Never Put a $10 Plant in a 10¢ Hole and Other Gardening Tips From Denver Master Gardeners

planting-1898946_1920Passionate gardeners love to talk about gardening, so with that in mind, we recently asked Denver Master Gardeners for their best gardening advice. Responses included tried-and-true practices, creative suggestions and good reminders for all of us as the gardening season kicks into full gear.

As the title of this post implies, we believe that great plants come from appropriate soil preparation. Amending with compost is often imperative as soil in our region tends to lack organic matter. But proceed with caution, as some plants, such as natives, prefer a leaner, less fertile soil. Too rich soil will cause these plants to underperform and often just flop over. It pays to do a little homework before planting, read seed package directions and have your soil tested.

One of our gardeners shared her recipe for amending soil: Add 1/2 a handful of both Alaskan fish pellets and triple super phosphate to half a bucket (such as a kitty litter pail) full of compost. Mix this into the planting hole for strong root development and beautiful blossoms.

A tip borrowed from the Rock Garden Society is to plant bare root. By gently shaking off most or all of the soil that the plant is purchased in, the plant will adjust to the garden soil without the soil interface (or boundary) that can occur between two soil types. Bare root planting promotes healthy root development.

mulch-1100555_1920Mulch, mulch, mulch is the mantra of many of our survey respondents as it keeps weeds out and moisture in. Add it like crazy each time you dig in the veggie, perennial and annual gardens and don’t forget container plants too. Small to medium-sized bark chips are popular, practical and pleasing to the eye. Natural mulch options are very effective, including not quite finished compost from the compost bin which will add carbon, feed living organisms, prevent water runoff and prevent compaction. Local arborists are often willing to drop off wood chips which would otherwise fill up the landfill. In the fall, mow over your leaves and spread them throughout the yard, they’ll breakdown by spring and add organic matter to your soil. Consider purchasing a chipper to grind up branches and other garden waste.

garden-hose-413684_1920Suggestions for responsible use of water include watering when the plant needs it instead of on a set schedule. Soaker hoses, often made from recycled material, are effective for watering plants at the soil line. Plants (even xeric ones)  need moisture to maintain healthy roots and overall strength, but often less than we think. For example, the Water Smart Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens is watered about seven times during the season.

Weeding can feel like a no-win battle, but attacking weeds after a soaking rain makes the task easier. Pull weeds and unwanted volunteer shrub and tree seedlings when they are small, before they take hold in the ground or develop seed. Add stepping stones to the garden to avoid stomping on plants and compacting soil when working in the garden.

bindweed-1207738_1920A clever tip to eliminate stubborn weeds, such as the nasty bindweed shown here, is to take a large piece of heavy cardboard, make a cut from the edge to the center. Keep the cardboard as level as possible, slip the vine in the center and spray the vine with the herbicide of your choice or horticultural vinegar, which is sold in garden centers. The cardboard will protect surrounding plants from overspray. Aggressive weeds may require multiple treatments during the season.

One of our members recommends a tomato planting technique passed on through generations of farmers. She adds blackened banana peel to the soil and feeds them with skim milk upon planting and again one month after that. This less conventional practice yields her sweet, abundant fruit. While CSU can’t vouch for the scientific efficacy of this, the banana could be adding potassium and the addition of calcium may reduce the chances of blossom end rot.

plant-1585251_1920Growing tomatoes in containers is recommended for those with limited space. Select varieties which produce smaller fruit such as Patio, Cherry or Sungold. Use a large container (18+ inches in diameter), a sturdy support and a tray with casters. This allows plants to be moved from the path of hail or to optimal conditions. Container plants of all kinds benefit from weekly feeding of 1/2 strength fertilizer.

To keep pests at bay, try a thorough weekly spray of water during the growing season, including the walls of the house and fence. It’s a kinder way to shoo pests away.

If your vines need a sturdier trellis consider building one out of remesh, which can be found at hardware stores. It makes a durable, cost-effective support and can easily be cut with bolt cutters. It also can be attached to supports to create a dog run or create plant cages.

botanical-garden-413489_1920In the flower garden, invest in perennials for texture and dimension and add annuals for bold color. “Enjoy the randomness of some plants that choose their own spots to thrive” suggests one gardener. What a positive way to think of the seedlings that sprout up at this time of the year. Remember, too, that perennials may not come into their glory until the second growing season.

Gardening is a four season hobby. Winter watering of trees and shrubs will help keep them healthy and  veggie gardeners can get a jump on the season by using a cold frame or floating row cover to get an early start on lettuce, spinach and other cool season crops. Fall is a fantastic time to fertilize, aerate and over-seed the lawn. It is also an ideal season to divide perennials so that they settle in and are ready to take off in the spring.  Share your divisions with your neighbors, too, or trade for plants you’ve admired (envied?) in their yards. If you need more gardening space, solarizing or sheet composting is an excellent technique to ready a new garden bed and can be started throughout the year.

And lastly, a veteran gardener advises us to “Remember each little garden flower or planting arrangement is a moment in time. It will change. Don’t worry about it or take it too seriously.”

 

Written by Linda McDonnell with thanks to the many Denver Master Gardeners who shared their advice.

All photos courtesy of http://www.pixabay.com, a source of royalty free images.

Denver Master Gardener Fundraising Plant Sale

Rain or Shine at CSU Denver Extension, Harvard Gulch Park
888 E. Iliff Ave., Denver

Heirloom and modern tomatoes!
Annual and perennial flowers!
Sweet and hot (New Mexico) chiles!
Vegetables and herbs!
Gently-used gardening containers, tools, books and more!

Denver Master Gardeners on site to answer your gardening questions

Now accepting cash, checks and major credit cards
For more information 720-913-5270

Where Does Baby Corn Come From?

A few weeks ago, one of my vegetable gardening friends asked me where she could buy seeds to grow baby corn.

She thought the tiny rows of corn stalks would look cute growing in her elevated garden bed.

I thought about it for a minute before telling her, “Baby corn comes from the same place as baby carrots.”

She looked confused until I explained what I meant. Then we both had a good laugh.

The baby corn found on appetizer plates and in stir-fry recipes isn’t a special variety of sweet corn. The tiny ears are the second ear from the top of regular sweet corn that’s been handpicked before the plant’s been fertilized. The top ear is left on the plant to keep growing into full size.

Because handpicking little ears of corn is especially labor intensive, almost all the baby corn we eat is grown and harvested overseas in countries like Thailand. Of course, there may be a few industrious U.S. growers who grow and harvest the baby ears of corn to sell in their husks at farmers markets.

But large farms steer clear of the early harvest because it can’t be mechanized.

The packages of baby carrots at the grocery store aren’t a special variety of carrot either. Baby cut carrots start out as full-size, slightly imperfect carrots that are sliced into smaller pieces, run through a mill and then polished into perfectly round “baby” carrots.

The idea for baby cut carrots came from one creative carrot farmer who was trying to find a way to increase carrot sales and reduce the amount of carrot waste from irregular or “ugly” carrots.

The leftover carrot scraps from the milling process don’t go to waste either. They’re usually composted, used as animal feed or turned into carrot juice.

The good news for vegetable gardeners is there are real baby carrots we can plant and grow in our gardens. These miniature varieties of carrots are sold in seed packets with names like ‘Romeo’ baby round carrots, ‘Baby Little Fingers’, and ‘Short ‘N Sweet’ carrots.

As for growing baby corn, you can always plant any variety of sweet corn and then start picking those little ears just after the corn silks emerge and before they have a chance to grow.

By Jodi Torpey
A Denver Master Gardener

Denver Master Gardeners Share Their Favorite Gardening Tools

What’s your best loved, most used, can’t be without garden tool?  Or, if you are new to gardening, what tools will help you the most? According to a recent survey of Denver Master Gardeners, implements that multi-task and are non-mechanical are among the most prized.

horiThe hori hori or Japanese garden knife is favored by more than half of our respondents. One  master gardener describes it as “the Swiss Army knife of garden tools as it is especially helpful in working in tight spaces and bad soils where larger tools can’t get a grip. It weeds, digs, divides, cuts, scales and pries.”

Hori means “to dig” in Japanese and reportedly the tool was designed hundreds of years ago to excavate plants from the mountainsides of Japan. It is nearly indestructible with a sturdy 6-8 inch pointed blade which has a serrated edge on one side, straight on the other. Its simplicity is in keeping with Japanese design principals and some might say it has a bit of a Samurai appearance. Perfect for attacking Colorado’s tough clay soil!

Shovels, troughs, hand spades, pitchforks, hedge shears, hand pruners and narrow rakes with flexible tines all received high praise in our survey, too. Ergonomics are important and many said that the ideal tool is the one that fits you best. A petite gardener reports her favorite small rake is actually a child’s tool, which she didn’t realize for years. It has just the right reach for her and easily fits between plants to clean up leaves and spread mulch.

Pat McClearn found an old-fashioned, rubber handled dandelion digger at the house she purchased in 1963. She’s been weeding and transplanting with it ever since. I’m in awe of Pat’s 50-year-old weeder! Like many others, I find brightly handled tools help me save time not looking for that darn stray trowel.

Breaking up ground with a broadfork

Deb Neeley recommends a broadfork. “It loosens the soil down to 14″, is fun to use and provides a good workout too!  Much kinder alternative for your soil than rototilling.”

The Denver Compost Program  received rave reviews for its ease of use. “The green compost bin – a reason to live!” proclaims Nancy Downs. Anne Beletic is equally enthusiastic about her reciprocal saw for pruning and her cordless electric mower, which makes easy work of mowing her small, hilly lawn. Better for the environment, too!

Several respondents suggested repurposing items from inside the house such as long kitchen scissors, screwdrivers or a chef knife to pull weeds, divide perennials and deadhead. Fancy? No. Effective? Definitely. A retired pillow also makes a great kneeling pad and an apron that covers the knees will keep you tidy. Extra kudos if it has pockets.

Garden clogs got a mention for being comfortable, waterproof and good for trekking through the garden in any weather. Jodi Torpey is a fan of Atlas nitrile touch garden gloves, which are “tough and act like a second skin to protect my hands. They’re the only garden gloves I’ve found that I can use for a full day of work in the garden and hold up for more than one season too.”

So there you have it, some great suggestions for making gardening more enjoyable. Any gardening helpers we’ve missed?

Written by Linda McDonnell with thanks to the  many Denver Master Gardeners who shared their expertise for this post. There were lots of suggestions and every effort was made to mention all of them!

Grow a Garden Workshops Take Root

Pallas Quist, DUG Master Community Gardener, leads a Growing Green workshop in Denver.

What do you get when you mix 25,000 seed packets with 29,000 vegetable transplants and 18 organic gardening workshops?

Thousands of happy Grow a Garden participants for the 2017 gardening season.

Grow a Garden is the new name for Denver Urban Gardens Free Seeds and Transplants program. This program helps income-qualified individuals, families and gardening groups by providing free seeds, plants and know-how for growing productive vegetable gardens.

This year DUG is partnering with CSU Extension to present the “Growing Green” vegetable gardening workshops. This collaboration represents a full circle of gardening education because CSU Extension initially offered similar workshops to the community about 20 years ago.

DUG developed the workshop content and slide show to focus on organic gardening basics for growing fruits, vegetables and herbs. The goal is to help gardeners of all levels plant, grow and harvest their homegrown fresh produce to help stretch their grocery dollars.

Teams of facilitators—a DUG Master Community Gardener and a CSU Master Gardener—met at a train-the-trainer session led by Jessica Romer, DUG’s director of horticulture and Dan Goldhamer, CSU Extension horticulture agent.

Facilitators then joined forces to present information for getting started, planning and designing the garden, amending the soil, timing the planting, and maintaining the garden.

“I feel like I’ve been launched,” said beginning community gardener John Anduri after one of the Denver Grow a Garden workshops. “I thought the information was perfect because I don’t know beans about gardening.”

Like CSU Extension Master Gardeners, DUG’s Master Community Gardeners attend horticultural training classes, but they also have specialized training in community gardening and community organizing. It was a unique and satisfying collaboration for volunteers from both organizations.

After the workshop, Grow a Garden participants picked up their supply of seed packets so they could start planting their cool-season gardens. Warm-weather transplants, like tomatoes and peppers, will be available at distribution centers in May.

As continuing support through the season, Grow a Garden participants can attend any of DUG’s other gardening classes for free.

By Jodi Torpey
A Denver Master Gardener

Science in our Back Yards

We love our gardens for their beauty, color and scent. We love seeing the movement that passing breezes create and the hoar frost shining on bare branches in winter. Maybe our gardens provide food for our family and friends. And for sure, our gardens nurture our spirit and exercise our bodies. But behind all that beauty there are hard sciences at work.  And yet, the nearest we get to thinking in scientific terms is the NPK (nitrogen/phosphorus/potassium) information on a bag of fertilizer.

Now, my chemistry and physics education is minimal, and my math is not much better, so I struggle sometimes to understand the more scientific explanations and explorations that are going on in modern horticultural (and other) research. Still I’d like to share with you some of the fascinating ideas I’ve come across.

Origami

The Japanese art (or, science?) of paper-folding is more than a fun party trick. We can learn to make a paper airplane, a bird, a star, a frog. But did you know that origami exists in the natural world?

ladybug-55056_1280Think of a how a ladybug’s wings unfold from below her bright red outer “wings” when she takes off into the air. Her flight wings are much bigger than her outer protective wings, so they need to be folded away when not in use.  See it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P335P-LtA10.

 

A butterfly’s wings sibutterfly-1518060_1280 (7) - Copymilarly are folded tight inside the chrysalis and must be unfolded as it emerges before it can fly.  See it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5QH3bGF4uU.

beech-754155_1280The buds of a beech tree are long, slim and pointed – a little like a furled umbrella. Yet they contain a full-size beech leaf. When the bud opens, the leaf which is tightly folded, gradually opens out by unfolding. See it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nUi-kmr-8k

Even our brains are folded to provide a much bigger surface area than our skulls could contain if the brain had a simple smooth surface. Folds not only enable large surface areas to be contained in small spaces but can also produce extremely strong structures.

Using mathematics and computer programs, scientists are studying the complex folding techniques that occur in nature to produce everything from huge light weight aeroplane wings and solar arrays for use in space to creating to tiny robots and medical implants, e.g. arterial stents, which unfold once injected into the body.

For more on this watch the PBS Nova program, ‘The Origami Revolution’ here http://www.pbs.org/video/2365955827/

Fibonacci (fib-on-arch-ee)

Fibonacci was an Italian mathematician who lived in the 12th century. He identified the mathematical sequence of numbers where the following number is always the sum of the preceding two numbers:

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 and on and on

This sequence or pattern is found all over the place in the natural world. It exists in the number of petals on a flower, the number of seeds on a plant, the arrangement of a plant’s branches and leaves as well as in the shape of a nautilus shell and a hurricane.

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Examples of Fibonacci petal arrangements include Lily and Iris (3), hardy Geranium (Cranesbill), Columbine (5), Delphinium (8), Cineraria, Ragwort (13), Chicory, Shasta daisy (21), Plantain, Pyrethrum (34), Asteraceae family (55, 89).

columbine-1154950_1280   oxeye-daisy-538024_1280

That is not say that all flowers have petals that follow the Fibonacci sequence. For example, there are many flowers with four petals. Wallflowers and Evening Primrose are just two.
wallflower-2006127_1280

primrose-59902_1280

Pine cones are arranged in two spirals which conform to the Fibonacci sequence.  The seeds of a sunflower are arranged in a complex ‘Golden Spiral’ to pack the maximum possible number of seeds onto the seed head.

pinecones-287569_1280  sunflower-917920_1280
It is thought that the precise arrangement of petals, leaves and seeds enables plants to obtain the optimum in terms of available sunlight and rainwater and the maximum seed production.

The shell and the hurricane conform to the ‘Golden Spiral’ which is based on the ‘Golden Ratio’ which is based on the Fibonacci sequence. For more on these, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fibonacci_number

Of course, you can argue that we see the sequence in nature because we look for it. That is, it’s not an immutable “law of nature” which was just waiting there for a mathematician to spot. Either way, it is interesting.

For a more detailed look at mathematics in nature, go here http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/describing-nature-math.html

Chemistry as communication

Research taking place all over the world is revealing that plants and their relationships with the surrounding environment are  much more complex that had been realized.

Mychorrizae (soil fungi) in the soil combine with plant roots and create pathways between separate plants. These pathways allow the exchange of moisture and chemicals between plants and the mychorrizae. Plants stressed by drought will communicate that with other surrounding plants prompting those other, as yet un-stressed, plants to close their leaf stomata, reducing transpiration and so conserving water.

Plants can also communicate through the air, by way of air-borne VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Experiments have shown that beans give off VOCs when attacked by aphids. The VOCs prompt nearby bean plants to give off different VOCs that attract aphid-eating wasps and repel the aphids.

Mature trees “help” seedlings and saplings by providing them with extra carbon through the mychorrizal network. The suggestion is that these young trees might not survive otherwise on the shaded forest floor.

It is known that some plants use allelopaths to inhibit growth of nearby plants thus reducing competition for light, water and nutrients. Examples include Acacia, Ailanthus altissima (tree of heaven) and Juglans nigra (black walnut).

See more here http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/38727/title/Plant-Talk/ and here http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141111-plants-have-a-hidden-internet

Apologies to the scientists and mathematicians among you for my low level take on all this. I just think it is fascinating to see these features and connections in our natural world. Many of them are things we can identify in our own back yards if we just look a little more closely. Many of them occur too in the vastness of outer space (and beyond?). Unseen connections in the atmosphere and underground are shaping the way our world develops and grows as well as our own back yard spaces.

Anne Hughes
A Denver County Master Gardener

All photos courtesy of http://www.pixabay.com, a source of royalty free images.

Save the Date! Denver Master Gardener Annual Spring Plant Sale May 20 & 21

Saturday May 20th 8am – 3pm & Sunday May 21, 2017 10am – 3pm

CSU Denver Extension, 888 E Iliff Ave, Denver CO 80210

For more information: (720) 913-5270 or denvermg@colostate.edu

12th annual Denver Master Gardener plant sale featuring heirloom tomatoes, New Mexico chiles, annuals and perennials! Master Gardeners on hand to answer all of your questions! Rain or shine. Credit cards, cash and checks accepted!

Master Gardeners Heart Barbara Hyde Boardman

barbara-hyde-gardening-in-the-mountain-westWhen Barbara Hyde Boardman says she’s had the book thrown at her, she means it.

After spending 17 years with CSU Extension as a Boulder County horticulture agent, she retired and wrote the first of her gardening books, called Gardening in the Mountain West.

The publisher took issue with her manuscript because it included “too much Latin” and refused to publish it or return her original.

Because she didn’t have a copy of the book, she was relentless in pestering him for the manuscript. Then one evening he drove to her house and threw it on the front steps where it landed with a thud.

“I didn’t care,” she says. “I got my book back.”

As the first woman to graduate from CSU’s Horticulture Program in 1977, and just the second female horticulture agent in the U.S., Barbara had to learn to stand up for herself in a male-dominated agricultural industry.

Barbara, now 93 and living in Longmont, had a long and successful career with Extension even though it was tough for a woman in those days. Apparently agriculture agents didn’t think women belonged in horticulture.

Whenever there was enough money in the Extension telephone budget, she’d make long-distance calls to the other female horticulture agent so they could commiserate.

Barbara grew up in Colorado and says she always loved gardening. Her father came from an Iowa farm and her mother raised flowers so she learned gardening at an early age. She says she always had a little spot in the garden that was all hers.

“I could plant anything I wanted and some things were dreadful.”

That early start eventually led to gaining two degrees in horticulture from CSU. Working with other Extension agents around the country, she helped get the Master Gardener program off the ground. Eventually more than 500 volunteers had signed on in Boulder County before she retired in 1990, according to her bio.

In addition to Gardening in the Mountain West (published in 1999), Barbara authored three other books. The most recent is a gardening book for children and their grandparents. She also wrote weekly gardening columns for newspapers in the region and still writes for several garden club newsletters.

The second edition of Gardening in the Mountain West is a classic text on how to garden in one of the most challenging climates in the country (and it’s still available from online sellers). She dedicated it “to the volunteer Master Gardeners of Cooperative Extension. They have had a major impact on the level of horticultural excellence now achieved by the gardeners of this nation.”

Her affinity for CSU Extension and the Master Gardener program continues today. She’s contributed a tidy sum to start the Barbara J. Boardman Fund at the university.

By Jodi Torpey
A Denver Master Gardener

Horticulture Therapy Connects People With Plants and Potential

 

craighospital

The Horticulture Therapy Garden at Craig Rehabilitation Hospital in Englewood, CO

 

Plant lovers know the personal benefits gained from working in the garden. Nurturing plants and playing in the dirt seems to energize the spirit, stimulate creativity and dissolve life’s inevitable speed bumps. But not only does it seem to, it really does. In fact, even a walk in nature  has measurable advantageous effects on our brain.

These positive benefits are the foundation for the science-based field of horticulture therapy, which uses specially designed gardens or plant activities in targeted treatment programs within rehabilitative, vocational, medical or communities. Individuals with physical limitations, post traumatic stress syndrome, cognitive and memory impairment or vocational challenges are among the populations who benefit from professional horticultural therapy.

According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, “a therapeutic garden is a plant-dominated environment purposefully designed to facilitate interaction with the healing elements of nature.” Therapeutic gardens are designed to be safe and comfortable, invite exploration, build confidence, stimulate senses,  improve dexterity and increase physical ability.

 

anchor-garden

The Anchor Center Horticultural Therapy Garden in Denver

The Anchor Center in Denver, which provides early intervention and education to blind and visually impaired children age 0-6, has offered horticulture therapy for over ten years. Erin Lovely, Horticultural Therapy Coordinator and Denver Master Gardener (DMG) says that on most days, children can be found interacting with the child-scaled garden which is planned to stimulate senses, build fine and motor skills and increase sensory awareness. The sweetness of the space, which was designed with the help of  DMG Angela Vanderlan, belies the rich learning opportunities within the garden.

kids

 

Some of the purposeful, yet playful, activities include:

  • navigating changing surfaces and hardscape  while using a walking stick;
  • identifying flower colors, which are strategically placed to highlight contrasting textures and colors, especially yellow, purple and red, which are easiest for the visually impaired to see;
  • sowing seeds to increase fine motor skills which aide in learning braille later in life;
  • petting a fuzzy leafed plant, touching a prickly pine needle and taking in the glorious scent of basil;
  • filling a watering can and carrying it to its destination while navigating pebbles, mulch and concrete paths;
  • harvesting and eating produce from the “Pizza Garden”;
  • splashing in the water and crawling around large rocks.

Denver County Master Gardeners have been associated with the Anchor Center for many years. In addition to Erin and Angela’s work at the Anchor Center, each spring and summer, groups of Denver anchorcenter3Master Gardeners contribute time to the Anchor Center’s garden by teaching and guiding  gardening activities to groups of community volunteers. Past efforts have included planting trees, expanding garden beds and supporting the center’s compost program.  From experience, I can attest to this being an inspirational way to share gardening knowledge with others.

If you are interested in learning more about the field of horticulture therapy and other programs in Colorado, here are some resources:

Colorado State University and the Horticultural Therapy Institute’s concentration in horticultural therapy.

Mental Health Center of Denver’s Horticulture Therapy program’s excellent video.

Denver Botanic Garden’s newly expanded Sensory Garden and therapy programs.

World-renowned Craig Rehabilitation Hospital’s blog on using ikebana flower arranging in their horticulture therapy program for patients with spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries.

 

Written by Linda McDonnell, a Denver County Master Gardener

Photos used with permission of Craig Hospital (photo 1) and the Anchor Center.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Air Plants”: Trendy Tillandsia

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Houseplants like clothing and interior design follow trends. There is a revival of the popularity of “air plants”(loose common term), or, more specifically, the sub-group tillandsias. From a design perspective, especially in winter months, these structural plants are useful. They can be frequently moved around, and have the flexibility to be displayed in non-restricted ways.  They can be hung vertically, aerially, or just plopped down to bring greenery and create spontaneous ‘intention’.

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The name “air plant” is misleading as these delightful plants still require light, water and nutrients. Generally they are rootless; if they have roots they are for attachment purposes rather than nutrient uptake (tillandsias are epiphytes the largest component of the bromeliad family). They are suited to Denver and city living as they do not like the damp and are perfect for scaled-down city living spaces.

Tillandsias fall fairly neatly into two groups: xerophytes (desert, xeric origin) and mesic (tropical rainforest) varieties. The origin of the plant dictates both its leaf structure and texture, as well as its light and water requirements.
Xeric (desert origin) tillandsias need less water, and can therefore sustain drought periods. They will  flourish when placed in mid to late Colorado afternoon light.  Note that the xeric plants will generally grow more slowly, but can better tolerate being neglected! On the other hand, the mesic group needs more and frequent watering, and flourish when located in plentiful but gentle light (eastern is optimal).  Versatile tillandsia plants can be temporarily displayed in a darker setting as long as they are put back into light within a week. Normal house temperatures are fine as “air plants” are not too fussy. All tillandsias will enjoy sitting outdoors in clement weather, however they should not be exposed to extreme temperatures. Helpfully their leaves indicate if their nutrient requirments are being met. As far as fertilizer goes, natural is best and applied to an already hydrated plant which can then either be misted, dunked or soaked (err on the stingy side with the fertilizer to water ratio). Zinaida Sego suggests a balanced NPK food but I have seen success with an extremely high N content, specifically sold for air plants. Feeding should encourage flowering if desired.


Depending on the species, flowers are sometimes insignificant, but often are dramatic single stems. The flowers may be highly fragrant. Some leaves and flowers can undergo specific and beautiful color changes in inflorescence. A few tillandsias produce new growth in a chain pattern after inflorescence, but most tillandsias reproduce new “pups” at the base of the plants (they also produce seeds for airborne distribution). Pups may look quite different in form to the adult plant. This, along with the fact that there are hundreds of naturally occurring tillandsias, plus the addition of recent hybrids, can make identification tricky. Here is a short List of Popular Tillandsias with beautiful images.
Tillandsias are easy to care for and have few problems.  However, they will rot in a damp environment, for example: when sitting on moist soil, in a humid terrarium or when droplets are left gathered in their leaves. Do not be concerned about overwatering the tillandsias, just be sure to dry them off quickly. Click for watering suggestions and an image of hydrated verses dehydrated leaves: Three Hydration Methods. Personally I prefer the soak method,  however note that this will occupy a sink for awhile! Other people prefer the frequent misting method as it is fairly “zen”, especially if you like a little chat with your plants!

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Soaking Method of Hydration.  A Couple of Hours at least once a Week. Just for the record this is not a toilet!

 

Lastly, I should note, that the only other thing to watch out for are mealybugs. Mealybugs will look like white cotton on the tender new growth and require (in order of severity) a dousing of water wash-offs, mechanical cotton bud removal, or, if extensive, a couple of treatments of natural pesticide (the second later application for eggs that hatch subsequently).

Tillandsias can be tidied up to meet your aesthetic needs, oddly shaped and yellowing leaves can be taken off, inflorescence can be carefully snipped at the base when no longer pleasing.  As the old growth at the base of the plant turns brown gently remove these leaves, taking care to look for new pups. Depending on your species, new pups, blushing leaves, and/or inflorescence may be signals that a plant is beginning the dying cycle.  This decline process can take a year.img_7324  In conclusion, how you chose to display your plants is only limited by your imagination!  In fact, the photos in this blog are of the same two plants. If you are looking for more information I recommend  Air Plants, The Curious World of Tillandsias by Zinaida Sego, of which there are several copies in the Denver Library System.  This elegant book documents the history, buying, care and display of air plants in a most beautiful, informative and comprehensive format.  The second part of the book is chiefly devoted to design and has useful information as to companion plants, waterproof natural glue, as well as hooking and hanging systems. For example there is a tripod screw, Thigmotrope Satellite, that attaches to the wall, and this is specially designed to “float” “air plants” practically invisibly. If you haven’t been convinced by the beauty of tillandsias this extensive but curated book should persuade you! Another, more basic, internet resource for decorating with “air plants” is  Tillandsia Display Ideasimg_7325

All Photos. Top: Tillandsia juncea : Tillandsia harrissi. Please correct me if you disagree!

                                                                     Anne Beletic,  Colorado Master Gardener, Denver

 

 

Isley, Paul. 1987. Tillandsia. The Worlds Most Unusual Airplants

Sego, Zenaida. 2014. Airplants. The Curious World of Tillandsias