Friday, October 16, 2015

Lotsa leaves -- indoors and out.

Leaves are falling in abundance, and not just outdoors. Chances are they’re clogging up the vacuum cleaner in the living room, too. When plants arrive indoors after returning from summer vacation on the deck, we shouldn’t be too surprised if they begin to shed a few leaves.

As days get shorter and light levels fall, it’s a signal to plants to slow down, even stop growing for the winter. Outdoors it happens slowly, but when a plant that spent the summer outdoors is suddenly dragged indoors where light levels are considerably lower, the plant is thinking winter, already? What happened to fall?

Between the shock and the panic it shuts down, stops growing and the leaves begin to fall. Leaves that weren’t healthy in the first place soon turn yellow and drop off. After a week or two the plant adjusts and rests awhile until late winter when it will begin to produce new growth.

Sometimes the plant owner panics as well, immediately reaching for the fertilizer in the mistaken belief the plant is starving to death, except force feeding a plant has the opposite effect. Instead of producing healthy leaves, guess what — they turn yellow. Fertilize only when there is active growth.

Yellowing leaves may be due to disease — bacterial, viral, fungal — and without a thorough examination by a Doctor House houseplant doctor, it can be hard to determine the cause. More than likely, if the plant was reasonably healthy outdoors, it’s less likely disease is the cause. More likely insect pests have hitched a ride indoors.

If left outdoors, most insects quickly succumb to frost, but when transported indoors they think they’re wintering in Florida, and since there’s usually a bit more action happening on a winter vacation, it only takes one pair of amorous bugs to begin producing offspring and soon enough they’re swarming over the plant, sucking the green life out of the leaves.

It’s not always obvious there are bugs on the plant as (a), they are frequently green, making them hard to see, or (b), they’re too small, making them hard to see, or (c) they’re green and small . . .

The usual suspects are aphids or spider mites — or both. The aphids tend to cluster around the stems and at the tips of new growth, if there is any. They are easy to see when clustered together, but by then they’ve already been reproducing like crazy, and worse still, aphids don’t need a mate to start a family.

The other pest, almost invisible to any one over fifty, is the spider mite. They love warm, dry homes, so conditions are perfect for them to start a new family. They can be found mainly on the underside of leaves and look like tiny reddish specks. Here’s where a magnifying glass helps considerably. Look closely and you’ll see that these tiny specks are moving about. They’re not true spiders; in fact, a real spider might keep them in check, but if one also happened to hitch a ride indoors, chances are it was flattened on sight by a half-crazed arachnophobe.

 When bringing plants in for the winter, it’s essential to check thoroughly for hitch hikers. Even then, they can be missed, so give the plants a good soaking with a 40-parts water to one-part soap solution. Best place to do this is outside or in the sink for small plants, otherwise into the shower with them. Spray every part of the plant — over and under stems, leaves, branches and even the soil surface.

After about fifteen minutes, rinse off the soap. Repeat a week later to be sure you got all the beasts. Oh, and if you have other plants indoors, quarantine the newcomers or you’ll be needing the garden rake indoors.

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