In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
October, 2009
Regional Report

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It doesn't take flowers to put color in any garden bed.

Leaves, Bold and Beautiful

The plants known as "tropical foliage" encompass a huge group ideal for our regions. Their routine care now can make for an even bigger show for the rest of the year.

No Fear
Prunophobia haunts many gardeners when it comes to cutting back the scheffleras, corn, and ti plants when they get leggy. Even worse are those who fear clipping ivies, heart leaf philodendron, and pothos. Too many let vines get almost naked, with a leaf or two adorning several feet of bare stem. In the office, it's worse. Everyone is afraid to cut any plant back, for if it dies, there's blame to bear.

Take heart! Cutting back tropical foliage that has grown too large or spindly seldom if ever kills the plant, and often produces dramatic, positive results: bushier plants, more leaves, and stronger stems. It's a plus that the clipped canes from that corn plant, for instance, can usually be cut into three inch segments and rooted. The tips of dwarf scheffleras that you clip off to thicken the plant below will also root easily, producing plants to fill in any gaps in the green wall you are growing.

For goodness sakes, don't let the peace lily and other clumping plants get so crowded they cannot get a blooming shoot up through the dense foliage. Separate and repot, and be careful not to overwater the plants as they recover. For a few weeks, keep newly repotted tropicals in more shade than they usually occupy.

Fertilizer Needs
Confusion abounds about what and when to fertilize these great plants. In the ground or in containers, they are perfect candidates for slow release pelleted formulas. Select a balanced formula (10-10-10 for example) and use it every three months or as directed. To encourage the maximum leaf and stem growth, add a soluble fertilizer (20-20-20) to the water once a month for all or part of the year. Organic gardeners use similar formulas from plant or fish-based resources, but many find that a compost-rich soil takes care of most nutrition needs.

Insect Watch
Fall is a good time to scout the insects that may find a winter home in the folds of these leafy plants. Cottony white and sticky, mealybugs are common. So are tiny aphids and even mites. Use a cotton swab dipped in alcohol to clean these pests off the plants. If they persistently return despite your best efforts, consider a series of pyrethrin sprays or a systemic insecticide made for this group of plants. Dust and dirt can accumulate in dry weather or indoors, but can also plug up the stoma (pores) of the leaves, slowing their ability to grow well. Use a soft cloth (old cloth diapers are perfect) dipped in water only to clean the leaves. Forget the shiny spray products and the milk concoctions!


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