Thursday, July 30, 2009

Plant weather page debuts

You may or may not know that I am a meteorologist and software developer by trade.  Recently I decided to merge my occupational and recreational activities.  I have setup a new page here on the blog that shows the temperature and humidity (in the form of dewpoint temperature) of the environment in which my plants are growing.


The plot is called a meteogram, which means that it has meteorological data for a particular location, plotted on a time axis.  So you can see how certain variables (temperature and dewpoint, in this case) have varied over the last 24 hours (or however long the time axis spans).  Here is an example of a more detailed meteogram, produced by the Oklahoma Climatological Survey.

My meteogram is on the blog for a couple of different reasons:

  1. First and foremost, I think it's cool.

  2. Other people can see what the temperature is like where my plants are growing.  You might think that you could just look that up on the internet, but you can't.  My plants move in and out of doors, based on what time of year it is.  Also, I'm hoping to build a greenhouse one day, and the plants (and sensors) will be moving in there when it gets cooler outside.

  3. This will help me monitor the environment of my plants - even when I'm not at home.  [Not that there's much I could do about it if I noticed that the temperature had plummeted and I was out of town.  But, hey, maybe I would call a family member and talk them into helping me out.]

The look of the meteogram is likely to change over the next couple of months.  I might add more sensors to my little weather station so that you can see how the temperature varies between the different locations where I have my plants - indoors, outdoors sun, outdoors shade.  Hey, maybe I'll even get some fancy stuff, like an anemometer (wind gauge), and plot that data as well.

The plot will always be available on the "Plant Weather" page, and is currently being updated once each hour.

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Potting soil recipe for tropical plants

One of the many things that I learned on my trip to Steve Lucas's Exotic Rainforest atrium was how to simulate rain forest soil.  Steve showed me the soil that he makes and uses for all of his tropical plants (primarily Aroids) and explained the natural processes that make a very similar soil in the rain forest.

As far as I know, there aren't any potting soils available for purchase that are as good as the one listed below.  If you like growing tropical plants, try making your own soil mixture - it's fun and it's likely to be better than anything you can buy!

Below is the recipe, along with some of my customizations.  You can make this great potting mix pretty cheap, if you're creative.


  • Miracle Grow Moisture Control potting soil

  • Sphagnum Peat Moss - broken up by hand

  • Cedar mulch - only the smallest pieces

  • Charcoal

  • Perlite

  • Orchid Bark Mix

  • Sphagnum Moss - cut into tiny pieces

The goal of this mix is to provide a highly-organic, quick-draining soil.  Many of Steve's Aroids are epiphytic or semi-epiphytic, which means that they grow on trees in nature and require very little soil.  However, in nature their roots are nearly always getting wet.  The idea is that the roots don't need to stay wet long, because another rain will come soon.  The tropics are known for their regular rain fall.  With the chunks of bark and moss in this soil, the roots make contact with moisture in the soil, but will not be sitting in a wet soil for any period of time.

As with all recipes, there is plenty of room for experimentation.

The first ingredient is a suggested base potting soil.  I have purchased a non-name brand potting soil that is a competitor to the Miracle Grow Moisture Control.  It is priced a little cheaper and I can't tell much of a difference, after having bought both of them.  Recently I found a really good potting soil at a local nursery (TLC) that includes some additional organic material, including some small pieces of cedar mulch.  Naturally, this negates the need for adding cedar mulch separately.

Sphagnum peat moss can be purchased in large blocks.  I bought by huge bag about 2 years ago and I'm just now finishing it off.  I have potted some plants exclusively in peat moss, but I usually mix it with equal parts of a potting soil. Make sure to break this apart in to small pieces to that it will mix well with the other ingredients.

Cedar mulch or cypress mulch is one of the ingredients that helps with drainage.  It loosens up the mix and adds more avenues for water to escape from the soil.

You can purchase a couple of different types of charcoal that are safe to add to your potting soil: aquarium filter charcoal and horticultural charcoal are both safe bets, but can be expensive.  The cheaper barbeque charcoal is not safe to add to your potting soil, as there are added ingredients in the processing that can add harmful elements to your soil.  I chose the ultra cheap option, which is to gather some charred wood from fire pits.  There is still a risk of getting charred wood that has lighter fluid on it, but the lighter fluid is likely to have all burned.  I played it safe and used wood from my own fire pit in the backyard, which I knew had never had lighter fluid on it.  The charred wood can either be broken apart by hand or with a hammer.  It's a messy job, but we are talking about dirt, here.

In place of perlite, I substituted vermiculite.  The two ingredients have different properties, but I already had vermiculite on hand, so that's what I used.  I use vermiculite for rooting cuttings and also for my hypertufa pots.  Perlite is much easier to find than vermiculite and can be bought in a number of different sizes.  As with all of these ingredients, if you're planning on messing with plants for the rest of your life, it's probably cheapest to buy the larger size for the long haul.

When it comes to the bark mix, I guess I am luckier than most.  In my backyard there is a huge Sycamore tree and a fairly large Magnolia tree.  Both of these trees shed some bark at certain times throughout the year.  The Sycamore sheds a lot of bark in the middle of the Summer.  Not only do I get free bark for potting soil, but I'm not just raking it up and putting it in cans at the curb.  I crumble the bark in to as small of pieces as I can manage and mix it in with everything else.  Of course, if you don't have a bark factory in your backyard, orchid bark mixes are pretty easy to find these days.  Just look at your local home and garden/hardware store in the potting soil section or houseplants section.

The last ingredient, Sphagnum Moss, can also be found in this section.  It is also used for potting orchids.  If you cut the long, stringy pieces into small pieces no longer than 1 inch, it will work its way into the mixture rather well.

I hope you enjoy making your own potting soil.  Good growing!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A key lime was born

About a year ago, my parents-in-law brought a small key lime tree back to me from their vacation to Florida.

My Key Lime Tree (Citrus aurantifolia) covered in buds, summer 2008.  Even though the buds are pink the flowers are solid white when they open.
It bloomed all summer long and developed fruit at the end of the summer, much to my surprise and satisfaction.  There were four full-sized key limes, just a little smaller than the average lime.

Small key lime buds developing over the winter.
I was even more surprised to see that the plant continued to develop buds and bloom inside through the entire winter, sitting on the counter in my bathroom.  The first several winter blooms did not develop fruit, but I was very happy to have the bright little flowers filling the bathroom and hallway with their potent fragrance.  You could smell them just casually walking by the plant.

Mature key lime bud that formed this winter.  Notice this bud is solid white, while the summer buds were pink.
I think the fact that this plant bloomed at all throughout the winter was due to the copious amounts of fertilizer pellets that were worked into the soil by the grower.  I just repotted this little tree yet, and there is still plenty of fertilizer left in the soil for its growing and fruiting pleasure.  [Imagine what my other plants might look like if I actually fertilized!  I'm going to try fertilizing some of my plants this summer.  I have a couple of plants that have never bloomed for me, even though they seem to be large and healthy - a grapefruit tree, a bougainvillea, apostle plant/walking iris, a shell ginger, and a white bird of paradise.]

Winter key lime open blooms.  These are the most fragrant blooms I have ever smelled.
The last of the winter blooms started to dry out the first week of Spring - around March 23rd.  I casually glanced at one of the blooms, brown petals falling to the floor and Hark!  What the heck is that!?! There was a lime developing at the base of the center stamen!

Key lime fruit beginning to develop at base of stamen.  (mid to late March 2009)
Lime developing at base of a different stamen after petals have fallen away.  I have about 10 pictures, trying to get one in focus.  Alas, this is the best it got.
How could this be?  There weren't any pollinators around, except for the occasional moth that flew into the house on nice days when we left the door open.  I'm kind of doubting that one of those moths managed to pollinate my lime tree before I hunted it down and escorted it back outside (preferably alive, sometimes dead).  I am suspecting that this is one of those self-pollinating varieties that I have seen available for other fruiting plants.  [I am planning on growing some kiwi from a self-pollinating vine.]

Key lime fruit starting to develop
No doubt about it, there was definitely a little key lime beginning to form.  I'm really happy that I happened to notice it at this stage.  The first fruits that formed last summer caught me completely off guard and I don't think I got any pictures of them until they were full grown and cut into slices!  But not this time around.

Key lime fruit starting to develop - different angle
Something starting to resemble a small lime (last week of April 2009)
When I started writing this post, I expected I would be picking my lime and slicing it over some chicken sometime in mid-May.  In actuality, it is now late July and I haven't yet picked it.  But I think it is about ready to be picked now.  Maybe Monday night we'll have some lime seared chicken for dinner!

A full sized key lime, ready for the plucking (late July 2009)

FYI: I found another blog where the inflorescence -> infructescence process was photo-documented.

Do you have any citrus trees that have produced fruit?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Buds of the Texas Bluebells

This weekend my wife and I ran across a flower we had never seen before.  It was the Texas Bluebell (Eustoma grandiflorum), also called Prairie Gentian or Lisianthus.  These flowers can be white, pink or purple.  The purple flowers that we purchased are very blue in color.

Texas Bluebells from above
These plants have short stems, densely topped in flowers.  The profuse blooming shouldn't be any surprise, given the species name - grandiflorum.  However, in my opinion, the coolest element to these flowers is the appearance of the buds as they mature and open.  And I think my wife agreed with me on that aspect.  The petals spiral open like a rose.

Texas Bluebells (Eustoma grandiflorum)
There are few flowers that look as impressive in the bud state as they do fully open.  Of course, after they do open, they look more like poppies than they do roses.  But what a cool combination!

Texas Bluebell buds
I haven't planted them yet and they have been sitting on the front porch of my house, which receives full sun in the afternoon and evening.  The high temperature has been over 100 for the last 5 days and these little plants are the only ones that haven't wilted each and every day.  It seems they are rather heat and drought tolerant.

Texas Bluebell buds unfurling and looking like roses.
In Oklahoma these plants are considered annuals or tender perennials.  They are actually hardy in zones 8b-11.  I will be planting mine in our corner garden and mulching them well this fall, hoping for them to come back next Spring.  If they don't come back, I might just buy some more next year and keep them indoors overwinter.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Another shrimp in the bucket

Just after writing about my shrimp plant collection, I ran across another shrimp plant that I had to have. :)

The purple shrimp plant (Justicia scheidweileri) goes by many different common names, including Rose Pine, South African Acanthus, Jade Magic and Maracas Brazilian Fireworks.  Mine was labeled with only the last common name and no genus and species names.  But I remembered that it was in the Justicia genus from my research last week when I wrote about shrimp plants.  My collection now contains five plants from the Justicia genus and one from the Pachystachys genus.

Purple shrimp plant (Justicia scheidweileri)
This plant is very cool, with deep purple sheaths for the long magenta blooms.  In addition to the vibrant blooms, this plant has cool leaves.  There is a prominent silver stripe going down the center vein of each leaf and fainter silver stripes highlighting several other veins on the leaves.  It is not as prevalent in my picture, but you can see some more here.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Another garden waterfall

My parents-in-law own a very beautiful wedding chapel in the woods outside of town.  The chapel itself is a wood and rock structure with huge windows looking out to the dense trees and vegetation around it.  My wife and I help maintain the landscaping by weeding the flowerbeds about once a week.  We also recently installed a garden waterfall, like the one that we have in our front yard.  The waterfall area has been in construction for a while.  You can see that there is plenty of weeding for us to do just to the right of the falls.

The new garden waterfall at Thunderbird Chapel
The chapel has several sandstone walkways around it, so we incorporated some of the sandstone, along with the more commonly used river rocks.  The scale might be hard to deduce from these photos.  The height of the top is probably about 4 feet from the ground level and the length of the waterfall is about 8 feet from the water top to the edge of the basin.

Close-up of the waterfall
While weeding the flowerbeds we have seen a lot of frogs.  There is a pond nearby, but not really in hopping distance.  I think they will really appreciate the addition of this waterfall to their neighborhood.

Monday, July 6, 2009

My shrimp plants

There are two tropical plants that go by the name of shrimp plant and are fairly easy to find.  They're still considered sort of oddities, because of their unique bloomage.  The two most popular are the Pink or Red Shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana) and the Yellow Shrimp plant or Lollipop plant (Pachystachys lutea).  It is so surprising to me that these two very similar plants do not share the same genus, but their genera are in the same family (Acanthaceae).  When I was in Hawaii, there were yellow shrimp plants that were growing in hedges about 6 feet tall and about 8 feet wide!  Very cool.

Hedge of Yellow Shrimp plants (Pachystachys lutea) at the hotel Napili Surf in Maui, Hawaii.
As you can see, the Yellow Shrimp plants are more woody than the other shrimp plants.  Even my small Yellow Shrimp plant (pictured below) is much woodier than my other shrimp plants of similar size.  So, there are noticeable differences between the shrimp plants of these two different genera.  Also, the leaves of the Yellow Shrimp plant are darker green, more glossy and more deeply veined.

Red Shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana) blooms
I have started a collection of shrimp plants, including five different varieties.  All of them are from the Justicia genus, except for the yellow shrimp plant.  The Justicia genus has several other cool tropical plants that can be container grown, such as the Brazilian Plume (J. carnea), the Firecracker Plant (J. spicigera), and Purple Shrimp Plant (J. scheidweileri).  Each of these plants differs pretty substantially from the other Shrimp plants that are in my collection.

My Shrimp Plant Collection. The pot on the left has Yellow (Pachystachys lutea). The pot on the right has all of my others: Red (Justicia brandegeana), Fruit Cocktail (J. brandegeana 'Fruit Cocktail'), Mexican Plume (J. fulvicoma), and White (J. betonica).  The tall stem on the right is the White.
One species that I have in my collection came from Hawaii, where I saw it growing in the wild, not far from the beach.  It is the White Shrimp plant, also called the Squirrel's Tail (Justicia betonica).    This is probably the rarest of my shrimp plants, in terms of being raised in a container.  The plants that I saw blooming in Hawaii were the only thing growing in a large shady area and all of the blooming tops were about 4 to 5 feet tall.  I'm not sure how likely mine is to bloom in a crowded container, but the plant has been growing well over the past two months.

White Shrimp plant or Squirrel's Tail (Justicia betonica) growing in Maui, Hawaii.
Another cool shrimp plant in my collection is the Mexican Plume (J. fulvicoma), which I got from the Bustani Plant Farm.  I just noticed yesterday that it has begun to bloom.  The usual bracts that are so recognizable among shrimp plants are green for this plant and the actual tubular flowers that come out of the bracts are brightly colored in orange and yellow.

Mexican Plume (Justicia fulvicoma) bloom - one of my favorites
The last of my five varieties is a cultivar called "Fruit Cocktail" (J. brandegeana 'Fruit Cocktail').  This one has more yellow-green bracts, with pink tubular flowers.  Mine was blooming when I purchased it, but I forgot to get a picture and now it is out of bloom.

Soon I'll have to add a Purple Shrimp Plant.  They are a very fun plant to collect and really easy to care for during our long, hot summers.  They enjoy being in full sun, as long as they are watered about once a week.  The White Shrimp Plant is more sensitive to light and would prefer a shadier location.  I have my pot of four different shrimp plants in a semi-shady location and have to keep an eye on the leaves of the White Shrimp plant, which wilt more easily.

Which shrimp plants do you grow?