Growing Concerns 551: Lucky bamboo, care, dwarf Alberta


Vase-based bamboo is not only lucky but easy to care for


Dear Janet,

How do I take care of lucky bamboo 'Snake Charmer'?


Dear C.K.,

Lucky bamboo is the current marketing name for an old standard houseplant, Dracaena sanderiana. It's been very visible recently in florists and nurseries as cut pieces grown in water. Those called Snake Charmer are the same species but are branches which were coaxed to develop curlicue stems.

Although Dracaenas belong to the agave family and look a bit like palm trees, their segmented stalks are reminiscent of some bamboo. As for luck, that refers to how this plant is sometimes used in the oriental design process of feng shui.

I've noticed lucky bamboo but grown it only as a throw-away tropical in my outdoor gardens and in its old potted plant form. So I asked about it.  Cindy Kincead helped me out with stories of how water-grown specimens fare over the long haul.

"It's a slow grower and very adaptable to growing in water," says Kincead. "You can keep it in water indefinitely. It likes moderate light. That's not direct sun but good light. You can put some fertilizer in the water every few months, and if the roots become too gangly and unattractive, just lift it out of the water, trim some off and put it back in. If you decide you want to transfer it to potting soil, you should also trim off some of the soft water roots before you pot it."

One problem with Dracaena is its tendency to drop lower leaves over time and grow new foliage grows only at the top. Since the plant rarely branches from its base a cute, leafy dwarf may in a few years become an awkward giraffe -- one tall stem topped by a few leaves. If a water-grown Dracaena becomes too tall you can simply cut off the top plus a length of stem. Set the new, shorter cutting into a vase to begin making its own roots.


Dear Janet,

I have a dwarf Alberta spruce that developed some brown areas several years ago, and I had to cut them out. They have not yet grown back in. These spots are on the side of the spruce that's closest to my house and at this time of the year I see them frequently. I am really beginning to wonder if they'll ever grow back.


Dear J.A.,

On spruce, no new needles will develop from brown, leafless wood. So if all the needles and buds die on a branch, cut it right back to a side branch that does still have needles. Remaining limbs that still have needles are what can fill the empty space. I've watched very large gaps fill in over two to three years as live tips nearby stretched into and branched to fill the empty space. However, I've seen that happen in the sun. Your plant isn't getting enough light on the wall side to support much growth.

I see this often along foundations, fences and in courtyards. As a plant's sunny side becomes bushy and the dark side thins out, the gardener keeps shearing the fuller side to keep it in check. The sheared side becomes even denser, blocking more light from the interior and far side. What we should do is thin the sunny side regularly so light can penetrate.

This April, make some holes in your spruce's sunlit side. The openings don't have to be large, just well positioned. Look at the shrub in morning light, which is best for growing, and work to let those rays through to the branches bordering your back-side holes. The holes on both sides will eventually fill in.

We can help ourselves by planting further away from walls and fences, so light will always be able to reach the back-side foliage. Or we can hope for someone to invent a lazy-susan in-ground pot device which will allow us to give a plant a quarter turn every year, preventing the uneven growth in the first place.

Short report

Do landscape boulders encourage breaking?

Rocks at the roadside may seem like a good way to fend car tires from lawn and garden but can do more harm than good. The tire that slides off an icy road won't stop when it hits that rock but it will push it, so you'll have not only compacted soil but a gouge to repair. If your street is tough for cars to navigate in winter, burlap bags of sand can mark the road edge at least as well as rocks and are a better bet for absorbing the impact of stray tires.


Green thumbs up

to the transportational qualities of fragrance. Clip a bit of a fragrant plant now -- bruise the cutting to inhale a bit of spring. Keep a sprig of thyme, sage or lavender or a twig of bayberry or blue mist spirea in your pocket. Each time you touch it, the scent that's released will take you away from winter and out into the garden.


Green thumbs down

to those who scoff at a gardener's bird seed expenditures. Birds pay it back in insect control. Lure a chickadee to a feeder each morning and it will scour the shrubbery for aphid eggs all day. Cardinals and others live on seed in winter but switch to insects in nesting season, just in time to stem the spring flood of plant-eating bugs.

 Originally published 1/24/04