Every now and then some thoughtful reader writes to tell me a story or share a gardening tip.
One of my regular correspondents goes above and beyond all that, so much so that after thanking him profusely for his latest helpful email, I added that he should be writing the gardening column.
If that were to happen, we’d have to retire the blundering gardener. I mean the name of the current gardening column, not me. I intend to die with my Wellies on, blundering to the bitter end.
Mike is not one to mess up. He has an unnerving knack for getting it right the first time.
Last month I wrote about the dry conditions in our gardens, at Mike’s suggestion, and mentioned that the window of opportunity for watering is closing fast.
It was now or never to give your plants one last helping of H2O.
By way of inspiration, I described dragging my own hoses up from the basement to water some newly planted trees.
By the time I was done, it was just above zero and whatever water hadn’t soaked into the soil had puddled on top and created a chain of frozen lakes scaled to fit any squirrels who’d thought to get themselves fitted for ice skates once the acorns had been gathered.
Nor was the story I told of raising the height of my garden fence particularly useful, unless you are more like me than Mike, and willing to build a fence without benefit of post holes set in concrete to protect against heaving.
My fence is still standing, and I did take advantage of a two-day thaw just after Christmas to pound metal support posts to a depth of 3 feet. These won’t hold the fence upright but at least it won’t fall over.
My Christmas column closed with a gift suggestion. I recommended the shrimp plant for the gardener who has everything … else.
Mike claimed to have killed more than a few over the years. (I don’t believe this.) He recommended Jerusalem cherry as an even better gift.
“I think it is a relative of the tomato (its leaves smell like tomato leaves),” he wrote. “I bought one several years ago at Gertens and every year I put it outside where it gets partial sun, and it gets bushy and eventually full of ‘cherries.’
“I trim it back severely and repot it in the spring. It is getting a woody stem on it and almost looks like a Bonsai.”
I smiled at this, thinking I’d finally done one better than Mike. I have a houseplant whose leaves smell like tomato leaves because it IS a tomato.
It self-seeded (while still outside) in a container whose main tenant is a 7-foot-tall fiddleleaf ficus that has never produced a fig.
I noticed the tomato seedling about a month ago and decided not to pull it, since it gets full sun all day in a south-facing bay window and looks to be liking it there.
It is about 12 inches tall. I am hoping to see the first flowers in February, and tomatoes — real tomatoes — along about March.
My guess is that it will produce cherry tomatoes, if it produces any tomatoes.
I am hoping Mike is reading this and will advise me on whether I will need artificial light to augment the sunshine, and if so when I should provide it.
“Speaking of houseplants,” he added (after mentioning the Jerusalem cherry), “now is the time to start checking plants (brought in) from the outside for pests. Mealybugs, thrips, spider mites, etc.
“Look for yellowing or splotchy leaves. Also, sticky residue on leaves (or on the floor or furniture).
“Fungus gnats are also a nuisance but don’t really damage the plant. Sticky traps can take care of them.
“A good insecticidal soap spray in a pump bottle will help control most pests. A Q-tip with rubbing alcohol helps with mealybugs.
“I know you might not agree” — who, me? — “but the judicious use of a systemic houseplant insecticide can save the life of a cherished house plant
“A former sister-in-law had a very large Hoya plant that she inherited from a favorite aunt. It became infested with mealybugs. She tried sprays and alcohol (rubbing, not drinking!), but they did not work.
“I gave her some systemic rose insecticide (this was before systemic houseplant insecticide) and it worked and saved the plant.
“Also, ISOLATE any new plants for at least a month. I lost over 200 violet plants because I did not isolate some new plants long enough.”
In response to all this excellent advice, I felt obligated to share with him my own all-purpose home remedy for pesky pests — a blend of peanut oil and dish soap.
No sooner had I fired it off than I noticed a leaf of my prized acalypha (A. wilkensianna “Curly Q”) spiraling to the wood floor of my living room.
Actually, I heard it.
The leaf of this plant resembles a copper-colored potato chip with serrated edges. The sticky resin secreted by whatever was eating it gave the leaf the texture of a potato chip too.
The leaf hit the floor with an ominous scraping sound that suggested there were more where that came from.
Sure enough, when I went to inspect the plant, I saw that it had lost half its foliage.
No matter how carefully I hose down my plants before bringing them in, some critter stows away in hopes of spending the winter in the Tropics.
By the time I figured out that once again I’d allowed spider mites to infest my acalypha and cursed myself sharply, it was too late to run to the store to replenish the peanut oil that I keep in the pantry for just such emergencies.
In a perfect world, the oil is added to dish-washing liquid, about half and half plus a cup of water, and the bottle given a good shake before the toxic potion is liberally applied atop and under leaves, along stems and so on.
For good measure I zap the dirt in the pot a few times too.
My acalypha looks like my daughter’s unmade bed, a rumpled mess. But it is still living. Tomorrow I will move it into the south-facing window and resist the urge to water it to death.
Sometimes caring for plants reminds me of raising children. I wasn’t much good at that either, though my kids survived.Related Articles
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