SOME INTERESTING HOLIDAY GIFT PLANTS

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Most of us are quite familiar with common garden geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) with their brightly colored blooms and leaves.  We usually grow these outside for summer bedding color.  Other (and not as well-known) geraniums are grown for their scented leaves.  They can be grown outside for bedding or put into mixed containers for scent, but they make excellent house plants. 

Scented-leaved geraniums have been grown since the 1600s and several are heirloom plants.  At one time more than 100 varieties were grown; each one with a singular, distinctive fragrance.   Several of the kinds still available are true species, some are selections out of species and a few are hybrids.   Fragrances include rose, lemon, mint, apricot, pineapple and coconut.  To release the scent of the leaves, simply gently brush against them or rub lightly with your finger.   It is pleasant to have fragrant plants in the house in winter, even without flowers.   How many of us have tried to bring plants with fragrant flowers into bloom in the winter?  It is not an easy task, especially with our short days, minimum window space.  But scented geraniums carry their scent year-round and are not difficult to grow. 

‘Skeleton Rose’, dating to about 1700, is one of the oldest scented geraniums around.  It has a delicious rose-lemon scent and beautiful, deeply-divided leaves.   Flowers appear in late spring and are lavender. 

‘True Rose’ has beautiful divided leaves of quite different shape from ‘Skeleton Rose’, and makes a slightly larger plant.  It has been grown since 1787 and the oil from its leaves is used in perfumes.   This variety has pink blooms in late spring. 

‘Peppermint’ has soft, velvety leaves with a fresh, minty smell.  This variety seems to like more water and cooler temperatures than other geraniums.  The plant can become larger than other kinds also.  ‘Peppermint’ has been grown since 1806.

‘Lemon Fizz’ is a twentieth century plant and is probably the most popular scented geranium today.  Its leaves release a wonderful, sweet, lemon fragrance that is comparable to true lemon.  

In general, I have found that scented-leaf geraniums prefer a more neutral pH (6.0) than most other geraniums, and like a bit more moisture.  It is best to let the plants get sub-moist, but not completely dry; then water them thoroughly so the water runs out the bottom of the pot.  A sign that your scented-leaf geraniums are being kept too dry is the presence of drying, browning leaves at the base of the plants.  A sign that they are being kept too wet is transparent, yellowing leaves.  A fast-draining, organic succulent potting mix is excellent.  These plants are easy to grow organically.  Aphids and spider mites are seldom troublesome, but if they appear, can be controlled easily with certified organic pest controls or by spraying the leaves with a jet of water, washing off the bugs. 

Christmas cacti (Zygocactus spp.) have no fragrance, but what a show they give in the darkest days of the year!  Their flowers are silky and translucent, and bloom in shades of pink, red, white and lavender.   Unlike most cacti, Christmas cacti have no spines, but possess unusual, flat leaves.  In their native habitat, they live in trees.  They like a moist situation and prefer to become sub-moist before they are watered.  They do not like to dry out completely either, and will die if they get too dry.   Likewise, they will die if they are watered too much, so try to keep the plants moist.  A rich organic potting soil works well, and plants prefer to become bit pot bound, when they bloom the best.  In fall, winter and early spring Christmas cacti can be given a spot in a sunny window, but in summer they need part shade or some protection from full sun. 

Christmas cacti are daylight sensitive.  Flower buds are set in fall, when days are shorter and nights longer (12 to 14 hour nights).  Temperatures of 50 degrees to 55 degrees F. will encourage bloom.  The plants must have complete darkness at night to set flower buds, so when you are trying to get them to bloom, make sure there are no lights on in the room or outside the window at night. 

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DECEMBER GARDENING CALENDAR

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GENERAL

Check stored vegetables and fruit often; inventory seeds and test germination and order seed.  Keep perennials and bulbs growing next to the house covered with snow to insulate them from extreme cold.  Make sure all young fruit trees have their trunks wrapped and place wire netting around trunks to prevent damage from rabbits and voles.   Mulch hardy tree seedlings and bulb beds with pine or fir branches. 

Save wood ashes all winter long to spread on beds in spring on plants that enjoy alkaline soil conditions.  

VEGETABLES

Admit air to cold frames and cover frames at night.  Uncover on mild days, but do not let sun shine on frozen plants.  Pick off any decaying leaves.  Cover every night with mats, blankets, straw, ferns or insulating row fabric.  Late cabbages, kale and greens should be covered in hoops covered with row cover fabric. 

Check stored vegetables often: potatoes, onions, carrots, and cabbage, etc.  Also check stored flowers and fruit: dahlias, glads, cannas, apples, pears.  Cabbage likes high humidity (80-90%) and a storage temperature of about 35 degrees.  Potatoes, glads and dahlias prefer about 45 degrees and high humidity.  Onions and garlic need air, with about 60% humidity, so hang and keep them dry, storing at about 35 degrees.  Apples need about 30-35 degrees with high humidity. 

Force asparagus in hot beds. 

FLOWERS

If there is no snow, cover perennials and roses with evergreen branches to protect them.  Spread thin, flaky manure over pansies, carnations, pinks, tulips, penstemons, phloxes.  Spread composted manure over the vegetable garden.  Over the winter the manure will break down and feed the soil and any pathogens will be gone by the time you begin planting vegetables in mid-March.

For house plants: start amaryllis, watering lightly at first with warm water.  Keep in a warm place and gradually increase watering as the stems elongate, but do not keep the plants wet.  Moist soil is best.  Watch for spider mites on houseplants, mini roses and amaryllis.  If you see them, wash the whole plant first with plain water; then spray with insecticidal soap every 3 days for 2 weeks.  Do not overwater houseplants this time of year, especially geraniums, which are nearly or totally dormant now. 

Late in the month, after the 20th, start seeds of begonias, geraniums, primroses, Dahlias, pansies, and lisianthus. 

For potted auricula primroses and other plants, keep admitting air into the frames and keep frame covers handy if the weather gets very cold.  Cover outdoor primulas with light straw. 

FRUIT

Check stored fruit often for spoilage and discard any rotting fruits. 

TREES, SHRUBS AND ROSES

Take cuttings of lavender, pyracantha, sumac, spirea, mock orange, wiegela, wisteria, and robinia.  Place them in a mixture of ½ peat and ½ perlite.  Insert small stakes into the pot to act as supports.   Place plastic bags over the tops of the pots and sink them into sand or soil inside a cold frame situated in shade.  The cuttings should root over the winter.