The Neighborhood Gardener – February 2017

Here’s some great information for Southern gardeners.

Florida Master Gardener Program

This month in The Neighborhood Gardener:

Happy gardening!

Bouquet of red roses with white baby's breath flowersCut Flower Care – Cut flowers are a popular gift, particularly for the biggest gift-giving day in February, Valentine’s Day. From Asiatic lilies to zinnias, proper care is the key to a long-lasting arrangement, and UF/IFAS Extension has some helpful tips. To keep your thoughtful floral present looking its best, treat your bouquet to a few simple steps. With some fresh water, a sharp pair of kitchen shears, and that handy little packet that’s typically included, your arrangement will last much longer.

Yellow flowers of the invasive cat's claw vineInvasive Plant Awareness – National Invasive Species Awareness Week is generally at the end of February; this year, it’s February 27 – March 3. This is a national event intended to raise awareness and identify solutions to invasive species issues at local, state, tribal, regional, national, and international scales. Invasive species have a negative impact on the economy, environment…

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Tiny Flowers

Some of the tiniest flowers are some of the most beautiful. Because they are so small, they usually grow in clusters, but not always. Some tiny flowers often mimic other flowers in appearance. Take this one, for example. Is it an orchid?


No, it’s just one of a large cluster of the orchid-like blooms of variegated ginger (Alpinia zerumbet variegata). These flowers and their buds hang like clusters of grapes. This is a hugely popular plant, and my post about how to prune and care for it is my most popular blog post. To see it, click right here.  Please note: No part of this plant is edible.



This one Lily of the Nile, or Aggie because of its botanical name Agapanthus africanus. It is one of my late-spring/early summer favorites. These tiny blossoms grow in large globes called “umbels” with up to 100 tiny flowers in each umbel. For my post on growing Aggies, click right here.


Shamrock Flowers - mlm c@

These are the delicate, tiny white flower of Shamrocks (Oxalis regnellii) – another of my favorites. They typically bloom in spring here in the Southeastern United States. Mine, however, are confused by our fluctuating temperatures. They have been blooming off and on since November.

Another one of my favorites is the wild violet (Viola papilionacea):


These tiny woodland flowers are the harbinger of spring in most places, but here in central Florida, they bloom intermittently all year. They produce blossoms ranging from white to deep blue-violet. Wild violets need shade from the harsh afternoon sun, but can take morning sun. They are native to rich woodland soil, so they don’t care for the sandy soil found here. I grow them in rich black soil that I had brought in to amend my planting beds. They re-seed themselves easily, and will spread rapidly if you let them. If you have a place where moss grows, wild violets will be very happy there. I don’t mind them popping up all over my flower beds underneath larger plants, but when they get into the turf grass (and they will) they have to go.

No Clusters Here:


This is one of the tiny flowers that does not bloom in clusters. It is the flower of Purple Queen (Tradescantia pallida purpurea) one of many variations of Wandering Jew, a plant that grows in a trailing pattern. It makes a good ground cover, but suffers in winter, even here in Zone 9a. This plant would be beautiful drifting over a retaining wall, or cascading from a hanging pot.

Another Wandering Jew (with small clusters):


Variegated Wandering Jew (Tradescantia zebina), is the version most people are more familiar with. It, too, makes beautiful hanging baskets, and is a good summer ground cover. A hard freeze will kill it, though.

No Longer a Mystery Plant:

The name of this plant with beautiful blue and white tiny flowers was a mystery to me, but two of my readers have told me the name of it (see the comments below).  It is called Asiatic Dayflower (Commelina communis). The flowers last only one day, but each day there are many more. Many flowers that are called blue are actually a shade of purple or blue-violet. This one is a true blue.


It was in the yard of a home we bought near Birmingham, Alabama, several years ago. I accidentally brought it with me from Alabama in the pot with another plant where it had evidently dropped some seed. It re-seeds itself easily — too easily. It quickly took over two of my flower beds and a hydrangea. I had to pull it up and put it in the trash. Not the compost. The trash can. It took two summers of pulling up its new seedlings before I was completely rid of it. I’ve learned that it is often considered a weed. That’s definitely understandable. It would be great, however, for a wildflower meadow or an area where erosion is a problem, so I’m convinced that all plants have a purpose. We just have to learn what it is.

Tiny Flowers vs. Large Flowers

Large flowers are gorgeous and showy, but large amounts of tiny flowers can be just as pretty. You simply need more of them to make a nice showing. Many wild flowers are tiny, and would be beautiful in the home garden. The drawback, though, is that they re-seed themselves and reproduce like crazy, so they can become invasive if not kept in check. See you in the garden.


Cold Weather – Green Bananas

Yikes! It’s expected to reach 33 degrees tonight here in central Florida — actually in the wee hours of tomorrow morning. It will be our coldest weather so far this season.  This is not terribly unusual for the time of year, but it sure is bad timing for my bananas that need a few more weeks of warm temps. So today I decided I had to cut the stalk of bananas off the plant and take them indoors to ripen. After all, bananas don’t even like to be refrigerated.


Thanks so much to our neighbors, Nancy and Les, who came over to help support the weight of all these bananas while I cut the stalk from the plant. Of course, I gave them some bananas. After giving bananas to Nancy and Les, and to other neighbors, I still have 75 bananas that I know will continue to ripen. I have visions of lots of banana bread and banana nut muffins.


One of my Meyer lemon trees had one lemon left on it, and my new volunteer grape tomato plant had only green tomatoes. These, too, had to be brought indoors. February is the month when we usually get our worst weather. I really was hoping any freezing or near-freezing weather would hold off until mid-February to give all this fruit time to ripen, but it was not to be.


This lemon needed to stay on the tree another week or two, but it was too risky, so it is now on my kitchen counter, along with those green tomatoes. The tomatoes, though, will be put into a dark place to ripen. Wish me luck.

Growing Winter Tomatoes in Florida

Yes, you really can grow tomatoes here during winter. Like many plants that are normally considered annuals, backyard tomato plants will live for a couple of years here; and they consistently re-seed themselves. I had one tomato plant and one bell pepper plant that lived three years until pests attacked them.  I now have two tomato plants that recently came up as volunteers — one in my flower bed, and the other at the edge of my compost. The one in the flower bed now has tiny green tomatoes on it. Here they are:


Unfortunately, this nice tomato plant has come up within a couple of inches of an Easter lily (that is already about 6 inches tall) and among a group of Snow Drops. I’m wishing I had moved it while it was still very small. To move it now, may damage the roots of the Easter lily. I guess they will have to co-exist and as my mom used to say, “just get along together”.

The downside of growing them in my flower beds is that the grey water used by our sprinkler system will hit them. It’s fine for that water to hit the plant and the ground around the plant, but it’s definitely not good for it to be on fruits and vegetables. I’ll have to watch to see how high the sprinkler water goes, and I may need to remove the lowest hanging fruit.


While it’s true your tomato plants will produce fruit year-round here in central Florida, you may need to cover them in cold weather. We usually get our coldest nights in February. I’ve never covered mine, as I was too busy covering tropical flowering plants and shrubs, as well as the hydrangea and azaleas that I brought with me when we relocated. On those rare occasions, I did lose a few tomatoes, but the plants themselves recovered nicely.

How to Save Tomatoes From Damaging Weather

No matter where you live, if freezing temperatures or an early cold snap are predicted, you can go ahead and pick green or almost-ripe tomatoes. Wrap large ones in newspaper, and place them in a cool-to-warm (not too warm) dark place such as a basement or a closet. If you have a lot of little grape or cherry tomatoes, put them in a newspaper-lined basket or box, then cover them with newspaper. Forget about all these little guys for a few weeks, and soon you will have beauties like these:


Just for Fun

At farm stands in the South you may see signs for “Cukes, Maters, & Taters”. If you are from outside the Southern U.S., do you know what these are?





Poinsettia – How Not to Kill Them

No longer just the old familiar bright red, poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are available in a multitude of colors, from pink, white, deep rosy red, orange-red, to variegated pink and white, red and white, and now a yellowish white. I love them all, and just added three more to my collection: two of the red-and-white, and one of the pink-and-white. These are very small and still in pots until after the holidays. I sunk the two red & white ones, pot and all, into the beds leading up to our front door. The pink and white one is gracing a table on our lanai.

pink-white-mlm-c red-white-mlm-c

After the danger of freezing temperatures has passed, probably early March, I will plant them in my garden. The pink-and-white one will add a nice splash of color to my night garden that I am still creating in our back yard. What’s a night garden? Just wait for my post on that topic coming soon.

I have lost count of the questions I’ve been asked about how not to kill these beauties, so rather than take a chance on omitting someone, I’ll not mention the names of those who asked. What I will do is to share what I have learned about caring for poinsettia.

Did You Know the colored leaves are not the blooms? They are just leaves called bracts that turn gorgeous colors when the time is right. It is the shorter days of winter that cause the leaves to change. The internal changes that trigger the color change also tell the plant to form the flower buds. The flowers are quite small, and are easily missed. Here is one of my white poinsettia with buds almost ready to open:


Here’s a closer look at those tiny buds. They should be opening any day now.


This white poinsettia is in my back yard, and is now about 3-4 feet tall — they’re actually flowering shrubs. I took the photo below last December (2015). It doesn’t look so good this year. Between the invasive fern I planted near it and my not being able to work in the yard for several months, my larger poinsettias really suffered this year. They are tall and leggy from being almost smothered by Boston fern that grew to about 2 feet tall all around them. Now that I have removed most of the fern — I’m still working on it — they are putting out new growth along those leggy stems.  Here’s a photo of it before “The Invasion of the Fern”.


How to Care For Your Poinsettia:

Poinsettia, how we love them!  They are enjoyed by so many this time of year, yet so many are killed shortly after Christmas. Okay, maybe not intentionally killed– maybe loved to death by too much water or not enough light indoors. Many suffer from dry indoor heat, and are often neglected after the holidays. Could it be that we simply don’t know how to care for them? Nah, it couldn’t be that… well, maybe.

Hardiness:  Poinsettia are cold hardy in USDA Zones 9B – 11. I live in Zone 9, but will take no chances if we get below freezing temperatures, which we may get in February. They are happiest at temps above 50 F.

Light:  Poinsettia need full sun: at least 6 hours per day.

Water:  The soil should feel moist and cool when touched, but not soaking wet; too much water is as bad, if not worse than too little. If your potted poinsettia feels very lightweight when you pick it up, it probably needs water. Just feel of the soil to see if it is dry. If it needs water, take it to a sink and water it well, allowing the excess to drain away.

Be sure to remove the decorative foil that comes with most poinsettia purchased during the holidays when watering these delicate plants. This is true for any potted plant — those foil wrappers are death traps, as they allow the plant to sit in water that has escaped the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. You definitely want this water to be able to drain away completely. If you are diligent about checking for water collected in the foil wrapper, you could leave the foil on, but only if you know you will remember to check on it. Will you remember if the phone rings or the baby cries or the doorbell rings? Not me. So I remove the foil during the watering process, then replace it after I’m done. On the other hand, if I have a pretty cache pot to put the ugly plastic pot into, I trash the foil and use the pretty pot.

Enjoy your holiday flowers, and your holidays.

Merry Christmas!  and  Happy Hanukkah!



Cooler Temps Bring Out the Gerbera Daisies

Gerbera Daisy - brt pink - mlm c

We’ve been away recently on two genealogy research trips. After the first one, we came home to a beautiful rich pink gerbera daisy blossom. We were home one week, then gone again. We returned last night from the second trip and, of course, I couldn’t wait for morning to see how my garden had fared while we were away. This time, returned to gerbera blooms in multiple colors, and to lots of white mandevilla flowers. (My mandevilla plants have suffered lately, too, but that’s another story.


Gerbera daisies (Gerbera jamesonii) grow as mounding plants with slightly fuzzy dark green leaves. They bloom with large single flowers are on tall stems. Mine bloomed sporadically during the summer, but are performing beautifully now.


These jewel-toned flowers are considered annuals in most areas, but in Zones 8 – 11, they are grown as perennials. They need plenty of sunlight, but suffer in the harsh afternoon sun of summer, so be sure to plant them where they will have shade or filtered light in the afternoon. When grown in the ground, they will need to be covered if the temperatures drop to freezing or below.

Gerbera’s, like geraniums, are not annuals, but are tender perennials. Tender, because they will survive winter in some milder climates only if protected from freezing temperatures. They prefer rich, well-drained soil, and should be planted with the crown of the plant slightly above ground. Burying the crown could suffocate the plant.

Be sure to deadhead the plants by removing spent blooms and their stems as soon as the flowers fade. This will prevent early seeding — early seeding will tell the plant there is no need to bloom again, as enough seed has already been produced.



Pink Gerbera - mlm c@

If you live in an area where gerberas are grown as annuals, you can always dig them up, and pot them for winter, and reset them outdoors in spring. My mother used to plant her geraniums (shown below) in clay pots, then sink the pots into the ground. When autumn came, she would slip a shovel under the pots, and take them indoors for the winter. She had some of the largest geraniums I have ever seen. Fortunately, here in Florida, I don’t have to do that.



I’ve Been Away Too Long

The storms of life are gone, and it’s a beautiful new day.



Due to ankle surgery and some back problems, I haven’t been able to do much gardening this spring and summer, but am slowly working with small plants. Previously, I thought I would be able to do a lot of writing during my recovery, but with keeping my ankle higher than my heart for a while, writing, even on my laptop, was difficult. Getting back to writing has been slow. I have tried to keep up with your e-mails, questions, and comments, but I know I wasn’t as timely as I would like to have been. Over the last few days, we’ve been preoccupied with preparing for Hurricane Matthew.

Only the outer edges of Matthew reached here, and although yesterday was a very windy and messy day, all is well here, and for that, we are so very grateful. Our prayers go out to those along the coast, who experienced severe damage.

Thank you for continuing to follow my blog even though I have been absent lately. I have a lot of gardening planned, and a lot of good garden information to share, and will be doing so over the coming weeks and months, so stay tuned.

Problem with Comment Section

To my followers and other readers, I am sorry about this blog consistently saying that comments are closed lately. It is a problem that I have been trying to resolve with WordPress since early April. It seems that, if you go to the link for the blog, you can comment, but if you go to the link for a specific post, you cannot. I will get this problem fixed as soon as possible.

Organic vs. Chemical Fertilizers, & Those 3 Numbers

You’ve seen the three numbers on fertilizers. This is called the chemical analysis or fertilizer analysis. Those numbers (and their chemical symbols) are, in order, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Gardeners often refer to potassium as “potash”. (Potash reminds me of a funny story which I will tack onto the end of this blog post.) The numbers represent the percentage of the product that is composed of each chemical. The numbers won’t add up to 100%. The remainder of the product is filler, including inert components that will aid in dispersing the chemicals.

You know I prefer organic fertilizers and pesticides.  So I will give you a list of good organic sources of these chemicals needed by all plants.


Boston Fern w Bud - mlm c

Nitrogen promotes lush green lawns, and beautiful leaves with strong stems. All plants need some nitrogen, but needs vary. Look to high-nitrogen fertilizers for turf grasses and foliage plants such as this fern.

The Best Sources of Nitrogen

  1. Composted Cow Manure — should be at least 6 months old.
  2. Composted Chicken Manure — should be at least 4 months old.
  3. Blood Meal — in order not to burn plants, dissolve in water before applying to plants, or work into soil before planting.
  4. Fish Emulsion — this can be very stinky, but is an excellent organic fertilizer. It can be diluted with water to weaken the odor.
  5. Coffee grounds — used coffee grounds are only about 2% nitrogen, yet they are a great soil amendment.


Moonflower - mlm c@

Phosphorous promotes strong, healthy roots and generates lush flowers and fruit production. If it’s lots of flowers, tomatoes, and other fruits that you want, look for a fertilizer that is high in phosphorous, i.e., look for a high middle number.

The Best Sources of Phosphorous

  1. Bone Meal — a great slow-release form of phosphorous and calcium, and my personal favorite.
  2. Banana Peels
  3. Crab and Shrimp shells — be aware the odor may offend your neighbors, and may attract critters to your compost bin. You can dry them, then grind them in a coffee grinder used only for this purpose and for grinding eggshells.
  4. Bat Guano — can be purchased.
  5. Fish Bone Meal — can be purchased.


Elephant Ear Swirls - mlm c

Potassium works on the inside of the plant, building strong cells and healthy tissues. This enables plants to withstand common plant stressors: diseases, pests, even heat and cold. All plants need potassium, but some need more than others. When shopping for plant foods, you will notice that those intended for winterizing lawns will have a higher number for potassium.

The Best Sources of Potassium

  1. Granite Dust (or Meal) — this is finely ground granite that is a great slow-release source of potassium. It also serves to maintain good soil drainage and to create good soil structure.
  2. Eggshells — Eggshells are primarily made of calcium carbonate, but they also contain potassium.
  3. Ashes of Hardwoods from Your Fireplace — while hardwood ashes are an excellent source of potash, they will also raise the pH levels of your soil, so be sure to keep a check on your soil’s pH levels. These days, you can buy a soil test kit at any garden center.
  4. Kelp (Seaweed) Meal — this can be in a dried and powered or liquid form. Both forms are fairly quick-release. Kelp meal can be purchased from many garden centers. If you live by the ocean, and can collect your own, lucky you.

Choosing the Right Fertilizer for Your Needs

Before spending money on fertilizers, think about which plants you will be using it on, and the specific needs of those plants. By choosing the individual organic compounds, you can target the needs of your plants much more accurately. I prefer this method over those large bags of (often synthetic) chemical fertilizers that may be good for one plant, but not so good for another.

The Funny Story I Promised

One of my uncles sent off a soil sample to one of the labs at Auburn University that will do these tests for you, for a fee, of course. When he received the results, he decided that he needed to be sure “those students” knew what they were doing, so he sent another sample. He intentionally added a large amount of ashes from his fireplace to the second sample. In about two weeks he received a brief note along with the soil analysis. Among other things, the note said, in bold print, “No more potash!” He then announced,  “Those kids know what they’re doing down there.”





Why Won’t My Bougainvillea Bloom?

Hot Pink - zoomed mlm c@

Most bougainvillea are in full bloom right now.  Unfortunately, some are not. I received another bougainvillea question this week. Pilar writes that her bougainvillea is “…full of green leaves, but does not bloom, we miracle grow every two weeks, and water everyday”.

My advice is to back off on both the water and the frequent fertilizing!! Bougainvillea prefer to dry out between waterings.

About the Water:

Yellow - mlm cBougainvillea require good drainage; and they prefer to dry out in between waterings. In fact, the method nurseries use to force blooms is to withhold water. Because of their need for good drainage, be sure not to plant them too deeply.

The withholding of water forces the production of colorful bracts which surround the white flowers, as seen in the top photo. Each bract has three tiny white flowers as shown in both photos above.

Regarding the Fertilizer:

IMG_5162You’ve seen the 3 numbers on fertilizers? For lots of flowers and/or fruit, you need a fertilizer with a higher middle number. Those numbers, in order, are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). The website for Miracle Grow that Pilar was using, shows that its chemical analysis is 28-8-16. The huge amount of nitrogen (28%) being applied to her plant is the reason she has such lovely leaves at the expense of flowers. The makers of Miracle Grow do produce a variety of types of fertilizer targeting the needs of different plants. Be sure to read the labels of whatever fertilizer you choose.

I promised Pilar I would write a blog post on this topic with greater detail. Watch for it to come out very soon.