- Cullman, Alabama

July 21, 2013

SOUTHERN STYLE: Plants for beginners

By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times

— Sometimes I forget what it was like to be young and just learning about plants — back when each one was amazingly different and I thought I had to have one of each.

Slowly I learned that there were quite a few too many for me to have one of everything, so I reigned myself in a little bit.

I bought some odd looking plants the other day in Wal-Mart. The cashier was a young boy, maybe 19, give or take a few months. I think he was old enough to shave, anyway. He was so curious about the plants, wanting to know how to care for them and if I thought he could put one of them in a window sill.

So I promised him, and myself, that I would write a column for beginners, people who know nothing about either indoor or outdoor plants.

The first rule of thumb is that you should start small, maybe a plant for your desk, or a hanging basket.

The plant that the fellow in Wal-Mart was so interested in is a succulent — Graptoveria, “Moonglow.” It’s similar to a hen and chick’s plant but has much fleshier leaves than those of the familiar “grandma” plant, called “hen and chicks” whose leaves are pointier and flatter, but both grow in a rosette form.

This little plant has a green base to the leaves, with blushing pink outer edges. The care tag says that this plant is also known as an Echeveria.

 The tag goes on to say that it makes an excellent rock garden plant, and that it forms suckers (baby plants) again, like the hen and chicks plant.

Now, this is the first hard and fast rule; read the label or tag that comes with almost every plant. If it doesn’t have one, most nurseries will be happy to print you off a copy from the computer. Discount stores often lump plants into such categories as “patio” plants, or “angel series” or some vague description like that. Avoid those until you learn to look at a plant and know something it’s related to so that you can look up its care. Believe me, the day will come, if you retain your interest in plants, when you will be able to look at something and say with conviction, “Well, it’s some kind of fern.” And that might be all you ever accomplish, but if so, you are a few steps ahead of some of my friends who shop for plants in Hobby Lobby.

This little tag goes on to tell what kind of soil the plant likes, porous, which means that the water should pour out the little holes in the bottom of the plant, that’s not all it means, but for the sake of the novice, it’s an easy way to remember.

Always keep some type of saucer under a houseplant while it’s indoors, lest it ruin your furniture. And you must remember never to let your plant sit in a saucer of water for any length of time, say, overnight. This will cause the roots to rot due to lack of air.

Water well, let it drain, then empty the saucer.

This is how I learned to remember how much to water a plant. I had a little gadget called a “moisture meter”, which showed me how damp or dry a plant was via a little sensor that was stuck down into the soil. When the needle stopped, it either needed watering or it didn’t. In this fashion, I muddled through Watering 101, only killing a few plants along the way. Basically, I came to know that if I watered on Saturday, used the gadget on Wednesday and it was still moist, tried it again the following Saturday and found that it was still moist, I could go at least a week and perhaps ten days without watering that plant.

Next rule: All pots are NOT created equally. First check to see if the pot you’ve chosen has a drainage hole. If not, you can drill one later, but if you have no drill, choose another pot. Plastic vs. clay has long been the dilemma of the indoor gardener. This is the quandary; clay is a natural element, therefore it dries out quickly. That makes it a wonderful container choice for a succulent like this little Moonglow, but it would not be such a great choice for something like an African violet, which likes moisture.

Plastic, however, is the other most popular option. Plastic pots come in a huge variety of styles, colors, and price ranges. They, too, must have holes in the bottom for drainage. The pros and cons of plastic are about the opposite of the ones discussed above about clay.

Where clay loses moisture quickly, plastic tends to hold it in. Therefore, if you have a bog-type plant, like a fern, you can safely plant it in a plastic container; water it at least once a week throughout the spring, summer and fall, and not even that much in the winter.

Starting out with your small plant, like the Moonglow, and the clay pot we have chosen to be its new home, it’s now time to choose what type of soil we will plant the little beauty in.

Soils differ even more than pots. Almost all plant tags will say “porous soil” or “well-drained” soil. When you see that, and there are always exceptions to any rule concerning plants, but those phrases mean that a succulent or cactus would be right at home. Usually porous soils contain some some rough organic matter that keeps it from packing down too tightly, compressing the air from the soil.

All plants with root systems have to breathe, just like humans.

So we have taken our clay pot, chosen a porous soil, and now we plant…un-uh, not so fast. Most plants need some extra drainage. Put a few packing peanuts or some pieces from a broken cup, or something in the bottom to help the water drain away from the roots.

Then fill the pot halfway with the soil (I like Miracle Grow with Moisture Crystals) pop the plant in, spreading the roots carefully out along the soil, then cover them with another layer of soil.

Water, watch for pooling in the saucer, then empty if necessary. Without the benefit of a moisture meter, you will have to learn the hard, old fashioned way…with the tip of your finger.

In about three days, test the soil with the tip of your index finger. If it still feels moist, don’t water just because it’s Saturday. Check again in another few days and see if it still feels damp. Only when the surface and the first two inches of soil are dry will you water your plant again.

Overwatering kills more plants than under watering. Some plants even thrive on neglect. You’ll learn!