Saturday, October 16, 2010

Saturday morning Sheba and/or Nina picture

It's usually difficult to get Sheba to sit for a picture; she walks away, or looks everywhere except where I want her to look, and it's often a frustrating process. Last Sunday, though, after a rousing game of fetch, I was taking pictures of the backyard Salvia elegans when she walked up and plopped herself down right next to it, in more or less the perfect spot, and then held still.

And, bonus -- it's a pretty damned good shot of the Salvia.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Random plant event: Belamcanda chinensis seeds

I missed the flowers; I guess they happened when it was too hot to walk with Sheba (though I've seen some before), and I only get to see the aftermath. But the seeds are at least moderately decorative on their own, no?

I was kind of tempted to take some of the seeds, but didn't, because for all I know the plant's owner has been waiting to collect them all year long and has plans to start a small backyard blackberry lily farm. That scenario is unlikely, granted, but it could happen.

I don't actually know what I'd do with Belamcanda seeds anyway, if I had them. I can't imagine where I'd plant them, and I'm not sure I actually like the plants that well. Sometimes I desire shiny objects. I'm human. It happens. I got over it.

I also didn't steal the Canna seeds I saw yesterday, though I actually have thoughts on when and how I could use some Cannas in the yard. They even have to be a specific color: I want plain green leaves and red flowers. Red Cannas, with pineapple sage. Wouldn't look like much for a lot of the year, but look out, September/October! For that couple months, it would be fantastic. Which, those are the only months I particularly want to be outside anyway, so that works out nicely.

Well, maybe April and May also. But that's what the daffodils (that came with the house) and Irises are for.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

How to Save Lives


Materials and Techniques: Watering and Tracking 800+ Plants

In the comments to Tuesday's post, a few people asked about my system for watering and tracking all 875 of my plants.1 Bits and pieces of this have been referred to elsewhere, but I haven't put it all together in one spot before. It was difficult to organize this in a coherent way, so I apologize in advance if it's confusing. But hey. [Some of] You asked.

I have 875ish plants at the moment. Most of them (413) live in the basement, but there are also plants in the living room (86), my office (77), the husband's office (16), and the plant room (276), plus a handful of plants (7) have not yet settled into a permanent spot. There are also a number of cuttings, seedlings, and the like that I have not yet declared to be official plants, but which still require care to some degree or another.2

This is way, way too many plants to water all in a single day. It's too many plants to water in three or four days, even. I could do that when we still lived in the apartment, if I really pushed myself, but that was 500 plants ago. So, I have had to divide it up and do them one set at a time. Initially, I was still trying to push myself really hard to get as many watered in a day as possible, but I've found it works a lot better if I spread the task out as much as I can. So now, the idealized schedule goes like this:

Day 1: first section of the basement (check and/or water 153 plants)
Day 2: second section of the basement (182 plants)3
Day 3: third section of the basement (75 plants)
Day 4: outside plants, if any, plus the first section of the living room (40 plants)
Day 5: second section of the living room (48 plants)
Day 6: offices (93 plants)
Day 7: first section of the plant room (81 plants)
Day 8: second section of the plant room (99 plants)
Day 9: third section of the plant room (62 plants)
Day 10: fourth section of the plant room (42 plants)
Day 11: free day; emergency watering situations only
Day 12: free day; emergency watering situations only

And then it starts back over again in the basement.

Part of the second section of the basement, as well as the entire third section, with annotations that might or might not be legible once Blogger shrinks the photo down. Includes a few plants that aren't officially plants yet.

I say it's the idealized schedule because I strongly doubt that any actual watering cycle has gone this way. I fairly regularly have days when I wake up and think, oh my god I cannot bear the idea of watering anything today, so then I don't, or some days, I know I have the opportunity to go somewhere the following day, so I try to do two days' worth of watering at once, meaning that some stuff gets done early. Occasionally I check a few plants and everything still feels really wet, so I skip it for a day. And so on.

So the overall cycle takes between 12-16 days, usually, depending on how I'm feeling and what options I have for better entertainment.

The majority of plants wind up getting watered, then, once every 12-16 days. A smaller group only get watered every other round, so for them it's every 24-32 days. A handful get watered even less often than that.

And then there are those for which water every 12-16 days is not often enough. Various things can happen to them. Sometimes they just die outright, and that's that. Sometimes I move them to the basement, which is cooler and more humid, where they use water more slowly and might be able to fit the 12-16 day cycle. Sometimes I'll move them to a larger pot, so they'll dry out more slowly. Some eventually learn to live with less frequent watering than they'd prefer. And a few get special treatment.

"Special treatment," in this case, means that I go down to the basement every morning and check to see if anybody's having a watering emergency. A lot of the plants down there are, as a consequence, sort of on their own schedules.

So then how do I keep track of what's been watered, and how long ago, and all that?


I maintain two large spreadsheets for the plant collection. One (the "census" spreadsheet) lists all the official plants by family, genus, species, variety, date of acquisition and source of acquisition. This is not particularly relevant to the watering, but it does provide something to check against, so I know that everything that's supposed to be on the watering spreadsheet is there. The census spreadsheet is also useful for making graphs, like for example this one, which breaks down the plant collection by family:

The top five, in case you don't want to open the picture to look, are:
  1. Araceae (aroid family),
  2. Asphodelaceae,5
  3. Cactaceae (cactus family),
  4. Bromeliaceae (bromeliad family), and
  5. Lamiaceae (mint family).
The other spreadsheet is more strictly for watering purposes, and contains most of the same information, plus the date of the last watering, the location of the plant (living room, basement, plant room, etc.) and a series of columns that cover the last four months. To find out whether I watered a plant on a particular day, I find the horizontal row for the plant in question, and follow it over to the vertical column for the date in question, and look to see whether I entered y[es], n[o], or r[epotted],6 which tells me whether I watered, didn't water, or repotted that particular plant on that particular day. Then the spreadsheet counts the number of n's and y's and r's, figures out how often I'm watering the plant on average, adds that number of days to the date of the last watering, and comes up with a guess as to when it thinks the next watering is likely to be.

Usual size. The left pie graph shows how far along in the watering I am; the right pie graph shows how many plants are in which rooms. The first date, on the far left, is the date of most recent watering. The second date, to its right, is the computer's guess about when it will need watering next. Then there are four columns for identifying the species and variety of plant, the date acquired, and a (partly-redacted) column for where the plants were acquired. The bright-green row of "2"s indicates that all the plants in these rows have been checked. The sky-blue, green, and orange on the far right indicate the days on which the plants here were not-watered, watered, and repotted, respectively.

This is the shrunk-down version of the same spreadsheet, so you can see the regularity with which watering happens. (Oldest dates are on the right, newest on the left, the opposite of what you'd expect it to be.) Again, blue means not-watered, green means watered, and orange means repotted. I have conditional formatting set up for those cells, so all I have to do is type n, y, or r and the cell colors itself. The dark purple is for plants which "didn't exist" yet on those dates: they hadn't been made official, or hadn't been purchased yet, or whatever. The grayish cells at the far right of this image are for indicating what room the plant is in and calculating the average watering interval.

Now. I don't automatically take the computer's recommendation into consideration, but it's useful sometimes, because it lets me know if something is staying wetter longer than it used to (in which case it might have mealybugs, or it might be in a spot that's too cold), or drying out too quickly (in which case it might be in too hot of a spot, or need to be repotted). It's also useful as a tiebreaker, in those cases where I'm not sure about whether something is dry enough to water yet: if the computer says something should have been watered three days ago, I'll usually go ahead and water it again even if it still feels kind of wet, and if it says it's not due for another week, I'll usually let it sit.

But so anyway. On watering days, I go through whatever the room for the day happens to be, and check the various flats and pots to see if they're dry. Anything that is dry is taken to the plant room in a large, sturdy, waxed cardboard box, watered in the plant-room shower, allowed to drain, and returned to its original spot. Then at some point, I go down the list of plants typing Y, N, or R as I go, update the last-watering-date column and changing the number in one of the columns from 0 to 2, indicating to myself that I don't need to look at that plant again. Then it's time to pick up a new batch of plants.

The cardboard box (actually a box inside a box, if you look closely -- I need the added strength or the cardboard starts to bulge outward, and then plants fall over when I'm moving them) here is from the ex-job. A lot of the plants that were shipped in boxes had one of these at the bottom of the box, for reasons I never completely understood. But they're very handy plant-transporters. I can fit about one shelf's worth of plants in the box at a time (maybe 6 or 7 6-inch plants, or two standard-sized flats), which doesn't sound like a lot for one trip, but it's better than two plants, which is all I could manage with just my hands, and a surprisingly large amount of the watering process is just walking plants back and forth, so anything that cuts down on the walking is a big time-saver.

Also once a week or so, I have to cut some of the columns off the right end of the four-months stuff and paste them back in at the left, and clear out the data in those columns, because there's only room for four months' worth of information, the way I've set the sheet up. There's a lot of stuff wrong with the way the spreadsheet is constructed -- I scroll around the document a lot more than I should have to -- but now I'm used to compensating for it.

It sounds complicated and time-consuming, I know. It's actually only complicated, if that helps. I mean, dealing with the watering spreadsheet does take time, but it's made me a very fast cut-and-paster, and I have the spreadsheet sorted by room, so I only have to scroll through the plants in the room(s) I'm watering on that day, not the full list.

There's also a certain amount of paperwork involved, any time I buy a new plant or a plant dies, which is most of the reason why I have so much plant material in the house that I'm not counting officially yet. (Unofficial plants get dealt with on the same schedule as official ones, though quite a few of them are in enclosed or mostly-enclosed containers and consequently don't actually need anything from me beyond occasional checks to make sure they're alive.)

And when I have to rearrange the plants in a way that involves plants moving from room to room, my entire world falls completely the fuck apart for a number of days.7 But mostly, imperfect though it is, this system suits my purposes.

So that's how I keep up with over 800 plants. The more interesting question, of course, is why I have over 800 plants to keep up with. That's a much tougher question to answer.


1 That number has changed eleven times in the last month, though, from a low of 864 to a high of 877, and in fact actually changed once while I was writing this post, so the numbers in this post should be understood as approximately correct, not absolutely correct.
2 Why not just count everything, you may be asking. The answer to this is complicated, but some of the factors include: 1) Counting cuttings before they've taken is a lot of unnecessary work for me; as you'll see, there's some paperwork involved anytime a plant is purchased, made official, or dies, so it saves me a certain amount of time and effort if I don't have to count a bunch of cuttings on Sunday if I expect half of them will die by Wednesday. 2) The main purpose served by having an official count of the plants is that it helps me keep track of what's what during watering. A plant rooting in a glass of water, or a set of Abutilon seeds I'm trying to sprout under a plastic dome in the basement, still need to be watched, granted, but they don't need to be checked in the same way, and including them in the official count just means I have one more thing to check off, which takes more time.
Therefore, plants only get counted when they're in a pot, require regular watering, and are expected to survive for a reasonably long period of time. Presently, I'm not counting:
• a Saxifraga stolonifera offset that's only barely hanging on,
• 9 Abutilon seedlings,
• a pot of Cissus quadrangularis cuttings which may or may not root,
• maybe 15 Zamioculcas zamiifolia leaflets, roughly 5 of which have sprouted a first leaf,
• a plastic clamshell container containing a layer of Cyrtomium falcatum slime and maybe the bare beginnings of some first fronds,
• another clamshell containing some Episcia 'Coco' leaves (which are rooting abundantly but don't seem inclined to sprout more leaves, so far),
• two Dieffenbachia stems that I'm rooting in water ('Camouflage' and 'Pacific Rim'),
• another clamshell containing Begonia 'Tiger Kitten' leaf sections and a leaf of Hoya polyneura that accidentally got knocked off while watering,
• water-rooting Solenostemon scutellarioides 'Glennis' and 'Splish Splash' (2 stems of each?),
• water-rooting Salvia elegans (3 or 4),
• water-rooting Plectranthus amboinicus (2),
• three water-rooting (?) Philodendron gloriosum stems,
• two Philodendron gloriosum stems I'm trying to root in vermiculite,
• two Hibiscus plants I took off of the official list when I decided I didn't want to go to the hassle of trying to overwinter them, but then brought in anyway before it froze here because I thought maybe I wanted to try to overwinter them after all,
• a tray of about 25 Plectranthus verticillatus cuttings that I totally don't need, but that I started and can't bring myself to kill, even though they take up a lot of room,
• about 30 Crassula ovata leaves in a tray that I'm trying to grow into new plants (only two have done anything visible so far, though),
• 9 Cryptanthus offsets that I stuck in a couple 6-packs, where they rooted, which I totally intend to put into their own pots at some point but I haven't done it yet, and
• 5 Sempervivum offsets that I was saving through last winter to plant outside but never got around to planting, which I don't even like anymore but can't bring myself to throw away.
3 This is less impressive than it looks; most of the plants in question here are on flats, that I water or don't-water all at once. Plus the basement is exceptional anyway, for reasons I'll get to.
5 Asphodelaceae is not recognized as a legitimate family by some taxonomists, but the taxonomists that don't recognize it recognize the Xanthorrhoeaceae instead. The plants I have that I list as Asphodelaceae are all in the same family either way, whether you call it Asphodelaceae or Xanthorrhoeaceae, and it's not that important for my purposes which it "really" is.
6 Repotted counts the same as a yes, because I almost always water plants in after repotting. On the rare occasions when I don't water the plant in, I still record it as though I did: the system is kind of inherently imprecise.
7 This is going to be happening relatively soon, I think, because the plant room gets uncomfortably cold during the winter despite our best efforts to insulate and heat it, so the more cold-sensitive plants will need to go to the basement, and the more cold-tolerant plants will go to the plant room. It promises to be a huge mess, spreadsheet-wise.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Stupid Plant Tricks: Plectranthus oertendahlii

You are probably aware, if you've grown Swedish ivy (Plectranthus verticillatus) at all, that the sap turns orange when exposed to air. It'll even stain skin orange, in fact, which is one of the more annoying things about the plant.

Plectranthus oertendahlii, slightly past its prime blooming period.

Plectranthus oertendahlii, on the other hand, doesn't do that. As far as I can tell, its sap starts out clear and then stays clear. But it does something similar. When the flowers get wet, like for example when you're watering them in the bathtub, they'll turn the water blue.

I realize this photo doesn't show the blueness coming from the flowers. You're just going to have to trust me that that's how it happened. I first noticed this a few weeks ago, and wondered about it, but so many things get sprayed around the shower when I'm watering that I thought possibly it was unrelated to the plant. But, lo and behold, there the blue water was again the next time I watered the plant.

I doubt this has any practical applications. I don't know whether it will dye fabric (I'd bet not); I know it doesn't dye skin. I have no idea what part of the flower is responsible. I don't know how dark the color can get. It's pretty pointless to know this, or to tell others about it. But there you go anyway.

Random plant event: Episcia NOID flower

Not that big of a deal really, and it's sort of cheating, too, because I haven't had the plant long enough to be responsible for it blooming, but it's still somewhat interesting.

I'm probably just not that familiar with the genus, but it strikes me as noteworthy that this particular Episcia has two-tone flowers. Anybody know whether this is common?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


I've had these two Cereus peruvianus plants since 2004. These are the ones I had to treat for mealybugs for over a year -- I used rubbing alcohol and went over the whole stem surface with Q-Tips, I sprayed with neem, I repotted, I took them outside for a summer, I added imidacloprid granules to the soil, and finally something worked.

They grew about a foot during the course of the summer (2008) they were outside, too, but then they came back in, they went through the winter, then we moved them to the house, and they've been in the southwest corner of the plant room since the plant room was habitable by plants.

Why the southwest corner? Well, the main reason is that I don't really have any good southern exposure in the house, and that was the brightest spot I could find for them, but it also happened to work out really well, because they were just the right height to fit that corner perfectly. Yes, I knew they'd grow out of the spot at some point, but it worked well enough originally.

So then I waited for a year, and not only did they never outgrow the spot, but they never grew at all. Which was strange, because, after all, these are the same plants that went from 17 to 51 inches (0.4 to 1.3 m) in the first year I had them, and just the summer before we moved here, they'd added another foot. So they're perfectly capable of growing very fast, but they weren't doing it. Why not? Not a mystery I was especially interested in solving. They weren't outgrowing their spot, they weren't dying, they were in a spot that was awkward to get to so it would have been tough to check into the matter, therefore if it ain't broke don't fix it.

So then last Friday, for unknown reasons, I happened to check under the pots, and saw roots coming out. Which eventually led to me repotting these plants, which is why they were outside in the photo (no room to repot something that tall in the house). They turned out to be the most rootbound cacti I've ever seen (I apologize for the lack of a picture), alas, which explains the lack of growth.1

Anyway. So now they're in new soil, in the southeast corner of the plant room. It's not a particularly good spot (it's a little cold and dark for their purposes, though we might be able to fix that, at least partly), but it's the spot in the house with the highest ceiling: 9'5" (2.9 m). The taller of the two cacti is 7'5" (2.3 m) right now, so something else will need to be done before the year is up, but better this than have them continue to live rootbound.

It turns out, in case you're interested, not to be that tough to repot a 7 1/2-foot-tall Cereus peruvianus. The spines are relatively small, and the ribs are positioned such that one can hold on to the plant without getting stuck. I did have to enlist the husband's help to hold the plants upright while I repotted,2 but aside from that it was a piece of cake.


1 Something I hadn't thought of until recently: having this many plants means I should probably be repotting more than I am. If you're supposed to repot once a year, then in any given watering cycle (14 days), I should have to repot 33 plants, on average. I repot a lot, but I know I'm not doing two or three plants a day. So no doubt there are other plants in the house in dire straits as well. I haven't yet started writing down when I repot, because it hadn't seemed necessary, but I'm realizing that I probably ought to start.
2 They don't look upright in the photo, but that's because they're both curved slightly. This is probably the result of me not getting them properly vertical when I repotted them in 2008, plus a long period in the corner of the plant room, during which time I didn't turn them that often because they were hard to reach, and not growing anyway, so why bother. At least with the husband's assistance, I can get the weight balanced, even if the stems don't wind up perfectly vertical.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Questions for the Hive Mind: Assorted NOID Weeds

These are a few NOID plants I've seen recently: none of them felt substantial enough to hang an entire post on, but maybe five of them combined will feel like more of a post, is the theory. Holler in the comments if you know something, or even have a guess about a genus or family. No penalties for guessing wrong.

NOID Plant Number One.

Plant Number One was blooming in early September (the photo is from Sep. 3), and continued for a while afterward. When I first saw it, I thought it was some kind of weird yellow clover, because the flower heads had that same sort of shape and texture, but the flowers themselves are actually not clover-like at all. It's fairly common around here; I saw some in people's yards, and quite a few along the roadside in unmowed ditches and stuff. I didn't get a picture of the whole plant, unfortunately (I tried, but I had trouble getting decent pictures due to wind), so I'm hoping that someone can identify it based on the flowers alone.

UPDATE: Plant #1 has been pretty definitely established as a species of beggarticks (or bur-marigolds, or tickseeds), Bidens sp., though pinning down which one is difficult. I'm personally leaning toward B. tripartita, but B. radiata, B. frondosa, and B. tripartita are all strong candidates. Figuring out which, specifically, is complicated further by the fact that Google searches for Bidens turn up lots of stuff about the Vice-President.

Plant Number Two.

Plant Number Two feels incredibly familiar to me, like I ought to know what it is, but I looked for it on-line when I took these pictures (the date on this photo is Sep. 26), and whatever I'd thought it was (don't remember it now) was wrong. It's a vine, which at first glance sort of resembles a grape vine (and I've seen a lot of spots where it's growing alongside and intertwining with grape vines, actually), but the shape of the leaves, and the leaf margins, are wrong for that, plus the seed pods (fruits?) are really wrong:

It seems to be very shade-tolerant, too, compared to grapes; I've seen it in a completely wooded area, where it couldn't have gotten much, if any, direct sunlight. It doesn't seem to like disturbed land, roadsides and such: with a few exceptions, I've only seen it growing in spots that obviously hadn't been mowed or tended in any way.

Plant Number Two also looks like it's probably invasive, based on the size of some of the clumps I've seen.

UPDATE: #2 has been thoroughly identified as Sicyos angulatus, which goes by various cucumber-related names (burr-cucumber, oneseed burr cucumber, star cucumber). I was both right and wrong about it being invasive; it's apparently from North America originally, but they're invasive elsewhere.

Plant Number Three.

Plant Number Three suddenly appeared in the garden under a tomato plant; I first noticed it on Oct. 6, when I took this picture, but presumably it'd been growing for a while before that. I have no plans to eat it, but it looks like it might be edible, and we don't really have any idea what the previous owners of the house had planted in this garden two years ago; it could be a volunteer of a leafy green something or another. Or it could just be a regular weed, I suppose. I really have no idea.

UPDATE: #3 is apparently Oenothera biennis, the (inedible!) common evening primrose. Most of the photos that come up when you search for the species are of the flowers, and therefore not that useful to me, but I found a couple of the first-year foliage which were pretty obviously the plant in question.

Plant Number Four.

Plant Number Four's photo was taken on October 9, but it could have been taken at any time between April and October; these are pretty common, and they're especially common in the alley where I found this one. At first, I thought it was rhubarb -- it has the same big, broad leaves and low, rosette form, plus there's rhubarb growing further up the alley from this plant. But the leaves are different: thicker and more substantial than rhubarb, duller in texture, and rhubarb leaves get much bigger. Whatever it is, it seems to favor disturbed areas, it's not fussy about light, and it can handle really crappy soil: I see a lot of it growing in gravel, or right next to tree trunks.

UPDATE: Disappointingly, plant #4 turns out to be burdock, Arctium sp. (I have some reason to think it's probably A. lappa, but that's far from certain.) I was kind of fond of it, from the leaves.

Plant Number Five.

Plant Number Five is my favorite. I found it in a parking lot in Iowa City, growing straight out of the concrete. It's tiny: maybe four inches across, four inches tall? I could tell there were flowers, but couldn't make out any of the detail you see here with my naked eye.

Well, I wear glasses, and look out of both eyes, so I guess it's my casually-dressed eyes, to be accurate. Anyway.

I think it was on the north side of the building, and fairly close to the building, so probably not a lot of light. I've only ever seen this one plant, so I don't know what kind of habitats they might prefer. The picture was taken on Sep. 15. The leaves have weird, irregularly-spaced bumps on them that might be a pest of some kind, or might just be a natural bumpiness. No clue. I like it mostly because it comes close to being pretty. Doesn't quite make it, and you have to be down right next to it to see anything, but it feels to me like the plant is at least trying for pretty.

UPDATE: #5 is looking like Dyssodia papposa, or "fetid marigold." It's also native to North America. Apparently it smells bad, but I didn't notice anything at the time. Of course, there was also a lot of wind that day.

So that's the set. All the photos will open much larger in a separate window, if needed. Any guesses what I've found here? Thanks to Don, Lee, Garden Groans, 2 different Anonymouses, Errant, and Paul for their help.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pretty picture: Laeliocattleya Gold Digger 'Buttercup'

It's not my favorite color, granted, but it's hard to dislike a Cattleya Alliance flower.

I Googled to see if I could find anything interesting about this particular plant, but nothing jumped out at me, so I guess that's all you get.