Series 1, pg 1 – soil basics

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english ivy
This series will help you have happy, healthy plants to enjoy all year round in your home.  We’ll talk about water and we’ll talk about light.  One of the most important aspects of any successful gardening experience is first having the proper growing medium which is where we’ll begin.

 

by Mary Sue

        Here’s The Dirt…

                    Time to get your hands dirty

First some basics

Plants need light, water and nutrients to grow.  First we’ll discuss what you can do to give your plant the nutritional habitat it needs to be happy and healthy.  Houseplants will do their best if provided with the proper media.  Providing a good mix full of the ingredients your plant needs when you pot it up will give any plant great healthy beginning.  This may even occasionally mean changing the medium when you first bring a plant into your home.  I once purchased an orchid, drooping and sad, that was suffocating in a very heavy, dense medium that it could not possibly have been able to breathe in at all.  After letting it acclimate in my home for 2 weeks I then immediately took it from its pot, gently removed all the soil from its roots, and re-potted it into the proper mix.

The proper medium for your plant will go a long way in helping you with proper watering.  Ingredients you supply give the roots moisture holding properties that plants need to have water when they need it and when they don’t.  There will be the right amount of space between the materials so the roots receive the breathing and wiggle room they need to grow optimally.

The proper medium will also require less fertilizer.  House plants in containers will receive some nutrient value while certain ingredients are breaking down over time, but each time you water some nutrient value washes through.  Plants outdoors in the ground get much of their nutrient value replenished naturally from insects and worms doing good works, creating environments attractive to beneficial microbes, but container plants often do not have these benefits (unless you’re using the worm bin you keep in your laundry room).  Houseplants, most often, will do best with some supplemental feeding, top dressing or re-potting into fresh media.

The proper medium will keep your houseplant healthier.  A healthy plant will give good protection from pests so they will attract fewer.  This is no different than you eating properly to keep your immune system strong and fighting off disease.  This will reduce the amount of pesticide you need and will be healthier for you and the environment.

There are basically 2 main types of media that gardeners begin with to provide food, moisture, air and anchorage for their plants.  Soil based and soilless.

loam, perlite, sand, sphagnum peat

loam, perlite, sand, sphagnum peat

SOIL BASED

This medium is a combination of ingredients like sterilized loam, compost, humus, sphagnum peat moss or coir, sharp sand or small granite chips, and composted animal manure, leaf mold, or bark fines.  These mixes will not dry out too quickly, provide aeration,and will have the nutrients and nutrient holding capacity your plant needs to thrive.

 

 

 

Sphagnum peat, perlite, vermiculite and sand.

Sphagnum peat, perlite, vermiculite and sand.

SOILLESS

This medium is often a mix of ingredients like peat moss (or coir), perlite or vermiculite (or coarse sand, especially if you need more weight), tree fibers, bark, limestone and perhaps a time released fertilizer.  It can be very lightweight, will provide moisture holding capabilities and give the plants roots sufficient air circulation.

 

 

 

 

These are modified for cacti, succulents, orchids and other plants with special requirements.  I have separated the orchid ingredients from the rest because I think they have very special needs depending upon the type of orchid you have.

Basics recap

When you know the needs of your plant you can combine any number of ingredients to create a perfect habitat or there are many commercial potting mediums based on the following components.  The media you supply to your plant will dictate your plants growth.  Garden soil alone is unsuitable for containers because it may contain weed seeds, pests and diseases.  The drainage often becomes poor quickly without the activity of worms and other animals once you put it into a pot and place it indoors.  Finding materials to mix together to create the best environment for your houseplants has never been easier.  We will continue by exploring the many ingredients you can use in many combinations to create many different habitats.      Soil recipes

 

Series 1, pg 2 – soil ingredients

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page 2 title pg

 

This is page 2 of the series on medium. We will explore the different components you are likely to find in your local garden center and some reasons to choose them.

by Mary Sue

     Here’s The Dirt…page 2

 

          Time to explore and get your hands dirty

 

 

When you know the needs of your plant you can combine any number of ingredients to create a perfect habitat or there are many commercial potting mediums based on the following components.  The ingredients you supply to your plant will dictate your plants growth.  Garden soil alone is unsuitable for containers because it may contain weed seeds, pests and diseases.  The drainage often becomes poor quickly without the activity of worms and other animals once you put it into a pot and place it indoors.  Finding materials to mix together to create the best environment for your houseplants has never been easier.  We will begin by exploring the many ingredients you can use in many combinations to create many different habitats.

Basic Ingredients

LOAM

– contains the following 3 ingredients mixed in relatively equal amounts.  The clay and silt hold moisture and nutrients and the sand keeps it from becoming compacted.  Loam will crumble in your hand yet hold its shape.  It will not dry out in the summer too quickly or get water logged in the winter.

Sand – large particles allowing aeration and improving drainage but does not hold nutrients well

Silt – medium particles that contain moisture and hold onto it, but can become compacted

Clay – small particles that pack down so water cannot flow through easily and air cannot circulate but has the ability to hold onto any nutrients supplied and will resist acidity change

sphagnum peat

sphagnum peat

SPHAGNUM PEAT MOSS

– is still breaking down. Sphagnum peat is humus but so very broken down that very few nutrients remain and is beneficial in providing a nearly constant acidity (slightly rising as time passes) that will hold water like a sponge.  It is usually free from weed seeds and disease organisms.  It is a good substitute for leaf mold if not available but will be without the nutrient and bacterial value of the leaf mold.  Used to provide aeration, water retention and anchorage.  When using in a mix, dolomite limestone may be added to help neutralize the acidity.  A bonus quality is its ability to suppress fungal disease that can cause root rot.  When using in a mixture for a plant that likes a more moist soil it can be very beneficial.  Be sure to moisten it before adding it to your mixture or before adding your plant to it and never let it dry out completely as it can be very difficult to re-wet.  It is harvested mainly in Canada and Europe and does involve destruction of the natural habitat of many plants and animals.

PEAT

– from sedges, is not as uniform as sphagnum peat moss and its acidity is various.  Used to provide water retention and aeration outdoors but not usually suitable for container, houseplant gardening.  It has short fibers and can compact too tightly around roots.  Look for the word sphagnum when choosing peat for your houseplants.

COCONUT COIR

– a good coir mix, made from ground coconut husk, will contain both the pith, fiber and chips.  Often used as a substitute for sphagnum peat moss for the environmentally conscious.  Will retain water well and supply the same aeration as a coarse sphagnum peat.  Mexican coir, readily available, is essentially free of sodium, is rich in potassium, has some anti-fungal properties and has a stable ph of about 5.98, slightly acidic, depending on the grade.

COMPOST

– organic matter that is still breaking down, supplying nutrients, aeration and will hold moisture.   Any of the following 3 ingredients can be added to a nice sterilized loam to provide the necessary food and aeration for most houseplants.  It would be an excellent top dressing to freshen the medium of an established plant when not re-potting.

Composted animal manure – well-rotted manure is valuable as a soil conditioner, adds nitrogen and has a high population of good bacteria.

Decaying leaf mold – partially decomposed matter from the forest floor and is an excellent compost that is rich in bacterial life and organic fertilizer and should be used when flaky not powdery.

If making it yourself from yard leaves (high carbon material), you need to add a source of nitrogen (green stuff like grass clippings, flowers, coffee grounds or fruit and vegetable scraps), keep it moist (like a damp sponge) and turn it to aerate (perhaps twice a week).  This will get the bacteria working that turns it into a nice compost that will supply nitrogen and beneficial microorganisms to your plant.

Decaying bark – partially decomposed from the bark of a pine or other, usually a hardwood, tree.  Contains anti-fungal properties and can help prevent soil-borne disease like root and crown rot.

 

Humus

Humus

HUMUS

– decomposed plant and animal matter.  It can enrich the soil with minerals, nutrients, raise the water-holding capacity or increase porosity and aeration depending on the source.  Mixing it with a clay soil may allow more air to circulate, mixing with a sandy soil may allow more moisture to be retained.  Mixing with anything will create an environment that stimulates the development of micro-organisms you need in a healthy soil.  It is generally well-decomposed, perhaps from lake bottoms and can be aerated with a larger particle matter, to make it more suitable for your plants, such as a coarse sand, pine bark fines, granite chips, sphagnum peat moss (or coir which is replacing sphagnum peat for the more environmentally conscious). Humus from peat sedge may be too fine for container gardening and will pack too tightly around roots.  Know what the humus comes from.

perlite

perlite

PERLITE

– made from heated volcanic rock.  Heating expands it and makes it lightweight and crunchy.  Approximate neutral ph 7.0.  Provides aeration, water and some nutrient retention from fertilizers, will not break down (unless you crush it), and is lightweight for containers.  May want to add dolomite limestone when using to neutralize the notably high fluoride content so your plant will not be able to absorb it.

 

vermiculite

vermiculite

HORTICULTURAL VERMICULITE

made from expanded mica.  Used to aerate a medium – perhaps a bit less than perlite, helps retain moisture and nutrients – perhaps a bit more than perlite and has minimal nutrient value of its own.  It will compact over time.  Ph can vary from 6 to 9.5.

 

 

 

builders sand

builders sand

SAND

– coarse builder’s sand is used to improve drainage and add weight to a container.  It has no nutrient holding value.  Be sure it comes from rivers or fresh water lakes as you do not want added salt.

 

 

 

GRANITE CHIPS

– larger particles than coarse sand (3/16”-5/16”) but still small and can be used in place of sand, must be washed to remove dust.  Used to provide aeration and weight.

EXPANDED CLAY AGGREGATE

– a clay pebble, comes in several sizes, has been heated to create a porous medium.  Used to provide support and aeration, often in bonsai and orchid mixes. Holds moisture, with ph 7.0.  Sold under the names Aliflor, or Turface, etc.  Use a screen to sift out some of the more fine bits and rinse to remove dust before using.

medium size fir bark

medium size fir bark

BARK FINES

– use pine, fir, cedar, or hemlock bark all under the size of a dime, smaller bits are good.  Used to aerate the medium and supply nutrients and minerals.

SHREDDED FIR BARK

– Hardwoods decompose more slowly.  Abies concolor (a N. American evergreen fir tree) is commercially available for Orchids and Anthurium.  Available in chunks also.

DOLOMITE LIMESTONE

– reduces acidity and supplies calcium and magnesium.  A coarse limestone is preferable to a finer grade because it will release nutrients more slowly.

AZOMITE

– contains over 70 minerals and can be used to fertilize and aerate soil mixes.  Use ¼ pound per 1 cubic ft. of medium or 1-2 t. as a side dressing of established plants.

sphagnum peat, perlite, vermiculite and sand.

sphagnum peat, perlite, vermiculite and sand.

moistened and ready - perhaps for a succulent

moistened and ready – perhaps for a succulent

When you have chosen your ingredients, added them to your container and mixed them well it is a good time to moisten it all and give it another stir.  There will be less stress on your plant when you give it the new home if it does not have to search for water.         Soil Recipes

 

There are many commercial mixes you can purchase for nearly any type of plant and with the guide above you will be able to decide if they are right for your plant or if you would like to enhance one you bring home with any of these ingredients to get to the proper habitat you feel your plant needs to be a happy, healthy grower.

Series 1, pg 3 – cacti and succulents

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mix for succulents

 

 

This is page 3 in the series on exploring different medium components you can choose for creating the proper habitat for your houseplants. This time we are planning to plant cacti and succulents and it is a good idea to know what part of the world your plant originated because these environments vary from dusty dry deserts to moist tropical forests.  Here are some tips to help keep your plants happy, healthy and growing strong.

by Mary Sue

 

 

 

 

 

      Here’s The Dirt…page 3

           Time to keep it light and get your hands dirty

 

When you know the needs of your plant you can combine any number of ingredients to create a perfect habitat or there are many commercial potting mediums based on the following components.  The ingredients you supply to your plant will dictate your plants growth.  Garden soil alone is unsuitable for containers because it may contain weed seeds, pests and diseases.  The drainage often becomes poor quickly without the activity of worms and other animals once you put it into a pot and place it indoors.  Finding materials to mix together to create the best environment for your houseplants has never been easier.  We will begin by exploring the many ingredients you can use in many combinations, this time for cacti and succulents, to create many different habitats.

Cacti and Succulents

Almost anything can be grown in a basic soilless mix but when it comes to cacti and succulents you may want to specialize.

I should define cacti and succulents a bit.  All cacti are succulents but all succulents are not cacti.  There are ways to know if your plant is a cactus by the fact that they have areoles (structure that spines, new branches, leaves, or flowers emerge from) which can be very small like those of the Christmas cactus.  If a cactus is wounded, sap will run clear but sap of succulents is milky.

Some cacti and succulents, like the barrel cactus, are found in dry desert locations, and have developed spines and thorns instead of leaves to reduce water loss.  They may have thick, waxy skins to hold water inside.  The 10-14 hours a day of sun and the wind will evaporate much of the moisture in the porous soil quickly.  Cacti may have shallow wide reaching roots so they can soak up as much water as possible when it rains or roots that travel many feet straight down reaching to underground supplies.  There is usually very little nitrogen in the desert ground so you probably wouldn’t add compost or humus to a potting mix for this plant but you may add perlite or pumice to be sure to have good porosity.

Others, like the Christmas cactus, are found in tropical forests of South America where the location has less sun to evaporate the moisture both in the ground and in the air so something like sphagnum peat or vermiculite may be called for to provide water retention.  The rainfall is also measured by the foot rather than in inches like the desert environment.  These plants can be nestled in the crooks of trees where plant debris like nutrient rich leaves have gathered.  This provides a good amount of nutrition that you will want to supply to your houseplant also.

Some succulents may find that a little compost adds to the greening or overall coloring and health of the plant.   Knowing the natural habitat of your plant will help dictate the medium you would like to provide.

Cacti and Succulent Ingredients

All can be pulled from lists previously given but I have selected a few here for your quick reference.

builders sand

builders sand

SAND

– coarse builder’s sand is used to improve drainage and will add weight to a container.  It has no nutrient holding value.  Be sure it comes from rivers or fresh water lakes as you do not want the salt.  When using this for cacti and succulents be sure to add more porosity and something to hold some moisture.

 

 

COIR

– a good coir mix will contain both the pith, fiber and chips.  Often used as a substitute for sphagnum peat moss for the environmentally conscious.  Seems to retain water well and supply the same aeration as a coarse sphagnum peat.  Mexican coir, readily available, is essentially free of sodium, is rich in potassium, has some anti-fungal properties and has a stable ph of about 5.98 depending on the grade.  Perhaps a better choice than sphagnum peat when planting up cacti and succulents due to the fact that these plants need to become quite dry between waterings and if you let a peat based mix dry out sufficiently you may have great difficulty getting it moist again.

sphagnum peat

sphagnum peat

SPHAGNUM PEAT

– is still breaking down. Sphagnum peat is humus but so very broken down that very few nutrients remain and is beneficial in providing a constant acidity that will hold water like a sponge.  It is usually free from weed seeds and disease organisms.  Used to provide aeration, water retention and anchorage.  It is harvested mainly in Canada and Europe and does involve destruction of the natural habitat of many plants and animals. more

perlite

perlite

PERLITE

– made from heated volcanic rock.  Heating expands it and makes it lightweight and crunchy.  Approximate ph 7.0.  Provides aeration, water and some nutrient retention from fertilizers, will not break down (unless you crush it), and is lightweight for containers.  May want to add dolomite limestone when using to neutralize the notably high fluoride content so your plant will not be able to absorb the fluoride.

 

PUMICE

– made from cooled lava, porous, does not retain water and does not break down.  It does float to the top of a mixture but not quite as much as perlite.  Used to provide aeration.

EXPANDED CLAY AGGREGATE

– a clay pebble, comes in several sizes, has been heated to create a porous medium.  Used to provide support and aeration, often in bonsai and orchid mixes but may be used to aerate medium for succulents and cacti also. Holds moisture, with ph 7.0.  Sold under the names Aliflor, or Turface.  Use a window screen to sift out some of the more fine bits and rinse to remove dust before using.

medium size fir bark

medium size fir bark

BARK FINES

– use pine, fir, cedar, or hemlock bark all under the size of a dime and smaller.  Used to aerate the medium and supply nutrients and minerals.

Use only the small pieces you see here.

Hardwoods break down more slowly than soft woods like pine and will not steal nitrogen from your mix as rapidly as it decomposes.

 

DOLOMITE LIMESTONE

– reduces acidity and supplies calcium and magnesium.  Can neutralize the acidity of sphagnum peat and the fluoride found in perlite.

COMPOST

– organic matter that is still breaking down, supplying nutrients, aeration and will hold moisture.   Any of the following 3 ingredients can be added to a nice sterilized loam to provide the necessary food and aeration for most houseplants.  Perhaps do not use with a true cactus whose natural habitat is desert and go easy when adding to a succulent mix.

  • Composted animal manure – well-rotted manure is valuable as a soil conditioner, adds nitrogen and has a high population of good bacteria.
  • Decaying leaf mold – partially decomposed matter from the forest floor and is an excellent compost that is rich in bacterial life and organic fertilizer and should be used when flaky not powdery.
  • Decaying bark – partially decomposed from the bark of a pine or other tree.
Humus

Humus

HUMUS

– decomposed plant and animal matter.  It can enrich the soil with minerals, nutrients, raise the water-holding capacity or increase porosity and aeration depending on the source.  Mixing it with a clay soil may allow more air to circulate, mixing with a sandy soil may allow more moisture to be retained.  Mixing with anything will create an environment that stimulates the development of micro-organisms you need in a healthy soil.  It is generally well-decomposed, perhaps from lake bottoms and can be aerated with a larger particle matter, to make it more suitable for your plants, such as a coarse sand, pine bark fines, sphagnum peat moss (or coir which is replacing sphagnum peat for the more environmentally conscious). Humus from peat sedge may be too fine for container gardening and will pack too tightly around roots.  Know what the humus comes from.  more

Once you have chosen, mixed, and moistened your components, run it through your fingers and decide whether or not you feel it is porous enough for the water to run in and around your cacti roots and out quickly.   You can also purchase a cacti/succulent mix from the local garden center.  To this, for a cactus, I would add perlite or a very coarse sand to make it more porous.  If you know where your plant originates you will know if you need to add anything to make it just the right growing medium for a happy, healthy plant in your home.          Soil recipes

 

 

Series 1, pg 4 – Orchids

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phalenopsis

phalenopsis

 

This is page 4 of the series that will help you choose different medium components for some of the more specialized houseplants you may have in your home. Some people feel that orchids are difficult but I feel that if you inform yourself with your orchids natural habitat you will know the medium, water and lighting requirements it needs.  You will then be able to enjoy your plants and impress your friends.

by Mary Sue

 

Here’s the Dirt…page 4

Time to get sophisticated and get your hands dirty

When you know the needs of your plant you can combine any number of ingredients to create a perfect habitat or there are many commercial potting mediums based on the following components.  The ingredients you supply to your plant will dictate your plants growth.  Garden soil alone is unsuitable for containers because it may contain weed seeds, pests and diseases.  The drainage often becomes poor quickly without the activity of worms and other animals once you put it into a pot and place it indoors.  Finding materials to mix together to create the best environment for your houseplants has never been easier.  We will begin by exploring the many ingredients you can use in many combinations to create many different habitats.

Orchids

phalaenopsis flower

phalaenopsis flower

Know your orchids requirements.  Their requirements vary quite a bit and if you are using a pot it is best to use one specially made for orchids.  These pots have many and large drainage holes both in the bottom and along the sides.  There are commercial orchid mixes available but here is a list of some components to get you thinking about mixing your own.  Most of these are in the basic ingredients list with a few more added options that, of course, can be added to any medium mixture.

An orchid planted in moss prefers to be re-potted every 6 months to 1 year.  Some, like Vanda, never like being disturbed but still need extremely careful re-potting perhaps every 2 years.  Others, like Paphiopedilum, prefer to be re-potted perhaps every two years if the medium has not broken down earlier.  After taking the old medium from the roots, again know your orchids requirements as some will not like the disturbance of removing the old stuff, and carefully inspect and trim any that are dead. The thick, fleshy roots may be stiff and break during re-potting but a good soaking before can help you gently bend things around and into the new medium.

Terrestrial orchids (i.e. Cymbidiums) plants that grow in the rich, loose, top litter of the forest floor.  They will not tolerate water hanging around their roots.

Epiphytic orchids (i.e. phalaeonopsis) plants that grow on other plants without endangering them in any way.  They often receive rain but dry out quickly in sun and wind.  The larger the root, the larger the pieces of medium, and the larger the pot is a beginning guide.

Orchid Ingredients

medium size fir bark

medium size fir bark

FIR BARK

– from the Douglas fir, uses nitrogen as it breaks down so orchids need fertilizer with nitrogen.  Small ⅛”-¼” used for seedlings, medium ¼”-½” used for pots up to 3½”, larger for mature plants.

BARK FINES

– use pine, fir, cedar, or hemlock bark all under the size of a dime.  Used to aerate the medium and supply nutrients and minerals.

COCONUT HUSK CHIPS

– cut to uniform size, washed and pressed several times to leach out the salts.  It is best to thoroughly rinse, squeeze dry, and rinse again before using.  They hold water like a sponge, actually to the point of when squeezing a hydrated piece you can watch the water run out, and provide excellent aeration.  When using be careful not to over-water which will encourage fungus gnats.

TREE FERN FIBER

– looks like sticks, breaks down extremely slowly and provides some nutrient value.  Can be used alone in a pot or you will see it in shops formed into a pole that you can attach an orchid to.

SPHAGNUM PEAT MOSS

– is still breaking down. Sphagnum peat is humus but so very broken down that very few nutrients remain and is beneficial in providing a constant acidity that will hold water like a sponge.  It is a good substitute for leaf mold if not available but will be without the nutrient and bacterial value of the leaf mold.  Used to provide aeration, water retention and anchorage.  It is harvested mainly in Canada and Europe and does involve destruction of the natural habitat of many plants and animals.

ALIFLOR

– an expanded clay that provides support and aeration, holds moisture, with ph 7.0

‘GROWSTONES’ HYDROPONIC GROWTH MEDIUM

– made from recycled glass and provides support and aeration.

OSMUNDA FIBER

 – from the Osmunda (or cinnamon) tree fern.  If dry, soak to re-hydrate a bit, and rinse off any dust.  This will make it more pliable than other fern roots and you will be able to gently arrange it around your orchid’s roots without damaging them and give your plant the support it needs to stay in the pot.  It can be difficult to work with.

CHIPPED REDWOOD BARK

– keep pieces small – ⅛”- ¼” if adding to other components and larger if using alone – this does decompose rapidly and will need replacing as it settles with decomposition.

MONTEREY PINE BARK

– used in large and small chips, holds moisture and nutrients well, and lasts 5-7 years before breaking down.  Comes from New Zealand, often used for Epiphytic orchids and is sold under the name Orchiata.

COMPOST

phalaenopsis

phalaenopsis

– organic matter that is still breaking down, supplying nutrients, aeration and will hold moisture.   Any of the 3 ingredients listed in the basics list can be added to a nice sterilized loam to provide the necessary food and aeration for most houseplants.  It would be an excellent top dressing to freshen medium when not re-potting.  (see basic ingredients list for more detail)

Whether you put your orchid into it’s special orchid pot or attach it to a tree fern pole be sure to water the plant first to make the roots as supple as possible and always moisten the medium so it will not wick away moisture from the roots when watered.          Media recipes

 

Series 1, pg 5 – Re-potting and Refreshing

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roots in need of more space

roots in need of more space

 

 

This is page 5, and final, of the series on medium that will give you ideas for taking care of your houseplants any time of the year, to get them ready for the more dormant winter season, or for the active spring season.

by Mary Sue

 

Here’s the Dirt…page 5

Time to be a pro and get your hands dirty

 

When you know the needs of your plant you can combine any number of ingredients to create a perfect habitat or there are many commercial potting mediums based on these components.  The ingredients you supply to your plant will dictate your plants growth.  Garden soil alone is unsuitable for containers because it may contain weed seeds, pests and diseases.  The drainage often becomes poor quickly without the activity of worms and other animals once you put it into a pot and place it indoors.  Finding materials to mix together to create the best environment for your houseplants has never been easier.  Page 2 began by exploring the many ingredients you can use in many combinations to create many different habitats.

 

Re-potting and Refreshing

 

All plants in containers, whether in soil based or soilless media, need a change of media occasionally due to compaction through decomposition, contamination from salts in the water, plants just outgrowing the pot size, or disease creeping in.  You may notice symptoms of your plant asking for attention.

 

Slow or unhealthy new growth may be a sign of soil that is no longer supplying your plant with the habitat it needs.  The media may have decomposed to a point that is unhealthy to your plant.  You should re-pot your plant.  If you see a white crust on the surface of the soil you may have a salt buildup.  You can re-pot or refresh your plant.  You may notice roots growing through the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot.  Your plant is pot-bound. You should re-pot your plant.  You may see gray or white fungus on the leaves or stems of your plant.  Disease is setting in. You should re-pot, treat, and research the cause so you can fix it.  It may be caused by something like stagnant air or too much moisture in the soil.  An unpleasant odor or mushy soil may be signs of rot.  In this case you will want to re-pot your plant if you find nice healthy, white roots when you remove the medium.  Re-potting is done to give your plant what it needs to remain healthy in your home.With plants that have large fleshy roots like a Clivia you may see them on the top surface of the medium (see photos below). They are strong and may push the plant right out of the pot.  You can re-pot or ‘top dress’ your plant.

 

There is often a preferred time to do this.  Most often during active growth, but not while flowering.  Many plants begin active growth in the spring.  It will depend on what plant you are moving so know your plants requirements.  Just take the plant from the pot – soil and all, gently remove plenty or all of the medium.  Inspect the roots and cut away any that don’t look healthy.  Dry soil will draw moisture from your roots and you want the soil to be supplying moisture.  The pot you are going to use must be clean and the medium moistened but not wet.  Put the fresh media mixture in the bottom ⅓ of the pot.   If the roots were crowded you will want to go to one pot size larger.  Lower the plant to the same height as before, and gently fill in around the roots, lightly tamping as you go.  Be sure to leave plenty of space from the top of your pot to have sufficient room to water.  Water your plant, remove any excess in the saucer below, and place it away from direct sun for about a week before acclimating it to its permanent place in your home.

 

Be careful when moving an African Violet to another pot.  They do not like very large pots.  Some orchids, like Vanda, do not like to be disturbed at all and you must be especially careful of the roots when re-potting.   Epiphytes like staghorn fern or tillandsia are unusual in that they do not really need media but are most often attached to a board with the root section wrapped with sphagnum moss (not sphagnum peat) or placed into a hole in lava rock or a sea shell.  Again, know your plant.

 

The medium may have decomposed and broken down to a point that there is not enough air getting to the roots or your plant may have used up all the nutrient value from the medium.  When the medium is quite old (2+ years) or if you’re noticing signs like yellowing or droopy leaves and you think your plant would do better if the soil were replaced you can just swap it out.   You may also notice that the new growth is not as large and healthy as you think it should be.  If this is the case your plant will greatly benefit from a fresh, new soil that is the appropriate mix for it.

 

Sometimes there will be a white crust on the surface and if left alone will coat the sides of the pot. These are likely salts from water.  You can re-pot your plant into new media or refresh the top layer.  Symptoms you may notice are lower leaf drop, little growth or small new growth, leaf tips that are brown, and wilting leaves.  If you choose to re-pot be sure to use a clean pot when you replace the plant.  To remove the salts from the empty pot you can soak it in a mixture of 1/3 white vinegar to 2/3 water.  If it does not come off with a gentle scrub you may have to use a wire brush or sand paper.  If you choose to refresh there are a few things you can do.  You can just remove the top layer, about 1″, of medium and replace it with fresh stuff or you can take your plant outside and run lots and lots of clean, tepid water through.  This will rinse some of the salts through and freshen up the soil a bit.  If you use cold water from the hose on a hot summer day you will shock the roots and the plant.

 

roots escaping

If you see roots growing through the bottom drainage holes of your pot it may be pot-bound.  Some plants do very well in too small a pot – for awhile. The spider plant on the left sent out a lot of runners and baby spider plants for me to propagate.  The dieffenbachia on the right was putting out lots of healthy new leaves.  You may notice an abundance of flowers, beautiful new foliage or lots of runners, but after a time the plant will need more room for root growth to support the needs of all this new upper growth and will need a larger size pot.  For the health of your plant do not wait too long.  You may notice that your plant is wilting often and that you have to water your plant a lot more than usual.  Unhealthy symptoms of waiting too long may be; slow or no growth, leaves too small, curled or wilted, or yellowing.  The roots may even push the plant up and out of the soil.  If it is in a 4″ pot you can move to a 5″ pot but no larger than a 6″ pot.  If you move to a much larger pot your plant may get a shock, the medium will retain too much moisture and rot may set it, or will concentrate on growing only roots for a season and you may not see active growth above the soil for some time.

Disease can develop if the conditions your plant is given are not what your plant needs.  The soil may be too heavy or too light, the air may be too dry or too humid, the lighting may be too much or too little, the leaves may be getting wet when you water and they do not like it, and the plant has become weak creating an opportunity for leaf spot, a fuzzy gray mold, a white powdery mildew, rot, virus, etc.  It is best to remove any damage – it will not repair itself – change the soil and read about the needs of your plant so you can fix the problem.

 

If you notice an unpleasant odor coming from the soil your plant may have gotten too much water for too long and the roots have begun to rot.  There may be a soft or black part of the plant that may be a sign of decay.  This will need to be cut away.  Take your plant from the pot, soil and all, and inspect the roots.  Place the root ball under running water and remove all of the soil.  If there are healthy roots you can pot it up in fresh new medium and you should notice rapid improvement.

 

Here are the steps I used to re-pot my African Violet after I noticed wilted leaves.  I suspected that the soil was compacted and had been too wet for too long.  I wanted to give more air circulation to the roots and decided it would benefit from a new lighter media and an added barrier between the pot and the pebble tray.

good drainage

good drainage

add perlite

add perlite

First I located a clean pot with a nice drainage hole and a saucer attached.  My violet’s home is on a pebble tray in it’s own little greenhouse.  They like humidity.  Having a saucer between the water in the tray and the bottom of the pot will prevent any wicking of water into the medium if the pebble tray ever has too much water.  I added more perlite to an already light mixture of sphagnum peat, perlite and a bit of light compost and filled the bottom 1/3 of the new pot.

 

trim close

trim close

root inspection

root inspection

I then trimmed off the wilted leaves and old flowers.  My violet seems to flower all the time but I found that just now there were only 2 flowers that were coming to the end.  Perhaps another indication of it being in need of a fresh, new medium.  After trimming with clean scissors, as close to the base of the plant as possible so disease can’t set in, I removed it from the old pot and inspected the roots.  They looked a bit tight, not too bad, and still healthy so I removed as much old soil as I could without damaging the roots, and lowered it to the proper height.

 

room for water

room for water

clean leaves, stems

clean leaves, stems

Being very careful not to get any dirt in the crown of the violet, I added the new media to the sides of the pot, gently tamping as I went around, but still holding the plant at the proper height. Care must be taken so the plant is not deeper than it was before and that there is plenty of room to add water.  I then used a very soft paintbrush to get any dirt off the stems below and both the undersides and top of the leaves.  Any dirt in the center, on the crown, should also be gently brushed or blown away.

 

water

water

back home

back home

The only thing remaining is to give it a drink.  I then brought it back indoors and put it back onto the pebble tray.  I will leave the growlight off for a few days to let it settle back in and am looking forward to new growth of both leaves and flowers.

 

 

 

 

When it is not time to re-pot your houseplant to a larger pot, you can ‘top dress’ to supply some freshness and nutrient value. Your plant may be too large or heavy for you to manage a re-potting.  There will come a day when you may have to recruit helpers to manage this heavy task but for now it may need only a pick-me-up.  To ‘top dress’ all you need to do is scratch up the top inch or two with a small cultivator, being very careful not to disturb the roots, remove some soil if you need the space, and add fresh medium in its place.  Each of the ingredients listed state the value to your plants soil.  If you need to lighten the medium due to compaction you can add sphagnum peat moss, bark fines, or perlite, etc.  If you need to provide some nutrient value you can add a mixture of bark fines, compost, or humus, etc.

 

Last year I re-potted my Clivia.  It was done flowering, had been in a pot without a drainage hole (a big no-no), so I wanted to give it new soil and a new pot with the proper drainage.  This year I noticed that the big, fleshy roots were migrating to the top of the soil and were showing on the surface. I decided to just give it another layer of a high compost mixture on top of the soil.

roots on surface
roots on surface
new soil
new soil
spread new soil
spread new soil

 

You can also put your plant into the same size pot if you do not want your plant to get any larger.  Your plant may have outgrown the space you have for it in your home.  If the roots were tightly filling the pot you will have to trim them off.  You can trim about 1/3 safely.  Use a clean sharp knife and remove roots from both the sides and bottom.  Then gently spread the roots a bit and plant into the same pot with the proper fresh medium.

 

Whether you are re-potting or refreshing due to compaction, a salty crust on the surface, your plant outgrowing the pot or your indoor space, or disease, the first thing you want to do is to know what type of habitat your plant comes from and will need you to provide for it in your home.  Then gather clean pots, moistened media ingredients and any tools like spades and paint brushes and get your hands dirty.  Your plants will be happy you did!          Soil recipes

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