As summer winds down, we tend to focus on enjoying the last of the season's harvests, clearing away spent plants and planning next year's garden. But indoor plants need our attention now, too.
Plants that are coming indoors
Houseplants that spent the season vacationing outdoors need a proper transition back into the home to avoid shock.
If they have outgrown their containers during their holiday, this is a good time to replant them into a larger pot. Select a container no more than 2 inches wider than the current pot and replant in fresh potting mix, then water well.
Overgrown plants can often be divided into two or more. Spider plants (Chlorophytum), peace lilies (Spathiphyllum), flamingo flowers (Anthurium) and peacock plants (Calathea) are among those with clumping root systems that lend themselves to division.
If you find removing the plant from its pot difficult, check whether roots have emerged from the container's drainage holes. If so, pull or cut off any escaped root fibers to set the plant free.
Then, to divide the plant, carefully shake off as much soil as possible. Find the junction where the plant's top growth meets its root system, and either gently pull the roots apart or slice through them with a sharp knife, ensuring that at least three healthy leaves are attached above each root portion. Repot each new plant in its own container using fresh potting mix. Keep the plant well-watered (but never soggy) until new growth appears.
Whether or not repotting or dividing is necessary, all outdoor houseplants should be moved into a shaded spot for a week or so to gradually acclimate them to lower light levels before their move indoors. Continue to water during this transition.
At the end of the week, inspect all plant parts for insects — including under leaves — and thoroughly rinse leaves and stems with water to avoid transporting hitchhiking pests into your home. To play it safe, you might spray the plant with a diluted Neem oil solution.
Complete the move before nighttime temperatures drop below 55 degrees outdoors.
Plants that have stayed indoors
Houseplants that haven't left their window perches all summer also will need special care as day lengths shorten and diminished sunlight slows their growth.
Although not technically dormant, most houseplants rest during fall and winter, which means they'll need less water and often no fertilizer until spring. Overwatering during this time will risk root rot and the proliferation of fungus gnats, which breed in soggy soil.
For most plants, it's best to wait until the top inch or two of soil is dry before watering. You can check for moisture by plunging your finger knuckle-deep into the pot.
Slower growth also means slower healing, so postpone pruning until spring. You can, however, trim away dead or dying leaves or leaf tips over winter.
Most houseplants are native to the tropics and, as such, require more humidity than is typically found in most homes, especially in colder areas where heating systems tend to dry the air. Run a humidifier in the room or place plants on a pebble-filled tray of water, which will create a humid microclimate around them as the water evaporates.
Never place plants on working radiators, and keep them away from cold drafts and heating vents.
Next spring, when temperatures are reliably higher than 60 degrees, it will be safe to move most plants outdoors. Tender tropicals like African violets, however, are homebodies, so leave them be.
5 common ailments in vegetable gardens and how to treat them
You started seeds in spring and watched as they sprouted, then watered, fertilized and even staked plants as they grew, while visions of summer salads, grilled vegetables and homemade pickles danced in your head.
Then one day, black blotches, yellow-spotted leaves and mushy bottoms showed up, and your dreams turned to nightmares.
Many home gardeners lovingly tend their plants only to find them ravaged by unknown forces before harvest time.
But fear not: Here are some tips for identifying and treating five of the most common ailments that threaten your crops.
A fungal disease that affects beans, cucumbers, eggplants, melons, peas, peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins and spinach. Anthracnose presents as small leaf spots with yellow halos that gradually darken and spread to cover entire leaves. On cucumber plants, foliage may drop, and entire vines may die. Tomatoes and peppers exhibit dark, sunken spots that become more apparent as fruit matures. Pea pods become marred with dark lesions. Round, sunken, yellow spots appear on melons, darkening to brown and then black.
To prevent this, try rotating crops, amending soil with compost before planting and applying mulch afterward. Seek out resistant plant varieties, when available. Avoid overhead watering, which wets foliage and encourages fungal growth. And keep the soil clear of infected plant parts and fallen fruit.
Treat infected plants with a fungicide containing chlorothalonil or copper, carefully following the instructions and safety precautions on the package.
Blossom end rot
Caused by a calcium deficiency that mainly affects tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. Characterized by dark, mushy spots on fruit bottoms, the disorder typically results from inconsistent watering, improper soil pH, injured roots or excess nitrogen.
Prevention measures include testing the soil's pH before planting. If results are lower than 6.3, incorporate dolomitic lime into beds according to label directions.
Avoid damaging the roots by installing stakes and cages around tomatoes at planting time, instead of when plants — and roots — are larger. And don't plant a vegetable garden in or near a lawn that receives fertilizer, which can raise the nitrogen level of the surrounding soil.
Treat affected plants by drenching leaves with a calcium spray until the product drips off. Fruit produced after treatment is usually symptom-free, although sometimes a second application is necessary.
Squash vine borer
Zucchini, squash, cucumber and muskmelon plants die quickly after blooming, without so much as a goodbye. But if you look closely, you'll see the small puncture holes in the bottoms of stalks and stems caused by these pests, which start life as moths that lay eggs at the base of plants. Inch-long white caterpillars follow and bore into stalks, killing plants as they chew their way around and out. And just when you think the damage is done, they cocoon in the soil until the following year, armed and ready to repeat the carnage.
Prevent damage by monitoring susceptible plants closely. Watch for red, flat, oval eggs early in the season and pick them off by hand. Keep hunting every week.
And if you find signs of damage like punctures and frass, their sawdust-like excrement, use a razor blade to slice affected stems open near the holes and manually pick out the borers. Cover the slits with mounded soil to encourage new root growth.
If necessary, treat plants with Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, a bacterial insecticide (several versions are available; seek the one labeled as a control against squash vine borer).
Verticillium and fusarium wilt are soil-borne fungal diseases caused by different pathogens that result in similar symptoms.
Primarily affecting eggplants, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins and tomatoes, the diseases ravage roots, resulting in curled, yellow and wilted foliage, brown xylem tissue inside stems and overall stunting. Eventually, entire plants wilt and die.
This is one instance where a good offense is the only defense: Avoid infection by planting resistant varieties (check plant tags for V, F, VF or VFN, resistance indicators for verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt and nematodes). Rotate crops by keeping infected beds free of susceptible plant species for three or four years, essentially starving the disease of a host to clear the pathogen from the soil. And regularly clean up fallen leaves, fruit and plant debris.
Jagged holes, typically in leaf centers rather than edges, indicate slug damage. The nocturnal gastropods feast on basil, cabbage, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and ornamental plants like hostas, leaving a telltale slimy trail behind.
Get ahead of the slithering miscreants with a spring cleanup that clears leaves, plant debris and slug eggs from the soil surface, and keep mulch no deeper than 3 inches to avoid creating a haven.
Sink a small can or jar into the soil around affected plants, leaving about an inch exposed above ground, then fill it halfway with beer. Slugs will crawl in for a drink and drown. Alternately, if you aren't squeamish, you might go into the garden at feeding time (overnight) and sprinkle a bit of salt on each of your little visitors. As their bodies attempt to dilute the irritant, slugs will dehydrate and die. But don't be tempted to sprinkle salt around plants. Doing so would risk damaging the soil.