Tidewater Gardening - December 2008

Moving Indoors


K. Marc Teffeau

   We have experienced one of the milder falls in my recent memory – which gets shorter and shorter as I get older. Temperatures have been fairly mild and somewhat dry. I wish that I had gotten my fall broccoli transplants in as I could have been cutting broccoli into December like I did a few years ago.
    A late-planted crop of snow peas have grown beautifully and flowered, so I hope to have some edible pods before the really hard freeze hits.
    The weather was awesome for the 2008 Punkin’ Chunkin’ event last month. I have talked about this quintessential fall red-neck cultural event in slower, lower Delaware in past articles. As an Eastern Shore resident, you owe it to yourself to go to at least one “Chunk” while living on the ‘Shore.
    There are still a few gardening activities to do outside before the weather really turns cold in December. A general yard clean-up is in order with the composting of leaves, a last mow of the lawn before you put the mower away, and a general pruning of dead flower stalks on the perennials.
    If you want to save the mums that you bought this fall, now is the time to remove them from their plastic pots and plant them in the flower bed. After the first or second hard frost you should put and inch or two of mulch around them. Remember, you can divide the mums in the spring and replant them to expand the level of fall mum color in your landscape next September.
    You still have time to sow seeds of perennials that need cold treatment, such as alliums, gentians, monkshood and primulas. One way to do this is to sow the seeds in flats and move them outside to a shady location, or sow directly in an empty bed outside. Mulch the seeds with a light mulch or pine needles or cover them with pine boughs.
    Some of us still grow plants in clay or ceramic pots, especially annuals. It is important that once you remove the spent annuals you will need to empty the pots of the soil. If the pots are stored outside or in an unheated shed the soil may freeze and expand which will, most likely, crack the pot. Keep the removed soil to use to fill the bottoms of large planters next spring. That way, you won’t need as much fresh soil. Make sure you also wash the containers to remove the old soil and plant debris before putting them away.
    Although I mentioned this in earlier columns, it is very important that woody plants have enough moisture going into winter. This is especially true of those foundation plantings under the eaves. Unless there is a wind with the rain that forces the water next to the house, these plants can miss some of the rainfall in the yard. We often forget the spots outdoors where rain doesn’t reach. Check moisture around foundation plantings beneath a roof overhang and water if necessary.
    Prune your grapevines a little earlier this year to make a classic wreath. If you can’t shape the wreath as you prune, before bending the vines, soak them in water overnight for increased flexibility.
    Inside the house we need to start looking for possible insect problems on houseplants, especially if you did not do a thorough job of cleaning the plants before you brought them into the house from the porch, patio or deck. Clean them of dead leaves and spray them for insects.
    The warm, dry indoor air is prime breeding ground for spider mites on your houseplants. Look very closely at the undersides of leaves, at the base of stems and on new buds for fine webbing. Set any suspicious-looking plants in the shower to wash off the mites and repeat frequently. Or, if it’s a small plant, you can swish it around upside-down in a sink full of soapy water. Insecticidal soap also works, but it’s smelly to use indoors.
    It is important to decrease water and fertilizer by Thanksgiving for your Christmas cactus if the buds are developing. Be sure, however, not to let the soil get too dry as the plant will drop its flower buds. When the buds of your Christmas cactus show signs of opening resume a regular watering program and keep the plant cool for the best show.
    Keep potted amaryllis in a cool (60°) shaded location until buds open, then move them wherever you like. Cyclamen prefer cool temperatures, so keep them back from south-facing windows that heat up during the day.
    If you brought your geranium plants in this fall and are growing them indoors this winter, chances are they’ve become very leggy by now. The cloudy, short days of December don’t provide enough light for these plants to thrive. Cut back the plants to about one foot tall. They will re-sprout and grow bushier in the longer days of late winter.
    For the chef in the kitchen, you can group many fresh herbs indoors during the winter. Try sowing seeds of parsley, oregano, sage, chives and dwarf basil in clay pots. Once they germinate, place them under growing lights, water and fertilize (with half-strength solution) only when very dry. You’ll be rewarded with fresh herbs for your winter cooking.
    Generally, the potted plants you receive during the holiday season are not meant to be kept as permanent house plants. They are varieties that have been bred for greenhouse production and usually do not adapt well to the conditions in your home. Treat them like long-lasting cut flowers – enjoy them as long as possible, but discard when they become unattractive.
    House plants with large leaves and smooth foliage (philodendron, dracaena, rubber plant, etc.) benefit if their leaves are washed with clear water at intervals to remove dust and grime, thus keeping the leaf pores open. A popular house plant a few years ago, Spider plants Chlorophytum spp., are still grown by a number of homeowners. One question that you have is how to produce the spider plant “babies.” For the offshoots to occur, the spider plant must be mature and have short days (eight hours of sunlight) to produce flower stalks, the runners on which the plantlets form.
    Leaf tip burn of spider plants is a common problem experienced with these plants. This condition can be caused by soluble salts build-up due to improper watering and too much fertilizer. Never allow the plant to dry out excessively. When you do water, make sure you do it thoroughly from the surface, allowing plenty of water to drain out the bottom of the pot. This carries the excess fertilizer with it and reduces a salt buildup in the soil. Discard any water that has drained out. You might want to use bottled water to water these plants as they are very sensitive to fluoride levels in the water. Depending on where you live and your water system, fluoride may be present in the water at levels high enough to cause the leaf browning.
    Save cardboard cylinders from holiday wrapping paper for making biodegradable, cutworm collars to put around tomato and pepper transplants in the spring. Cut cylinders into 3-inch tubes to fit over transplants.
    What would be a December column without some mention of Christmas trees? To avoid drying out cut Christmas trees, transport the tree covered with a cloth in the trunk of the car. At home, cut an inch or two off the trunk and plunge the butt into a pail of warm water. Keep in a cool, shaded, protected place until moved into the house. Mount in a tree stand or place tree in a bucket with rocks and sand, and fill with water after tree is indoors. Check water needs daily.
    If you bought a balled and burlaped Christmas tree that you plan to plant out in the landscape after the holidays, dig the final hole now before the soil freezes. Wait until the last minute to move the tree indoors and move it outside and plant it as soon as you can after Christmas. If the tree stays indoors for an extended period of time it will tend to dry out and lose some of its hardiness.
    Happy gardening!!!