Growing Concerns 558: Why house plants fail, bare root tree

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Look for light and water problems when diverse group of houseplants fail


Dear Janet,

I have a peace lily whose leaves turn dark, then yellow and also the stem. Some new leaves come out but not as many as are dying. 

I have a moisture meter and monitor once a week. I also have a book, Creative Homeowner Easy-Care Guide to Houseplants by Jack Kramer.

I own 31 houseplants and only several are doing okay. The Chinese lily, crotons, some pothos, dumb canes and bromeliads are not. Any help would be appreciated. I grew up on a farm so I have always loved having plants. - H. Z. -

Dear H.Z.,

When many plants of different types are struggling in a garden, indoors or out, don't try to diagnose them individually. Take a look at basic care as it applies to the whole lot.

Our gardens are like a menagerie -- a bromeliad is about as closely related to a peace lily as an orangutan is to a kangaroo. For a zoo full of ailing animals, you wouldn't look for disease as it's unlikely so many species could share one ailment. You'd look for impure water or gas leaks since all animals do share a need to drink and breathe.

All plants need adequate light on their leaves and water and air for their roots. Most plant problems can be traced to improper lighting or irrigation. If you are certain the plants have enough water, plus good drainage so excess moisture falls away from roots, then check the light situation. Too much sun troubles some plants, but lack of light is worse. Symptoms of light deprivation include spindly growth, leaf loss, insect build-ups and more.

Set up a fluorescent fixture so it's just inches above a group of plants. You can use a shop light with ordinary tubes such as you might hang in a garage or workroom. Turn it on to keep the plants in direct light for 10 or more hours a day.

Keep close tabs on water. Each kind of plant will dry out at its own rate, and water use will vary even among similar plants if their leaf masses and pot sizes are different. Weekly watering may be too much for one, too little for another.

It's my bet that those plants under a light will shake off their problems, begin growing better and be more fun for you.


Dear Janet,

You recommended buying trees through Global ReLeaf's tree sale, but those trees are bare root. Doesn't that make it harder to plant? And what if you can't plant right away when you pick them up? How would you store them? Not in the refrigerator crisper drawer like you told us to store bare root perennials if we can't plant them right away!


Dear F.N.,

True, you should be ready to plant a bare root tree as soon as you get it, but you can store it if need be. Lay it on moist newspapers on a cool garage or shed floor, and cover it with a second layer of damp paper. It will keep.

As for bare root being risky, not at all. It's the best way to go. In the future as we perfect methods such as air spading to gently remove all the soil from a tree's roots, we'll see more of it.

Bare root's big advantage is the transplant keeps more of its roots, compared to balled and burlapped (B&B) plants which often lose 90 percent of their roots as they're dug for sale. In addition, a bare root transplant is lighter, easier to handle. That's better for the planter and for the branches and trunk, which are often damaged in planting a B&B tree when uninformed people use them as levers to shift the weight of a heavy root ball. Finally, you can be sure to plant a bare root tree at the proper depth since you can see where major order roots grow from the trunk flare and keep that flare above ground level. That is sadly not the case with a B&B or potted plant, all too often too deep in its ball or pot to begin with and its problem hidden by soil.

Short reports

Start cutting back ornamental grasses...

...before they shatter, or spring bulbs come up nearby only to be trampled as you work in the bed. Even if you like to leave grass plumes for birds as nesting material you can cut now, bundle the cuttings and prop them elsewhere.

Can't wait for spring flowers?

Force lily of the valley, forget me not, or another early blooming perennial or biennial by digging a small clump, potting it and bringing it indoors. Keep it in a cool room with good sun and enjoy the show. You can return it to the garden after the coldest weather has passed but chances are the plants around the spot where you dug will have taken their chance and filled that space already.


Green thumbs up

to March as the whack and repot month. Houseplants are resuming strong growth now so it's a great time to chop them down to keep them to a reasonable size, or repot them if you're willing to allow them more room. They will rapidly refill their air space or soil space.


Green thumbs down

to starting seed too early indoors. Unless you have supplemental light you're liable to end up with spindly, weak seedlings. If you must sow now, build a cold frame while you wait for the seed to sprout. Then you can move the plants outdoors into the sun much sooner.


Originally published 3/13/04


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