, Salem, MA

January 17, 2014

Beware -- This cactus doesn't like change

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — Q: We used to live in Needham, and there was a house that in the middle second-floor window had a beautiful generations-old cactus. Passers-by would look forward with great anticipation to see it in all its glory in December. It was lovely, and I use the past tense. The house was pivoted on the lot 90 degrees and moved 20 to 30 feet. Well, the cactus was in the same window and was dead the next December. So sad.

A: As your friend has found out the hard way, Christmas cactuses cannot tolerate any change — not in watering, light, heat or temperature and humidity. Now, this doesn’t mean that the plant won’t grow if any one of these change occurs, but it is very stressful. Any one of these stress factors can make life very difficult, along with the absence of heat and water for the duration of the move.

I think it may be time to get a new plant and watch the regrowth, especially the light direction. Such a treasure of a plant!

Q: Can I start my tomatoes now? I figure it’s about four months until I can put them in the garden, but couldn’t I get a head start on our quirky New England weather by starting them indoors now — and give them a leg-up? And more importantly, then I’ll beat my neighbors to the first tomato of summer?

A: NO! Not quite yet! Tomato plants don’t like to live indoors any more than you do! Tomato plants grown from seed need to be carefully timed and not started too early. Your theory is correct — it will be almost four months until you can plant tender plants outdoors — maybe longer! Figure it this way: It takes a few days for the seeds to germinate, plus about six to eight weeks growing indoors. That brings you into May, and that is plenty early for tomatoes on the North Shore. So, wait until late March to start these seeds indoors.

There are things you can do right now to get ready: Buy a supply of sterile soil. Sterile soil is important for all seed starting — there are too many harmful organisms lurking in garden soil to chance using it.

Collect pots or containers and clean them. You’re not going to put clean soil into dirty containers. Tomatoes like lots of deep root space, and one of the best free containers is a one quart paper or plastic milk or juice container, tall and narrow. But almost any container will do, from yogurt and cottage cheese cartons to tin cans. Remember, you’ll need to punch holes in the bottom for drainage.

Find a warm, sunny windowsill, or else get out the grow lights.

Buy your tomato seed this year; heirloom tomatoes are very popular.

Now you’ll just have to wait a few more weeks to plant. You’ll probably still beat the neighbors with the first tomato of the season!

Q: I had a magnificent amaryllis this year, and I would love to save the bulb. What is the procedure?

A: Let your amaryllis bulb remain in the pot — do not remove the yellowing leaves. Place it in a warm, sunny window — full sun or medium is fine — and don’t forget to water.

Continue growing and fertilizing the foliage, just like any other green leafy houseplant until just before the first frost, when you will bring the potted bulb in. Now you can withhold water and remove the yellowing leaves. Let it go dormant for at least eight to 10 weeks by withholding water — dormancy can be longer if you want a later bloom. Remove foliage only after it dries. Revive the bulb in early winter with water and lots of sunshine and a good drink.

Q. What is the secret to getting a kalanchoe to bloom again?

A: Your kalanchoe is a true example of a plant brought into bloom by florists and sold as decoration — not as a houseplant. They are difficult to bloom a second or third time. They require strong light, even sunlight during the winter months, and warm temperatures. Water when they dry a bit on the soil surface.

But you have done so well keeping the plant growing, that’s meritorious.

Follow the hints for warmth, light and water, and try covering the plant just as you would do with an old poinsettia. These plants are photo periodic — growers put the plants “under wraps” for 14 hours of total darkness each night, taking them out to a sunny, warm window each day, until there are buds visible. This can be done at any time during the year, but spring is the normal blooming period.

You can encourage the plant to bloom again by cutting back the amount of light it receives. Kalanchoes need 12 hours of darkness to set blooms. Once the blossoms have formed, the amount of light is not critical.

Water thoroughly when the top layer of soil is dry and never let it stand in water.

Q: I go away a lot and my husband is not a reliable plant waterer or caretaker. I love to have some plants indoors in the winter. What can I — or we — grow without too much trouble and care? Watering houseplants sounds like too much trouble.

A: There ARE some plants that will live and grow in water alone, at least for a while. Try them if you think you have a brown thumb and no time for houseplants. They’re also easy plants for kids to grow.

Some plants that actually grow quite happily in water are ivy. These are climbers, or they can be cut back to branch and trained to climb.

Philodendron, Devil’s ivy, is very common in dorm rooms because they can take abuse.

Spider plants take fluctuations in temperature with ease.

Sanseviesia, or “dumb cane,” — “dumb” because it paralyzes the tongue if chewed — have very pretty leaves! But, obviously, keep them away from kids and pets. They are very easy to grow in a cool house with little water. They can grow several feet high.

Bulbs, like narcissus, are pretty much fail proof. Flowers should appear within three weeks. They’re short-lived and very fragrant.

Most of these plants will thrive in a glass of water, even climbing up and around a window frame, with no care at all. But, eventually, even these plants will need soil, water and food. After they’ve been in that jar for months and there are many roots, you have a choice to either continue to grow them in water — might add a very small amount of houseplant plant fertilizer; dilute and add a teaspoon or two to the water — or pot the water-grown plant in soil.

Incidentally, by growing the plant in water, you have become a plant propagator. Rooting in water, the simplest form of plant propagation, will allow you to start many plants you want to multiply for almost no cost. And isn’t it easy?

This Week’s Dirt: Check on bulbs and other stored plants. As the winter comes to an end and food becomes even more scarce, those stored bulbs become an easy dinner, and the rodents might even consider moving in beside them.


North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday’s Lifestyles section.

Reach Barbara by email at or write to her c/o The Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at