Houseplants Q&A

Q: I have an African violet that's healthy, but it has no flowers. Can I make it bloom?

A: You sure can! The difference between a greenhouse and an ordinary living room is often the reason for non-blooming plants. It's the amount of light that they get. They need bright light. Ideally an east or south window in winter, and a west window in summer. They should be protected from strong sunlight. For winter bloom, it can help to provide some artificial light in the evenings. You can purchase grow lights at your local hardware store and put them in a nearby lamp. African violets also flower best if they are kept standing on moist pebbles which gives them a lot of humidity. You must remove faded flowers promptly to prevent seed formation, which is a deterrent to further bud development. Plenty of indirect fresh air is also important. Repotting may be necessary, but other factors should be considered. An African Violet plant food may be applied according to the label directions when buds begin to appear. But do not feed during the short periods when plants are resting and producing no new growth.

Q: I recently got an amaryllis bulb as a gift. How do care for this plant so I get big, beautiful flowers?

A: Plant your bulb in a pot that's about 1 inch larger in diameter than the bulb. Leave the top 1/3 of the bulb exposed. When it's in full growth, water regularly, and feed the plant once a month with a balanced fertilizer. Your amaryllis will do best with full sunlight during this time. When summer rolls around and the leaves dry out, cut it back to 3 inches and store the bulb in the pot in a cool, dry, dark location for at least 2 months. When it show signs of growing, or about 8 weeks before you want it to flower, bring it out and repot it in fresh soil and larger pot if needed, and begin watering. Remember to keep it between 60-70 degrees.

Q: How can I get rid of aphids that are all over my houseplants?

A: Aphids hate soap. Give your plants a good soapy bath using 1-2 tbsp. of dishwashing liquid per gallon of room temperature water. Spray the plants thoroughly making sure to get the undersides of the leaves, too. If you can, wipe the aphids away with a soft cloth. Repeat weekly or every other week as needed until you don't see 'em anymore. For something with an even stronger punch, you can use my All-Season Clean-Up Tonic (above) at a rate of 1 tsp. of tonic to a quart of tepid water. Give your plants a good dose of this every 2 weeks and those aphids will be history.

Q: Is there a way to grow avocados from seeds?

A: Avocado seeds are great fun for planting indoors. First remove the thick brownish hide that covers the seed and then wash the seed well. After soaking a 4-inch clay pot, plant the seed in it with 1 inch of the pointed end above the soil. You can use any commercial potting mix. Water it with a solution of 1 tsp. of Epsom salts per quart of water, and put it in a dark place for one week. Then, move it to a nice, bright location. When it's 6-8 inches tall, cut it in half to encourage branching.

Q: Why can't I get my Christmas cactus to bloom?

A: Here's what you can do to get your Christmas cactus bloomin' again. This plant needs a temperature range of 55-70 degrees F. Anything higher or lower, and you'll have blooming problems. The amount of light (or more specifically darkness) it gets also affects blooming. If you want it to bloom for Christmas, you'll have to keep your cactus in an area that's cool and on the dryish side during mid Sept. to mid Nov. until flower buds set. During this time, it should not have more than 11 hours of light during the day. It needs to be in a spot that gets bright light with no direct sun during the day and uninterrupted darkness at night. Watch out for any artificial light sources that can interfere with the dark period. Put a box over it at night - say from 7pm to 8am, if you need to. Water it normally when it's in flower and during periods of growth. You'll also want to give it a rest period after blooming, which means watering less frequently during February and March. Then in April, begin treating it normally again.

Q: Our ficus tree seems to be going through shock ever since a recent move. The leaves are yellowing and dropping off. What can we do to save it?

A: Weeping Figs (Ficus benjamina) don't like changes. They drop their leaves to adjust to changes in light and temperature. Put it in a bright spot and water with care. Let the soil dry out between waterings, particularly in the winter months, and make sure you don't overwater it. If it's happy with its new home, it should put out new foliage and adjust.

Q: My potted gardenia is dropping its flowers all of a sudden, some even before they open. What am I doing wrong?

A: Bud drop is common in gardenias. This occurs because of uneven temps and moisture. Your gardenia should be kept at 72 to 78 degrees by day, and not less than 60 degrees at night. It needs plenty of bright light, humidity, and good air circulation. Mist it regularly, but make sure the plant isn't damp at night. Keep the soil moist, but not wet.

Q: There are little flying bugs that look like gnats all around my houseplants, especially around the soil. What are they and what do I do?

A: It sounds like you've got a problem with fungus gnats. These pests look a whole lot like fruit flies and hang around the soil at the base of the plants. They often occur from using unsterilized soil or from keeping the soil too wet. The adults aren't harmful, but they sure are a nuisance! It's the little baby larvae that hatch in the soil that are the problem. Treat the soil with beneficial nematodes according to directions to get them in their larval stage. This should wipe 'em out very effectively.

Q: What can I do for my hoya plant that has no blooms?

A: It sounds like it might not be getting enough light, or it might have been pruned incorrectly. Hoya need bright light, but be sure to keep them out of hot direct sunlight. They bloom on vines that are about 3 feet long. If you cut the vines back, or cut off the short leafless stems that grow toward the end of the vines, you loose its flowering ability. If you need to keep those vines in check, a good way to do it is to wrap the vines around a wire loop or trellis rather than cutting them off. After flowering, remove the dead flowers, but not the stems that produce them, so that they will flower again for you.

Q: What should I do for my potted palm that has some brown leaves?

A: It's natural for the lowest leaves to turn brown on a Palm. Just cut them off. If, however, the browning is more widespread, and there's some rotting, then you're probably overwatering it. Remove the plant from the pot and inspect the root system. If all of the roots are brown and mushy, you may not be able to save it. If you still have some firm, white roots, wash away the soil from the root ball. Cut away the brown roots and any stems or leaves that are showing rot. Then repot it carefully using a new pot and fresh, sterile potting soil. Keep the plant in a well-lit location away from direct sunlight, and be careful not to overwater it.

Q: My peace lily has developed brown tips. What's wrong?

A: Peace lilies just love humidity, and brown tips are usually caused by air that's too dry for them. Fluoride in city tap water can also be the culprit. Mist the leaves often - once or twice a day. You'll also want to set the plant on a pebble tray filled with water. The plant sits on pebbles above the water level. This helps increase humidity around the plant, and should perk your lily right up. If your water is treated, water instead with bottled or rain water.

Q: How can I get my poinsettia to bloom at Christmastime?

A: In order to get a Christmas bloom, place the plant in a dark closet for 12 hours each night, say from 8pm to 8am, starting in early October. Keep the plant in a sunny window for the other 12 hours of the day. Keep this up until it starts to turn color. This should get your plant turning as red as Santa's nose just in time for the holidays.

Q: There's a crusty white substance covering the top of the soil in all of my houseplants. I can remove it, but it keeps coming back. So, what can I do?

A: It sounds like you might have an accumulation of salt in your soil. This can be caused by a few things, such as watering your plant from the bottom, using liquid fertilizers, or from watering with hard water. When you see it, it's a good time to repot with fresh soil. If the plants are so large that you can't repot, change the soil in the top of the pot. Then in the future, be sure to water well from the top (until it runs out the bottom) with unfertilized water once a month. This helps leach the salts out of the soil so that they don't accumulate.

Q: My houseplants have been invaded by whiteflies. How do I get rid of them?

A: Be sure to isolate the plant from any other houseplants. Give the plant a good bath with 2 tsp. of dishwashing liquid in a quart of tepid water, making sure to wash all parts of the plant. This will help to get rid of any eggs and nymphs on the plant. Rinse it with the same temperature water, and spray with a weak tea solution. Retreat weekly until you get them under control. You can also place yellow cardboard strips coated with petroleum jelly near, or in, the plant to trap the adults. Replace them when they are full.

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