January 2010

Justin W. Hancock

A Touch of the Tropics

Yesterday was a long and somewhat frustrating day at the office. Happily, I was treated to something fun when I arrived home: A big, bold, red bloom from my grape-leaf passionflower.

I really love passionflowers and most aren’t hardy outdoors where I live so I have to bring them in the house every winter unless I treat them as annuals and buy new plants each year.

Keeping exotic, tropical plants in the house sounds like it must be hard, but it’s not as bad as you might think. I don’t put any more effort into growing passionflowers, for example, than I do a big old ficus I inherited from a coworker years ago. The tropicals do fine indoors as long as you have a bright enough spot for them — under natural or artificial light, so even if you don’t have a good window for them, you could set up a low-cost shop light in a corner.

If they get enough light, all you need to do is keep them watered — just enough to prevent them from wilting, but not so much that the soil stays moist all the time. If the leaf tips turn brown, the air is probably a little dry, but grouping plants together can help, as can setting a small humidifier nearby. (Get more tips for increasing humidity here.)

Do you grow any houseplants? If so, comment below to share your favorites!


Eric Liskey

Snow way out

I saw this interesting little scene this weekend. It’s a courtyard at my church, enclosed on all four sides, but open to the sky, obviously. With all the snow we’ve had recently, it got a little deep in there.

Snowy boxwood

I always tell people, from a gardener’s perspective, that I like snow. That’s because snow cover provides a great deal of insulation to plants. Plants always fare better when they spend the coldest part of the year under a blanket of the white stuff.

But there is one way (at least) that snow can be  pretty tough on plants, and that’s by its sheer weight. The photo here doesn’t need much explanation. They’re boxwoods, smashed up against the glass window. Snow can be heavy, particularly when it melts. It gets heavy and wet, starts to sag, melts and refreezes onto plants, and can tear off branches as the snow pack sinks lower. Something to keep an eye on if you live in a snowy climate.

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Everyday Gardeners

Ultimate Easy-Care Houseplant

If you’re looking for a unique houseplant that’s easy to grow, consider the veldt lily (Veltheimia bracteata), also known as cape lily. This bulbous plant is a mid-winter bloomer, with a cluster of tubular pink blossoms that bear a resemblance to a bottle brush or the perennial flower red-hot poker. One of my plants is just starting to color up now. Another, which spent more time in the chilly greenhouse, will be several weeks behind.

veldt lily

veldt lily

Even before it blooms its undulating glossy green leaves make it an attractive foliage plant. The leaves are so perfectly shiny that many who see my plants think that they must be artificial. After the plant finishes blooming, cut off the flower stalk, and keep the plant in bright light, watering frequently enough to keep the soil evenly moist. By late spring, the foliage will begin to die back. Withhold water at that time, and let the plant go dormant. (As a native of South Africa, it’s programmed to grow on an alternate cycle to most of our Northern Hemisphere plants.) Set the plant aside over summer–I stick mine in the garage. In early fall, resume watering. You’ll be rewarded with an abundance of blooms in midwinter.

This plant is a survivor. Back in my college days, I left my veldt lily in the care of my mother while I studied abroad for two years. Because I departed in July, the plant was dormant and sitting in her dark fruit cellar. I came back 2 years later to find the plant in the same spot, and still alive! It had not been watered or moved to a sunny window in that entire time. As I recall, it didn’t bloom that first year, but grew beautiful foliage, and by the following winter was back on schedule with it’s reliable display of colorful flowers. Now that’s what I call one tough plant!

You probably won’t find the plant for sale at your local garden center, but it is available from several on-line mail order houseplant specialty nurseries and bulb growers.


Everyday Gardeners

No Trees Were Harmed in the Making of This Blog

A Christmas "tree" made up of individual branches collected from the ground.

A Christmas "tree" made up of individual branches collected from the ground.

While  on holiday, I strolled through a park looking for evergreen boughs that had fallen to the ground in one of our recent storms. Sure enough, I found several broken branches of white pine sitting by a hedgerow. The branches were green with a touch of rusty orange, which actually made them more colorful.

After cutting the branches to a manageable size (about 5 to 6 feet), I brought them inside to use as a Christmas tree. The secret? Using an office box to hold branches in place. I put a log in the bottom of the box for stability, then attached the lid. After poking slots in the lid, I stuffed branches into place. Voila! An eco-friendly Christmas tree for zero bucks!

The office box that served as tree stand.

The office box that served as tree stand.

I didn’t kill a tree. I didn’t cut live branches. I simply used what Nature provided during her early December snowstorm. And when the holidays were over, the evergreen boughs were returned to nature—to shelter wildlife and to eventually decompose, completing the cycle of life.

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Justin W. Hancock

Trees Are Good

My fellow BHG garden editors and I had the pleasure of hosting representatives from ISA — International Society of Arboriculture — yesterday here at BHG headquarters. Arboriculture is the field of growing and maintaining trees and it covers a lot more than you may think: From picking the right tree, planting it correctly, maintaining it well (dealing with everything from pruning to storm damage to attack from pests such as Dutch elm disease and emerald ash borer), and the sad job of taking it down once a tree has reached the end of its natural lifespan.

We all know that trees are good — they help give oxygen, filter pollutants from the air, and create shade — but the folks at the ISA pointed out other reasons why we should have trees in our lives. For example:

  • They increase our property values.
  • Casting shade on our homes in summer or blocking cold winter winds can help save a significant amount of money from our heating and cooling bills.
  • Tree roots help absorb storm water runoff, allowing moisture to naturally filter back into the environment instead of going into storm sewer systems.
  • They can help make us better people; recent research at the University of Rochester showed that being around trees and nature can reduce our stress, help us heal from injuries faster, and  can actually help us create closer relationships with friends/family.

Interested in adding a tree to your landscape? Check out our online Plant Encyclopedia to help you find the best type for your needs.

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Eric Liskey

I’m goin’ to Disneyland!

Just went there, actually. The kids hadn’t been there yet, so it was time to make the trip. For my two young girls infatuated with the six (or is it seven? Can’t remember.) Disney princesses, this was a pilgrimage that had to happen sooner or later. And Space Mountain is the coolest ride ever, even for grownups. Doesn’t matter how old you are—you have to do Space Mountain at least once in your life. Regardless, it was nice to be out of the Midwestern cold, seem some greenery and dip my toes in the Pacific Ocean. A little cold, but hey, any water of the liquid variety is better than what’s  blanketing the landscape here in Iowa.

If you have ever been to a Disney park, you know the emphasis they place on horticulture. Their parks are some of the finest examples of commercial-scale gardens you’ll will see anywhere. This time, what caught my eye was their use of edibles in flowerbeds. Below are a couple of shots I took there, and you can see what an interesting display can be created with herbs and greens. Not as splashy as flowering plants, but lovely all the same.

When February rolls around, take a look at Better Homes and Gardens. It will have a story on using edibles in flowerbeds, which we produced last year. Seeing the Disney plantings made me realize that a lot of folks are starting to think this way. Which is to say, there is no need to think of veggies as something that must grow in a vegetable garden. Grow them where there’s room, and recognize that many veggies and herbs are not half bad looking. Here’s proof.

Kale, sage, rosemary, chard and beets, looking great under citrus trees.

Kale, sage, rosemary, chard and beets, looking great under citrus trees.ere's proof.

Red-leaf mustard, rosemary, and white kale.

Red-leaf mustard, rosemary, and white kale.

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