Ferns Are Made For Shade

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Ferns are famous for distinctive foliage.

Without color or fragrance of flowers, ferns provide some of the most distinctive foliage in the garden. They do not turn color in autumn. Only a few tree ferns develop sculptural branch structure. Yet, they do their job well, and many are happy to do so in spots that are a bit too shady for other plants.

Almost all ferns are low perennials that produce foliage that arches outward from the center. Some can get quite broad. A few tree ferns grow upward on trunks (although the trunks are merely tough roots that grow through decomposing stems). Australian tree ferns can get quite tall and broad where sheltered from wind.

The staghorn fern is a weird epiphyte that naturally clings to tree trunks or rock outcroppings where it collects organic debris that falls from trees above. In home gardens, it is popularly grown on wooden plaques or as a hanging plant. Hanging plants do not necessarily need pots, or sometimes engulf their pots as they grow.

Leaves of ferns are known as ‘fronds’, and with few exceptions, are intricately lobed or divided into smaller leaflets known as ‘pinnae’, which are arranged on opposite sides of leafstalks known as ‘rachi’ (or singularly as ‘rachis’). The staghorn fern has unusually branched but otherwise unlobed fronds. The bird’s next fern has has distinctively simple fronds without any lobes or pinnae.

Most of the popular ferns are naturally understory plants that grow below larger plants. Even most tree ferns grow amongst larger trees. This is why so many ferns tolerate shade so well. In fact, many prefer partial shade, and will actually fade or scorch if too exposed. However, it is also why so many ferns prefer rich soil with an abundance of organic matter.

Maidenhair, rabbit’s foot, bird’s nest, holly, Boston and a few other ferns are popular as houseplants. Because home interiors are a somewhat arid for them (lacking humidity), some ferns like to be misted daily. Ferns respond well to regular but light application of fertilizer. Too much fertilizer can roast foliage.

Because ferns are not expected to bloom, nitrogen (which can inhibit bloom for some plants) is not a problem. Ferns that are out in the garden can therefore get fish emulsion or a bit of the same sort of nitrogen fertilizers that keep lawns green.

Foliage Is Meant For Weather

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Lush foliar houseplants enjoy occasional rinsing.

Foliage needs sunlight for photosynthesis. Foliage needs air for respiration. Roots need moisture to sustain foliage. Houseplants can technically get all of what they need from the confinement of their pots within the interiors of homes and other buildings. They only require sufficient moisture to be delivered to them, and sufficient sunlight from windows. The air is the same that we all utilize.

However, there is no substitute for nature. While hydroponics and synthetic light facilitate yet more deprivation of what is natural, the plants involved would appreciate more consideration. Without exception, domesticated plants are descendants of plants that grew wild somewhere. Those that dislike local weather would be pleased with the weather of their respective ancestral homelands.

Most of the popular houseplants that are grown for their lush foliage originated from tropical forests. Many were understory plants that prefer the shade of larger trees. That is how they tolerate the relatively shaded interiors of buildings. Now that they are here as houseplants, they appreciate shelter from frost. They probably miss rain, humidity, sporadic breezes and tropical warmth though.

Rinsing tropical foliage plants in the shower eliminates some of the dust that they accumulate where air stagnates. Rinsing them out in the garden is even better because it does not make such a mess in the shower. What is even better than both of these options is allowing a gentle rain to rinse the foliage. Plants only need to be moved to a windless spot prior to an expected rain shower.

The weather was much too cool earlier in winter. There will be no rain later in summer. This time of year, and again next autumn, the weather is safely mild; and eventually, a few showers are likely. Timing is critical. Plants should be brought out just prior to rain, and brought in before the weather gets sunny. Foliage that has always been sheltered is very sensitive to scald from direct sunlight.

Saucers and pots can be cleaned while outside. Crowded plant can be repotted.

Cymbidium Orchid

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Cymbidiums are the most familiar orchids.

Of all the many and varied orchids, cymbidium orchids are the most popular because they are the easiest to grow. They are naturally terrestrial, so can be grown in the ground if the media (soil) is coarse and rich enough. (epiphytic orchids that naturally grow in crotches of trees want coarse bark in well drained pots.) They are also more tolerant of cool weather than tropical orchids are.

Plants with slightly yellowish leaves tend to bloom better. If the foliage is too dark green, it may not be getting enough sunlight. Regular application of fertilizer may promote bloom, although some plants do not seem to be too demanding. Watering may need to be as frequent as every three days through summer.

The arching flower stalks that begin to appear over winter may bloom for two months. They can be three feet tall, so stand well above the strap shaped leaves that get about two feet tall. Each stalk has many waxy flowers that can be two or three inches wide, in almost any color but blue. Most flowers are pastel hues of pink, lavender, yellow, orange, chartreuse, tan or white, and are intricately spotted and blotched.

Orchids Have History In California

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Breeding has done wonders with orchids.

It is funny how so many different plants get here from all over the world, and then become so popular so far from their natural homes that they seem to have always been here. It is now hard to imagine that some of the more popular cymbidium orchids actually came from tropical and subtropical Asia and northern Australia. Other orchids are from tropical Africa or South America.

As the Nineteenth Century turned to the Twentieth, orchids were popularized by those who profited from industry in the east, and then moved west to escape harsh winters. They arrived in the Mediterranean climate of the Santa Barbara region with resources to spend on outfitting luxury homes with comparably luxurious gardens and exotic plants. Orchids were a natural choice.

At homes in Montecito and Hope Ranch, cymbidium orchids were grown is mass plantings, and maintained by professional horticulturists. The popularity of orchids continued for decades. As the extensive orchid collections of England were threatened by the bombing and fuel shortages of World War II, collectors and horticulturists in California brought them here to be safe and warm.

Many of these refugee orchids were bred extensively by Californian horticulturists to produce many of the countless varieties that are now available. Production of blooming potted orchid plants and cut orchid flowers have become major horticultural industries in California. To this day, the Santa Barbara region produces more orchids than any other region in America. Modern tissue culture cloning technology has made it possible to propagate and grow more orchid plants at a faster rate than ever before. This makes them more affordable.

Even though mass plantings of cymbidium orchids are now rare, orchids are probably as popular as they ever have been, simply because they are so available to more people who can enjoy them. They are not limited to fancy gardens of luxury homes. Cymbidiums are still popular potted plants for sheltered porches. Small but flashy moth orchids are among the most popular of blooming potted plants for homes and offices.

Ornamental Pepper

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Colorful but not flavorful ornamental pepper.

The red, orange, yellow, purple, white or almost black fruit of ornamental pepper that naturally develops in summer can be seen at any time of year because the plants are grown in artificial greenhouse environments. The peppers are usually small and narrow, and stand upright above their glossy rich green foliage. Some are narrower. Others are a plumper. Technically, the fruit is edible, but it is not as flavorful as peppers grown for culinary purposes.

Because the plants are sensitive to frost, they are more often grown as houseplants than out in the garden. In the garden, they need shelter to survive as perennials. As houseplants, they need warm and sunny exposure in order to bloom and develop fruit. They should be watered regularly, but only as their potting soil is starting to get dry.

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Look but do not bother tasting.

Overworked Plants May Recover Slowly

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Some potted plants are real overachievers.

Landscaping and growing houseplants really is no way to bring nature closer to home. If it were up to nature, most of our gardens would be relatively bare. Most of the few native trees are less than ideal for home gardens. The few native annuals and perennials with colorful flowers bloom only briefly. Almost all native shrubbery is scrubby and not conducive to pruning. After all, most of us live in what would naturally be coastal chaparral.

This is why home gardens contain so many exotic plants from so many different climates and regions all over the world. These plants get pruned, shorn and mown in all sorts of unnatural ways. Most do better if watered unnaturally through naturally dry summer weather. Many crave unnatural fertilizer. Houseplants and a few others are confined to pots so that roots can not disperse like they want to.

Potted plants that are forced into bloom to decorate home interiors are the most unnatural of all. They are among the most extensively bred of plants. They are grown in contrived environments that coerce them to bloom whenever their blooms are needed. Poinsettias, lilies, azaleas, hydrangeas, kalanchoes, callas, miniature roses, chrysanthemums and some orchids are the more familiar of these sorts of plants.

They are certainly colorful by the time they leave the greenhouses they were grown in. By the time they come home, they are in the middle of full bloom. There is no work to get them to bloom. The work is in keeping blooms as healthy and as colorful as possible, for as long as possible. Most of these plants only want to be watered regularly, and are happy to keep their color for quite a while.

By the time they want fertilizer, blooming potted plants will have finished blooming. Sadly, at that time, most get discarded instead. Realistically though, such systematically abused plants can be rather ugly as they replace their greenhouse foliage with foliage that is better adapted to the garden. The process of forcing them into bloom is just too unnatural and difficult to recover from easily.

Yet, with enough patience and pampering, most blooming potted plants should eventually recover and adapt to a garden lifestyle. Lilies, callas and other bulb-like plants should be put aside in the garden while their foliage fades and eventually separates from the bulbs. The dormant bulbs can then be planted and allowed to grow into their new environments.

Hobbit’s Pipe

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Jade plant has some weird cultivars.

Good old fashioned jade plant has a few interesting cultivars (cultivated varieties) that exhibit variations of color, texture and form. Hobbit’s pipe, Crassula ovata ‘Hobbit’, is similar to classic jade plant in form and color. It is only slightly lighter green, and only a bit shorter. The succulent stems are just as plump and gray. The small and round-topped clusters of pale pink or white flowers that bloom sporadically are just as unimpressive. What is unique about hobbit’s pipe is the weirdly tubular foliage. Each leaf is rolled into a cylinder, with a hollow tip.

Mature plants do not often get much more than two feet tall and broad, although they have the potential to get twice as large. Because they are more sensitive to frost than other jade plants, hobbit’s pipe should be grown in sheltered spots, or pots that can be moved to sheltered spots through the coldest part of winter. Foliage that is too exposed during the warmest weather of summer can get roasted. Hobbit’s pipe can tolerate a slight bit of shade, so can be happy as a houseplant.

Seasonal Potted Plants For Christmas

91218thumb‘Tis the season for seasonal potted plants. These are not well established houseplant or potted plants that live out on porches and patios through the year. Seasonal potted plants are those that are purchased at their prime, allowed to live in our homes and offices while they continue to bloom or maintain their foliage, and then most likely get discarded when no longer visually appealing.

Poinsettia epitomizes winter seasonal potted plants. Florists’ cyclamen, azalea, holly, amaryllis, Christmas cactus and small living Christmas trees are other overly popular choices. All are grown in very synthetic environments designed to force optimal performance, with no regard to survival afterward. They are like cut flowers that are not yet dead. They are true aberrations of horticulture.

Technically, any of them can survive as potted plants, or out in the garden after they serve their purpose as appealing seasonal potted plants. Their main difficulty is that it is not so easy for them to recover from their prior cultivation, and adapt to more realistic environmental conditions. For now, it is best to enjoy them at their best, and try to maintain them at their best for as long as possible.

Eventually, they all experience a phase in which their original growth deteriorates to some extent, while they start to generate new growth that is adapted to the situation that they are in at the time. Christmas cactus are probably the most proficient at adapting, and becoming delightful houseplants. They are even likely to bloom occasionally, although not on any particular schedule for winter.

Holly, azalea and cyclamen can eventually get planted out in the garden. Most hollies grow into large evergreen shrubbery, but do not produce as many berries as they originally did. Azaleas are cultivars that were developed to be seasonal potted plants, so are a bit more finicky than those developed more for landscapes. Cyclamen can be added to pots of mixed annuals and perennials.

Living Christmas trees are not so easy to accommodate. Most are pines that need their space.

Kalanchoe

41112It is unfortunate that, like Easter lilies and poinsettias, most kalanches, Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, are enjoyed while actively blooming, and then discarded as their blooms fade. It is so easy to simply snip out the deteriorating flowers, and grow the small perennials plants for their appealing succulent foliage until they bloom again. They do not get much more than half a foot tall, so can stay in small pots indefinitely. They seem to prefer the porosity of clay pots. Because they can rot, they should be watered when the surface of the soil seems to be getting dry, and their drainage saucers should not be allowed to hold water too long. Kalanchoes like bright but indirect sunlight. They can be acclimated to direct sun exposure, but might seem to be somewhat stunted. If brought in before frost, they can be happy out on a patio. The clustered small flowers can be white, pink, red or bright or pastel shades of orange or yellow.

Horridculture – Fake Media

P90911This is no way to get the dirt on someone. There is no dirt involved. If there were, it would be referred to as ‘soil’. ‘Dirt’ is a term used by those who do not know any better.

Anyway, this is about the media that plants are grown in. It might be called growing media, potting media, potting mix or simply potting soil. Some in the horticultural industries might say that, because it is assembled from a variety of components that do not naturally occur together, growing media is synthetic. Because it lacks real soil, most of us refer to it simply as soilless.

Now, I am aware that not all media are created equal. The medium that we grew citrus in was much sandier than what we grew rhododendrons in. It was purchased already mixed specifically for citrus, and ready for use. The medium for the rhododendrons was mixed on site, with more coarsely shredded fir bark (from local mills), less sand and a little bit of perlite.

What I was not aware of, was just how perishable potting media purchased from retail garden centers are. Rather than drive out to the farm for a bin or two of medium, I purchased a bail of common ‘potting soil’ from a garden center about two years ago. I just happened to be there to pick up something else. The cost seemed worth avoiding an extra trip to the farm.

It actually was worth the cost. It did what I needed it to do for a time. The problem I am noticing now is that plants that were not planted or canned up (into larger cans) soon enough are now lacking the volume of medium they need. They need to be stuffed, which involves sliding them out of their cans to add a bit more medium to set them on top of, back in their cans.

The potting soil decomposed too readily. It is as if it rotted into muck that was rinsed through the drainage holes with watering. I suspect that there was more to the medium that the typical simple components. It probably contained significant volumes of compost derived from recycled greenwaste. I certainly have no problem with that. I just would have liked to know about it.

This little American persimmon seedling can stay in this half empty can until winter dormancy. Once dormant, it can be canned into a #5 (5 gallon) can, to resume growth next spring, before it even realizes that it is lacking medium. It will get a happy ending.