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

 

My Poinsettias Survived the Season … Now What?

By Jane Malec, EMGV

This is the first time ever that not only are my Christmas poinsettias alive after the holidays but they still look wonderful. Normally, these beautiful plants begin the slow painful death march in my car shortly after I purchase them. I have made every mistake possible … over water, under water, too little light, to hot or too cold … well, you get the idea. My job often involves the care of poinsettias and, yes, I kill them there too.

So it’s February, the poinsettias look like they aren’t going anywhere and, in the meantime, here come all the spring plants into the stores. Beautiful tulips, daffodils and hydrangeas. Their colors are pretty and announce the promise of spring not the memories of cold winters.

What sorry thing to be a healthy poinsettia living past your season. I wonder why is this? Red is a great color plus I have one that is variegated pink and spring green. Why is it we only want this interesting plant around during the Christmas season?

Poinsettias have an amazing history. The Aztecs called them Cuetlaxochitl and used them to control fevers in the 14th and 15th century. Their botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima, was assigned when a German botanist, Wilanow, discovered it growing through a crack in his greenhouse. The colors impressed him so much that he gave name Euphorbia pulcherrima which means very beautiful. While a US Ambassador in Mexico,  Joel Roberts Poinsett,  brought cuttings back to his greenhouse in South Carolina in the 1820’s. They were finally grown as landscape plants in southern California in 1900’s. Now 70% of all poinsettias purchased in the United States are grown in that region.

By nature, poinsettias are flowering shrubs that, if planted in the ground, will grow up to 10′ tall. However, they aren’t frost tolerant so definitely aren’t bedding plants in the Triangle. The colorful parts of the plants are the bracts, which aren’t flowers, and are produced by photoperiodism. This means they require 12 hours of total darkness for five days in a row followed by abundant light during the day to achieve the beautiful colors.

So, how did I manage to keep these beauties alive this year? The care for poinsettias is complicated and not all that different from other house plants. Keep them away from temperature extremes, 60 – 70 degrees during the day, and take care on how you water.  This year, I pulled them out of the shiny paper sleeves, watered them thoroughly and let them drain before putting them back to their spots and they got more sunlight in our new home then in the past.  Wow … I have to roll my eyes at myself as I write this. It feels like I should have my EMGV title yanked. Seriously, though, I amazed at how wonderful they all look. Poinsettias will last 6-8 weeks in your home with this care and, if you fertilize them, they will continue to thrive.

Back to the original question … they lived so now what? For the first time, after Valentine’s Day, I’m taking my poinsettias to the compost pile without the feeling of failure. I am not going to hide them in the dark of my closest so that they will produce dramatic colors next Christmas. That is more than I can commit to or really more than I want to do.

The truth is I love spring and all that comes with it. Easter is the eternal birth of spring and we celebrate early by bringing the promise of it into our homes as soon as we can. I will bring home iris, hydrangea and hyacinth plants. When their flowers drop and it’s warm enough, I will plant them all in my yard hoping to see them flower next year.

IMG_1787
Hydrangeas

However, next December, I will buy more beautiful poinsettias knowing that I corrected my techniques and that there won’t be any plants sobbing on the trip home.  Maybe I’ll get one of those glittery poinsettias…hmm now that would be a challenge!

Resources:

http://extension.illinois.edu/poinsettia/care.cfm

https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/consumer-care-of-poinsettias

Photos credit: Jane Malec

 

Cut Christmas Tree Care

If you have a fresh cut Christmas tree, please keep in mind that a tree can use up to a quart of water per inch of trunk diameter per day. Check frequently to make sure that your  tree stand contains enough water. Ideally, your tree stand should hold at least a gallon. If the water level in the stand goes below the cut end of the trunk, drying sap will seal the trunk, preventing it from taking up more water. Make sure your tree is away from heat sources and that you turn off lights at night or when you are away from home.

Clean water is all you need. Additives, whether purchased preservatives or kitchen concoctions,  have not been shown to be effective in prolonging the freshness of Christmas trees.

The National Christmas Tree Association has provided this list of tips to keep your tree safe and looking fresh.

  1. Displaying trees in water in a traditional reservoir type stand is the most effective way of maintaining their freshness and minimizing needle loss problems.
  2. To display the trees indoors, use a stand with an adequate water holding capacity for the tree. As a general rule, stands should provide 1 quart of water per inch of stem diameter. Devices are available that help maintain a constant water level in the stand.
  3. Use a stand that fits your tree. Avoid whittling the sides of the trunk down to fit a stand. The outer layers of wood are the most efficient in taking up water and should not be removed.
  4. Make a fresh cut to remove about a 1/2-inch thick disk of wood from the base of the trunk before putting the tree in the stand. Make the cut perpendicular to the stem axis. Don’t cut the trunk at an angle, or into a v-shape, which makes it far more difficult to hold the tree in the stand and also reduces the amount of water available to the tree.
  5. Drilling a hole in the base of the trunk does NOT improve water uptake.
  6. Once home, place the tree in water as soon as possible. Most species can go 6 to 8 hours after cutting the trunk and still take up water. Don’t bruise the cut surface or get it dirty. If needed, trees can be temporarily stored for several days in a cool location. Place the freshly cut trunk in a bucket that is kept full of water.
  7. The temperature of the water used to fill the stand is not important and does not affect water uptake.
  8. Check the stand daily to make sure that the level of water does not go below the base of the tree. With many stands, there can still be water in the stand even though the base of the tree is no longer submerged in water.
  9. Keep trees away from major sources of heat (fireplaces, heaters, heat vents, direct sunlight). Lowering the room temperature will slow the drying process, resulting in less water consumption each day.
  10. Use of lights that produce low heat, such as miniature lights, will reduce drying of the tree.
  11. Always inspect light sets prior to placing them on the tree. If worn, replace with a new set.
  12. Do not overload electrical circuits.
  13. Always turn off the tree lights when leaving the house or when going to bed.
  14. Monitor the tree for freshness. After Christmas or if the tree is very dry, remove it from the house.
  15. Visit the Tree Recycling page to find a recycling program near you, or check the City or County websites.
  16. Never burn any part of a Christmas tree in a wood stove or fireplace.

Prepared by Dr. Gary Chastagner and Dr. Eric Hinesley; edited by the National Christmas Tree Association

 

-Ann Barnes, EMGV

 

Forcing and “Pickling” Paperwhites

by Kathryn Hamilton

Although many varieties of bulbs can be forced to grow indoors,

narcissus-from-easyto-grow-bulbs
Photo: Easytogrowbulbs.com

from October to March, one of the easiest is paperwhites, Narcissus tazetta.

The cultivar Ziva, introduced in the 1970’s, is the most popular. It is considered an easy, reliable bloomer with strong fragrance. In the early nineties I remember being able to get Zivas only online and having to pay more for a Ziva than I did for an ordinary “paperwhite.” Today, Zivas are synonymous with paperwhites and are readily found in stores ranging from the finest garden shops to the big box stores. The difference is likely to be bulb size with smaller bulbs costing less but also being less productive. The largest-size paperwhites are 17+cm, measured at the fattest part of the bulb.

Paperwhites can be planted in pebbles and water or in soil.

  • If planting in water, be sure the water only touches the roots. If the bulb sits in water it will rot.
  • If planning in soil, place the bulb in damp soil, and cover the bulbs to their necks, leaving the tip exposed. Be sure that your pot has a drainage hole.

Overwatering in the early stages is one of the biggest causes of failure.  My research tells me that paperwhites planted in October will take longer to bloom than those planted in March. I haven’t been able to figure out why this is so, but it’s a bonus for those of us just starting now.

For a continuous bloom all season, plant bulbs every 10 days. Keep surplus bulbs in a cool, dark spot.

Pickling your Paperwhites

Zivas grow 16 – 18” tall and frequently flop. So if you are forcing paperwhites

pickeled-paperwhite
Photo: Cornell University

this season you may want to give them a shot of alcohol, according to a study conducted by the Flower Bulb Research Program at Cornell University.

The study found that watering a plant with a 4% – 6% alcohol solution will actually stunt its growth by one-half to one-third without affecting the size or number of flowers. Once the plants are rooted and one-to-two inches tall, replace the water with the diluted alcohol. Use any alcohol, from rubbing alcohol, to gin, or rum. Don’t use beer or wine because of their high sugar content. Stay well under 10% alcohol; a 25% dilution will almost certainly be toxic.

Here’s how to compute a 5% solution: divide the alcohol content of the spirit by five and the resulting number will give you the dilution. As an example, if the alcohol content is 40, dividing by five gives you eight. Therefore, you need an eight-part solution: one part alcohol and seven parts water.

Some sites indicate that this process also works for amaryllis.

New Cultivars

I wasn’t able to determine when they were first introduced, but a handful of online retailers are carrying three newer varieties of narcissus: Inball,  Nir, and Ariel. Here is information excerpted from www.Easytogrowbulbs.com  where I bought mine. (This is also a great site for sourcing amaryllis as the site groups the bulbs by characteristic: fast growing; large flowering, double form, and exotic.)

Nir produces flowers that are about 10% larger than those of Ziva. The fragrance is classically strong and rich. This variety produces an average of 2.5-3 flower stems per bulb, each with a cluster of 9-14 florets, about 3-4 weeks after planting.

Inball is a beautiful paperwhite that produces blooms that are about 10% larger than those of the classic

ariel-from-white-flower-farms
Photo: Ariel from Whiteflowerfarms.com

Ziva. It also carries a softer scent and is said to produce the most flowers per stem of any narcissus cultivar. Maturing at 12-14″, these are the shortest of any paperwhites, although as with others, growing them in low light typically results in taller stems. Inball produces an average of two flower stems per bulb, each with clusters of 8-14 florets, about 4-5 weeks after planting.

One website described Inball as “scentless,” which will be disappointing for me, since the primary reason I grow paperwhites is the intoxicating fragrance. I’ve ordered all three cultivars and plan to compare and contrast.

Ariel, is a little shorter than the other cultivars and with extra strong stems, there’s less chance of head-heavy flower stems angling sideways or flopping. The blooms are numerous (bud count is high) and larger than those of the classic Ziva. Flowers are about 10% larger than industry standard. Ariel typically blooms 3-5 weeks from planting, depending on growing conditions.

Here is a link to the Cornell report and four on forcing bulbs from the NC Cooperative Extension Service.

Pickling Your Paperwhites: www.hort.cornell.edu/miller/bulb/Pickling_your_Paperwhites.pdf

Amaryllis: https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-8529.html

Daffodils: https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-8531.html

Paperwhites: https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-8530.html

Hyacinths: https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-8507.html