Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Boston Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata "Bostoniensis") - Best Air Cleaning Plant #1

With chemical removal rated at 9 out of 10 and transpiration rate at 9 out of 10, the Boston Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata) is the top air cleaning plant on the list. Here's the one I got from Garden World, all transplanted in its nice new pot.



The Boston fern isn't from Boston and quite honestly doesn't even grow particularly well in Boston. There are varying theories of why this variation got the name. The species of Nephrolepis exaltata normally has erect fronds, but this variation of Nephrolepis exaltata cv. Bostoniensis has arching fronds. Some say that the name came when this mutation was discovered as plants were shipped from Boston to Philadelphia in 1894, while others say the name came from Florida pioneer John Soar, who shipped some of the plants to a friend in Boston. Whatever the origin, the name stuck and this plant is forever associated with Boston.

The plant is really native to humid forests and swampy areas, such as in Florida Central and South America, and Africa. Its ability to thrive in humid areas is what makes it a great air cleaning houseplant, as it is used to taking in water and transpiring it. It's that same property that makes it a bit difficult to care for, especially in rooms that we keep climate controlled and dehumidified.

There are a couple things you can do to let your plant feel a little bit more at home. Make sure to place the pot on a tray of pebbles; this way, when the water in the tray dissolves, it'll help hydrate the plant. Also, you'll want to mist the plant once or twice a week. It's not sub-Saharan Africa, but it's close enough. If you see the leaves turning yellow, it's time to increase the humidity.

You'll also want to make sure your soil NEVER dries out. This is not to say to keep it soaking, but if the soil dries out that's not going to be great for the plant.

1) Temperature: Keep between 68-80 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything below 55 and they will die
2) Sunlight: Partial shade and indirect lighting is best. Think the ground of an old growth forest.
3) Care and feeding: Keep soil evenly moist but not soggy. Does not need a lot of fertilizer, feed once or twice a month with a diluted houseplant fertilizer.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A great garden center in Flushing and Bayside - Garden World

Now most of you who read the blog know that aside from a few links on the side, I don't do a lot of advertising. Part of it is because I do it for the love of indoor gardening, but another part is that I get so sick of bloggers who just seem to sell out with every other post being "sponsored".

That said, when I find a place I really love, I gotta talk about it. And this place is Garden World in Flushing, New York. I should start off by saying that they don't know I'm blogging about them, but I was plenty impressed with them that I figured I'd write a post on them. By the way, if you're in the NY area, there's a Groupon you can use to get a discount.

The shop itself looks pretty nondescript on the outside, just a shack sitting to the side of an H-mart. Walking in, though, you immediately see a huge area filled with supplies. They just started to put up the Christmas products as well, so there's a festive feel about it. There were also fresh apples in the back from area orchards.

The part I wanted to see was in the back--the greenhouse. This was stocked full of wonderful, healthy plants. For someone who's been buying dead and diseased plants from a K-mart under Penn Station, I was like a kid in a candy store.


They had most of the plants we've been talking about--huge golden pothos plants, dracenas, and plenty of other tropical plants. 


The proprietor of the store couldn't have been nicer to us. I read, in broken Latin, the plants I was looking for and he walked me through and showed them to me. I wanted a Bamboo Palm, but the one they had was way too big for me.



Another goal was to get a ficus robusta (rubber tree plant), but the 8" one they had was just too big for me. But I'll be back to see if I can get a 6" one next spring. 


I was happy to find a lot of the plants I'd been searching for. Clockwise from the upper left below is the Boston Fern (#1), the Peace Plant (#7), the Spider Plant (#26), and a Ficus (#15). You'll be reading more about these in the coming weeks as I transplant them. 


Something else I got? A bag of potting soil which was completely free of fungus gnats. For all the coupons I get from K-mart, one thing I learned is that buying soil or plants from a place like that, no matter how cheap you may think it is, ends up costing a lot more in the long run. 


If you're in the Flushing or Franklin Square areas, definitely check them out. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lots of dried, undeveloped strawberries--Update on the strawberries

It's been a while since I gave an update of the strawberry plants. Here's what they look like today.


Pretty impressive looking, huh? Out of all the plants I planted, only one didn't grow. Again, nice job by Aerogrow on that third batch.

I wish I could say that by now I've harvested bushels of strawberries and have been making pies, jams, and shortcakes. But alas, I've seen about 10 strawberries so far and they all look something like this.


Shriveled, brown, and looking more like a cluster of seeds than a fruit. There are a couple reasons this is happening:

1) I'm not pollinating right. Strawberries coming out malformed or small are usually due to lack of pollination. I followed AeroGrow's instructions and each time I pass by the plant I dutifully give it a good shake. But it doesn't look like that's enough to really spread the pollen. The other problem is that I sometimes don't even see the flowers until it's too late. I think the next step is going to be for me to pay closer attention to see when the flowers are budding and then use a Q-Tip or an artist's brush to hand pollinate them.

2) I'm not watering right. There have been a couple times I check the water and it's bone dry inside. Between the coco chunks and the amount of water the growing plants suck up so much water, I find that the reservoir dries up much faster than with a regular Aerogarden growth. The Grow Bowl really requires you to constantly fill up with water. But watch out--fill it a little too much and water will spill over the side, a lesson I learned a few times.

3) I'm not adding enough nutrients. Looking at the washed-out leaves, I'm wondering if the plants are lacking nutrients. I've been adding old packets of nutrients from past Aerogardens, but I think it might be time for me to go to the bottle of fresh nutrients that got shipped with the product.

4) The temperature is off. The weather and our heating system has been weird lately, meaning really cold nights and occasional periods where it's really warm. I think that might be affecting the plants as well.

So far, there's only one strawberry that looks like it might have a chance.


Its odd shape is a telltale sign of it not being pollinated well, but at least there's a little meat to it. We'll see if it continues to grow.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Turning to Gnatrol (Bti) to get rid of Fungus Gnats once and for all

If you recall, a few months ago I wrote of how Kmart sold me a bag of potting soil with fungus gnats, and soon every plant in my house and office seemed to be infested.

I detailed every single tactic I found to try to get rid of them. I tried drying out the soil, but even after all the dirt was bone dry and the leaves started to wilt, watering seemed to bring back the gnats with a vengeance. I tried sprinkling cinnamon but gnats keep showing up. I bought 100 Yellow Sticky Traps, enough to put and put 1-2 on every single plant. While they do a great job of trapping adults they don't seem to be stopping new larvae (remember that it just take one gnat to get through the perimeter alive to lay 200-300 eggs). Finally, I went to both Gardener's Supply Company and Amazon to buy nematodes; none of them seemed to work the first time around which I attributed to them being fried during shipping. But even when I requested replacements, they didn't work either. Drenching the plants with Hydrogen Peroxide didn't seem to do much either.

No more Mr. Nice Guy. It was time for me to turn to Gnatrol. I've admittedly been resisting this option because I've heard that Gnatrol is a "pesticide", and I wasn't keen on adding "dangerous chemicals" to my plants. After all, the point of growing these plants is for me to clear the air, and the last thing I need is for my plants and soil to be poisoning me.

But that's when I did my research. At first glance, Gnatrol sounds scary. It's a "larvacide" with an active ingredient called "Bacillus thuringiensis subsp. israelensis", or Bti. Did I really want to put bacteria into all my houseplants? I mean, putting live parasites (the nematodes) was freaky enough an idea to get used to. The song "I know an old lady who swallowed a fly" kept ringing through my head.

But after reading more about it, Bti is as close to a miracle fix as modern science has come up with. First of all, what they sell isn't live, viable bacteria; the toxicant that kills the larvae is actually a part of the Bti spore. It was actually discovered in 1976 in Israel from scientists who isolated the bacteria from dead mosquito larvae. It's a substance that's deadly to mosquito larvae (as well as larvae of blackflies, midges, and fungus gnats). Specifcially, Bti releases special protein crystals. When the larvae eat them, the alkaline nature of their digestive system causes these crystals to dissolve and be converted into toxic protein molecules that destroy the inside of the larvae's stomach. Long story short, they can't eat and then they go off to that giant Golden Pothos in the sky.

Here's the cool thing about it--because humans, animals, birds, and fish have acidic and not alkaline digestive tracts, the Bti toxins don't have any effect on us. In fact, Bti is used in mass quantities by cities and municipalities worldwide to control mosquito populations. Because it's a bacteria that's found naturally in soils anyway, there's less fear of using it than more dangerous chemical solutions. Another thing that's nice about Bti is that once it's released, the active ingredient will dissipate after about 72 hours, so even if it were harmful to humans, the exposure is limited.

Gnatrol is a consumer version of Bti. I bought the bottle from a seller on Amazon for $2.69 + $5.49 shipping. Now we all know shipping this tiny bottle can't cost $5.49, but still, if I can spend under $10 and get rid of all the fungus gnats, it'll be money well spent.

The bottle you buy for $10 looks tiny, but because all you need is 1/2 teaspoon per gallon for mild infestations and 1 1/2 teaspoons for heavy infestations, this bottle should last for multiple waterings, hopefully enough to eradicate all the fungus gnats. It has a shelf life of about 2 years, so it doesn't make sense to hoard it--at under $10 it's affordable to get infestation by infestation (which hopefully will be years apart).


To use it, I went a little on the heavy side and added about 2 tablespoons to a gallon of water and drenched the soil, When you mix the water and the granules, you end up with basically a bottle full of bacterial gunk, which looks like brown water.


I then went plant by plant, watering it so that the soil was thoroughly moist and a little bit drained on the bottom.




For a few plants where I thought there were no fungus gnats, a few gnats flew out when I watered them. Hopefully this will put an end to them once and for all. I put a fresh set of yellow sticky traps over each plant to see how effective the treatment will be.



So far, I'm cautiously optimistic. While I'd typically see 10-20 (or more) gnats on the sticky traps, a lot of them are clear now, or have 1-2 gnats. They do say to re-apply the solution three times a week. This is because Gnatrol will not affect adult flies after the pupae stage, so if some adults decide to lay more eggs you'll have a fresh batch of Bti for their young ones to feast on.

If you look at the Amazon reviews, most of them are glowing, but some of them complain that the Gnatrol only made the problem worse. In these cases, the likely culprit is that the seller sold them really old granules that were no longer potent, so ironically while they were thinking they were filling the soil with Bti, they just ended up re-watering the soil, creating more fungus, and making it a breeding ground for gnats.

In my case, though, the gnats definitely appear to be finally getting under control. Since I did this about two weeks ago, the number of gnats definitely appear to have lessened both at home and in the office. The biggest test was on the Boston Fern from Kmart that had been infested from day one. The infestation for that had gotten so bad that I enclosed it into two sandwich bag, partially to serve as a greenhouse, but partially because there were so many gnats coming out of this plant it was clear that the roots were thoroughly infested. It sounds a little nasty, but every morning I'd see new gnats buzzing around in the bag and then squash them.


This was ground zero in the war against the gnats. As you can see, the plant is barely larger now than it was many months ago; this is almost certainly due to the gnat larvae feeding at the root. I think what kept the plant fighting was putting it in the bag, where it got ample humidity (something that ferns need).

My first instinct after writing about this plant so many months ago was to toss the plant in the trash, but I felt that would be conceding victory to the gnats. No, I was going to fight this. So I did everything I mentioned in my last post on fungus gnats, to no avail. But I have it a good drench in the Gnatrol which finally seems to be doing something. I still see and squash one or two gnats every few days, but the problem seems to be a lot more under control. My hope is that eventually I'll go weeks without seeing one gnat, and then I'll finally be able to properly repot and fertilize this plant and hopefully see it grow again. It's honestly hard to say if it's too late for this little guy, but fingers crossed. 









Monday, October 20, 2014

Strawberry Plants Growing Well, but I Lose the First Strawberry

It's only been a week, and look how nicely the Aerogarden strawberry plants are doing!


Now this is more like it. Every single crown has sprouted leaves, and I can see even see flower buds on a couple of them. 


Shockingly, all the plants after one week are about the same size as the first plant, which has had a month and a half to grow. What a difference delivering plants while they're still alive makes.

Speaking of the first plant, sadly, I saw that the little strawberry I straw growing has shriveled up and turned black, almost looking like a blackberry at this point :(


I went to Google to try to find out what might have caused this. What makes this tough to Google is that there is actually such a thing as real black strawberries, but this isn't one of them.

It's hard to tell what condition caused this (if anyone knows for sure, please leave a comment!). I have a few guesses. It could be that because I didn't even notice the flower until after it had turned into a strawberry, the stunted growth may be a result of a lack of pollination. Or, it could be that because this little strawberry was near the base of the plant and thus continually covered by water every hour, it might have developed rot or a fungus.

In any case, there are plenty more flowers on the other plants, so I won't mourn this little guy too much. Let's hope that future strawberries are big, plump, and red the way they should be.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

...and growing, and growing

I usually don't update the blog this quickly, but Aerogarden plants also usually don't grow this quickly. Check out the progress in just one day.



What a difference not cooking in a UPS warehouse makes! The only dilemma now is going to be to try to figure out which plants to throw out to thin it down to six plants. Thank you (finally) Aerogrow, for coming through.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Aerogarden Strawberries Finally Growing

Just two days after planting the latest batch of Aerogarden Strawberry Crowns, here's what I'm seeing:


You might recall from past posts that the original set of crowns was 90% dead and the replacement set they sent was 100% dead. If I wasn't so persistent in wanting to document this process in blog form, Aerogarden Strawberries would probably be dead to me too. 

The one difference is that this time, the plants were delivered to me via UPS Ground, so they were shipped direct to my door in under 4 days. Previously, the plants were shipped via UPS SurePost, which meant they were dispatched from AeroGarden, allowed to sit in what was probably a hot warehouse for days, and then delivered to my door over a week later. 

I hope someone from AeroGrow is reading this, because it's going to save you a heck of a lot of money in the future. Here are some suggestions I have for you:
  1. Do the math. In this case, you had to spend money to mail me my original set of crowns via UPS SmartPost, a second set of crowns via UPS SmartPost, AND a third set of crowns via UPS Ground. You also had to pay your customer service people for answering my calls and responding to my emails. And worst of all, you made me wait over a month to finally get strawberry plants growing. You can save us all (most of all yourself) time and money by baking in UPS Ground shipment into sales of the Strawberry Crowns--heaven knows if people are paying $20 for $0.50 of plants, you can afford it.
  2. Listen to your customers instead of just spewing out a prepared text--while you might have clueless customers here and there, I'll hazard a guess that most of your customers are pretty savvy. So if they tell you that they're picking up the strawberry crowns and they're disintegrating into dust, don't insult their intelligence by saying the plants are "dormant".
  3. Change the photo on your Web site or at least put a big disclaimer to set expectations that customers are not going to receive six beautiful green plants in the mail.
Griping aside, I do appreciate that the customer service reps did send me replacements quickly with no questions asked. 

Okay, now that I have that off my chest, I can start raving. This grow bowl system is really, really cool. I was a little skeptical at first, but that first strawberry plant is doing pretty well, and I have good feelings about the others. The bowl itself is shallow, so instead of roots running deep, evidently they'll run vertically. I was a little afraid of root rot at first, but because the grow bowl fills and drains so quickly, it keeps the growth medium moist but not soaking. 

And so, it's a month later than I hoped it'd be, but it seems that we're on our way to having fresh, home-grown strawberries!