Dear Helen: I am about to purchase some small, colourful potted plants to use as hostess gifts and to give to friends, and I'd like to avoid choosing any that are difficult to keep in good decorative condition. Which ones last the longest and are easy to care for?
Dear M.C.: I would say that the awkward squad among Christmas gift plants are azalea and chrysanthemum. Both require cooler room temperatures than exist in most homes, along with bright light, high levels of humidity in the air, and a consistently moist soil.
Cyclamen plants need cool temperatures, too. Warmth triggers dormancy, though flowering can be prolonged by placing the plant in a 10 C environment at night. I've just acquired a fiery red miniature cyclamen, now located on the windowsill above the kitchen sink, at an end where I keep the window open just a slit.
Kalanchoe and Rieger begonia are easy, long-flowering plants for bright light. Poinsettias are favourites. They're very easy to care for, and the plants can last a surprisingly long time in full colour. I've just bought a small one, in traditional dark red this year. Bright light, slightly cool and even room temperatures, and watering when the soil feels dry or the pot feels light when lifted are the poinsettia's basic needs. Inadequate moisture and hot or cold drafts can cause leaf drop.
Dear Helen: A spring load of supposedly good compost brought massive numbers of cutworms into my garden plots. The survival rate of seedlings and transplants was dismal. Several "green" methods of control have brought disappointing results.
Dear K.K.: Cutworms hide just below the soil surface or in leaf litter and feed at night. They are most active in the spring and overwinter in an inactive state except when temperatures rise to the 4 to 10 C range, at which point they may become active and feed on plants. Removing all crop residue and weeds at the end of the season, and keeping the soil weed-free, will eliminate winter feeding and help to reduce cutworm numbers the following year.
Forking over the soil in the fall, and during periods of mild winter weather, and leaving beds unplanted, all create an open, loose soil and easy access for birds to nutritious cutworm morsels.
Plant as late as possible in the spring to avoid the most active cutworm feeding season, and when the soil has warmed in late May, apply parasitic nematodes, available at some garden centres. Make sure the strain of nematode is effective for cutworm control. Do this one week before setting out transplants.
Dear Helen: Have you ever heard of calla lilies becoming a weedy pest? Their roots have formed a thick mass in a (mercifully) confined bed in our garden, and we're having a terrible time digging them all out.
Dear R.B.: Your plants must be the common white calla (Zantedeschia aethiopica, arum lily).
You are the first person I've ever heard of with an invasive planting. The web sites of Kew Gardens and the Royal Horticultural Society, in their profiles of this plant, do not mention that it could become a problem.
Common white calla has become widely naturalized throughout the tropics, and in its native South Africa the plants invade wet pastures, gullies, irrigation ditches and marshy places. The same is true in parts of Australia with moist soils.
I cannot think of any solution to your problem except to keep digging, and pulling out any stray shoots as they appear in the spring.
The digging is much easier during the wet times of the year, when rains have softened the soil
A ticket for Christmas. Looking for a Christmas gift for a special person? Think of a ticket to hear a great speaker. The Hardy Plant Group is presenting its 2013 Elizabeth England lecture on Feb. 17 at 3 p.m. in the Salvation Army Citadel, 4030 Douglas St. in Victoria. The speaker this year is Chris Beardshaw, a well-known British landscape architect, award-winning garden designer, popular broadcaster, author and garden writer with a monthly column in The English Garden magazine. His topic is titled 100 Plants That Almost Changed the World. Tickets at $15 are available at all Dig This locations, Victoria Horticultural Society and Hardy Plant Group meetings and at the door.
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