Friday, August 29, 2014

AeroGrow comes through with a replacement base for the ULTRA

Autumn is nigh, and while that usually means harvest time, with indoor gardens it can mean planting time as well. So I'll be putting my obsession with air cleaning plants aside for a while and turn my attention back to Aerogardening.

Remember how I mentioned how I came from from traveling to find my Aerogarden ULTRA dead with a burning smell coming from it?, Well AeroGrow came through in a big way for me. Specifically, they sent me a brand new base. Now when I first heard they were sending a new base I figured maybe they'd send me some new circuit boards or something and it'd be up to me to figure out how to rip out the old one and replace it. But no, they sent an entire base, complete with the ULTRA control pad and all power cables. And they also threw in a new set of lights to boot.

I'm glad they're stepping up in this way, especially to make sure that the experience of "early adopters" is good (if you recall, I probably got one of the first 10 or so of these things off the assembly line). 

The most obvious difference between the old base of the ULTRA and the new one is that the new one has more screws on the bottom and generally looks a little less "cheap" and flimsy. 

While they were never 100% clear of what the defect in the old models is, it's probable that when users over-watered their gardens (a common occurrence given how hard it is to see the water line), the water would spill over right into the circuitry and cause a short circuit. The replacement cover they sent honestly didn't look too much different from the old cover (I think there were just extra edges molded in), but this new model looks like they did a bit more of a redesign. 

Installing the new base was a snap (literally). I needed to unhook the old grow light hook from the old, burned-out base...

And snap it into the new one.

And so begins another adventure in Aerogardening. And this time I'm going to be adventurous! Stay tuned. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Dumb Cane (Dieffenbachia camilla): Best Air Cleaning Plant #18

There are actually two plants by go by the name of "Dumb Cane", the Dieffenbachia "Exotica Compacta" and the Dieffenbachia camilla. The differences have to do with the variegation. Both have broad, green leaves, but Exotica Compacta seems to have a more "splotchy" look to the whiteness in the middle of the leaf, while Camilla (pictured here) has a more solid white pattern.

In either case, they have similar air cleaning qualities and both are stunningly beautiful houseplants.

The reason it's called "dumb cane" is interesting. Their sap contains calcium oxalate. You might recall this also occurs in Golden Pothos; as with that plant, if you bite into any part of the plant it can cause your throat to swell and you can lose your speech for several days. This is why you want to keep these plants far from children and pets.

You'll want to keep these plants in bright, filtered light; if the setting is too dark the leaves can lose their variegation. It's another plant that's easy to grow and just requires fertilization every month and to be always kept moist (misting is also good for it).

You can purchase this plant at most plant stores, or if you can get a Dieffenbachia on Amazon from various sellers.

 Some care tips:

1) Temperature: Keep between 65-80 degrees Fahrenheit.

2) Sunlight: It likes bright, filtered light such as what you find by a window.

3) Care and feeding: Keep soil evenly moist but not soggy. Feed monthly and keep away from drafts.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Corn Plant (Dracaena fragrans "Massangeana"): Best Air Cleaning Plant #12

The corn plant is a bit of a misnomer, as it has nothing to do with corn. But if you've ever shucked corn, you'll understand where the name comes from. The thick, green leaves that grow from the plant have a similar color, texture, and thickness as leaves you peel off of corn. In addition, the thick, round cane (main stem) of the plant is a solid woody stem with a light brown color that puts you in the mind of a corn husk or hull.

The plant is also known by a few other names, most commonly the cornstalk dracaena, the mass cane plant, or Dracaena fragrans. The latin name contains the word "fragrans" because when it grows in the wild it produces highly fragrant flowers. As a houseplant, though, it rarely blooms so most of the time it's grown as just a green plant.

You'll also hear the plant referred to as a "Mass Cane", which is short for "Massangeana Cane", one of the most popular variegated cultivars that you'll find in most shops--typically the variegation will be a yellow stripe down the middle of each left. Mine was supposed to be a Mass Cane, but it looks like it pretty much reverted to its original form as mine doesn't have any yellow stripes.

The plant is native to tropical Africa, from the Sudan to Mozambique to the Ivory Coast to Angola. There, they're generally grown as shrubs or hedge plants, as they thrive in the warm, wet climate. That same hardiness makes them practically indestructible houseplants. I speak from experience; I bought the corn plant you see here from 1-800-Flowers on September 18, 2009. Now, exactly five years later, the plant has survived a massive fungus gnat infestation, a repotting where the root ball was so heavy I accidentally broke most of it in the process, long periods of time without water (the soil would literally be dry to the point of cracking), and a spot in the house away from the window that gets no direct sunlight. While I had to trim a lot of it, and you can see a new offset growing at the bottom of the pot, the plant you see here is pretty much the same as I was five years ago.

It's a versatile plant as well. Some let the cane grow long and tall, while others will cut the cane and cap it, letting offshoots grow off to the sides (which is what I have here). The Janet Craig and the Warneckii cultivars we've already talked about all have their roots (no pun intended) in the dracaena fragrans.

This is probably one of the best plants for someone new to plants to grow, because it's virtually indestructible as long as you remember to water it every now and again. While it prefers bright light, you can put it in a part of the house that gets almost no light and it'll be just fine. The plant is exceptional at removing formaldehyde from the air.

You can purchase a 6" version at Amazon that you can grow from a small plant, or if you prefer a full-grown plant that's going to last years I'd suggest doing what I did and going to a site like Home Depot or 1-800-Flowers.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Areca Palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens): Best Air Cleaning Plant #2

The Areca Palm goes by a number of names: yellow palm, the butterfly palm. bamboo palm, or golden cane palm. It's native to Madagascar, where it grows in tropical rain forests or near moist river beds. It has since been naturalized to a number of islands near Africa, the Carribean, and Central and South America, basically any region that's tropical or subtropical and humid. And of course, it's one of the most popular houseplants in the world.

The Areca Palm is the only plant on Dr. Wolverton's list that gets a 10 out of 10 for transpiration--the rate at which it releases moisture back into the air. In fact, a 6 foot areca palm can release about one whole quart of water into the air every 24 hours, making it a great natural humidifier. Of course, this water has to come from somewhere, which means keeping watering it a LOT. You need to keep the root ball ball damp, mist regularly (at least daily), and provide humidity as much as you can, especially in a dry office or home environment (for example, putting it in a subirrigation planter or placing the planter on a bowl of rocks with water).

Ironically, while I talked earlier about how overwatering plants can cause excessive soil mites and fungus gnats, underwatering the areca palm can have the same effect, attracting nasties like spider mites, which thrive under hot, dry conditions.

Of course I can't talk about plants I buy at Kmart without finding something to complain about. And in this case, when I brought the Palm home I first notice a couple scale insects on the leaves (one pest I haven't had to deal with so far), which I immediately plucked off the plan. Luckily, it didn't look like an infestation, probably just a few that migrated over from neighboring plants. Again, great job by the Kmart in Manhattan.

After I got home, I noticed "freckles" (or if you prefer, "speckles" or "spots") all over the stems. Weirder still, I found that if I wiped them with a wet and slightly abrasive cloth (like a paper towel) they'd come right off.

I was perplexed as to what these were. I Googled it, and while I found a few others who encountered the same thing, no one seemed to know what they were. The one thing I learned is that people on the Internet love to talk about stuff they know nothing about. Some people swore these were more scale insects, but after a slight moment of panic I discounter this because they simply don't have the icky "bump" you generally see with scale. Others speculated that it's something called "flyspeck fungus". Some websites report that if you see spotting or speckling on leaves (but they didn't mention stems) it's an indication that there were salts or minerals in the water, as Arecas have the ability to move salt accumulations to selected branches (when the branches get saturated they'll die and you need to remove them, but the damage will be isolated to that frond). And others said this is just a natural phenomenon that happens with all Arecas. 

Just to be safe, I took a paper towel and some dish soap and scrubbed each of the stems. There's still spotting on them but it's a lot less than before.

I brought the plant to the office. Here's what it looks like right now: 

Arecas like indirect light, as direct sunlight can easily burn the leaves. I do have a corner of my office window that never gets direct sunlight, so I'll leave it there for a while. It helps that I have access to spring water outside my office, so I'll use that to water the plant to prevent it from having to deal with things like fluoride and salts in tap water.

My next step is going to be to repot it; while Arecas are okay being pot-bound, the current pot is too small for it to grow from its current height of about 2 feet to its standard indoor size of 6-8 feet (outdoors it can grow to 25 feet). This would require a pot that's about double what I have now.

As for the air-cleaning properties of the plant, this one ranks near the top. It removes benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene from the air.

If you're interested in an Areca Palm, this seller on Amazon is selling them, and of course you'll find them in most home centers and plant stores.

Some care tips:

1) Temperature: Keep between 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit.
2) Sunlight: As much light as it can get without getting direct sunlight. 
3) Care and feeding: Keep the root ball damp but avoid having the pot sit in water, which can cause root rot. Mist frequently to keep a good appearance. keep spider mites away, and give it the humidity it craves and will pay back in the form of great transpiration. 

UPDATE: sadly, I didn't take my own advice. I went on a two week vacation and forgot to tell anyone to water my plant, so I came back to my Areca slumped over and dried out to the point of being brittle. No great loss, as I figure next time I'll buy it from Amazon or Home Depot or somewhere other than Kmart. I'll post pictures when I get my new Areca in.