Although the coldest part of winter is just arriving, we have passed the period with the lowest availability – and angle – of natural light. For your indoor garden, better days are coming!
House plants typically take a beating in the winter: low light, too much heat and dry air, too much standing water on their roots – almost a guarantee that something nasty will happen.
I was reminded of this when I found fluffy white clumps on a cute little striped aloe. It looked like a cottony scale, so my first thought was to spray with insecticidal soap and put it out in my very chilly sun room, where the insect would be at a disadvantage, but the plant would live. My second thought was, how dumb can one person be? That’s where my orchids and lemon trees winter – they really don’t need a dose of scale. So the aloe ended up in the compost bin.
Then, I checked another window-full of house plants, and found the culprit – the adorable topiary rosemary (the $10 one with crappy lights that blinked three times and died) that came from a big box store before Christmas! And there were the telltale fluffy clumps – just much harder to see on a silvery gray needled plant than on a smooth-leaved aloe. That went into the compost, too.
Does that strike you as ruthless, or perhaps extravagant? There is a back story. My friend Catriona has a house with lots of floor-to-ceiling windows. She is also a sucker for exotic plants. A co-worker who knew of my passion for plants told me his mother needed to get rid of an overgrown gardenia – she could no longer lug it in and out of the house with the seasons.
I thought at once of Catriona’s wonderful light, and hastily arranged the adoption papers. Catriona and her husband were a little surprised when a pickup truck arrived with a sinister, tarp-covered figure looming in the back. It looked as if someone had smuggled the "David" out of the Uffizi.
So I became the godmother of a hulking gardenia, and Catriona’s husband never forgave me. Otherwise, all was well, since the gardenia grew and grew, happily adapting to being rolled out from the dining room to the deck every year.
Then came the fateful year when another party – who must remain nameless – gave Catriona an infested topiary rosemary for Christmas. In a few weeks, the gardenia (now christened Grizabella) was polka-dotted with white fuzzy clumps. Catriona ditched the typhoid rosemary but tried to save the gardenia by dabbing the fuzzy clumps with a Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol. This had no effect except for making her late for work – daily. The gardenia now being much taller than Catriona, there was also some risk she might tumble in and never be seen again.
Finally, Catriona complained to her plant’s godmother/arborist, who did a little research and found that a systemic pesticide tailored to scale had just come on the market. So, with a few sprinkles of the most expensive pesticide known to man, we resolved the cottony scale infestation.
Is there a moral to this story? Perhaps it’s a tale of risk versus reward. All pesticides carry a risk to the environment. I won’t use anything stronger than soap or vinegar around my cats. If a plant is rare, large or valuable, I might isolate it and try to treat it. But, if I can easily get another – or have ten of them already – I would rather cut my losses and dispose of the plant along with its disease or critters.
Anyway, this is a good time to examine your plants closely: lack of sunlight, especially, can make a plant very susceptible to whatever is “going around” – much as we catch the flu when our reserves are low. As for Grizabella, she is getting ready to cover herself in fragrant blossoms again.