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Dirty Fingernails: Saving those family heirloom plants for the next generation

Dirty Fingernails: Saving those family heirloom plants for the next generation

Christmas cactus

Christmas cactus

Q: Are pine needles good or bad for a garden? I hear all kinds of stories.

A: It is true that there is a lot of misinformation about gardening which circulates widely. There are a few ways to check on reliability, though, without sounding as if you are permanently suspicious. If a person tells you that pine needles are bad for a garden, you can ask whether they have used them and had bad results. If someone else told them that pine needles are bad, it would be a good idea to keep on checking.

Remember the experiment that high school teachers used to perform, to teach about transmitting information? The teacher would whisper something to one student at the front of the room, with instructions to pass it on. By the time the information reached the back of the room, it had morphed into a completely different story. Garden stories change in the same way.

If you get information from someone in a different part of the country, verify that the information applies here. Differences in rainfall, soil, or climate may mean that a gardening idea which is good in one place is bad in another. For example, there are many places where shallots and Brussels sprouts should be planted in fall and overwintered in the garden. Their chances of winter survival in western Montana are slim.

If your information comes from a website, do a little sleuthing. University and government websites will have informed opinions, although they may be seldom reviewed and therefore out of date. Commercial sites may have good or bad information, since they have some interest in selling their products. Websites which offer all gardeners’ opinions have unsorted information, ranging from beginner to expert. It can be hard to know which ideas to trust on those websites. Statements may be conflicting.

All websites are better for some parts of the country than others. The farther the website location is from the mountain West, the less useful its information is likely to be. It simply is not possible to offer gardening advice which is equally good in San Diego, Anchorage, and Boston.

Pine needles make a fine mulch, but they have two disadvantages. One is that they break down slowly. If you want to add organic material to a garden bed, substances that decompose rapidly will be a better choice. If you want to protect the soil surface from temperature extremes, hard rain, or blazing sun, pine needles make an excellent mulch for perennials with shallow roots. The tops of those roots need protection all year, and pine needles must be replaced only infrequently.

The second disadvantage to pine needles is that they are slippery when wet. They do not make a safe mulch for any place where people will walk.

If you have heard that pine needles will make garden soil acid, disregard that advice as well meaning but inaccurate. It is extremely difficult to change soil pH except briefly, and pine needles would not be the material of choice. They are only slightly acid.

Q: What can I do besides throw out an old Christmas cactus? It still blooms every year, but it has outgrown the biggest pot I have. It is too heavy for even two people to lift unless they are young and strong.

Q: What can I do about a house plant that is a family heirloom but is so old that it is mostly ugly bare stems?

A: The answer to both problems is the same: keep the plant alive for many more years by growing a piece of the whole thing. That could not happen with an animal, where a couple of hair follicles could not live on their own, but for a plant it is easy. The younger parts of a plant are not as old as the whole thing; young top growth can make roots all by itself and carry on.

With the Christmas cactus, cut off (or twist off) tips of three stems. You want tips that are four or five segments long and that do not have flowers. If you cannot find a tip without a flower, break off the flower even though that is painful. The piece of plant needs to devote itself to growing roots before it tries to support a flower. By next year at this time it will be big enough to bloom again.

Fill a two- or three-inch pot with potting soil. Dampen the soil and push in the bottom end of all three stems. If you want more than one Christmas cactus, make more than one pot. Cover the little plant and its pot with a clear plastic bag, and put it where the big plant has been happy. Check once a week to be sure that the potting soil still is damp.

When the plant tips have grown new roots, you will see new stem tips starting to grow, or you will see roots coming out the drain holes, or both. Remove the plastic bag gradually, over a period of a week. That will avoid stress on the plant. If you feel insecure about your success, take care of the old plant until you are sure that its pieces are growing.

The procedure is similar for the ugly old heirloom plant, but there will be only a few tips to work with. Cut off pieces of stem tip four to six inches long, being sure that each cutting includes at least one leaf. Put only one tip in each pot. Otherwise, raise the tip cuttings in the same was as described for the Christmas cactus.

If you save the old plant while you wait to be sure that the tips actually are growing, you will probably see new growth starting at the point where you cut each old stem. You can make a second generation of new cuttings if you like. Wait until one new leaf has unfolded, then cut off a two- to four-inch section of stem, including the new leaf, and help it to grow roots as before.


As important as getting rid of weeds is stopping their invasion in the first place. As Scott Beuerlein of the Cincinnati Botanic Garden notes, weeds may find a hiding place in perennial beds. Other gardeners will echo his complaint:

“Recently, I discovered that many of my perennials have been traitors. They have aided and abetted my worst enemies—such vile foes as sorrel, chickweed, annual bluegrass, crabgrass and other weeds I cannot name but loathe. You know them. That filthy ilk.

“I have long been aware, of course, that certain perennials are unapologetic weed enablers. Iris, for instance. They’re like the Mae West of plants. So openly and eagerly do they invite the rabble in that its’s almost cute. Among their shoots they will present to you anything from barnyard grass to silver maples. They do this about the same way your cat presents you with a dead mouse.”


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