April 27, 2011

Growing Orchids Indoors

fluorescent and incandescent lights to supplement
window light

fluorescent light gardening rack

We live in a fantastic gardening area of the country here in Miami. We don't have the weather problems of  many other parts of the country ( especially in the last few months with tornadoes in 12 states) or bitter winters, or mudslides or earthquakes. We have the ability to grow thousands of species of plants for most of a year without a worry about damaging cold weather. In most cases, we have a virtually unlimited ability to grow what we want to, provided we have the land to do so. We can grow a vast array of orchids on trees outdoors, making some impressive natural-looking gardens in the process. 

But what about those millions of people who don't have any land ? I grew up in suburban Milwaukee but my family didn't have a greenhouse, so I started growing orchids in windowsills and under fluorescent lights. Many grand orchids grown in windowsills and under lights showed up every month at the Wisconsin Orchid Society meetings, some of which bettered anything I have seen grown locally in Miami. We are spoiled in this area with our outdoor climate, leaving those people who live in apartments, condominiums and townhouses wanting for more growing space. There are lots of good aesthetic reasons to grow plants indoors, and there are some health advantages, too. There is something elegant about growing orchids on your windowsill, especially when they flower in the middle of winter in northern areas during a long cold winter.

Orchids resting on humidity trays, with plastic grates to keep the
plants out of the water.
 You do not need any elaborate equipment to grow orchids indoors, but there are a few requisite needs to start with. One of the main enemies for indoor plants is the dry air produced by air-conditioning and heating units. You can counter the problem by setting the plants on watertight plastic tubs or trays filled with a few inches of gravel, kept moist. I used to use fine-grade lava rock in shallow Tupperware bins, and the plants grew very well. The most important point to remember with this method is to make sure the plants are not sitting in water at any time, just sitting on moist gravel. A grand array of plants can be grown successfully with these techniques, but be aware that plants will grow slower this way than outside in warm climates. The plants will need less water and fertilizer when growing indoors.

One of the best techniques overall is to summer your plants outdoors when weather permits, then let them enjoy the winter sunlight indoors. This technique works really well, just make sure you clean the plants before you bring them indoors, getting rid of any pests as well. There are many websites that cater to indoor gardeners, and vendors who specialize in products for indoor and hydroponic gardens. You can have a green thumb all year round with these tactics, and your imagination is the only limiting factor.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens


April 22, 2011

Water Woes- The War for More Water

drip irrigation lines

soaker hose

Centuries ago, and up to the present time, water has been a valuable commodity. Wars have been waged over it, states have suffered from the lack of it, and politics can revolve around it, almost anywhere in the country. Some foreign countries have "died" from the lack of it. We hear so much about water saving appliances, conserving water in the environment, rainbarrel workshops for gardeners, and a new push for water-thrifty plantings. Every step we can take to save water helps in the war against water hogs. These are large ideals. On a more personal, smaller scale, can residential-scale tactics really help in the larger picture?

These publicly promoted steps sound wonderfully effective, and to some extent they are, but in the real world, water is akin to electricity and oil as a precious commodity. We can conserve water or electricity in our homes, but does it really make a difference in the national or global scale of consumption ? The debates could go on endlessly, whether we talk about oil, electricity or water conservation. .

Rather than write an expose about the truly giant consumers of water or fossil fuels, let's look at what we can do to make our individual gardens look better. For a few minutes, let's set aside the global good, and look at our "home garden good". One at a time, we can make our gardens look better, and by default, we'll save resources as a group. In a battle of any sort, sometimes the most effective tactics are waged on a one-by-one scale, and the common goal is thereby achieved. For an experiment, let's be the Garden Resistance, rather than the Allied Army.

First and foremost, let's stop watering our lawns every day. If we did just that one simple step, we'd save billions of gallons water in Florida every year. That's a serious  amount of  water by any accounting. The Water Management Districts of Florida and other states have made a plea for decades to conserve water. Yet we have as much a love affair with water as we do for big cars, golf courses, and extravagant electrical usage. Perhaps we should look at our needs carefully. We should stop watering lawns every day, look closely at our fertilizer usage, and take another, longer look at water conservation in our landscapes. The sage advice of the "right plant in the right plant" transcends the idea of exotic or native plants, and rises to the idea of intelligent plant design.

Let's look again at easy-to-use drip irrigation for really tangible water savings, for slow-release or organic fertilizers for pollution reduction ( and slower growing, more solid plants) and for grouping plants together for water savings, as well as making a better garden design. I used to fear drip irrigation, thinking it was fussy, hard to assemble, and hard to install. The truth is exactly the opposite ! The newer consumer-grade kits at big box retail stores are simplicity itself. Even a "soaker" hose strung along the base of trunks in a hedge is a better idea than spraying water all over the foliage. There are some facts that most residential and even some commercial gardeners don't often realize. Here are a few:

1.  VERY few plants absorb water through their leaves. To that point, it seems sort of wasteful to spray water all over the place, and have it hit the ground after it splashes water over every surface of a plant.

2.  Unless the plants really need water every day ( e.g. ferns growing on  rocks, or rainforest plants), most landscapes can grow well with a heavy watering every few days or less often.

3.  Most turf grasses have deep roots, and if the grass is allowed to grow a bit ( excluding golf or sports field turf), then watering a few minutes every day makes for very shallow roots, whereas deep watering encourages deep roots.

4.  Very frequent fertilizing with a lot of nitrogen ( a nitrogen number over 15) will make very lush and very green plants and grass, but possibly at the expense of solid root development.

5.  Residential landscaping gets the brunt of water restrictions because there are so many homes ( millions) who use water so poorly, even when they pay for municipal water. We have such a demand for perfect landscapes at any cost ( possibly to foster real estate sales) that we are rapidly consuming a limited water supply to make green grass to keep up our home appearance.

6.  here is one of the most sobering thoughts for the people who live within 5 miles of the coastline of southern Florida, on either coast:  if we keep sucking fresh water out of the porous aquifer rock, the closest sources of water to replace it are the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean.

There are numerous flaws in our efforts to conserve water and on many, many levels. If Floridians want to see their 20- or 30-year future, look at Arizona or California or Colorado in the present day. In some areas of California, you have to buy a truck full of water for your landscape. Imagine buying a truck full of water for your lush landscape in Miami ?

battery-operated valve timer
( courtesy of Rainbird )

battery operated hose controller

battery operated hose controller

I would agree that in some cases, overhead watering is more practical than drip or soil-surface irrigation. Here at Pinecrest Gardens, we use a combination of overhead watering plus drip irrigation. Both for convenience and for water saving, we have tried to keep water on the planting areas and off the walkways. Drip irrigation lines can run anytime during a day, even with people nearby. In a dense forest environment with complicated topography, the old-fashioned impact heads are still worth using, but with careful attention to using them in the early morning hours to minimize evaporation.

In many programmed communities, watering is controlled by a governing board or committee. This style of water management is sometimes wasteful or ignorant of the realities of water waste, but progress is happening.We can make a difference if we work towards a common goal, but as always politics infuses such decisions. We can side-step politics in our own homes, one by one, community by community, by looking anew at our home water needs, and using a little common sense. To borrow and modify an old expression from the Air Force:  "building better communities, one household at a time".        

April 19, 2011

Organic versus Synthetic Pesticides- The Debate Continues

For most of a modern lifetime, the debate has raged over the use of synthetic pesticides as opposed to natural pesticides. There is so much emotion and confusion over the debate that I hope I can bring some clarity to the issues so you can make your own decisions. In many analyses, especially in commercial agriculture and horticulture, economics of pest control is the ultimate ruler of how things get done. A grower might choose organic pest control methods, but might lose his profitability in the process.   

First, let's clarify the precepts of "pest control". There are myriad organisms, including insects, fungi, bacteria, mollusks, and higher organisms that bother both people and plants. Pesticides are products to control pests, and pesticides are not toxic by definition;  ( water or soap can kill mites quite effectively). The word "pesticide" itself carries emotional connotations. The issue of pest control really boils down to 3 issues:

 1. How much damage to your crops can you or are you willing to tolerate ( or nuisance to yourself) ?     
 2. How fast do you need or want the control ?  
 3. How much time and money are are you able or willing to devote to the control ?

Within these 3 criteria lie most of the issues. Many organic products work, but require extra time and machinery usage for repeated applications. There may also be a lack of the millions of pounds of organic products needed for commercial applications over very large areas. Many of the modern strains of diseases and pests have built up resistance to chemistry, making the problems even tougher to manage.

ground cinnamon
Given a very competitive produce market where buyers have a  zero tolerance for damage to their fresh produce and may even reject produce for a few blemishes on the inedible husks or skins of produce, organic methods may not be economically viable for massive operations. Given the costs of manpower and machinery to spray many thousands of acres of crops, most farmers will choose the methods that work the best, cost the least, require the lowest amount of manpower and then get his produce to market,  all within the legal strictures of governing agencies. If the farmer could use one synthetic product, perhaps twice per year, and get a bumper crop of clean produce  that would fetch a good price, then the ethics of organic farming and environmental stewardship might fall in the pathway of staying in business.  

It would take quite a groundswell from the buying public to change the ways of modern agriculture. There would have to be a majority of buyers who would have to say loud and clear " we are willing to pay premium prices for organic produce with a few blemishes on it." Some states are successful with organic gardening, but sometimes this change of tactics has come on the heels of tight legislation, poisoned soil or water, or lawsuits from farmworkers. Synthetic pesticide chemistry offers a lot of seemingly attractive points, including ease and infrequency of application, or modes of action not possible with organic methods. Many fungi ,insects and mites have to be managed systemically, from inside the plant. For instance, it would be impractical to attempt control of Emerald Ash Borer in 6 eastern states by spraying them one by one with an organic surface-acting pesticide unless the product was able to somehow penetrate the bark or be uptaken through the roots to attack the borers inside.   

With one case being made for synthetic pesticides, let's address the organic side. For homeowners and smaller commercial operations, there are myriad organic, low-toxicity products which can yield big benefits. Many organic pesticide products are quite effective, but need to sprayed very thoroughly on all parts of a plant, and need frequent applications. A great many of these products can accomplish great things, but don't last very long. The time and costs of application can be a major constraining factor. In the case of flying insect control, repellents can be used very effectively, provided they are used in non-public areas. Even the venerable sulfur powder works well as a pesticide, but would you like your home garden to smell like gunpowder ? And would you mind applying the product every few weeks ?

Cinnamon or Neem oil sprays, quite the fashion nowadays, work really well for many insect and fungus problems. They don't last very long, but are effective, non-toxic and inexpensive. They are also nasal irritants for many people. The same can be said for diatomaceous earth ( DE), the fine powder often used in pool filters. DE is extremely effective in controlling snails and slugs and many crawling insects, in addition to being organic and bio-safe. It is, essentially, finely ground glass, and behaves as such to pets and people if they contact it. It washes away after rain or irrigation, therefore it needs re-application every week or two. After repeated applications, many crawling / sliming pests have been eliminated, with no impact on the environment. In the absence of pest or children in the target areas, DE works very well.

In both organic and synthetic pest control, there are primary considerations for the environment, costs and frequency of application, effectiveness, and the time needed to enact control. Secondarily, growers and gardeners are concerned about groundwater contamination, whether they can produce a marketable crop, and for homeowners and public landscape stewards, whether there are direct impacts on the public. One salient point that is so often overlooked: we are buying more and more produce and plant crops from foreign countries. What assurances do we have that the plants have been treated with eco-friendly products ? Having visited several New World countries, I was unsettled to see huge billboards advertising the use of many pesticides the US had banned decades earlier due to toxicity reasons, but still sold overseas for food production.

Neem Soap

We rally behind the ideas of organic and holistic food production and pest control, but buy our produce from another country with fewer controls over pesticide usage. This defeats much of the good work that comes of trying to reduce pesticide usage in our domestic food chain. It is easy to see the harmful effects from massive farming operations on the Everglades watershed, and there are numerous areas in the country that have been damaged or rendered unusable by some types of agriculture. The question of pollution is more likely a matter of scale than it is of toxicity, since even manure can pollute groundwater, cause illnesses, and render areas unusable. A few pounds of manure in a  rose garden is a benefit, a few million pounds of manure in a watershed is a big problem. We need to look closely and objectively at what our needs, wants, and tolerances are, both personally and as a society before we widely condemn synthetic products as bad or laud organic products as good. There are plus and minus aspects on both sides. I propose that people make their own choices, but become educated before they do.                              

April 5, 2011

Brilliant Bougainvilleas

I like Bougainvilleas a lot.....preferably on someone else's property. The plants are the epitome of colorful and tropical plants. But, ( and there is always a BUT), the plants need some specialized care, and like roses, come with some intimidating thorns. In all candor, Bougainvilleas are really quite easy to grow, and most people over-cultivate them, resulting in huge plants with few blooms. Without a doubt, the most frequent question I get is "why won't my Bougainvillea bloom ? I have had it for years...."). The question is easy to answer and easy to correct. I'll address that question a bit later.

how a Bougainvillea should be displayed !


'Raspberry Ice'

'Don Hatten'

growing in a desert or xeric garden, plenty of reflected light

This group of plants is one of the easiest of all to grow, yet one of the most misunderstood. In the subtropical parts of the country, these plants grow with abandon, and should be treated with both respect and careful neglect. In short, Bougainvilleas need rather little input from you to bloom well. Plant any member of this group in as much sunlight as possible; all day sunlight and a well-drained location are required for maximum success. The plants need occasional hard pruning while in active growth to maintain their shape, otherwise the vining types may grow to stupendous dimensions ( over 50 feet in a year).  Fertilize the plants with palm fertilizer or gardenia fertilizer, my own preference is 12-4-15 palm fertilizer, every 4 months, with a Spring additional fertilizing of Nutricote 13-13-13. Our South Florida climate has a rainy season from May to October, and not very much  rain at all from November to April: perfect for the wet-Summer / dry-winter regime Bougainvilleas need. Turn off the sprinklers completely once the plants are established.

The answer to the problem of lots of green growth and no blooms is too much water. I often see someone plant a Bougainvillea in the middle of a lush green lawn, then wonder why the Bougainvillea does not flower ! Bougainvilleas  are mostly desert growers, and need very little additional watering once established. Water these plants only when they are wilted. A moderate diet, quarterly pruning when in active growth, no water or fertilizer after late September = abundant blooms in the short day of the year.( We don't talk about "winter" very often in Miami; it's more of a concept than a reality.)

There are myriad varieties to suit every size range, from the naturally tree-forming B. arborea, a street tree of Brazil; to the diminutive dwarf forms like 'Maria', and 'Don Hatten'. Many Bougainvilleas are sold as sheared standard-tree forms, but this is a disservice to a plant that really prefers to spill over a rock wall or growing robustly on a heavy arbor or pergola. This is a great plant group for a large design space or where the blaze of color is needed. They can be grown successfully as patio plants, and are custom-fit for xeric gardens. With the specter of near-permanent watering restrictions looming on the horizon, you can still have a garden with a lot of color while saving water and resources. Just watch out for the spines, wear gloves, use tough love tactics on the plants, then watch the flower show. Don't fear the plants, just understand them better !   

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

B. arborea at the American Orchid Society Garden, Delray Beach, FL
A thornless, summer-blooming species, and fragrant, too !


April 4, 2011

Propagate Your Own Plants- Part 1- Cuttings

One of the fun parts of growing plants is propagating them yourself. There are hundreds of ways to propagate plants, and, of course, a society to boost the knowledge base of the science. The International Plant Propagators Society ( http://www.ipps.org/) is a global organization promoting and disseminating knowledge of plant propagation. Many techniques can be modified to find you specific needs i.e. some techniques bridge the gap between disparate plant types. The Internet is full of great ideas on how to propagate plants, but in this blog I'll focus on cutting propagation. The primary points to remember are protection from drying out and continuous moisture without getting the rooting medium soggy.  

roots usually form at leaf nodes

one of a variety of rooting hormones

a "cloche" or humidity tent

 a popular powdered rooting hormone

placing pots into plastic bags to speed rooting

One of the most common ways to root cuttings is to cut a 3 or 4 node cutting ( in some cases this can be over a foot long), remove the leaves on the lowermost node, cut the remaining leaves in half, dip the cutting into rooting powder or liquid and place cutting into a rooting mix. The rooting mix is often a combination of sterile peat moss and perlite or sand. The most important aspects of a rooting medium are that it drain well and it is sterile. Place the cuttings into a shaded area, and keep well watered, enough to keep the plants from wilting. In very dry or windy areas, a clear plastic tent or "cloche" can be constructed to keep the humidity high. Some growers place pots of seeds or cuttings into individual plastic bags to protect the new growth from drying wind. This is a good method, provided the plants are kept in shaded areas; even a few minutes of direct sunlight can cook your plants. Many Begonia and fern growers use this method to propagate plants from cuttings, seeds and spores.In most cases, plants will root in a few weeks. When roots show through the bottom of the pot, repot the plant into a growing medium suitable for the plant for the next year, and enjoy your new plants. There are thousands of plants which propagate by cuttings, and this method is a great way to share plants with friends and colleagues. One of the most important points in horticulture is to distribute plant genetics; you would not want to be the one person who killed that rarest plant in your area !

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens