Sometimes we get questions that sound more complicated than they really are. After observing an odd occurence in my own home, I’ve been contemplating this one: “Why is my Thanksgiving Cactus blooming in March?” Sometimes, it’s a very simple answer: Because it’s not a Thanksgiving Cactus – it’s an Easter Cactus.
However, that’s not the case for MY cactus. Using the image below, I’ve correctly identified my plant as a Thanksgiving Cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) based on its leaf structure. It also bloomed profusely last fall. So what gives?
A couple of weeks ago, while watering, I noticed that some buds were forming on the window side of the plant, but not on the other side facing me. I turned the plant around. A few weeks later, it’s “bloom city” on that side, but the other side has exactly zero blooms.
I did some investigation, and it turns out that blooms require two things: cooler temperatures and long nights. These cacti are short-day plants, which means that blooms are triggered by long dark cool nights. They need for between 14-16 hours of uninterrupted darkness and 8 hours of daylight for between 3 – 6 weeks to set flower buds. Our winter seems to fit that bill — flowering that shows at Thanksgiving will often be followed by a second rush just before, at, or maybe after Easter because of the light and temperature.
Once you notice that your cactus is budding or re-budding, it’s a really good idea to leave it in exactly the same place, and to not move it. Moving the plant may result in bud drop. Also, while in flower, allow the soil to dry down somewhat between waterings.
Many plants will root well in water but some, like Streptocarpus, will form stringy, fibrous roots that may have difficulty becoming established when planted in soil. That is why a leaf cutting is advised. It is quite an amazing process as both leaves and roots are formed and the leaf cutting does not become part of the new plant.
You should have all your equipment clean and ready. Take a healthy leaf from a well hydrated plant and either cut out the midrib of the leaf, creating two leaf pieces or cut the leaf into 5cm sections from top to bottom. Have a clean pot already prepared with moistened soilless potting mix or half and half potting mix and perlite (medium). Your moistened medium should still be crumbly, not forming clumps, as that may mean it is too wet and may cause your leaf cutting to rot. Take your leaf cuttings and place them in the soil. Placing them about 2.5cm deep is advised but my leaf cutting wasn’t that big. As you can see parts of the leaf curled up but I still managed to get results. Five plantlets so far!
After your cuttings are in the soil, place your pot in a plastic bag to keep the humidity high. Leaf cuttings have no roots to support them so they need the high humidity. Place your bagged pot in a warm, bright spot but not in direct sun. It is advised to open the bag every week to release excess humidity and to water as needed. You may find you never need to water while the pot is bagged.
In about 6-12 weeks you will hopefully have little plantlets forming. Wait until they have developed enough leaf and root tissue and then pot on to 3-4” pots and enjoy your new plants.
It is that time of year where we turn our attention to thoughts of what we would like to grow in the coming season. Because of the pandemic, many of us have dabbled in sowing some seeds indoors. It does require time, space, proper lighting and the patience to check your seedlings every few days for proper moisture levels or any signs of disease.
Begin planning your garden early. Now is a good time to browse through the seed catalogues and decide what crops you want to grow based on your own likes and dislikes, as well as how much of each you will need.
If you don’t have the time or desire to start seedlings indoors, there are many vegetables that can be seeded outdoors in the very early spring. They are known as cool season crops.
I look forward to getting out into my garden in the early spring, however, we should not start digging too soon as there are many beneficial insects and native bees that overwinter in the soil or under leaf litter. They all need time to emerge from their long winter nap. By growing cool season crops, I get to play in my garden early and benefit from a good supply of fresh vegetables.
All the following vegetables can be seeded outdoors as soon as the soil is workable.
LETTUCE & GREENS
There are so many varieties of salad greens such as leaf, mustard, arugula and mesclun. Lettuce is generally a cool season plant, but newer varieties have been developed that will grow happily in the summer. Salad greens can bolt quickly when the weather gets really warm, however, there are varieties that are more bolt tolerant. I usually choose seed that I can sow early in the season. These particular varieties can withstand some shade in the summer so I plant the seed behind a larger vegetable such as kale so that they get the protection they need from the hot sun. Be sure to check the seed package to understand when to sow, how to harvest, and how quickly the lettuce will bolt.
Carrots need good drainage and work very well in raised beds. They work best when planted as soon as the soil can be worked. They require plenty of sun. The cultivated carrot originated in Afghanistan and was purple. According to William Dam Seeds, they believe the orange carrot was developed around the 16th Century. There are many different varieties and some of my favourites are the Nantes and I had great success last year with Nantes Napoli.
I find Kale a very easy vegetable to grow and it will last well into the fall. It likes well drained soil. It is best to harvest the young leaves as the older leaves will get quite tough and stringy. It is rich in Vitamin C and frost will actually improve its flavour. I really enjoy Vates, which is ruffled with a medium dark green leaf. By using a row cover, we were enjoying kale in our salads well into the fall.
Radish is amazingly quick to germinate. I think they add the perfect crispy, peppery taste to a salad. If you plant the seeds early, it will be one of the first vegetables ready for harvest. Radishes also work well for Succession Planting. Radish varieties have evolved over the years and there are now several different sizes and colours. I enjoy the French Breakfast varieties.
Homegrown peas, whether cooked or raw always taste amazing. Taller varieties do require some kind of support and will benefit from a fence or string for the vines. Dwarf varieties are ideal for smaller gardens and don’t require support. They do need lots of sun but will tolerate some shade in the summer. Smaller peas are tastier than larger ones, so be sure to harvest often. The edible garden pea dates back to 16th century England. I will admit not to have a lot of luck with peas. I may be getting them planted too late in the spring and with instant summer heat, they do not do well! I am determined to try again this year. My favourite are sugar snap peas and I would like to try one called Sugar Ann, that matures in 55 days and is a dwarf variety.
A favourite cool season vegetable to grow is the vitamin-rich spinach. Spinach can be eaten cooked or raw and is full of vitamins and minerals, especially iron and calcium. They mature quickly. As the plants grow, harvest the outer leaves often to encourage fresh leaf production, but pull the plants before they bolt. Once the flowering process begins, spinach quickly turns bitter, so don’t wait to harvest. Row covers are advisable to protect the plants from leaf miner. Many varieties have been developed to resist Downy Mildew.
We turn to searching for information online or in books on how to care for our plants. Unfortunately there are a lot of inaccuracies surrounding certain beliefs and practices concerning them. Since most of our attention is now focused on indoor gardening, let’s look at five questions concerning houseplants.
1. Are Poinsettias Poisonous?
You may have been gifted with a Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) and you may be concerned because you have heard that they are poisonous. The plant, while not edible, would need to be consumed in large quantities to be harmful. That being said, it still is wise to keep the plants out of reach of pets and children as some consumption may lead to digestive distress. Like other members of the Euphorbiaceae family, Poinsettias produce a milky sap and so handling the plant without gloves may affect those with a latex allergy.1
2. Can Houseplants Filter or Absorb Pollutants?
Recently I read in a book on houseplant care that plants draw in harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde and benzene and clean the air for us. Two examples mentioned included the Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum) and the Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum). It stated that the former can filter out formaldehyde and the latter both formaldehyde and benzene. While it is true that plants have the ability to absorb pollutants, large numbers are required to have a significant impact. The belief that plants clean the air may be associated with a single NASA study2 from the 1980s that was conducted in an air-controlled laboratory setting and not in an open home or office setting. More recent research has determined that a building’s air handling system or open windows is more effective at reducing pollutants than plants. One would require 10-1000 plants per square meter in order to be comparable.3
3. Will Misting and Pebble Trays Increase Humidity?
We may struggle with maintaining optimum humidity levels in the winter for our tropical houseplants. Many books and online sources recommend increasing relative humidity around plants through misting and placing the plant pots on trays filled with pebbles and water. Misting is generally ineffective because the water evaporates so quickly. It would have to be done constantly to have an impact. Concerning pebble trays, an experiment published in the American Orchid Society Bulletin found that in the winter (set in a home in Minnesota), relative humidity levels were raised only slightly. The RH at 40 mm above the tray was measured at 3%; at 110 mm 2%; and at 300 mm it measured 0%.4 Using a humidifier is really the only method that has the ability to increase humidity levels significantly.
4. Should you Use Ice Cubes for Watering Orchids?
Recently I read a comment on the Master Gardeners of Ontario Facebook site that someone said that their Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis) came with a tag advising them to use ice cubes as a method of watering it. It seems that this advice is really intended to help prevent new Orchid owners from overwatering their plants. While there is a study that found that using ice cubes did not negatively affect the health of the orchids, it was only conducted for a period of 4-6 months. A problem with using ice cubes is that it has the potential to accumulate salt build-up (from water and fertilizer) that can affect the plant’s longevity in the long term.5
5. Should you use Leaf Shining Products or Oils?
Some sources advise using commercial shine products or oils to help make a plant’s leaves shiny and reduce build-up of dust. However, there is research indicating that the use of leaf shine on Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina) caused the plants to have a reduced tolerance to low light stress, resulting in three times as much leaf loss as untreated plants.Treated plants required higher light levels.6 Another problem is that they can block the pores or stomata in the leaves of some plants, resulting in reducing the plant’s ability to photosynthesize and respire.
Cummings, Bryan E. and Michael S. Waring. Potted plants do not improve indoor air quality: a review and analysis of reported VOC removal efficiencies. Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology. Volume 30, pp. 253–261 (2020). Online:https://www.nature.com/articles/s41370-019-0175-9
Kohl, Douglas. A Study in Humidity: Douglas Kohl Evaluates the Effectiveness of a Common Method to Raise Humidity around Orchids Growing in the Home. American Orchid Society Bulletin, 63(8). 1994. pp. 916-917.
I was very intrigued by the plant known as Verbena bonariensis. This particular Verbena is often shown growing in gardens on the British show Gardener’s World.
I managed to find seeds this spring from William Dam Seeds Ltd. The package instructed me to start seeds 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost, however, due to a huge demand for seeds the past few years, my package arrived quite late and I was unable to start the seeds until well into April. At the best of times, Verbena can be an erratic germinator and I was only successful getting one seed to germinate. However, this one plant was a huge success and I will definitely be trying again next year, although I may be lucky to find some seedlings in my garden.
This plant is one of about 250 species in the genus Verbena. Most are not in cultivation. It is native to Brazil and Argentina. Bonariensis means ‘from Buenos Aires, Argentina’. ‘Buenos’ means ‘good’ and ‘aires’ means ‘air’. It is a perennial in zones 7 to 11, therefore, is grown as an annual in the Peterborough region. In some milder climates such as California, it can be considered a weed. Verbena bonariensis, also known as Tall Verbena or Brazilian Verbena has stiff upright branching stems. It reaches a height of 3 to 6 feet and spreads 1 to 3 feet and is unlikely to fall over. The stiff square and rough stems hold clusters of lilac-purple flowers from early summer right through to late fall. The deep green, lance-shaped serrated leaves form a mounded rosette at the base of the plant. The flowers are borne in rounded clusters 2 to 3 inches across. The cut flowers last a long time in flower arrangements. England’s Royal Horticultural Society Floral Committee awarded V. bonariensis an Award of Garden Merit (the Society’s symbol of excellence given to plants of outstanding garden value) “because of its attractive flowers and uncluttered habit.” They can make an unforgettable display and although they are tall plants, they have an open and airy appearance which lends them to being tucked in between other plants or even creating a dramatic appearance at the front of a border. They sway in the breeze and are very attractive to butterflies, bees and other insects. They prefer full sun to part shade in well-drained soil.
Our very hot summer did not affect its performance and knowing that they are drought tolerant once established is another plus for this plant. There are little known pests or diseases, although powdery mildew can sometimes be a problem. White spots on the leaves do not seem to have much impact on blooming.
If you leave the flowers to develop seed heads for the birds, the plant may self-seed the following year. As this was my first season with this plant, I will have to wait until the spring to see if my conditions are good for self-seeding. I understand that they may not appear until late spring.
It is also possible to cultivate through cuttings and you can find out how to do this in this short video by the very well-known British gardener Monty Don.
A riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Winston Churchill’s famous quotation is the way that I as a novice dahlia grower feel about this subject. So many variations exist. Can they all be correct?? The answer to this mystery seems to be fine tuning a storage method to suit your own situation, which means some trial and error. So, expect some losses at first.
When to dig? Conventional advice says to wait for the frost but this year’s fine weather made other alternatives a consideration. Dahlias originate from the mountains of Mexico where the fall is semi-arid. It is the lack of water that causes the plant to go dormant. Here that happens either with a killing frost or by cutting the plant down. Both cause the onset of dormancy and once begun, the tubers underground start to set “eyes”. Leave the tubers in ground for 1-2 weeks before digging (this also helps the thin skinned tubers to toughen up, which helps them store better).
Divide now or in the spring? This is entirely personal preference. Dahlia are easier to split in the fall as the stalk hardens over winter. However, the eyes are easier to see in the spring. If you choose to split in the fall, tubers will need washing and drying before splitting. For plants being overwintered as a clump, knock off excess soil and let dry before storing. Some sources conjecture that the fine covering of soil helps to protect the tubers from shriveling over the winter.
Successful dahlia storage is a balance between the right temperature range and the relative humidity. Ideally, dahlias should be stored around 45 to 50 F and at a RH of 75-85%. The method you use should try to ameliorate the conditions you are storing in. For example, the dryness of the air in winter in Ontario means that shriveling of tubers is more of a problem than rot. Use of a packing material such as vermiculite or wood shavings can provide a more stable environment, absorbing excess moisture when necessary and giving back when needed.
Specifics of various techniques are referenced for your information. I have decided to try 3 methods. I am going to split some this fall and store using the saran wrap method as well as in vermiculite in plastic tubs. I will also leave some in clumps with a slight covering of earth, pack in vermiculite in a large plastic tote. I lean towards the plastic tubs as my basement in quite dry in the winter so am concerned with moisture retention. Don’t forget to check your tubers over the winter and remove any ones with rot or spritz with water if they appear to be shriveling.
Your once showy, spectacular plants have finished blooming and their foliage may have withered. Do not despair, the late summer/fall garden can still be something to behold as well as feeding the pollinators and other wildlife!
Plants that grow, bloom, go to seed then die all in one season are annuals. Annuals may be used to add some much needed colour at the end of our summer season. Zinnia, Petunia, annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and Cosmos are easy to source and grow. The ornamental kales and cabbages are dramatic plants that will look good in your pots or your garden.
Hydrangea – I am referring to the panicle (H. paniculata) and smooth hydrangeas (H. arborescens) that bloom on new wood and may be pruned in late winter or very early spring. This is a plant that steals the show in late summer, fall and even into winter. They produce large, pink, white or pink/white poufy blooms. The blooms may be dried for inside décor or left on the plant outside for winter interest.
Witch hazel – Hamamelis virginiana is a native that blooms with interesting, spidery petaled, yellow flowers in the fall. This plant will attract birds to your garden.
Plants that grow, bloom and produce seed but do not die after just one season … some are short lived but some live for many years. There are lots of perennials that bloom in late summer and fall. Many, like the native Aster species and golden rod (Solidago species) provide food for wildlife including the pollinators.
Some others in my garden include:
Phlox– There are lots of P. paniculata cultivars that bloom in the fall. This plant comes in a myriad of colours. Do not confuse this plant with the mid-summer/August blooming dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) which can be quite invasive. Phlox flowers have five petals and dame’s rocket have four.
Black eyed susan – Bright, happy native plants and cultivars (Rudbeckia species) that may be annual, biennial (germinate in spring of first growing season but do not flower and go to seed until the next growing season) or perennial. The wild ones that we see on the Ontario road side are most often biennials.
Bugbane – Another pretty native (Actaea species formerly Cimicifuga) that blooms in the fall. I spent lots of time trying to get a good photo of a bumblebee on this plant’s bloom but it was too fast for me!
Anise hyssop – The bees love Agastache foeniculum. I have mine planted along a path. It is tall and quite dramatic when in bloom.
Plume poppy – This is the plant that everyone will ask “what is that”. Macleaya cordata growsvery tall and has an interesting seed head and large leaves. Beware though because it can spread through rhizomes (underground roots) and it exudes an orangey sap when pulled. It is easy to control just by pulling the plants when small but wear gloves to avoid touching the sap…it is poisonous.
Coneflower – Echinacea purpurea is a native plant but there are lots of colourful cultivars. Birds eat the seeds held in the spent blooms in winter.
Pussy toes – The bees love this native (Atennaria species) too. Just like it’s common name, this plant has cute little flowers that resemble the toes of a soft, white kitten.
Sedum/stonecrops – These plants are some of the toughest, hardworking plants in your garden. They can take lots of heat and dry conditions. There are many, many to choose from … some bloom in spring and some bloom into the fall. The sometimes colorful foliage can add interest and the blooms will attract pollinators.
So observe your garden, does it need some help this time of year? Try shopping the fall sales at your local nursery. If you can fit in some of these plants, you will have a beautiful garden full of late season blooms.
Despite a delayed start followed by early heat and drought, seedlings did grow and flowers eventually bloomed. The biggest challenge proved to be the prolonged early drought. Being on a dug well, I was only really prepared to water the dahlias from the well. Luckily, I have a free running spring behind my farm. After assembling a sufficient number of containers, I found that fetching water from the spring provided enough moisture to get plants established and supported until it rained. I divided the bed into 4 sections and watered each on a rotating basis.
The lack of water and heat made for some small blooms initially but attractive non the less. By mid-August, I was cutting snapdragons (who proved to be the workhorses of the garden), loads of zinnias and scabiosa as well as various fillers such as dara and celosia. Then the gladioli, sunflowers and dahlias decided to show up. Suddenly, I seemed to be doing as much deadheading as harvesting cut flowers.
Harvesting flowers correctly and caring for them ensures a longer vase life and more enjoyment from your flowers. To keep flowers alive, you must preserve the stems’ ability to take up water after cutting. The tubules that water moves through can become blocked either by air bubbles or by bacterial growth. Recutting stems exposes fresh tubules to water and the use of a few drops of bleach in vase water reduces bacterial growth.
Key things to remember:
Cut the flower at the correct stage. This varies between flower types. Some like peonies are best cut when the bud is unopened but coloured and soft. Conversely, zinnias must be fully open.
Harvest during the coolest parts of the day (early morning or dusk) when plants are well hydrated
Use clean, sharp clippers to prevent crushing the stems (which damages the tubules in the stem)
Take a clean bucket of warm water into the garden and place newly cut flowers in bucket after stripping lower leaves off
Allow flowers to rest (condition) in a dark, cool place prior to allow them to rehydrate
Use clean vases and recut stems prior to arranging
Change water daily and recut stems every other day
Homemade flower food can be helpful. Use one teaspoon sugar and one teaspoon to bleach per litre of water
Keep flowers out of direct sunlight and away from ripening fruit (ethylene gas). Both shorten bloom life
In addition to those flowers grown specifically in the cutting garden, I was able to utilize some of the plants in the landscape beds as accents for arrangements without taking away from the landscape value. Perennials such as liatris, grass seed heads and foliage are interesting additions.
The only thing left to do is to sit back and enjoy!!
“Earth laughs in flowers.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
A Year in Flowers, Erin Benakein, Chronicle Books, 2020
Plants are unable to hide or run away when faced with danger such as being eaten by a hungry rabbit. However some plants are toxic and can cause anything from mild discomfort to fatal consequences. Many of them are lovely to look at but it is wise to know which are poisonous especially if you have young children or pets.
Castor Bean Plant (Ricinus communis)
A friend phoned me and said that she had a fabulous plant with very unusual seed heads and would I like to take a look at it as she didn’t know what it was. Castor bean plants contain ricin, one of the most toxic substances known. The ricin is in the seeds which are covered with a prickly coating and are pretty shade of dark red. If the seed is swallowed whole without damaging the seed coat it will likely pass through the digestive system harmlessly. However, if it is chewed and swallowed the ricin will be absorbed within minutes and is usually fatal. One seed is enough for a deadly dose for a child and about four for an adult. My friend was very surprised and agreed to dig the plant put of her garden and dispose of it safely. These plants are often grown for their ornamental properties as they are tall and a lovely colour.
Again, another popular plant for hedges and often seen in gardens. The entire shrub is poisonous except for the red flesh of the berries. The oval, black seeds within the berries are highly toxic and can be fatal within a few hours of eating as few as 3 seeds. The toxin in yews is taxine which is a cardiac suppressant. I grew up on a farm and we all knew not to have yews in fields with livestock.
Not so hardy and a little harder to grow in this area but very common further south and in parts of England. All parts of the rhododendron are poisonous, even honey produced form the shrubs is poisonous.
Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)
This shrub is a close relative to Mountain Laurel and all the green parts, twigs, blooms and pollen are toxic. It’s blooms are gorgeous but beware!
Lily of the Valley (Convalliaria majalis)
Lily of the Valley is valued for its lovely perfume and as a ground cover, although some people see it as a menace as it does spread quickly. The entire plant is poisonous and causes the heart’s contractions to intensify.
This is a stunning, tall perennial which blooms late in the season with striking purple flowers. All parts of the plant especially the roots and seeds are extremely poisonous. Eating as little as 1 gram may cause death. Even the sap can cause fingers to become numb.
Another lovely and showy perennial, but all parts of the plant are poisonous, especially the seeds. Death can be caused in as little as 6 hours.
Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)
Another commonly grown plant that produces the well known heart medication. However, the whole plant is poisonous and the toxin is deadly in high doses.
There are several other poisonous plants that you might want to think twice about before bringing them into your garden. Be aware of their deadly potential especially if you have young children or pets. By all means grow them if you love them, just be careful.
Gardeners learn as much from their setbacks as from their successes. By now, I should have a prepared cutting garden partially planted with frost hardy annuals. These are plants that prefer cooler growing conditions and can withstand a light frost allowing them to be planted early in the season. The group includes snapdragons, bachelor buttons, foxglove, scabiosa and sweet peas. However, instead of plants on their way to producing beautiful blooms, I have a 40 foot trench in my lawn.
This garden was an end-of-year decision which meant a spring bed preparation, something I rarely do as the weather is not reliable and soil can be too wet to work. Working wet soil destroys the soil structure and porosity as well as wreaking havoc on soil microbial populations.
Not to be deterred, I had the sod removed both to see what I had to deal with (this part of the yard had not been turned since 1964, if then!) and to allow the area to dry more readily when the sun returns. When the soil does become workable, I intend to use a modified version of the “no till” method popularized by Charles Dowding to create the bed. A fork (or broadfork) will be inserted into the bed at close intervals and gently pried up. This will permit some aeration, rock removal and opportunities for soil amendment (compost). The amendments will be folded into the topsoil and the bed topped off with approximately 4 inches of compost. The portion of the bed slated for the hardy annuals may be planted while the remainder can continue to warm until it is time to plant the warm season varieties such as zinnia and dahlia. Lastly, a thin layer (1”) of shredded cedar mulch will protect the bed from incoming weed seed as well as help to keep the soil cool and retain moisture in the heat of the summer.
Ever hopeful, I have started to harden off plants. This is a gradual process over about a week that exposes tender plants to the outdoors and results in a thickening of the cuticle on the leaves. A thicker cuticle allows plants to retain moisture when exposed to the elements and helps to prevent transplant shock. As my seedlings are grown “cold and slow” indoors (at 55 degrees), they seem to hardened off more readily.
T posts will be placed every 8 feet along both sides of the garden and will be used to suspend the flower netting horizontally. The netting is a 6 inch square grid in plastic that will be positioned tautly about 18 inches above the ground keeping long stemmed flowers erect and preventing them from being blown over by wind and rain. Heavy, tall, floriferous plants will require a second layer of netting about 12 inches above the first.
The ranunculus will be planted using 6 inch spacings and Chantilly snapdragons will have 9 inch spacings. The delay in planting will mean limited or no bloom as these plants go dormant with the summer heat. However, the ranunculus corms can be dried and saved for next year and there are 2 other varieties of snapdragons started that tolerate the heat of summer.
Once in the ground, plants will be hooped with temporary PVC hoops so that frost cloth can be used at night in case of frost or wind and to protect the young plants from deer and rabbits.
A wise gardener remembers that Mother Nature always bats last.
“it’s never too late to start anything, except maybe being a ballerina” Wendy Liebman
Cool Flowers, Lisa Mason Ziegler, St. Lyons Press, 2014