Monthly Archives: May 2012

Weed Du Jour – Any Plant In The Wrong Place!

Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines a weed as “a plant that is not valued where it is growing…” While weeds are often plants that no one is trying to grow, sometimes a weed can simply be an otherwise desirable plant that’s growing in the wrong place.

Certain plants can easily become weeds. You initially plant them for their flowers or fruit but the next year you find them growing everywhere. What’s happened is that during that first year they did what all plants are programmed to do: they reproduced by setting seed. The seeds fell to the ground and the next year they started to grow and become weeds.

In the vegetable garden I’ve had three plants turn into weeds – cilantro, tomatoes and cucumbers. Cilantro sets seed quickly and if you don’t remove the seeds, it can quickly become a weed. Tomatoes and cucumbers have become weeds for me because I’ve let damaged tomatoes and yellow cucumbers rot on the ground. Both of these fruits are full of seeds and now, because I didn’t clean up those fruits, I’m finding tomato and cucumber seedlings throughout the vegetable garden.

Portulaca Seedling Growing in a Walkway

Portulaca and bells of Ireland could be defined as weeds in my garden. I will admit that I do like the fact that they keep coming back. I keep a few of the plants that sprout up spontaneously and I move them to a place in the garden where I want them to grow. But apart from the few plants that I save, the rest are just weeds. The portulaca especially like to sprout up in the spaces between the walkway pavers, just like an other weed!

Bells of Ireland Seedling in the Flower Bed

But these flowers can’t compete with what I consider the worst offender when it comes to a flower becoming a weed. That distinction belongs to the morning glory. I made the huge mistake of planting morning glories on the edge of the vegetable garden about 7 year ago. The vines looked nice and flowered like crazy that year. But little did I know that those vines would become the newest weed in the vegetable garden. Every year morning glories sprout in the garden. The first few years were terrible – the morning glories seedings were everywhere. I kept pulling them up but even now, 7 years later, I continue to find a few morning glories growing between the lettuce and beans. I still like morning glories but now I’m careful where I plant them so that they don’t turn into a weed problem.

Some would say that this self-sowing is a good thing – you get free plants. I understand this sentiment and I love the fact that I planted portulaca and bells of Ireland once and now, years later, I still have them blooming every summer. But when plants self-sow and you don’t need or want the plants or they’re growing where you don’t want them to grow, then, by definition, they’ve turned into weeds!


Basil Sunburn

There’s an important step between growing a seeding in the house and moving it to the garden. Before planting seedlings outside, they need to be hardened off.

Hardening off is the process of acclimatizing a plant to a new growing condition. When you start plants inside and grow them in either a sunny window or under lights, the plant is growing under very stable and controlled conditions. The light isn’t as strong as the sun; the water is constant; there is little or no physical movement of the plant like that caused by the wind. When you add all of these factors together, you end up with a plant that isn’t tough enough to face life outside of the house – they’re literally “hothouse flowers,” weak and easily damaged. The tissues of the plant are soft and the protective layer of waxy cuticle on the leaves is very thin.

In order to make the transition from inside to outside, the plants needs some time to adjust or “harden off.” This is done by slowly introducing the plant to the conditions it’ll face in the garden. It’s often suggested that you place the plant in the morning sun for one hour on day one, then two hours the next day, etc. While this process makes sense, it’s far too structured for my taste. Instead, I put my tray of plants on an open porch where they only get a few hours of morning sun. Here they’re exposed to sunlight and have some physical movement caused by the wind. After about a week the plants are more sturdy and I feel safe to plant them in the garden.

Basil with Sunburn

As I was checking a pot of herbs, I realized the my basil plants weren’t full hardened off before I planting them. While the plants are growing fine, there are some leaves that are chlorotic (yellow) with a little bit of burning. What happened is that the intensity of the sun has scorched the leaves. It’s often called sunburn but it’s a very different process from the sunburn that we might get on a sunny day.

For a plant, sunburn occurs when there’s too much sun and too little water. The basil plants in my herb pot hadn’t had enough time to develop a full protective cuticle layer so too much of the sun’s energy was getting into the tissue of the leaf. As newly transplanted seedlings, the roots of the plants weren’t very developed so the absorption of water was a little slower than it would be in an established plant. The result of too much sun and too little water is that the leaf tissue dried out and died.

In this case it’s hardly a problem – the only damage was a few burnt leaves. But I’ve had plants die from not being hardened off properly. It’s tempting to want to take a plant that’s been growing inside and put it directly into the garden, but the results can be disastrous! In the case of seedlings grown in the house, a little bit of time spent hardening off a plant is worth the effort.

African Violets – eBay Updates, Repotting and Offsets

The vegetable garden is planted, the flower beds are growing and the rain is falling. It’s good day to spend some time with the african violets.

eBay Violet Leaf with Plantlet

I noticed that one of the eBay violets has a small plantlet emerging from the potting mix. I planted them in early March so it’s a two or more month process to go from a leaf to a plant. Now how long it’ll take this tiny plant to bloom is something only time will tell – I’m thinking late fall or early winter.

I’ve been reading about violet care on two sites: Optimara and the Violet Barn Both provide great information on growing african violets. I’ve been growing violets for years but after checking these sites, I realized that while I thought I was repotting my plants, the fact is that I’ve never repotted a plant in my life; I’ve alway up-potted. When you repot a plant you remove some of the soil and then return the plant to the same pot or one of the same size. In up-potting, you put the plant into a larger pot.

African violets don’t get that large and in most cases a 4″ pot it big enough. If you keep up-potting, the pot will be too large for the plant; violets need repotting. People who grow violets for shows and competition recommend that you repot at least twice a year. Now I can’t imagine being that obsessive but all of my violets have been in the same pot for at least a year.

So I did some repotting for the first time. After removing the plant from the original pot, I snapped off any old or dead leaves and removed a fair amount of the soil from the plant. I then used some fresh potting soil (a light, fluffy soiless mix to which I added some additional vermiculte and perlite for drainage) and repotted the plants. I planted all of them so that the lowest leaves are at the soil surface.

When plants are growing well, the ratio of leaves to roots is in perfect balance, allowing the plant to absorb water as quickly as it is lost from the leaves through transpiration. When repotting, I caused major root damage and threw off the leaf:root balance. So for the next few weeks I’ll keep an eye on the repotted violets. I think they’ll be OK but if they start to wilt – a sign that the roots aren’t absorbing enough water – I’ll put them into a plastic container to create a mini greenhouse. This will increase the humidity of the air, decrease the transpiration from the leaves and allow the roots to grow and bring the plant back into balance.

African Violet Offset

While repotting I found that a couple of plants had offsets. An offset is a small plant that grows from the base of the original plant. If you let them grow, the violet will lose its even shape and the plant can become crowded. So I cut the offsets off of the plant and placed them in a pot. I’m keeping them in an enclosed plastic container until they develop some roots.

My houseplants tend to be neglected during the spring and summer growing season because my focus is on the plants outside. So I’m thankful for a rainy day when I can tend to the neglected houseplants.

That’s a Streptocarpus?

There is so much variety in the plant world. You can think you know a plant only to find out that there are a whole host of different species and varieties that you knew nothing about.

I learned this lesson with streptocarpus. While I’d never grown this plant, I knew about it. I’d seen lots of pictures of this member of the Gesneriad family in various gardening books. The streptocarpus that I knew was a houseplant with long leaves that grow in a rosette. The flowers are tubular, have 5 lobes and are an inch or more in diameter. They come in a rainbow of colors, many with unique variegation. In my mind, this was a streptocarpus.

Last Mother’s Day I was working at a florist shop and encountered a plant I’d never seen before. The leaves were oval and covered with fuzz. The plant was growing as a hanging basket where the multi-branching stems could spill over the side of the pot. It was covered with lavender blossoms that were tubular in shape with 5 lobes and about 1/2″ in diameter. I checked the label to see what it was and saw that it was labeled “Streptocarpus.” While the flowers looked similar, that plant was very different from what I thought was a streptocarpus.

Streptocarpus hybrid

Since that time I’ve learned that both of these plants are of the genus Streptocarpus. The houseplant with long leaves that grow in a cluster with blossoms rising above them is Streptocarpus x hybridus, a streptocarpus hybrid. This is a somewhat unusual plant here in the states but in Europe it’s a common houseplant.

The other plant which is grown in hanging baskets and blossoms in shades of lavender and white is Streptocarpus saxorum. While the leaves and the growth habit of these two plants is very different, the flowers have a similar morphology. They’re definitely related even if they are different.

Streptocarpus saxorum

Last year I grew Streptocarpus saxorum in a hanging basket located on a porch which was shaded by a large oak tree. I was very impressed with this plant. It grew well and flowered throughout the summer. I also liked the fact that when the flowers died, they fell off cleanly so there was no need to dead-head the plant or do any “grooming” to keep it looking good. At the time I thought this was an outdoor plant so when the cold weather came, I threw it out. I now know that this streptocarpus makes a good houseplant as well and can be propagated with stem cuttings. This year I’m growing it again and come late summer, I’ll be taking some cuttings in order to have it as a houseplant in the winter.

I recently found a streptocarpus hybrid in a local garden center and am growing it as a houseplant. They say that if you can grow an african violet, you can grow a streptocarpus. We’ll see if this is true. I do find the blooms very interesting and the long leaves are unlike any other houseplant that I’m growing. Time alone will tell how this plant performs for me.

This all just goes to show that there’s always more to learn about plants. I thought I knew what a streptocarpus was but my knowledge was far too limited. Who knows what other plants will surprise me with their diversity and variety?!

Photos from the Garden

Here are some pictures of the garden and some of the plants and flowers that are growing.  If you double-click the pictures or right-click and open in a new tab you can see them full-sized.


Chive Blossom – look closely and you can see the abdomen of a fly that working to pollinate the flower!

Bearded German Iris

Bearded German Iris Bud


Romaine Lettuce

Asparagus with an Attached Aphid!

Endive or Frisee




Asian Pear


Rhubarb Time!

When it’s rhubarb (Rhubarb x cultorum) season, I know spring is here. Rhubarb isn’t a fruit even though it’s used in pies and cobblers; it’s a vegetable that’s grown for its petioles, the stalk that connects a leaf to the main stem of the plant. The petioles are very sour so I wonder who first started to eat them? I also wonder, who learned that the stalks are edible since the leaves of rhubarb are poisonous? I don’t know the answers to these questions but I’m glad that someone started eating rhubarb.

Rhubarb Plants

If you’re a rhubarb lover, the good news is that this is an easy plant to grow. Once it’s established, all it needs is regular fertilizing to keep it growing for decades. The only thing that can be a little challenging is getting the plant established.

Rhubarb is usually started from root divisions. For a number of years I tried to grow rhubarb. I ordered root divisions from various seed companies but what always arrived was a tiny piece of root-stock that was usually shriveled and dry. I had no luck getting these to grow.

Then I found the answer to my problem. Instead of using bare rooted divisions, I found a local greenhouse that sold rhubarb that was growing in pots. I purchased two of these and they took off right away. Since that time I’ve noticed that other businesses sell rhubarb growing in pots; maybe I’m not the only one who had trouble getting it to grow from dormant roots.

Rhubarb Petioles (stalks)

Rhubarb needs a sunny spot with good moisture where it can grow undisturbed. You can’t harvest any rhubarb the first year and only a little the second year – this allows the plant to get established. From the third year on you can harvest for about 2 months or until the new stalks that emerge start to become slender. To harvest, just grasp a petiole and pull – it usually pops right off of the plant.

I fertilize once a year with a balanced fertilizer. When the plant is growing you’ll sometimes see large flower stalks that tower above the leaves. These should be pulled off since you don’t want the plant to waste energy producing seeds. Fertilizing and removing flowers stalks is all I do to keep the rhubarb growing. I’ve never had a disease or insect  problem. I may have to divide the plants if they become crowded but even that’s many years in the future. Like I said, it’s an easy plant to grow.

I know it’s spring when the rhubarb is ready. The leaves might be poisonous, the petioles might be sour but I love this easy to grow plant.

Fertilizer Confusion

At a local garden center I strolled down the fertilizer aisle and was both amazed and confused. There were rows and rows of fertilizers, most of them organic. There was specific fertilizer for roses, annuals, bulbs, tomatoes, vegetables, etc., etc., etc. Since I grow all of these plants, does it mean that I need a different bag of fertilizer for each one?

The simple answer is no! While these various fertilizers each claim to be for a specific plant, often what’s inside the bags is pretty similar.

When looking at fertilizer, there’s one thing that’s important to note. Each bag of fertilizer has three numbers on it written in a ratio. This ratio is often refered to as N-P-K. The first number is nitrogen, the second is phosphorus and the third is potassium. The numbers tell how much of each nutrient is present in the fertilizer. For example, if you had 100 lbs of a fertilizer labeled 4-3-3, it would contain 4 lbs of nitrogen, 3 lbs of phosphorus and 3 lbs of potassium.

Without getting into all of the details of these three nutrients, in the average garden there are two types of rations that matter. If you’re using fertilizer on the lawn, the numbers should be something like 28-1-2 – a ratio with a large amount of nitrogen since nitrogen leads to a lot of leaf growth. For flowers and vegetables, you’ll want the numbers to be closer together – 4-3-3, 10-10-10 or something similar.

This important N-P-K ratio wasn’t on the front of most of the bags of fertilizer that I saw. I had to look closely at the label on the side of the bag to find it. But when I did find it, I noticed that all of those “special fertilizers” for roses, flowers and vegetables were all pretty much the same. The ratios were very similar. Also I can’t imagine that annual flowers wouldn’t bloom if given a vegetable fertilizer or that the tomato would object to “rose food.”

When it comes to granular fertilizer, I buy two kinds and that’s it. I get lawn fertilizer for greening up the lawn (32-0-4) and I buy a so-called “vegetable fertilizer” for everything else (3-4-4). There are still choices to be made such as the brand and whether it’s organic or inorganic. But limiting my fertilizers to one for the lawn and one for the garden makes shopping in the fertilizer aisle much less confusing.