Saturday, October 4, 2008

Work-related: Hoya carnosa 'Hindu Rope'

I've never understood why people like 'Hindu Rope.' It's different, granted. And normally I like different, but this is the exception. I guess my main objection is that even perfectly healthy and normal Hoya carnosas tend to look kind of under-foliaged to me, and 'Hindu Rope' looks even more so, because the leaves are all crumped into little balls.

Even if that weren't an issue, though, I still wouldn't like them, because they're prone to mealybugs (being Hoyas), and once they've got mealybugs, there's really very little you can do to get rid of them: I haven't been impressed with systemics so far (the idea is sound, but they don't work), and sprays are only useful if you can get the spray on the bugs, which if the leaves are folded four different ways at once, you can't get the spray on all the leaf surfaces, and there are always places for the mealybugs to hide.

We had to destroy the Hoya in order to save it.

So what all this means is, when we found mealybugs on some of our hanging baskets of 'Hindu Rope,' we maybe overreacted a little. Systemic granules, multiple kinds of over the counter sprays, rubbing alcohol, one of the restricted-use chemicals we normally only use in the greenhouse, and probably a number of other things: there were at least three people treating these plants, probably four, and none of us were talking to one another about what we were doing until well after the fact. (As with everywhere else I've worked, communication is not an organizational strong point.) And then we stuck them outside and left them there until it was supposed to get cold overnight, at which point we brought them into a dark but warmer work room for about a week.

I checked them twice, a few days apart, without finding mealybugs. A co-worker failed to find mealybugs on them too. So we've put them back out for sale (the ones that are left, anyway: three just got thrown out, because the infestation was too far gone to deal with). Makes me nervous to have them out, though. And I don't know if the customers will want them anyway, now, with the spots. But you can't say we don't take pests seriously, at least.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Pretty pictures: Hibiscus rosa-sinensis

In the interest of making up for yesterday's hideous Phalaenopsis photo, I thought I'd blow y'all's minds with something super-purty today. So, some NOID Hibiscus flowers:

Personally, I'd be happier with Hibiscus if the flowers didn't turn into used kleenex and drop all over the place as soon as the plant's done with them (I have a similar bone to pick with Petunia), but that isn't to say I don't like looking at them.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Question for the Hive Mind: Phalaenopsis spots

This isn't actually a problem specific to the Phalaenopsis, but this is the most dramatic and visible example I could find:

For some reason, most of the flowering orchids we had a few weeks ago all developed spots simultaneously. The orchids were Phalaenopsis, mostly, but the same thing also happened with a couple of Dendrobiums and a Spathoglottis. Most of the plants in question had been outside at the time. There'd been some rain, and some cooler temperatures, but nothing crazy; we'd had the same plants outside last year at this time, down to about 40ºF / 4ºC, and nothing like this happened to them (though they were also not flowering at the time, by and large).

The Spathoglottis had only just arrived, and it was never outside at any point: it was in the greenhouse for a couple days and then went into the store.

Only the largest spots are on both the front and back of the petal. Whatever it is, it's something that is specifically damaging only the fronts of the flowers.

Nobody at work has seen anything like it. We're not exactly worried about it happening again, but we'd like to have some idea what the hell it was. Anybody?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Random plant event: Plectranthus coleoides 'Heigh Ho, Silver' flowers

Plectranthus coleioides 'Heigh Ho, Silver' is one of those plants nobody wants. I don't know how long it's been at work, but there were some a year ago when I started, and they were brought in as an annual groundcover of some kind, which means spring, which means at least a year and a half. In the last year, I've seen one pot of it sell. One pot.

That wouldn't be such a terrible thing, except that it grows very, very quickly; in order to keep it a manageable size, we either have to put it in hanging baskets or restart plants from cuttings when their pots get full of roots. So it's labor-intensive but not especially rewarding, financially. (So why do we keep it around, then? I don't know. I keep hoping I'll find a way for it to be useful, I guess.)

I don't really get why no customers could be interested in it. It's got an unusual texture (really fuzzy and soft) and color (light green-gray), it's frighteningly easy to grow, it fills in large spaces quickly. And now they're flowering :

(I recommend opening the picture in a new window. I was very happy about this picture being in focus, but of course you can't tell because shrinking it to fit the post makes it all blurry anyway.)

Probably what's going to happen with these is, eventually, we're going to end up throwing them out. They gave it their best try, we gave it our best try, but this is really not working out.

I'm open to reader suggestions, though.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Random plant event: Farfugium japonicum 'Crested Leopard' flower buds

We are periodically offered, from our Florida supplier, boxes of what are called "assorted colorful foliage." This is always our best bet for something weird or cool: we've gotten bizarro Alocasias (including, most recently, 'Frydek'), Calathea ornata, Homalomena 'Selby,' and a number of other things that aren't offered any other way. Which is good. The problem is that these boxes also almost always include plants that we really don't need or want, like Alocasia 'Polly' (I swear, they sit around down in Florida trying to think of new ways to trick us into taking more 'Pollys.'), plants we can't really use (Cordyline australis, which are really only useful in group plantings in the spring -- and they sent us a couple in August), and plants that are not especially colorful or exotic at all (Dieffenbachia 'Camille,' Syngonium podophyllum 'White Butterfly'). So it's very much a gamble, with the assorted colorful foliage: there's usually something worth getting, but you have to take other stuff with it that's not worth getting.

In this last round, we got a Farfugium japonicum 'Crested Leopard.' Or at least that's how it was identified to us; the picture of f. japonicum 'Aureomaculatum' at looks basically the same as our plant. If this looks familiar to any outdoor perennial gardeners in the audience, that's because this same plant is also called Ligularia tussilaginea, and resembles other Ligularias grown as perennials.

Anyway. WCW and I weren't sure what to do with it. Farfugium isn't a genus normally grown indoors (though I have a houseplant book at home that includes it, so I know it's possible to do), but we also had no idea whether it would come back if we put it outside with the perennials, plus the tropicals are more expensive than the perennials and we'd paid a lot for the plant. So in the end, I kept it in the greenhouse but priced it lowish, in the hopes that someone would snatch it up and get rid of the problem for us.

Hasn't happened. However, the plant's decided to bloom, which means it's going to sell. Probably before I can get a picture of the flowers. And I'm just hoping that nobody asks me how to take care of it, 'cause at this point all I have to go on is what my book at home says, and that makes it sound like the care is basically like for a Podocarpus macrophyllus: bright indirect light, wet, cool temperatures, humid. If the book is wrong about this, of course, that's the perfect recipe for rot. So I'm hoping I don't get asked.

If the plant sticks around long enough that I can get pictures of the flowers, obviously I will do so. But I'm not optimistic.

Monday, September 29, 2008

On Sentimentality

After a year at the greenhouse job, I'm sort of sitting around trying to think of what I've learned from it all, how I'm different than when I started. And I think the biggest difference, besides having twice as many plants at home as I did when I started (from 208 to somewhere in the low 400s, in a year), is that I'm a lot differently emotionally attached.

I was going to say "a lot less emotionally attached," but that's not quite it.

It used to really pain me to have to throw out a plant. Consequently, I wound up with a lot of plants that didn't look so great, and my plant area looked like hell, and none of us were happy. And it was usually my fault that they didn't look good: not enough light, erratic watering, or whatever, so I'd get that special pang of guilt every time I looked at them too.

The reason for keeping them was always basically the same: they were Special Living Beings With Feelings,1 and I didn't want to see one looking at me from the kitchen wastebasket. The agreement I had with the plants then was that they could do anything they wanted to do, and I'd do my best to keep them alive, and if they wanted to branch or propagate or offset or whatever, they could, but I wasn't necessarily going to encourage it: it had to be their idea. Nor did they have to look presentable if they didn't want to. Alive, or not, those were the choices. Which is an easy enough policy to have when you only have 20 plants2 and are just starting to learn what you're doing.

When I started working in the greenhouse, I had the same impulses: if a plant was even remotely sellable, I'd let it hang around. I probably wasted a lot of time, initially, on trying to groom and tend plants that nobody was ever going to buy. If I had to prune something back and wound up with a ton of cuttings, I'd try taking them home to see if anything could be salvaged. Brought home tons of cuttings, and sunburnt plants, and plants that got too dry, leaves that had been torn off but might sprout new plants, plants that were fending for themselves on the greenhouse floor, anything and everything. Anything to save them from going in the trash, anything to give them one more chance. And it's not like this didn't sometimes work out.

But over time, this has changed. Plants, I'm realizing, are replaceable.

So that is the particular kind of sentimentality that I'm over. I no longer feel guilty when I have to throw away a cutting that didn't work, a geranium that got too wet, a Dieffenbachia that got leggy and ugly and unsellable. Part of this is just because I've hit, then exceeded, the practical limits of how many plants I have room/time for (and then exceeded that number over and over and over). Part of it is just that the sheer volume of failures, over the course of the year, makes it impossible to mourn every single one. But also:

When you're an amateur collector of houseplants, every one is special and every one was, in a sense, grown just for you, and since it's a special one, with a unique bond to you, it's not replaceable, so you're responsible for keeping it going. Or at least that's the fantasy, that's part of what we're selling.

When you deal with plants eight hours a day as part of your job, unpacking box after box of eerily uniform plants, and then come home and water plants for another three hours, they are no longer automatically special, unique beings. It's taken a lot of time to get used to that, actually, that we could order a box of twelve whatevers and have them all look more or less exactly the same when they arrive. It wrecks the illusion of uniqueness and specialness.

I used to, when I bought a plant, bring it home, repot, water it in, and then wipe all the leaves off with a damp paper towel. It was a bonding thing. Now, I don't bother to clean them up (unless they're very dirty -- that gray crusty stuff that plants' leaves have on them when they arrive from the growers is the bane of my existence3), I don't repot until it's really necessary, and we take more of a so now you're here. Live if you want to, kind of approach. The survivors are rewarded, the casualties are mourned or not depending on how big of a mistake the whole thing seemed to have been. Sometimes plants are restarted, sometimes I realize I never liked it that well in the first place.

My point being that I no longer feel obligated to keep a plant around just because its a Special Living Being With Feelings. It may also be a Special Living Being With a Death Wish, a Special Living Being With Mealybugs, a Special Living Being That Wants to Piss Me Off, or a Special Living Being That's Just Not That Into Me.

The line that keeps sticking in my head is one from Louise Glück in The Wild Iris (again), from a poem titled "Early Darkness:"

How can you say
earth should give me joy? Each thing
born is my burden; I cannot succeed
with all of you.
Some of them fail. For one reason or another, despite my best efforts, I cannot succeed with all of them. So I've learned not to take it personally.

I see these same thought processes and patterns sometimes when people bring in plants they're having problems with: often the most practical solution is to throw out the plant and buy a new one,4 which I hate to tell people. I especially hate to tell people this when the plant in question is something they got from a loved one's funeral, which it seems is often the case. And I understand, I do, so I don't usually wind up saying that quite so bluntly. (People have feelings, whether their plants do or not.) But -- even when there are things to be done, plant owners are not always willing to listen. Cut it back to the ground, rip off the weird side growth, cut off the flowers, slice the root ball in half with a knife, prune it back hard, spray it with soap / pesticide / rubbing alcohol / water – a lot of these sound too drastic, too risky, too painful, to inexperienced plant owners. And I get that, too, having been there once. But even so.

And I frequently find myself explaining to customers that plants don't actually have feelings, or that if they do, their perspective on things is so alien that it's useless for a human to try to understand. If somebody ripped my arm off, I'd be pretty upset about it. Unambiguously so, even. (Try it and see. Or better yet, just take my word for it.) Take a cutting of a plant, which looks a lot like the same thing, and it suddenly becomes a weird question: are they upset about losing the "arm," or happy about reproducing? You'd think happy, given that reproduction is what they're all trying to do5. But are they hurt, even briefly, by having a branch cut off? Who's to say. Our emotional intuitions just aren't going to work, when it comes to plants. For all you know, your houseplants may not mind being debudded or pruned, but completely lose their minds with worry every time the air conditioning kicks on, every time you turn a light off, every time you open the oven door, every time a butterfly flies past the window. No way to ask.

So I'm okay, now, with cutting plants back to the ground, throwing plants out, leaving them in cramped little pots, or whatever it is that used to feel like abuse.6 And, conversely, I get a lot more frustrated when I talk to someone on the phone who says that their Ficus tree was dropping lots of leaves and dripping sticky stuff on the floor, so they gave it a bunch of fertilizer to help it out. The intentions are good, but they're thinking like people, not plants.

This de-sentimentalization of plants is a weird feeling. There's a bit on pages 212-13 of Flower Confidential (Amy Stewart) where she's talking to a PR person at the Dutch flower auctions, and Stewart asks whether she ever brings home a bunch of flowers for herself, just to enjoy. The answer is no, that once upon a time, her ex-husband had, but that it got to be excessive:

"No," she repeated. "My ex-husband is a buyer on the auction clock here. When we were together, he would bring me so many flowers! Everything that is too old, he can take home."

"And you got tired of getting flowers?" I asked.

"It was too much. The house was filled with flowers. It was unbelievable."

I was trying to be sympathetic to this point of view, that a husband could bring his wife too many flowers. "I guess if he's just bringing you flowers he got for free, it's not the same," I said.

"Ja," she said. "It was terrible. It was just not nice anymore."

Dispensing with certain impractical warm fuzzies is fine, as far as it goes: if it helps me take care of the plants better, if it's what brings in the money, etc., then okay. But I don't want to reach the point where plants are "just not nice anymore." I mean, so far so good, but I can see how it could be an occupational hazard.


Photo credits: Pictures used in this post were mostly old pictures of my own that I made more abstract with the "Cutout" filter in Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0. This seemed more appropriate to the post than a bunch of random realistic pictures would have been.

1 Not that I would have thought at the time that it was likely that they really had thoughts and feelings and stuff, just that I'm frequently tender-hearted that way.
2 I know, some of you are going to read that and think, only twenty? Only twenty? All I can say is, when you go from 15 to 400 in two years, you have to do a lot of upward adjustment of what a "reasonable" number of plants is. I doubt I could cut my collection back to twenty now even if my life depended on my doing so. Hell, I couldn't even pare the number of plants in the room in which I am currently sitting down to twenty. (If the spreadsheet is correct, there are 68 in here with me. In fairness, that's an exceptionally tough call: most of the plants in this room are here because I like them better, since this is the room where I spend most of my time.)
3 Or maybe just one of the primary banes. In the top 20, certainly, up there with cheese, unexpectedly stepping on cold wet things in bare feet, my inability to be independently wealthy, and mealybugs. Oh, and the failure to become a supervillain. Which I'm still working on my application to the Evil League of Evil.
4 And I'm not saying this because it's in my personal interest to sell plants. It is frequently the case that if you let a plant go downhill long enough, you're just never going to restore the plant to its previous glory, not without relocating the plant to Florida. And Florida might not be enough, either, if the plant is really suffering. Or sometimes, with certain insect issues, the amount of time and effort it would take to bring the plant back -- two hours of Q-Tips and rubbing alcohol per week, two $7.99 bottles of spray insecticide, relocation to a quarantine area -- is greater than what it would cost you to just start over with a new plant, from a time-is-money perspective.
5 All plants, I firmly believe, are utterly devoted to one cause, and one cause alone: eliminating all other plants and animals (except possibly for a pollinator or two) from the planet, so they can have all the land mass, all the sunlight, all the carbon dioxide, entirely to themselves. Some plants are more up front about this than others. In the end, it's all going to be dandelions. Or prickly pear. Or purple loosestrife. Or kudzu. Something like that. You just watch.
6 One exception: there are a couple pink Anthuriums of mine that I've had since January 2007. They've gotten really tall and sprawly, and both people at Garden Web and WCW have told me that it's okay to cut them back and re-root them. So far, I haven't been able to bring myself to do it. It's not that I don't think it'll work. The idea just kind of freaks me out. I don't know what my problem is.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Site-related: Blotanical results (with links)

PATSP has received the Blottie (I'm gonna call them that, even if nobody else does) for Best Indoor Gardening Blog. (Full list of winners and nominees here.) I considered going into an Oscar-acceptance parody speech here (". . . and I wanna thank my parents, and Jesus, and all the little people. . . .") but decided that the better way to go was to play it a little straighter than that.

So I'll just say that I appreciate Stuart's efforts to put the awards together, especially considering that the awards and the ongoing feed issues hit at more or less the same time, which I'm guessing means he was doing twice as much work on Blotanical this month as he was expecting, and very possibly four times as much as he usually would. (Stuart's Blog, Gardening Tips 'n' Ideas; Blotanical home page)

I'd also like to sincerely thank everyone who voted, whether for me or not. As a lot of you know, blogging is kind of a weird gig, in that you start doing it before you know whether anybody's listening or not, and sometimes you get feedback about whether you're doing it right, and sometimes you don't. Those of you who voted for me presumably think I'm doing okay, which is nice to hear, and those of you who didn't have just pointed me to four other blogs from which I can steal ideas.

[evil laughter, lightning, crash of thunder]

So but anyway.

Soliloquy doesn't really need the extra attention, as she already won two Blotties (Best Canadian Blog, Best Commenter) and was a nominee for two others (Best Photography, Blotanist of the Year).

Balcony Gardener is, as it sounds, not so much an indoor gardening blog as a small-container gardening blog, but there are obvious overlaps between the two. Neither of us use shovels much, for example. Also some good, solid close-up photography, which is always nice. And Canadian, which I am trying very hard to suck up to as many Canadians as possible until I know how the U.S. election has turned out. (At which point I will either return to my normal level of trying to ingratiate myself with Canadians, which is still high for an American, or redouble my efforts, depending. Anybody who knows of any good Canadian horticultural programs should really, really get in touch with me. No, seriously. You should.)

Houseplants is a friend of the blog from way back, with a particular interest in the early conservatories and Wardian cases and so forth. Plus also lots of orchid pictures.

Indoor Gardener makes me think, well, maybe we could grow basil in here after all. (There was a previous bad experience.) The question is more whether the various Euphorbia, Cereus, Synadenium, Aloe, Pandanus, Coffea, Yucca, Hatiora, etc. specimens could be persuaded to share their window with something edible. I kind of hate to ask (you know how cranky Euphorbias can be). But if I ever were to decide that I wanted to grow herbs and vegetables in the apartment, Indoor Gardener is the first place I'd go to find out how. Until then, the husband and I will just keep eating frozen pizzas.

And finally, since the celebratory Gazanias have been used very recently, as well as the Gerbera of Accomplishment, we're going to have to go with a different flower for this occasion. So: the Streptocarpus of Public Recognition.

Streptocarpus x 'Purple Martin'

In about three weeks, we'll have a blogaversary (blogIversary? Which is it? Neither one looks right to me.) happen, too. When it rains, it pours.

Pretty picture: Eschscholzia californica 'Orange King'

This isn't a current picture; I took it in May. We haven't had these since slightly after May, because we didn't have many to begin with, once they got flowers they sold pretty quickly, and a few of them got too wet and died. So I have no idea how they actually do in Iowa, but my impression is that they need slightly drier conditions than catastrophic flooding.