Houston Lifestyles & Homes October 2009
By Joel Kempfer, Horticulture Manager, The Brookwood Community
The Brookwood Community is an educational and residential facility designed to
enhance the lives of adults with disabilities by showcasing their capabilities.
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I really want to have live plants in my office, but I can’t get anything to survive. Can you suggest something that will survive in low
light, or should I just buy plastic plants?
Before you resolve yourself to plastic plants, try Zamioculcus zamiifolia (ZZ
Plant). There are actually several good choices for low light plants, but
nothing compares to the ease of growing a ZZ Plant. The glossy leaves have an
attractive sheen making the plant look like it has been polished with leaf
shine (a product I do not recommend using). The thick, swollen stems help
retain moisture, which means ZZs have minimal water requirements. In low light,
you do not need to water ZZs more than once every two weeks. If you forget a
watering, it will easily survive for a month or more without water. Fertility
requirements are also low, but if you add a water-soluble fertilizer (like our
20-10-20 Brookwood Fertilizer) once every month or two it will help keep the ZZ
from growing as slowly as it would otherwise. Considering that ZZs typically
have no insect or disease problems, the slow growth is the only negative thing
I can say about the ZZ Plant.
I purchased an orchid from the Brookwood store in Old Town Spring. Once the
orchid stopped blooming I repotted it into an orchid pot. The orchid has now
tripled in size and is overpowering the pot, and the weight is causing the pot
to tip over. Can I split this orchid? If so what is the procedure?
Orchids can be and should be divided every couple of years after blooming. Start
by disinfecting some pruning shears big enough to cut smoothly through the base
of the orchid. I recommend using Consan Triple Action 20 to clean the pruners.
Take the orchid out of the existing pot and knock off the bark media. Orchids
spread by rhizomes, creating multiple shoots in the pot. Find a middle point of
the clump and cleanly cut the rhizome to divide the orchid. You can either put
a powder rooting hormone like Rootone on each of the divisions before
repotting, or you can repot and then use a root stimulator solution to water
them after planting. If you have Consan Triple Action 20, mix 2 teaspoons of
Consan into your gallon of root stimulator solution to promote rooting and
prevent bacteria or fungal pathogens at the same time. After watering with this
solution, you should not need to water again for 7-10 days. Resume normal
watering after this period. It may take about a month for new roots to develop.
This method is nearly always enough to get the job done right. But, if you use
Consan Triple Action 20, the label has a recommendation for use on orchid
divisions that involves the extra steps of soaking the orchid both pre and post
dividing as well as soaking the new bark media and wetting your hands with the
Consan disinfectant before beginning. If you want to be certain that you do not
spread any diseases to the orchid divisions, this is a very thorough process
that could prove to be a difference maker if you are willing to take the extra
I enjoy planting fall annuals, but options seem limited to pansies, kale,
snapdragons and alyssum. Can you suggest any others?
You have listed the fall annuals that are most commonly used, and for a reason:
they are tested and generally reliable. But, if you want to try adding some
variety to your fall planting, there are some other good options. Results can
be somewhat mixed with less common choices, as plant growth during the winter
varies based upon night temperature lows and exposure to the elements. I
mentioned Erysimum Citrona in last month
’s article, and it is one of the first choices I would recommend. For full sun
exposures, I like the yellow and orange erysimum edged with blue pansies or
violas. Citrona will bloom throughout the winter until late April to early May.
Another winter annual providing bright yellow and orange blooms is calendula.
The most commonly available cultivar is Bon Bon, in either yellow or orange.
Bon Bon is an upright plant reaching about 12 inches tall with large double
flowers that can withstand light freezes. While the flowers of Bon Bon are
larger, my favorite calendula is Summer-Lovers Skyfire Yellow. The daisy-like
flowers are more profuse, and the spreading plant is more cold-tolerant, and
disease resistant. Don
’t let the name fool you; even SummerLovers will not withstand our summer heat
and should be replaced in the spring. If yellow and orange does not fit your
fall color pallet, try planting linaria. Enchantment and Fantasy are good
cultivars for our area. Enchantment has bicolor flowers in vibrant magenta and
orange. Fantasy is available in about 10 different colors. Both cultivars grow
to a height of 12-15 inches and bloom heavily during cooler months with a
pleasant fragrance. Temperatures in the upper 20s will not hurt the blooms. If
damaged by a hard freeze, both cultivars recover quickly and will last until
killed by heat.
For partial shade areas in the fall landscape, try planting cyclamen or primula
obconica. Plant both in well-amended organic soil with good drainage for best
results. Cyclamen blooms come in an increasing number of colors in shades of
red, pink, lavender and white. By looking at the unique blooms and heart-shaped
foliage of cyclamen, it is hard to
imagine they make a good landscape plant, but they actually do quite well in
good soil during our mild winters. They are most frequently recommended for
shade, but at Brookwood we finish our cyclamen in sun during the fall, making
their use more versatile in the home landscape. The best sun exposure for
maximum bloom power and performance is morning sun with afternoon shade. This
is also the best sun exposure for primula obconica, sometimes called German
Primrose. P. obconica is, in my opinion, the best landscape primrose and is
available in a variety of colors. Other options for you to consider include
dianthus, nemesia, African daisy, diascia, dusty miller, lobelia, stock and
You recommended I use a 3-1-2 ratio fertilizer to help force foliar growth on a
potted Bougainvillea. Can I use 20-10-20 fertilizer? What is the difference?
If you have water-soluble 20-10-20 on hand, that will work fine to help leaf out
the Bougainvillea. In this case, the biggest difference between 20-10-20 (a
2-1-2 ratio) and a 3-1-2 ratio (like 21-7-14) fertilizer is the amount of
nitrogen in the solution. The three macronutrient components of fertilizer
ratios (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, or NPK) complete the same
functions within the plant so that once you know what nutrient is lacking, you
can determine how best to achieve the desired response from your plants. While
it is not the most scientific approach, it is fun to be able to visually
recognize specific nutrient deficiencies. I encourage you to learn about plant
nutrition and experiment; just remember: too much fertilizer is never good. In
a simplistic overview, nitrogen is a component of the building blocks of
photosynthesis and thus increases foliar growth. Phosphorous promotes blooming,
fruiting and rooting. Potassium is considered the
“regulator” nutrient and keeps elements in balance within the plant, ensuring proper growth
and fruit development, as well as increasing drought and disease resistance.
HINT: If you ever have trouble getting to sleep at night, ask me to tell you
about the effect soil pH and ion exchange has on nutrient uptake.
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