting blasted by hot/dry air from nearby heat source.

Leaves are yellowing: Overwatering, not enough light, air is too dry, nutrient deficiency, plants are getting blasted by cold air from being too near a door.

Leaves sticky, distorted, and have black mold: Aphids, scale.

Leaves turning white or “bleached:” Too much light, recent move from darker to brighter location.

Yellowing, stippled leaves with fine webbing visible: Mites.

Spots with yellow rings on leaves: Fungal or bacterial leaf-spot disease.

Stunted growth and white cottony material on stems: Mealybugs.

Mottled and/or distorted leaves: Virus disease.

White powdery growth on leaves: Powdery mildew disease.

White non-powdery patches on leaves: Salt or calcium residue from fertilizers or hard water.

Once you’ve isolated a problem, step two is deciding if treatment is needed, and if so, what kind.

Repotting may help with soil issues, such as soggy soil, poor drainage, excess salt, and nutrient deficiency.

  • Read George’s post on how to repot houseplants

Relocating the plant can help with issues including light (too much or not enough), drafts from doors, and dry air from nearby heat sources.

Snipping off diseased foliage and using fungicides labeled for houseplant are options for disease issues.

And “soft” pesticides such as oils and soaps, wipe-downs with rubbing alcohol, and even wash-offs with plain water can address bug problems.

Sometimes it’s cheaper and easier to just toss and replace an ailing houseplant, though – especially if you’ve had it for years.

An excellent houseplant-diagnosis resource (with pictures) is the book “What’s Wrong with My Houseplant?” by David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth (Timber Press, 2016, $24.95 paperback).

Also helpful is the University of Maryland’s free Landscape Problem Solver website, which has pictures and management tips on all sorts of houseplant problems.

Or if you’d just rather switch to something less troublesome, see George’s list of 10 houseplants you’re unlikely to kill.

  • Read George’s post on seven secrets of good houseplant care
  • Read George’s article on 14 striking indoor plants

More when-to-do-what tips: George’s “Pennsylvania Month-by-Month Gardening” book