Best of
 Wild Things…
Winter Houseplant Maintenance 
By Karen Vizzi
     These gray days of winter may seem the dreariest of all … but if you watch carefully, you’ll notice that as each day passes, the hours of light are lengthening. Nature is telling us that the cycle is preparing to begin again.
     It happens suddenly. We see it first in our houseplants, which don’t look nearly as forlorn as they did a month ago. You may not see signs of new growth yet, but the leaves that have managed to survive our lack of household humidity are beginning to perk up. It is still too early to do any major re-potting, but a little judicious pruning will coax them along and improve their appearance. Major re-potting should be done towards the end of February. I also withhold fertilizer during the months of December and January. This is a time when most plants benefit from a period of rest. Some plants, such as cacti and succulents, even benefit from being ignored completely right now… and that includes no water! Other plants, like scented geraniums, will signal when they want to be left alone. The lower leaves will turn brown and dry and begin to drop off. This is a natural occurrence and NOT necessarily a sign to add more water. So be patient. I have seen more houseplants killed with kindness than with neglect.
     And on the subject of watering houseplants…remember that the rule of thumb is not dictated by the calendar. It’s dictated by putting your finger in the soil and feeling for yourself. A quick jab into the soil up to your first knuckle will tell you whether the soil has dried enough for another session with the watering can. I get impatient (shame on me) with friends who call with plant emergencies… lamenting that they water every Friday morning without fail, but the plant is still dying. “Well”, I respond, “how do you know that the plant NEEDS more water every Friday morning? My guess is that your ficus can’t read the calendar. Chances are you are drowning the poor thing.”
     Ummmm … I don’t really say that … but I’d like to.
     The other houseplant dilemma common to this time of year is insects. Whitefly (tiny white insects that fly up when disturbed), mealybug (appears as small white cottony blobs), scale (brown scaly growths that don’t even look like bugs) and spider mite (microscopic - first noticeable by fine webs between leaves and branches). This topic could fill up a book, so I’ll just mention general treatment. First, isolate any plant that may be infested. Critters make a game out of jumping from plant to plant. If it’s not possible to move an infested plant without sacrificing the amount of light it receives, then cover it with a clear plastic bag. This will keep the critters restrained and also raise the humidity level, which will help with recovery.
     As you may have guessed, I never use pesticides. Even if you are tempted to use them in the garden, you would certainly never want to use them in the house! Especially a house with pets and/or children living in it. There are several organic methods to try. When I first notice a problem, I fill a large tub with lukewarm water and a squirt of mild dishsoap. I put a plastic bag over my left hand, holding the soil in place. Then turn the plant completely over and swish all the leaves around until entirely coated with the soapy water. Let the plant stand for a while, then rinse. (The soapy water does not drown the insects, but acts as a desiccant, which dries out the soft bodies.) If a plant is too large, you can mix the soap and water in a spray bottle. Just be sure to coat the leaves completely.
I will also substitute rubbing alcohol for the soap in this process. I actually think the rubbing alcohol is more effective, but it can sometimes damage leaves if the solution is too strong. Whichever method you use, you will most likely have to repeat it over the course of several weeks. Also, be sure to thoroughly clean the area and window before you replace the plant. Many of these critters like to lay their eggs on glass.
    Bird Brainers: Birds do not migrate because of weather. Their bodies are well-insulated with feathers and they have a special circulatory system in their legs that reduces the effects of freezing air on these featherless parts. Birds migrate to find food.
    Butterfly Bullets: Milkweed (asclepias) is the main host plant (caterpillar food) for the monarch butterfly. If you collected seeds last fall, it’s time to start them with a process called stratification. Plant the seeds in a soil-less mix in small pots, water, cover with plastic and store in the fridge for 8 weeks. Don’t forget to mark your calendar! This process replicates how the seeds germinate in nature.
    Let It Be: Save kitchen scraps for the compost pile in an airtight bag and pop them in the freezer! You can add them to the pile when the snow melts.

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