Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
April, 2007
Regional Report

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The indoor plants at my office in Brisbane live happily near the window. The coffee tree (center) started in a 2-inch pot!

Killing Plants With Kindness

Every spring Terra Nova Nurseries sends me a beautiful box of seedling plants. They are new varieties which have been developed over the previous year that are sent to members of the press so that we can write about them, which I do. Last spring I received a box filled with tiny ferns, begonias, and an assortment of other shade garden plants. I potted some, planted others in my garden, and found good homes for the rest.

I was especially fond of the rhizomatous begonia that looked like pink angel wings. It was doing very well in my office, branching from the base and sending up a flush of new growth. To encourage it, I decided to fertilize the little plant. I always fertilize my indoor plants the same way: I add a teaspoon of soluble fertilizer to a 2-gallon bucket and submerge the potted plants for a few minutes until the bubbles stop rising to the surface. Then I set them in a saucer to drain, then back to their regular spot in front of the window.

I'll be darned if the little begonia wasn't hanging down limp the next day. I suspected overfertilization as the cause of the wilt, so I took the plant into the bathroom and ran a steady stream of water through the soil to flush out the excess fertilizer. It was a vain attempt. Within a week, all the leaves and stems had turned black and withered. The plant was dead, muerto, kaput.

I was devastated. I'm a professional gardener. These things shouldn't happen to my plants. I'm the one who gives advice on how to save plants, not kill them!

But we all kill plants from time to time. It happens to everybody. Plants are living things and they have a life span like all the rest of us. Many times I've seen wretched plants that somebody is trying to save. If you have a plant that is not doing well, by all means try to address the problem and make the necessary changes, however don't beat yourself up over it. If it dies you have the opportunity to try something new.

I recently had a collection of five pony tail palms (Nolina recurvata) that I had bought very small and raised to softball size. I loved those little plants and tried to cater to their needs: fast-draining soil, frequent applications of insecticidal soap to control scale insects, and no water during the winter. Unfortunately, my office just didn't have enough direct sun for them to thrive and I inadvertently overwatered them. The base of the plants became mushy and soft. I thought they were goners and set them out by the dumpster; I just couldn't bear to toss them in.

Well, I saw these plants recently on the sunny patio of one of the neighboring apartment buildings, looking fat and healthy. I feel much better knowing they were rescued and lived to tell the tale.

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