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Make new houseplants out of the old

Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey writes about gardening for The Charlotte Observer's weekly Home & Garden section.

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  • Ask Nancy

    Q. When and what should I feed my Lenten roses? They were planted about six years ago in nice, rich soil. Although they seem to be doing well, it seems they should be due for some food. I also have some Lenten roses planted in a fairly wooded part of my yard. They don’t do as well as the others but they’re hanging in there. Any special treatment for them?

    A. Lenten roses will grow well in the dry shade of tree roots. However, they seem to grow slower because their roots are in competition with the tree’s roots. This is where some light fertilizer might benefit the plants. Use an organic fertilizer, but not an acidic one formulated for azaleas. This small feeding may give them the boost they need and help them catch up to the ones you describe that are growing robustly in a well-prepared bed of rich soil.

I think many of you are keen to break out of the bad-winter malaise and do some real gardening. Even such a small task as propagating a houseplant may give you relief.

While you may not need more houseplants, ones that you propagate make nice gifts for others to enjoy.

It is also a way to have a backup should your fern or peperomia or pothos drop dead all of a sudden.

More likely, your plants don’t look as good as they did last fall. That is likely due to the low natural light of winter and the low level of humidity common in heated homes.

Propagation can be done in many ways. The basic form is sowing seeds to germinate and produce new plants.

Houseplants are different. You can take a small portion of your plant, anything from a fern to an African violet, and use that little part to make a new plant.

• One of the most common and popular methods is division, which means splitting up the plant – the mother – into a number of smaller, young plants. This is frequently done with tropical ferns because they tend to send up young plants from their roots. They are especially noticeable around the inside rim of the pot, and may not be noticed until you raise the large fronds and look for them.

In most cases, you simply dig out these young plants with a knife or trowel, taking care to keep their roots attached, and replant them in small pots with fresh soil. This is instant propagation, with little waiting required to have a new and presentable plant to keep or give.

• A slightly more complicated form of division involves taking the entire plant out of the pot and dividing it at the crown, the central point of the plant where stems rise from the roots. Many kinds of begonias, anthurium, peperomia and even Africa violets can be divided at the crown.

But you must take the plant out of the pot, shake it and wash off the soil to get a clear view of the crown. You must get portions of both the top and the roots, but often this is quite obvious and the sections can be removed from the mother plant by gently pulling or cutting. Then replant.

• A third version, but less common, is the removal of plantlets that occur at the tips of leaves. Such piggyback plants include spider plant and strawberry geranium. Just cut them off and plant them in a small pot of soil that is kept watered and humidified by covering the pot with a plastic bag. It may take several weeks to grow new roots.

• Possibly the most common practice of houseplant propagation is to take cuttings. Trailing plants such as grape ivy, pothos and philodendron are easily propagated in this manner.

Simply take a cutting about 4 inches long, remove any leaves from the bottom half and plant it in good soil. The cutting will also produce roots in a clear vase of water, which gives you the chance to watch propagation in action.

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