An Upcycle Garden Idea: Build a Living Wall

By Wendy Diaz, EMGV

The first time I remember seeing a living wall (or vertical garden) was along ‘Museum Mile’ in Madrid, Spain on April 2010 (see photo 1). The green wall was designed by Patrick Blanc, a French botanist famous for creating vertical gardens in Europe1. I was intrigued and took several photographs because I just couldn’t believe the scale of this immense beautiful patterned wall covered in very healthy and vibrant plants. It did not seem possible that so many plants could be so healthy on a very narrow vertical surface and it did not even cross my mind at the time to attempt a vertical garden at home. 

Photo 1 Living Wall designed by Patrick Blanc along Museum Mile in Madrid, Spain. Photo by Wendy Diaz April, 2010

Then, I attended a Durham Garden Forum Talk at Duke Gardens on February 20, 2018 by Leslie Herndon of Greenscapes, Inc.2 and she inspired me to think about attempting a scaled down version of vertical gardening using, among other things, nothing simpler than a wooden pallet. All any home gardener needed was a little inspiration, and in my case, my husband to help me lift and assemble the required materials. I decided it was something I wanted to try doing and I had just the spot. The idea for the location presented itself last fall when I cut down the wisteria in my backyard (see photo 2), on the east side and backyard of our property, as part of my ongoing plan to remove all invasive species from my yard. It left a bare hole (see photo 3 and 4) between two remaining support posts of an old children’s fort my husband built many years ago.  We decided to hang the pallet from the cross board between the posts to provide a screen in the backyard until my newly planted cross vine spread. 

Photo 2 Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) before removal in my back yard. Photo taken November 5, 2018 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 3 Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) stems after cut-back. Photo taken November 11, 2018 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 4 Hole in landscape between two support posts after Chinese wisteria removed. Two birds enjoy the new space created. Photograph taken November 12, 2018 by Wendy Diaz

Materials 
Oak pallet
Staple gun and staples
Three coffee bean bags burlap, no holes
Potting soil (about 1 cubic feet)
Scissors or knife to cut burlap

Plants
Sedum (spreading variety)
Coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides)
Basil
Spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum)
Caladium

I didn’t want to spend a lot of money so I split some of my houseplants, propagated some basil, used some extra caladium bulbs I saved from last year’s frost and uprooted some ground-cover sedum from my yard. I did purchase the coleus and salvia. I already had a small wood pallet left over from a recent bathroom renovation.

I went to the Scrap Exchange and purchased used coffee bags for $2 each and borrowed my husband’s staple gun. I cut the coffee bags along their seams for a single layer and cut out a space in the bag for the center post of the pallet and wrapped the bags around each wooden plat to make a pouch for the potting soil and stapled it to the boards (see photo 5 and 6).

Photo 5 Bottom right hand corner of Hanging Garden with burlap wrapping to make plant pouches. The rabbit is curious. Photo taken April 13, 2019 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 6 Side view of burlap coffee bag wrappings. Hanging Garden also provides a perch for birds. Photograph taken May 6, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Initially, we used two stainless steel screw eyes to hang the pallet but it almost touched the ground (see photo 7) so my husband raised it to the first notch on the side panels and screwed it to the cross beam between the support posts (see photo 8). My husband had to secure the posts with concrete due to the weight of the oak wood pallet and wet soil. It took just over a month to for the plants to fill in (see photo 9).

Photo 7 Initially the Hanging Garden was suspended by two screw eyes but it was too close to the ground and my sedum would not be able to trail over the edge of the bottom pouch. Photograph taken on April 13, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Photo 8 Hanging Garden secured to cross beam between two support posts about 1 foot above the ground surface. Plants were placed in three layers on April 13, 2019. Photo taken April 24, 2019 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 9 Plants are thriving in Hanging Garden and most of the pallet is covered with plants. Photo taken July 25, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Leslie Herndon recommended an Internet search on the words “DIY Living Wall” to get some ideas and see other projects. She also recommended fabric stapled to the back of the pallet to protect the wall but because we were suspending it from old support posts, I decided to try to achieve the reversible affect and hope the plants would grow in front and back (see photo 10). After a few months, plants grew out of the back, though not as fully due to shade and the burlap covering. I now call my living wall the Hanging Garden and it achieved my purpose of providing a screen and filling in the hole left by the wisteria vine. In the end, my Hanging Garden became the most thriving part of my backyard during our heat wave in July and a focal point looking out our picture window. I am well pleased with our efforts.  

Photo 10 View of shaded back of Hanging Garden in the morning. Photo taken July 30, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

In Hindsight
One of things that I will do differently next time is to install an automatic watering system because we had to hand water the shallow soil pockets twice a day to prevent wilting in July. We would also put more concrete in the hole of the north support post because it is now leaning with all the weight of the established plants. Next time, I will not plant salvia (not enough sun at this location) and I would place basil in the top pouch of the pallet and try some coral bells. Maybe next spring I will arrange plants to make a geometric design with common plant textures and more colors and even add a nonliving accessory as recommended by Ms. Herndon2.

I am not a professional and my first attempt wasn’t a work of art nor to the scale of a Patrick Blanc creation, but it surpassed my expectations so I am going to replant it next year!

Photo 11 Photograph taken July 30, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

References:

  1. https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/07/09/495905421/hot-dry-madrid-aims-for-a-cooler-greener-future
  2. https://www.greenscapeinc.com/gallery/commercial-property-gallery/retail

More reading:

  1. http://www.greenroofs.com/projects/
  2. http://www.greenscapeinc.com/blog/how-much-do-living-walls-cost
  3. http://www.verticalgardenpatrickblanc.com

August: To Do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell, EMGV

Alrighty then! We survived July, just barely. Thank you, Mother Nature, for the break at the end of the month. So, how does your garden look?  And the water bill? (Ouch!) Well, July is behind us now and August is upon us with her bounty of veggies and plethora of blooming plants. Let us hope the rain gods will be less capricious and the heat stays somewhere else. Whether or not those things come about there are things to do in the garden and don’t forget to be hurricane prepared. (You know, the ones that come in off the ocean – not the ones that reside at PNC Arena.)

Lawn Care

Check the lawn for grubs. If you find some, treat with an appropriate insecticide. If you do find any, be grateful and put the sprayer away.

Late in the month prepare any areas that need to be seeded with cool season grass (tall fescue, bluegrass).

Fertilizing

Give your strawberries a shot of nitrogen fertilizer.

DO NOT fertilize trees or shrubbery until December.

Planting

Sow pansy seeds this month in flats to transplant to the landscape in September.

Perennials, hollyhock, delphinium and Stokes’ aster can be sown now for healthy plants in the spring.

Repot more house plants.

Plant a fall garden with beets, Chinese cabbage, cucumbers, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard, radish, rutabaga, squash and turnips.

Pruning

Nada. Nope. Don’t! No pruning of trees or shrubs until November.

In case of hurricane damage, disregard the above admonition.

Spraying

Same stuff as last month. Look for spider mites on coniferous evergreens (juniper, arborvitae, etc.) and lace bugs on azaleas and pyracantha.

Continue rose spray program and weekly spraying of fruit trees and bunch grapes.

Watch for worms on cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower) and borers on squash.  Spray only if necessary. Follow the label instructions.

Propagation

You may still take cuttings of shrubs.

More fun things to do if you just can’t get enough of the August heat

Make sure your LANDSCAPE PLAN is up to date especially if you plan to modify the landscape this fall.

Keep running up the water bill when the August thunderstorms skip your house.

Build a compost bin.

Dig Irish potatoes.

Stay cool and hydrated. September and October will soon be at hand.

Sometimes, Plant Adoption is the Best Option

By Jane Malec, EMGV

Long before my master gardener journey began, I loved bringing plants into my home. Quite a few years ago while passing by an apartment building at Michigan State University, I saw a dwarf leaf schefflera (Brassia actinophyllia) sitting on the front stoop.  There was a note attached reading “please give me a good home!” So, what was I to do? I officially adopted my first houseplant out of which grew a long habit of picking up plants and bringing them home. Some were gifts, others found like the first one and some were purchased with lunch money during lean years!

To this day, I always have plants in my home. I believe they make rooms more interesting by bringing in life and color. Foliage is the primary draw for most indoor plants I purchase. Unusual texture, shape or color starts my imagination working. Hmm … where could I put this little beauty? So, it stands to reason that while shopping at a favorite garden center a few years ago, a little Philodendron bipinnatifidum, or tree philodendron, caught my eye. It was no more than two feet tall and the foliage was very interesting.  I knew I had the perfect place for this tropical beauty.

 

 

Tropical landscape plants

Philodenron bipinnatifidum is in the Aracea family and is native to Brazil. It grows naturally in hardiness zones 10-12 especially along the edges of rivers in the tropical rain forests and in other areas such as Paraguay. It can also be found in the landscape of more tropical areas of the United States particularly in Florida were many landscape architects feature it in their designs. They are also popular indoor plants both in homes and commercial buildings.

The tree philodendron has a single and unbranched four-inch diameter trunk which and can grow up to 10 feet tall when planted in the ground. A plant grown in a container will  achieve a height usually less than six feet, directly correlated to the container size.  The foliage is unusual with its dark green and shiny leaves.  They can get really enormous growing up to 30 inches or more.  The dark green shiny leaves are enormous — growing to 30 inches or more. Each half of the leaf has eight to ten lobes each of which each can be 20 or more inches in length.  The leaves grow at the ends of the plant’s slowly elongating trunks and are held up on long petioles.  This feature also seems to be fascinating to golden retrievers!

IMG_1994
Leaf supporting petioles

Another interesting characteristic of this plant is the long dangling roots that grow up and out of the soil. They become more noticeable as the plant matures and may not even be present when you purchase a young plant. In fact, I didn’t notice them in my plant until I had it several years and it had grown at least a foot. Growing up to eight feet, these aerial roots anchor to the bark of tree philodendrons growing outside and will provide some light anchorage for the plant. There will still be roots in a container habitat but they will wind through the stems creating a spaghetti look which is really eye catching.

 

This philodendron will flower growing in a container but the plant needs to be 15 to 20 years old before it comes into heat. It is a beautiful petal-less flower which only lasts about two hours. Although it seems like a short life span, it would be amazing to see this unique flower.

Philodendron-selloum--Scott-Zona--CC-BY-NC
Philodendron selloum; Scott Zona, CC BY-NC – 4.0

Most pests and diseases tend to be caused by an overcrowded environment and/or over-watering. It prefers bright light but will tolerate lower light during winter periods. Also, as a container plant, it thrives outside during our Durham summers and it isn’t particularly fussy about humidity. I had my plant in quite a number of locations over the last few years. It wasn’t until recently that I situated it in a very sunny room of our home. Wow! It took off! The leaves started growing so fast that I could have sworn it was noticeable over night. I had to move all the other plants out of the area to give it room and, of course, it kept growing.

A New Home

About this time, I noticed that my church had a tree philodendron growing in nearly the exact conditions as mine and it was much larger! This wasn’t a good sign for what was ahead for my little kitchen corner. What to do?

For the answer I circled back to the beginning of my journey as a gardener of houseplants. I needed to find this plant a new home. Another bright yet empty corner in the church revealed itself. So, I convinced the church’s plant crew to adopt my tree philodendron and now I can visit whenever I want.  I love happy endings!

IMG_2385.JPG

Sources & Further Reading

from North Carolina State University Extension:  https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/all/philodendron-selloum/

from University of Arkansas Extension: https://www.uaex.edu/yard-garden/resource-library/plant-week/tree-philodendron-1-13-06.aspx

from Pennsylvania State University Extension: https://extension.psu.edu/philodendron-diseases

Tropical landscape plants: https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/syllabi/308/Slides/PLTL1b.pdf

Unless otherwise noted, all photos were taken by Jane Malec. 

 

 

 

 

Refresher For Reflowering Poinsettias and Long Term Care

By Wendy Diaz, EMGV

If you are like me you probably bought a big beautiful poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) in December for easy and festive home decorating over the holidays.  My poinsettia is doing quite well in my west facing picture window and because it is a relatively easy houseplant to care for I will probably keep it until spring and take it outside until the frost kills it in the fall and buy a new one in November. Nevertheless, a friend asked me how she would go about getting her lovely poinsettia to reflower next Christmas and keep it thriving until then. I decided, for my friend, to do some research and refresh my memory on the reflowering steps, because four years have past since my master garden training on this topic, and write a primer on the care of poinsettias.

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Several poinsettia plants in one pot placed by west-facing window.
Photo by Wendy Diaz, January 9, 2019

The following list of tasks will keep your poinsettia thriving until you want to prepare it to reflower.

Indoor Care of Poinsettia Plant

  1. Place plant in a bright window preferably south, east or west facing and temperatures between 70oF to 75 oF.
  2. Make sure temperature of room does not drop below 55oF.
  3. and avoid cool drafts. (Cover when purchasing them in the winter especially.) Conversely, temperatures about 75 oF cause bract fading and leaf drop.
  4. Water plant when needed, about once per week or when surface of potting soil feels dry (do not let plants dry out or lower leaves will fall). Do not over water because poinsettias do not like “wet feet”. Let them drain well before putting them back in their foil covering if the pot is covered with decorative foil.
  5. Remove the bracts (brightly-colored red modified leaves) when they discolor and wither.
  6. Apply half-strength fertilizer solution monthly.

Poinsettias are tropical plants originally from southern Mexico and Central America and temperatures below 55oF can damage the plants so when the danger of frost has passed, move it outdoors to a location that receives high indirect light (morning sun/afternoon shade). Then, if you have the dedication to get it to reflower you must complete the process of artificially lengthening its daily exposure to darkness for about a couple of months in the fall. The poinsettia is sensitive to the duration of light (day length) and it is a “short-day” plant whereby the shorter length of time the plant is exposed to light within a 24-hour period triggers physiological response of flowering. The sensitivity to day length is called photoperiodism. Figure 18-23 from the Master Gardener handbook shows the affect of only green foliage on poinsettias that are exposed to too much daily sunlight (less than 8 hours of darkness) during the fall period.

17-figure_18-26_photoperiod-ld_vs
Figure 18–23 from the North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook Photoperiod demonstration on Poinsettia ‘Prestige Red’. Short Day exposure (right): More than 12 hours of darkness in a 24-hour period. Long Day exposure (left): Less than 8 hours of darkness in a 24-hour period2. Photo credit Diane Mays  CC BY – 2.0

 

 

 

 

 

Steps for Poinsettia Reflowering

  1. Place plant outdoors in high indirect light after danger of frost.
  2. Cut back the stems to 3 to 4 inches to promote new growth and encourage branching.
  3. Water and fertilize as in indoor care.
  4. Bring plant indoors when night temperatures fall below 60oF (near the end of September for Durham).
  5. On October 1, 2019, put the plant in 14 hours of uninterrupted darkness each day until bract color is well developed about mid- to late November. Put it in a closet of place a cardboard box over it. Any light during this time will delay flowering. See Figure below for affects.
  6. Night temperatures should be 60 to 70oF.
  7. Place poinsettia in maximum sunlight each day for 10 hours.
  8. Water the plants as needed for medium soil moisture.
  9. Fertilize every other week with a complete-analysis (20-10-20), water soluble fertilizer
  10. Plants should bloom (red bracts) after 9 to 11 weeks of short day/long night treatment.

I wish my friend and other intrepid houseplant gardeners success in reflowering their 2018 Holiday Poinsettia but as an outdoor person and due to lack of closet space, I will continue my tradition of keeping them outside between last frost in April and first frost in October, followed by a trip to a local grower to purchase new poinsettias in late November.  I am looking forward to new and interesting colors each new year brings.

References:

  1. https://poinsettias.ces.ncsu.edu/homeowners/home-growing-poinsettias/
  2. https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/consumer-care-of-poinsettias
  3. https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/extension-gardener-handbook/18-plants-grown-in-containers#section_heading_8773
  4. https://lee.ces.ncsu.edu/2015/12/poinsettias-16/

Further reading:

  1. https://durhammastergardeners.com/2018/02/14/my-poinsettias-survived-the-season-now-what/

Enjoying a Morning Cup of Coffee with My Houseplants

by Jane Malec, EMGV

A morning cup of coffee is a necessity at my house. It is just a part of getting the day started and I love everything about it — making it the night before, turning the pot on in the morning, and the aroma when it’s brewing. Over the years our coffee habits have changed due to the ever-fluctuating studies on the healthiness of, optimum consumption levels, or brew strength of a cup of coffee. It’s mostly decaf and fewer cups for us now.  Still, it remains a force of habit to pour the same level of water and ground coffee beans into the brewer regardless if we are running out the door or having a leisurely morning. Even if I reheat a cup later in the day, there is always a little left over brew sitting in the pot.

So I often walk around the house pouring the remaining cold coffee onto thirsty house plants. Our current home has a private well and I am ever more conscious of water usage. I make sure to pat myself on the back over my dedication to water conservation with every cup of coffee that soaks into the potting soil. I even wander outside to share the wealth with my container plants. A win-win, right? Or, maybe not. If there is a debate on human coffee consumption, I suddenly wondered if there might be one on plant consumption.

Coffee comes to us through a complicated path. To begin with, there are several species of coffee plants or trees, the two most commonly grown are Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora which is also called Coffea robusta. Arabica coffee is considered superior and commands a higher price than the robusta. Coffee production is a labor intensive process. The berries are picked by hand, sorted and allowed to ferment which removes a gelatinous tissue layer. Then they are washed with large amounts of fresh water. The seed of each berry, which is the bean, is roasted and then ground before becoming the beverage we enjoy. The degree of roasting the beans will determine the flavor, but not the caffeine level. Interestingly, the lighter roasts contain more caffeine so watch out you breakfast blend drinkers!

Which leads back to my curious question — is liquid coffee good for plants? There is a good amount of anecdotal information (on the Internet) concerning the use of brewed coffee for watering plants. However, there is little research-based information on this nor on liquid coffee’s benefits to soil.

However, there are some basic guidelines to help us understand if my “coffee watering practice” is helping or harming to plants. While coffee grounds tend to have a pH around 6.5 to 6.8 which is nearly neutral on the scale (neutral is 7), brewed liquid coffee is reported to have a pH level ranging from 5.2 to 6.9 depending on the type of coffee and how it is prepared. The lower the pH the higher the acidity; A drop in one full pH equals a factor of 10. For example, if the brewed coffee is 5.5 pH and the grounds are 6.5 pH, the brewed coffee is 10 times more acidic than the grounds.

Understanding that most plants like a slightly acidic to neutral pH and factoring in that most municipal water is slightly alkaline (pH greater than 7), it is possible that the acidity of the coffee could benefit plants. Also there are small measurable amounts of magnesium and potassium which are plant nutrients. Keep in mind that this information can only serve as a guideline as there can be other factors in play, for instance, if you have a private or community well, and whether or not you use a water softener.

The best recommendation is to follow some simple rules. Make sure the coffee is cold and then water it down. Never water with coffee if you add milk, cream or sugar. Know your plants pH happiness levels and then watch the impact this is having on your plants over time.  Adjust your morning coffee routine.   

Remember too much of a good thing is, well, too much of a good thing. Resign yourself to pouring some of the leftovers down the drain or on your compost pile. 

Maybe I could starting singing to my plants instead?  Hmm. 

Resources:

Coffee as Fertilizer?
https://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/palette/110109.html

Yard and Garden
https://extension.unl.edu/statewide/buffalo/Watering%20House%20Plants%20With%20Water%20%26%20Coffee%2C%20March%205%2C%202011.pdf

Clay soils
https://durham.ces.ncsu.edu/files/library/32/UNH%203.PDF