Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Owning Up to My Mistakes (Garden Division)

When something goes wrong, I'm the first to admit it/The first to admit it, and the last one to know
-- Paul Simon, "Something So Right"

Throughout my career I have always owned up to my mistakes. If through arrogance or misunderstanding I cause an error, I admit it.

That is why in this post I am going to own up to a couple of major garden mistakes that have resulted in the death of all but two plants. That is also why I am not going to show any pictures. I don't see anything interesting in showing a pot of dead plant.

There garden fatalities involve two types of plants that need warmth to survive: canna and pepper.

I'll start with the pepper.

For years I've ignored conventional wisdom that says you grow your pepper plants, you harvest the peppers and when winter comes you pull up the plant, put it in compost and either start new seeds or buy a seedling the next year.

I have always grown peppers in pots. I have not cared to endure the rigors of digging and fencing a vegetable garden, although I always envy those neighbors with the time, energy and strength to do so. Putting a plant in a pot and putting that pot behind deer netting is much easier, plus I can keep it in the sunny front of my house and it looks like just another plant to those neighbors who are anal about "keeping up appearances."

When winter has come, I have brought those pepper pots indoors and put them in my sunny front room. The plants usually do better the next year when I put them back out front. One year I was foolish enough to bring in five different types of peppers. No more. I play God. If it is a plant whose peppers I enjoyed, it will get saved.

This past winter I had inside one plant I was hoping to keep going for the third year and another I had grown from seed.

Unfortunately, last year I bought a basil from a grocery store and either the plant itself or the weather conditions created a major whitefly infestation. The flies themselves are annoying but when they are busy sucking on the leaves and laying eggs they create a "honeydew" that will eventually kill the host's leaves and thus the plant.

As I dealt with the basil, the flies took flight and infested the tomato I had growing. As I later found out, they also were all over the two peppers I had in the house.

During the worst of the winter the flies were either dead or dormant. However, as the days turned warmer and longer, the flies made themselves known all over the plants (which were still producing small peppers). When they started flying to my other house plants, I knew it was time to act.

I put garbage bags over the peppers and got them outside and behind the netting. I took out the plants where flies were going - they like the underside of big, soft leaves - and made sure to inspect and clean out the plants before bringing them indoors. I sprayed the peppers and left them in what at the time was a pretty warm day.

Unfortunately, the weather turned windy and cold and despite my best efforts at protection, the older one died. Peppers need overnight temperatures of at least 50 degrees to survive. They weren't getting them. So I put the pots on the enclosed back porch, where there was sunlight for about 6 hours in the morning, composted the dead plant and left the other one - until yesterday, when I saw the forecast called for daytime and evening temperatures way below 50 degrees.

So that plant is in the kitchen, where the natural light is dim and defuse but at least the plant is warm. The flies are dead and gone but the few leaves I didn't rip off look terrible, and I don't know if this plant will survive until, say, May. So I have three seeds of this type of pepper (I save seeds for this reason) in a pot on the sunny window sill as a hedge.

And now the canna.

Cannas are tropical plants grown more for their foliage than their flowers, which tend to show up in spikes during the hottest, most humid part of the summer. When I was first given them by a now-former friend, she told me that after frost killed the foliage to dig the plants up and wrap them in newspaper and put them in a cool, dry place.  I did that and lost about half of them.

The next year I put the cannas in a big pot. They did almost too well -- soon they were so crowded together I had to divide them. Now I had two big pots. I would give them away or compost them. Composting them created what I called "zombie" cannas - they were growing in the compost pile. So I would dig them out and put them in the ground and just leave them there over the winter. They would die, but I would still have my pots because I would bring them into my sunny front room and put them in a corner out of the sun. Inevitably, they'd start growing anyway.

Well, this year I didn't want them taking up space in the sunny front room. I had no room in my overjunked garage and my small basement is quite warm because of the furnace. So to my shame, I put them in the warmest part of my enclosed porch and covered them with plastic sheets and then a blanket. This was the absolute worst thing I could've done.

First, the temperature on the porch, even in the warm area against the kitchen where I put the pots, got down to the teens at one point. Second, the plastic sheets kept in the moisture rather than letting the plants dry out, as they would've done wrapped in newspaper. By the time I pulled them into the house and put them in the sun in the front room, they were dead. I have watered them to see if there is life but there has been nothing. By the end of the week, they'll be composted.

Ironically, I did one other wrong thing that has kept one canna alive. This was a zombie I pulled out of the compost at the end of last summer, potted and then brought into the house and kept going over the winter. It got no "rest" in its pot, which is the reason why you dig them up and let them dry out in the first place. It seems to be growing just fine.

No one is every going to confuse me with a master gardener. But I do learn from my mistakes -- once I realize them.