Califonia Bountiful

Gardening: Help for your houseplants

Jan./Feb. 2007 California Country magazine

Focus indoors, on houseplants, during downtime in winter.

If you love to work in the garden, the downtime during winter may be causing painful withdrawals. You need a cure, and the Plant Doctor's recommendation (that's me!) is to focus your attention indoors—on your houseplants. In spite of frequently being ignored, these guys, too, can benefit from a little winter care.

One of the most popular upright growing houseplants is the Dracaena fragrans, commonly called the corn plant because of its green, corn-like leaves, with its wide yellow stripe down the center. There are many variations of this plant, including those with all green leaves and those with a white edge and a green center stripe.

Many upright growing members of the Dracaena family grow tall and leggy, eventually becoming top-heavy and falling over or becoming ugly stalks with just a few leaves at the top. It is very easy to correct this, and you can take out some of your pent-up aggressions at the same time! All you have to do is get a good pair of pruners and hack away. Cut anywhere along the trunk, and the plant will sprout new shoots and start growing again.

If the pot has multiple trunks, cut them back one at a time, waiting for the first trunk to resprout before cutting the next one. To make your plant full at many levels, vary the height of your cuts. And, to encourage those stumps to sprout out more quickly, feed them twice a month with a water-soluble fertilizer like Miracle-Gro.

If your houseplants seem to dry out too often or if they're tipping over, it may be time to repot. Plants often fail to thrive, and growth is slowed, when they get too big for their current container.

Once the decision has been made to replant into a bigger pot, don't go crazy and get a giant pot. Unlike the Clampetts, plants prefer to move to a slightly larger home, not from a shack to a Beverly Hills mansion. Just look for a pot that is a few inches wider than the current pot and a few inches deeper as well. Also make sure the pot has plenty of drainage holes—and get some good quality, fast-draining potting soil with perlite or pumice. A fast-draining pot and good potting soil are essential to a happy houseplant!

Trailing plants, such as the popular yellow and green pothos, need to be trimmed occasionally as well. Pothos, too, are easy to prune. Get some scissors and cut away. Cut them anywhere and they will quickly sprout a new shoot from just above the base of a leaf. If all the leaves have fallen and you are not sure where to cut, look for the leaf scar—a horizontal line on the stem—and cut just above it. If that's too much trouble, cut anywhere. The pothos is a durable plant, and it really doesn't care where you cut. This will allow your plants to become full again.

If you do this now, just when your houseplants start leafing out and you are feeling garden-deprived, it will soon be time for you to return outside and get back to work. Whew!

Gardening to-do list for January/February

In mild winter areas, now is the time to select and plant your own fruit trees such as apples, apricots, peaches, plums, nectarines, pears and pomegranates. Choose from the best selection of the year. Bare root trees, available now, cost less than their potted cousins, too!

Replace any underperformers in your rose garden now, as the best selection of bare root plants are out. It’s also time for the major winter pruning on your roses (exact timing varies, so check with your local nursery). Don’t forget to spray, as well, to kill overwintering fungus spores.

Find and plant any remaining fall bulbs—lost or forgotten in the garage or refrigerator—now. It’s late, but there’s still time.

Cut way back on watering frequency. Most established trees and shrubs can go all winter without sprinklers if we are having occasional good, soaking rains. Plants in pots will probably still need to be watered, even if it does rain, because leaves of plants often shed rainwater away from the plant.

Fertilize winter grasses such as tall fescue and rye now. If possible, feed just before it rains, or during rain and let Mother Nature wash the fertilizer into the soil for you.

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