Monday, August 31, 2009

Native grass bouquets

Over the last couple of weeks, I have noticed many different grasses going to seed along the side of the highways and interstates in Oklahoma.  There is one specific grass that has really cool, red seed heads.  I have said to Christie several times that we should stop and snip some to make a bouquet.  Yesterday, we snipped the tops off of two different grass types to make some really nice, simple bouquets.

Bouquet of native white grass seed sitting on our TV
Grasses have been receiving more landscaping attention over the last couple of years.  People are beginning to include grasses as highlights in their flowerbeds, rather than just vast green lawns.  I recently read that growers are looking at more and more native grasses in Oklahoma for potential landscape focus.  Many of these grasses are well suited for xeriscape landscaping, since they can survive the hot and often very dry summers in Oklahoma.

Bouquet of native red grass seed on our dining table
I wouldn't mind having some of this red grass planted in one of our flowerbeds!

Monday, August 24, 2009

My greenhouse cometh

Recent growth in my plant collection has highlighted the inevitable - I'm going to need a greenhouse sometime in the future.  And that future seems to be quickly approaching.  For quite a while I have thought that a greenhouse might be possible sometime in the future, but we recently decided to go ahead and do it now.

Plants are almost literally growing out of our ears!  We need someplace to put them.  While my wife and I love our little house, it is lacking in the number of windows needed for happy houseplants.  During the winter months, our house stays at 60F most of the day and we only turn it up to 62-63F when we are going to be at home for a while and get cold.  The plants would prefer 80F and 80% humidity.

A greenhouse can provide that kind of growing environment on winter days, by simply taking advantage of the sun's awesome power.  I intend to take advantage.  On winter nights, a heater is required.

In the next month, we're going to build a small greenhouse on our back porch.  The area we have to work with is about 8'x12', so the inner dimensions will likely be about 7'x11'.  This area is pretty heavily shaded during the growing season by our huge Sycamore tree.  When Fall arrives and the temperatures drops, so do the leaves.  At this critical time of the year my greenhouse will receive the most light.

One wall of the greenhouse will be shared with the exterior of our house.  The roof of the greenhouse will adjoin our house roof.

My back patio where the greenhouse is to be built

I plan to lay 2-3 layers of cinder blocks and then build a simple wooden frame out of 2"x4"s on top of that.  I have experience laying cinder block from house-building mission trips to Mexico.  My father-in-law has built several houses and will be helping with the framing.  The walls and ceiling will be covered with 8mm triple-wall polycarbonate sheets. Twin-walls are a little cheaper and more common, but the cost differential is quickly paid for with reduced heating costs and size of heater needed.

Initial sketch of my greenhouse plans
The polycarbonate sheets can be attached very easily by nailing/screwing them into the wood frame.  Additionally, you have to seal all joints to avoid leaking the warm, humid air of the greenhouse.

To cover the screws or nails, you cover the polycarbonate joints with trim wood.  I plan on cutting my trim pieces to fit and then staining and sealing my trim pieces before attaching them to the greenhouse.


I will buy a small space heater that will run in the greenhouse during the winter months over night.  During the day, it should stay pretty warm, even when the temperatures outside are cold.  I have used a calculator online to determine the BTU output my heater will need.  Assuming the temperature falls to about 20 F outside and I want my greenhouse to stay at or above 60 F, I will need about 500 BTUs to heat the greenhouse.


I ran some rough numbers and have an estimated cost of the main materials.  Those materials are the lumber, cinder blocks and polycarbonate sheets.  They are the most costly and also the easiest to figure.  For instance, I know almost exactly how many cinder blocks I'll need, but have no idea how many nails.

My initial estimate doesn't include all of the fasteners (nails, bolts, etc.), sealers, stain, or bags of mortar and cement.  Other considerations are any extra tools for building (beyond what I already own), the exhaust fan, and a simple fluorescent light fixture.  I plan to find some cheap shelves and build the remaining ones to fill the space inside.

All in all, I figure the total cost won't be much more than 50% greater than my initial estimate for the base materials.

Room for improvement

Over the years the greenhouse will probably undergo a number of changes.  I've already thought a couple of them through.  We would like to add a room onto our house one day.  At that time, we will be ordering bricks to match our house.  I would like to have a professional mason cover over the cinder blocks with the matching red brick, so I will be leaving room on the back porch pad when I lay the cinder blocks.

Another upgrade I foresee is incorporating irrigation in some way.  I'm not sure how I want to do this and I think I will probably have a better idea after the greenhouse is built.  For now I'm going to just drag the hose in through the door or use a watering can.  One potential watering system would simply be to collect rainwater runoff from the roof and route it into a container in the greenhouse.  There are a couple of areas around the house that would benefit from gutters diverting heavy rains to other locations.

Other potential upgrades include improved circulation, ventilation or heating.

There is a good discussion of hobby greenhouses at Thyme for Herbs.

Stay tuned for more posts soon with pictures of the greenhouse in progress and complete with occupants!

See other phases of the project here:

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

You say Potato, I say Solanum tuberosum

I just hauled in my first crop of potatoes.  I didn't get them in the ground as early in the Spring as I had meant, but they grew anyway.  I was surprised to see the nice, little purple blooms they produced in mid-Summer.

Purple blooms on my potato plants
The plants died about a month ago, so I decided to go ahead and try sticking my fingers in the soil to see what was there.  I was happy to find about 10 potatoes, ranging from small pebble to fist size.

My first potato crop, washed and ready for cooking
Since my first crop isn't all that plentiful, I cooked them all together in the crock pot with a pork loin and some other veggies.

Crock pot dinner: pork loin, carrots, onions and potatoes
They were great!

In the next month, I'm going to work some compost into the veggie garden soil, so that the dirt is a little looser for next year.  Next Spring, I'll be trying to get them in the ground as soon as the freezes are over - mid March - and keeping them watered so the plants stick around a little longer and the potatoes can get larger.

Maybe after one more successful crop of cheap seed potatoes, I'll order some different fun varieties to experiment with, like "All-Blue" or "Fingerlings."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Propagating the 'ZZ Plant'

Zamioculcas zamiifolia is an unusual Aroid that is commonly kept as a housplant.  It has several interesting common names, including ZZ Plant, Aroid Palm, and Succulent Philodendron.  If you'll remember the old Sesame Street game and were given a line up of Aroids, including the ZZ Plant, I can guarantee everyone would pick the ZZ as the plant that is "not like the others."

One of my Zamioculcas zamiifolia plants back when Pee-Wee decided to try eating it.
And unlike other Aroids, the ZZ plant has a unique method of propagation.  Many plants can be rooted from a single leaf; this is a common method for Begonias and African Violets.  But the ZZ plant doesn't merely produce roots when a leaf is used for propagation.

I received a ZZ Plant from my Aroid-collecting friend, Russ, about 9 months ago.  Somewhere in the mix, a couple of leaves fell off the plant and I decided to try a propagation technique that I heard was somewhat successful for ZZ plants.  I stuck two of the leaves into the potting soil, right next to the rest of the plant.  I haven't given the plant any special care whatsoever.  It has been sitting outside in the shade and getting watered with the rest of my plants - weekly or a little more often when it is really hot and dry.

Recently, I was repotting my ZZ plant into a more suitable container when I noticed that one of the leaves had a new stem growing next to it.  I gently removed each of the leaves from the soil to find that both of them had successfully begun to produce new tubers!  I have read that this process can be very slow - often a year or more.  I'm pretty sure mine has not been in the soil for more than 6-8 months and both of them have taken.

Zamioculcas zamiifolia leaf starts
Most Aroids can not be propagated from a single leaf and petiole.  Most Aroids require at least one section of stem (from joint to joint) in order to produce roots and form a new plant.  The ZZ apparently carries all of its reproductive needs within the petiole.  I have had one occasion where I propagated a Monstera from a single leaf and petiole that had been torn off my plant by my Boston Terrier, Pee-Wee.  I haven't heard of other people propagating Monsteras this way, so I'm not sure how successful this type of propagation normally is.  I just stuck the long petiole in water, not really expecting anything to happen, just enjoying the leaf while it was still green.  The leaf never browned and eventually started forming a thick white root from the base of the petiole.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

100th post: Finding a plant's name

Seeing that the 100th post is kind of a monumental occasion, I decided I should probably have a good one.  I'm not sure what constitutes a good post in your mind, but I consulted with my wife and we agreed that this topic is one where I have focused a lot of attention.  Also, this topic shows how far I've come since I began writing this blog.

Some people I encounter assume I know everything about plants, simply because I know their names.  While this is a huge exaggeration, knowing the names of plants seems like a good place to start - at least for finding more information about a particular plant.  And the names themselves can often tell you some interesting things about the plants, but that's for another post.

As someone who desires to know the botanical name (genus and species) of every plant I have, I must admit it is sometimes hard to do this.  Many times plants that I buy are without a label or contain a label with only a common name.  Worse yet, sometimes the plant contains a generic label that says "Tropical Plant," "Foliage Plant" or "Annual."  These kinds of labels have some degree of helpfulness.  They can help you get a feel for where to grow the plant or how long you can expect it to stick around, but they're not so helpful when it comes to honoring the plant by calling it by name. :)  When I purchase a plant with one of these labels, it is usually at a large store like Lowe's or Wal-Mart, where the employees have little or no knowledge of the plants.  It's unlikely they will be able to identify the plant for me.

To be honest, I don't even bother asking employees the names of plants most of the time.  I actually enjoy the hunt.  It's an educational experience to track down the botanical name of a new plant.

Other times, I bring plants home that were not purchased, but collected.  In these cases, I have very little information to go on, other than the location where the plant was collected and the usual physical description.

The Hunt

My methodology for discovering a plant name depends on the plant.  If the plant is what I would consider an average Joe plant that is widely grown (and I am just unfamiliar with it), I will usually try to find the common name first and then look up the correct botanical name with wikipedia or Dave's Garden.

At this time let me be clear that neither of these two sources are guaranteed to have correct information.  Both contain errors - some that are easy to see and others that are very well disguised.  However, I think most of the time there are enough eyes looking at these two highly-trafficked websites that the information is pretty good.  On davesgarden, I check to see that the images associated with this botanical name match the plant that I have on hand.  Usually all of the images on one page will match, but I have seen some cases where completely different plants were posted to the same page - ech!

There are a number of other websites with more accurate information.  Sometimes I consult those websites, but usually only when I think the plant is commonly misidentified. 

After gathering the genus and species name from one or both of these sites, I usually do a quick Google image search for that particular pair of names.  This is just for good measure.  It also provides me with an idea of other plants that are commonly mistaken with this plant and plants that are closely related (in the same genus).  By this point, I am usually pretty satisfied that I have captured the correct botanical name for my average Joe plant.

The Hunt becomes difficult

For more unusual plants, I am a little more careful.  In most cases these plants do not have common names.  In many cases I am able to guess a genus or a family, based on the physical characteristics and other plants that I have which are similar.  If I don't have any similar plants and can't recall any names of similar plants I have seen before, one method is to post pictures to a variety of different websites.  One such site is the "Name that Plant" forum on gardenweb.  That forum is specifically dedicated to identifying plants by physical descriptions and pictures.  Another potential forum is a family, type or region specific forum (i.e., Cacti Forum, Tropical Plant Forum, Houseplant Forum, Tree Forum, Oklahoma Gardening Forum).  Many times the members who frequent these forums are very helpful, very friendly and you can learn a lot from their responses.  Often it is a group effort to narrow the search to the specific genus and species.

I have used the "Name that Plant" forum dozens of times, but I really like to try to struggle with a plant's identification for several days before I break down and ask for help.  That's just because I like to do it myself and I have fun with the process.  If you're not so inclined, that's fine.  The forum is there specifically for this purpose.

If you're a person who likes the challenge of identifying plants, you might find yourself becoming one of the regulars who helps others identify their plants on the forum.  I have helped just a couple of people identify a plant when I have logged on to submit one of my own mystery plants.

I can now say with confidence that I know the botanical names (genus and species) of nearly every plant I own.  There might be a plant here or there that I will forget, but most of them come to me quickly.  It's just like learning the names of people - except I have more trouble with that.  I imagine if I went home and entered people's names in a database after I had met them and categorized the database by families, I wouldn't have so much trouble.  I'm sure those steps are helping me learn the names of my plants.  But "Epipremnum pinnatum" is so much more fun to learn and recite than "John Brown," don't you think?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Never hurts to ask

Last week I posted about all of the plants in my office building, many of which were installed and are maintained by a plant care company.  The ladies were in the office yesterday, grooming the plants and watering them.  I waited until they were finished in our office and then followed them out into the hallway.  I really wanted a cutting of the Philodendron and figured the worst they could say is "no."

I asked politely if they were allowed to share cuttings of the plants, and they lady said "Sure!"  I showed her the Philodendron and she whacked off 4 huge pieces for me.  She commented that it would just make the plant fuller, so she didn't mind at all.

Philodendron erubescens 'Red Emerald' cuttings from office
I didn't have time to get the cuttings set up in pots last night for rooting, so I just put them in a vase of water.  Christie (my wife) commented that it looks like a really nice bouquet on our table for the time being.  I'll probably pot the cuttings this evening, but maybe I'll do an experiment and see which cuttings root faster - those in dirt or those in water.  I've had pretty good luck with both and these are very healthy Philodendron cuttings.

Mr_subjunctive said that this plant looks like Philodendron 'Red Emerald' and I have to agree.  I think 'Red Emerald' is a cultivar from the erubescens species.  I have a Philodendron erubescens that looks very similar, except for the red coloration.

It's nice to know that people who love growing plants are usually generous to share their success with others who also enjoy plants.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Bring your plants to work day

I'm not actually suggesting a new holiday.  It's just a clever name for my post.  Although I wouldn't mind this being a holiday - I already celebrate it everyday.

The National Weather Center - across the street from where I work.
[For those who are interested, I work on the research campus at the University of Oklahoma.  The research campus is made up of about six buildings built over the last 5 years.  These buildings are filled with academics, government groups and private companies (like the one I work for).  The anchor of the research campus is the National Weather Center.]

Aglaonema and a palm tree in the foyer of my office building
My office building (like the others on the campus) is a nice, new facility that has lots of plants in the hallways and office suites.  Plants are added for decoration, as well as to help purify air in the office environment.  This is a pretty trendy thing nowadays, and I guess it has been for quite a while.  What's cool for me is that some of my favorite plants are those common plants kept as easy-care foliage plants (such as the Aglaonema pictured above).

Ficus tree, Sanseveira (short pot) and a very cool Philodendron
All of the plants are in really nice, huge pots.  And the plants are grouped in twos or threes.  This is my favorite grouping.  I walk by it each morning on my way up the stairs.  The Philodendron is so cool.  I think I might have to ask one of the plant maintainers if I could get a cutting...

Close-up of the really cool Philodendron in the stairwell.
Other common plants in the office building are Dracaenas, Epipremnum ivies and large Bird of Paradise.  Here is a nice grouping of two Dracaenas in the hallway.

Two tall Dracaena warneckii plants in the hallway.
Of course, being the planty guy that I am, all of these great plants scattered throughout the building aren't enough for me.  I have my own set of plants on my desk: Philodendron hederaceum ('Micans'), Polyscias scutellaria, Scindapsus pictus, Aglaonema sp.  I used to have a Philodendron 'Brazil' on my desk, but it got too large and had to be taken home.

A shield Aralia (Polyscias scutellaria) on my desk next to the computer monitor.
The shield Aralia was a birthday gift the first year I started working here, so it's now about 2 years old and has grown a lot.  I've heard that these plants are a little finicky and hard to keep.  No doubt it probably would not be as healthy as it is today if I wasn't looking at it 5 days a week!  The office environment (and my constant watching eye) has apparently suited it well.

Philodendron hederaceum 'Micans'
My Philodendron 'Micans' is starting to grow as rapidly as my Philodendron 'Brazil' did.  It had to be taken home when our company moved and my desk space was reduced.  I really like it's rate of growth, but I hope the 'Micans' can stick around a while longer.

Scindapsus pictus and Aglaonema on my desk.
In addition to all sorts of health benefits in the office space, plants just make me happy and my work space would be depressing without them.

Do you keep any plants in your workspace?  Or does anyone else in your office?