Monthly Archives: March 2013

Easter Flowers Are Blooming Bright… Inside!

This year there aren’t a lot of flowers outside for Easter so the inside blooms will have to make up for them. In addition to the standard lily, I also have an amaryllis with white and light pink blooms that decided to blossom this week.

The other plant that I always enjoy at this time of year is the cineraria (Pericallis cruenta, sometimes Senecio cruentus). This member of the aster family is an easy to grow houseplant – you buy it in bloom and, since it won’t rebloom, you toss it out when it’s done flowering. The good news is that the blooms often last for a month or more with proper care.

The flowers come in white, pink, red, purple and blue, often with a “white eye.” This plant needs a bright location and constant moisture. It also prefers cool temperatures. Because of its preference for cool temperatures, I’ve only seen cineraria available at garden centers during late winter and early spring.

The only problem I’ve ever had with cineraria is aphids. If an aphid finds its way to the plant, very quickly the stems, petioles (the stem that attaches a leaf to the main stem) and pedicels (the stem that supports the flower) will be covered with these insects. You can add a systemic insecticide to the soil to prevent aphids or spray the plant with an insecticidal soap once aphids are present. Just keep an eye on your cineraria to keep the aphids from establishing a home on it.

The outdoor flowers will be blooming soon but for now I’ll content myself with some indoor blooms. You see, in my world, it’s not Easter without flowers!

Easter Lily

Easter Lily





Cineraria Blossom

Cineraria Blossom



Seed Starting and Pelleted Portulaca Seeds

I had posted earlier about starting onion and begonia seeds in February. The begonias are doing well and the onions are outside hardening off in the hopes of planting them in the coming week.

But now the real seed starting has begun. With the last frost date about 6 weeks away, I’ve sown seeds of tomato, pepper, hibiscus, datura, parsley, cutting celery and portulaca.



The portulaca seeds have proved to be a bit of a surprise. This year I found seeds of this flower from Burpee that have a more vibrant color than the standard ones sold at all of the garden centers – at least that’s what the catalog said! I’ve grown portulacas before and knew that their seeds were small.

What I’m finding is that more and more seed companies are pelleting their smaller seeds. What they do is add a coating of inert clay around the seed, thereby making it larger and easier to handle. Petunias and begonias are almost always pelleted as are more and more carrots.

Pelleted Portulaca Seeds

Pelleted Portulaca Seeds

I have to give credit to Burpee for the way they package their pelleted seeds. The pelleted portulaca seeds were in a plastic vial that could be resealed if all the seeds weren’t used. This sturdy little vial is perfect for storing seeds. Since the package had 40 seeds and I’m only looking for a dozen plants, I’ll have seeds for next year.

What surprised me is that I really didn’t get 40 seeds in the packet – 150 is probably closer to the true number. I’m growing the portulacas in Jiffy 7s so I put two of the pelleted “seeds” on each Jiffy 7. As the seed germinated, I was amazed to see that most of the pellets contained 4 or 5 individual seeds. I now have single Jiffy 7s with 8 or 9 portulaca seedlings growing in each one. I’m definitely going to have to do some thinning.

Portulaca Seedlings

Portulaca Seedlings from 2 Pellets

This isn’t usually the case. Most of the times a pelleted seed is a pelleted single seed. In this case, the pellets are pellets of seeds. I’m certainly not complaining – I feel like I really got my money’s worth with this packet of portulacas. It’s a nice surprise and next year I’ll know to plant just one pellet per Jiffy 7.

I still have zinnia and marigold seeds to plant in April but the majority of seedlings are growing now. It really does feel like spring when the fluorescent lights are up and the seedlings are growing under their light.

Weed du Jour – Hairy Bittercress

Here’s one more weed that’s growing in the yard and garden during this very cool weather – hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta). I’ve found it growing alongside the common groundsel.

Leaf and Leaflets of Hairy Bittercress

Leaf and Leaflets of Hairy Bittercress

Like groundsel, hairy bittercress is a weed that can be both a winter and summer annual. The plants I’ve been seeing are winter annuals that have overwintered, forming a tight rosette of leaves. The leaves of bittercress usually are hairy on the upper surfaces.  Mature leaves have a long petiole and there are 1-3 pairs of leaflets attached with a final larger leaflet at the end of the petiole. The plant has a small branched taproot.

This plant prefers cool, moist conditions and spring is its primary flowering time. This isn’t very surprising when you realize that bittercress is a Brassica, a relative of  mustard, arugula, broccoli and others. None of these plants grow well in the heat and neither does bittercress.

Hairy Bittercress

Hairy Bittercress

The flowers of bittercress are small and white with four petals. It’s interesting how this plant spreads its seeds. When the fruit or capsule of the plant is fully mature, any disturbance causes the capsule to break open explosively, propelling the seeds up to 10′ from the original plant. This is how hairy bittercress expands its territory within the garden.

I’m not one who forages for greens but I was interested to learn that hairy bittercress is a weed that is often eaten. Like other Brassicas, it’s said to have a peppery taste. I might take a taste of a leaf sometime but I doubt I’ll be collecting this weed for salads. But if that’s your thing, go for it!

Despite this plant’s ability to spread its seed, bittercress is pretty easily controlled. Its need for cool and moist conditions means that it’s not a big problem in the summer garden. Also this weed is easily pulled or hoed out of the garden. The important thing is to destroy the plant before it can set seed.

I have to say that I don’t ever remember seeing hairy bittercress before this year. Bittercress is a problem weed in nursery crops so it may have been introduced into the yard in some plant that I purchased. But I’d bet that it’s always been in the garden. Now that I’m looking more closely at weeds in order to identify them, I’m more aware of the different kinds of weeds that I see. Still, the fact that I didn’t notice it until now just shows that this weed isn’t too big of a problem in the yard.

But even if it isn’t a big problem, as I pull it out of the ground, it’s nice to be able to identify this weed as hairy bittercress.

What a Difference a Year Makes!

I’m posting a few pictures to show how different plant growth can be from year to year based on the weather. All of these shots were taken on the same day of the month. The only difference is the year… and a what a difference.

Sometimes as gardeners we’re tempted to follow the calendar to decide when to plant and do other tasks in the garden. Well, this is a little reminder that the calendar is nothing more than a guideline. Every year is different, so it’s also important to keep an eye on the weather and what’s happening in the garden!

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Praying Mantid Ootheca, a.k.a. Praying Mantis Egg Case

A few weeks ago I noticed some kind of egg case on a bush outside of the flower shop. I wasn’t sure what it was but I had a hunch that is was from a praying mantis. Sure enough, a quick search confirmed that’s what it is.

Since then I’ve found two more egg cases in a bush in front of the house. I’ve also learned a little about this strange but interesting insect.

By VinCroce (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Chinese Mantid By VinCroce (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The first thing I learned is that they’re not praying mantises at all – they’re praying mantids of the family Mantidae. Within the group of mantids are three different species which we can find here in PA: the European mantid (Mantis religiosa) (from which we got the “mantis” name), the Carolina mantid (Stagmomantis carolina) and the Chinese mantid (Tenodera sinensis).

The are about 20 native mantids in North America. The Carolina mantid is the only one found in PA. This insect is about 2″ long when mature and is a brown color. The European and Chinese mantids were both introduce into the US in the late 1800’s to serve as biological control of other insects. The European mantid is about 3″ long and pale green. The Chinese mantid is 3-5″ long and usually brown and green.

I realize that most if not all of the mantids that I’ve ever seenare Chinese mantids. In the fall I often see these large insects by the side of the house. This is the time that they’re the most visible because they’re large and are focused on feeding and finding mates.

Mantid Ootheca

Mantid Ootheca

In the fall, after mating, the female mantid lays 100-400 eggs that are in a frothy liquid that quickly hardens into an egg case. This case is called an ootheca and provides protection to the eggs over the winter. It’s the mantid’s ootheca that I found on the bush and set me on this journey.

In the spring after a certain number of warm days, the nymphs emerge from the ootheca and begin to eat. Mantids are indiscriminate carnivores and this can lead to cannibalism – often their first meal is one of their siblings. They continue to fed on insects throughout their life cycle. As nymphs, they might eat aphids and flies but as they continue to metamorphosize and grow, they move on to larger prey like grasshoppers, butterflies and spiders. The traditional “praying” pose of a mantid is actually its hunting pose. The front legs are used to capture prey.

I had heard that mantids were protected but that’s simply an urban myth. The truth is that you can purchase mantid oothecae online for a few dollars each from a number of suppliers. They can be used in the garden to increase the mantid population or be hatched inside as a science project for schools.

I want to keep an eye on the oothecae that I found and hope that I’m there when they hatch. That could make for some very cool pictures. But if not, I’ll just keep my eyes open to look for mantids throughout the growing season.

Weed du Jour – Common Groundsel

OK, it’s 30 degrees at noontime. There are snow flurries in the air and there’s a cold, biting wind. But believe it or not, there are three weeds in the yard that are actively growing! I’ve identified two of them and I’m close to knowing what the third one is.

Common Groundsel

Common Groundsel

The first weed du jour of 2013 is the one I’m seeing all along the edges of the yard – common groundsel (Senecio vulgaris). This plant is a member of the huge aster (Asteraceae) family  that includes dandelions, chrysanthemums, zinnias, daisies and more.

One of the problems I had in identifying this plant is the fact that it is both a winter and summer annual. A winter annual is a plant that starts to grow in the autumn and blooms in the spring. A summer annual grows in the spring and blossoms in the summer and fall. Common groundsel is both – basically it’ll grow at anytime and be ready to bloom whenever the conditions are right. The tight little rosettes of leaves with a hint of purple in them that I’m seeing now are groundsel as a winter annual. As a summer annual the plant’s larger, lighter green and less compact  The advantage of being a summer and winter annual is that groundsel can have 3-4 generations in one growing season.

The leaves of common groundsel are deeply lobed, reminding me a little of a thistle (another Asteraceae) but lacking the thorns. The plants have a small tap root with a lot of secondary fibrous roots.

Open Common Groundsel Flowers

Open Common Groundsel Flowers

The most distinctive characteristic for me is the flower of groundsel. The small yellow flowers are surrounded by green bracts. The bloom isn’t large and doesn’t look fully open even when it is. The seedheads that are produced look like a small dandelion and the seeds are scattered by the wind.

An interesting and somewhat disturbing fact is that an open flower of groundsel can develop fully viable seeds even after the plant has been killed by cultivation or an herbicide. Yikes! This means that if the plant is blossoming, don’t just hoe it up and leave it in the garden or spray it with Round Up. If you do, it’ll still produce seeds. Instead, throw any groundsel into the trash to keep from adding more of its seeds to the soil. (After learning this, I have a few groundsel plants that I need to pick up.)

Groundsel also showed up on WebMD. There is some tradition of using this weed for epilepsy and other conditions. But this can be a dangerous thing to do since this plant has pyrrolizidine alkaloids in it that can cause vascular and liver damage. Common groundsel is also a risk in pastures where horses and cattle can be affected by the chemicals in its leaves.

Common Groundsel

Common Groundsel

While this weed has truly spread like a weed in the yard, with diligent cultivation or herbicide use, it can be kept under control. Just know that common groundsel will grow and blossom throughout the growing season and will be a constant weed with which to contend. But at least now I know what it is!

African Violet Disaster – Pythium

Last year I wrote a number of posts about african violets. I got some leaves from eBay and I was propagating some of the plants that I had. In the early summer, all was well.

But by the end of the summer, all of the plants had died. On larger plants, the petioles (the stalk that attached the leaf to the crown of the plant) of the leaves had turned mushy and the crown of the plant looked strange – it was as if the small leaves weren’t expanding. Instead they were growing in tight little clusters. Smaller plants lost their outer leaves and weren’t growing well.

I went to the Optimara site and used their plant doctor tab to try to diagnose this problem. After looking at a lot of different options, I came to the conclusion that my violets had fallen prey to the fungus pythium.

Pythium is a fungus that can occur in potting soil. Spores of the fungus stay dormant in the soil until the conditions are right and then they can infect a plant. While most reputable produces of potting mix sterilize their soil, last year I purchased a bag of potting soil from a local garden center that was their own mix. It looked like a good potting mix but all of the violets that I planted in it ended up getting a pythium. It must have been filled with pythium spores.

003What I’ve learned from this is that it’s best to sterilize potting mix if you have any questions about it. To sterilize a potting mix, it needs to be heated to 180 degrees for 30 minutes. This can easily be done in an oven by putting the soil in a pouch of foil and using a meat thermometer to monitor the temperature of the mix. If I had sterilized the mix from the garden center I probably wouldn’t be writing this article!

But I also realized that I had something to do with this pythium outbreak. African violets needs a constantly moist growing medium. Letting them dry out can open them up to pythium due to the stress that it causes in the plant. I’ll be the first to admit that in the summer, my houseplants face the ultimate Darwinian experiment – it’s survival of the fittest. Watering and plant care fall by the wayside in the summer.  During those months the violets dried out and then were watered and this back and forth between dry and wet helped the fungus to find a home in the violets’ tissue. While the unsterilized soil provided the pythium spores, my care – or lack there of – gave the fungus a perfect opportunity to grow.

When a violet gets pythium, there’s nothing to do but discard the plant. Fortunately none of the plants I had were very valuable.

All of this has been a great learning experience. From now on I’ll be much more selective in the potting mix that I use with violets and I’ll be sure to sterilize the mix and the pots before repotting or propagating. I’m also playing around with some different techniques for making self-watering pots which would keep violets from drying out. In addition, when I see a plant with petioles that are soft or mushy, I’ll be much more aggressive in culling the plant to prevent any spreading of the fungus.

I am a little sad that the eBay violets bit the dust – I was excited to see what the unique varieties would look like in bloom. Now that I know about pythium I may try growing some again. But for now I’ll just be content with the lesson that I learned and the new fungus that I discovered – pythium.