Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Yes, I'm still here

My goodness, now it's REALLY been a long time since I posted anything here.  Last March I started writing regularly for Gardening Know How,  a lovely gardening forum, and that has been taking up most of my time.  Also last September I started submitting post on a regular basis to the NewProContainers blog, which is a professional blog for the interior landscape industry.  Gone through a variety of technical upheavals (broken and fried computers,) and personal life changes... going to start funneling more of my time to the development and presentation of THE COLOR OF YOUR THUMB.  Going to start posting more often on this blog.   Going to... going to... well, time will tell.  

Monday, March 17, 2014




    ...the dirt's outside in the yard.  Soil, or potting mix, or potting medium, is the stuff in the pots, and it is truly the next key, after watering, to having healthy and beautiful plants.  In fact the next secret of the green thumb is
                          HEALTHY PLANTS
                                 HEALTHY SOIL

When all the  parts of the soil are working together in harmony,  the result is a beautiful plant.  When you see a beautiful plant,  it's partly because the soil is healthy.  And because soil so important, we're going to talk about it next, before we get to the parts of the plant.

Soil is as much a part of the plant as the roots, stems, and leaves.  Soil acts as bone and muscle - it supports the roots and thus the plant body.  It acts as part of the circulatory and excretory system -  it provides and drains away water and excreted compounds.  It has a role is a kind of nervous system as well.   It functions as lungs - bringing air to the roots.  And, amazingly enough, it also acts as grocery store, kitchen, dinner table, and digestive system in one - it turns minerals into usable forms and carries them to where the roots can absorb them for the rest of the plant.

As animals evolved movement, they had to develop ways to carry all these processes around with them.  Plants have it all for them, right there in the soil.   Truly wondrous stuff.

                                     WHAT IS SOIL AND WHAT  DOES IT DO
Soil, indeed all kinds of potting media, basically consists of particles and spaces.  The particles may be organic or inorganic, the spaces may be air or water.

Organic means the material was once living; these are things like bark, charcoal, sawdust, bits of sphagnum moss or peat, coir (coconut shell fibers), rice hulls, partially decomposed  leaf, pine needles, compost, etc.

The inorganics are made from minerals, things that were never alive.  These include crushed rock or brick, coarse sand, pumice, clay and mineral components, or processed forms of minerals such as perlite (volcanic glass expanded by heat), vermiculite (heat-expanded silicate materials), or kiln dried granulated clay products.

The particles, whether organic or inorganic, are of various sizes.  These large materials are broken down into smaller and smaller bits by geologic erosion, weathering, machines, and even  inside the plant pot through the actions of watering, chemical activity, organic decomposition, and acids secreted by the roots.  As the particles become smaller, they get more and more chemically active - that means they can contribute to the chemical processes that go on in the soil.  The very smallest particles are as small as 8/100,000 of an inch (0.002 mm.)

At this stage, the  organics mentioned above are now completely broken down into a substance called humus.  Also in the organic column there are micro-organisms - fungi, bacteria, microscopic animals and plants that live in the soil, along with the by-products of their biological action.

As for the inorganic particles, the sand, stone, artificially produced components (like perlite) continue to be broken down also. The very smallest are clay particles, along with the mineral compounds formed in the soil by microbial and other chemical activity.

(Excerpt from The Color of Your Thumb Has Nothing To Do With It)
                                                                                                                   by  Marlie Graves

Saturday, February 1, 2014


Oh dear, it HAS been a long time since I posted on my blog.  The holidays have come and gone, and the new year is 1/12 over.  But, since no one is paying for anything here, and I'm sure none of you are suffering any undue anxiety waiting for my next missive,  I have given myself permission to not worry too much about it.  I have been busy, working  on the book, writing on forums and such, learning and investigating and developing another project that has nothing to do with plants.

But tonight, I think I'll get back into my discussion of The Secret Life of Plants.
When we last talked about the interesting things to be found in  The Secret Life of Plants, I said that this time we'd look at some crazy things people got plants to do.

There was Pierre Paul Sauvin who, after hearing Backster on a radio show, decided that if plants would respond to a person's thoughts by moving a recording device, they could be harnessed to move other things. First he hooked up a toy train to change direction (as an impetus for his emotional "broadcast" to the plant he shocked himself,) later he had his plant hooked to open the garage door (using sex as the emotional stimulus this time,) and fly a model plane.  He did find that the memory of the stimulus was just as effective as the actual shock (or whatever,) and he also found the process worked better using a plant with which he already had a positive relationship - water and love will do it every time.  Plants are so easy.

Sauvin was an ITT engineer, and interested in "alternate" theories of reality.  With his engineering skills he was able to construct a  monitoring device a hundred times more sensitive than Backster's, with which he hoped to distinguish fine changes in the energy field of the plants. For him, the concept that plants had energy fields similar to those generated by humans was a given, and his interest was to study how the interaction of those fields could be put to use.

Another engineer who duplicated Backster's results was Eldon Byrd, an operations analyst with the Naval Ordnance Laboratory.  Byrd believed that the Backster effect was caused by a change in the polarization in the cells of the leaves, though he couldn't explain the mechanism causing the change. One of the things he worked on adapting to the plant response phenomenon was a lie detecting device based on analysis of vocalizations.

Another engineer/philosopher, Dr. Ken Hashimoto in Japan, after working with sensitive voice recording machines for lie detection, reversed the process using his wife's cactus and a sound modulation device, and achieved an electric hum, "varied and pleasant, at times even warm and almost jolly" from the plant.  The plant world had given its first speech!

Of course, reports, stories and research such as these have caused reactions from mirth to derision to anger in the establishment.  But once someone has seen plants produce measurable reactions to human thoughts, the next questions have to be, if one has any kind of open and curious mind, "why," "how," and "what are we not understanding?"

Many  people, Byrd and Hashimoto among them, believe that these kinds of phenomena are pointing the way toward an as yet undiscovered form of energy. As Eldon Byrd put it in an article for Megabrain Report
...not ... electromagnetic energy...but a whole other form of energy which we currently have no instruments to measure....It doesn't take any time for it to propagate from one point in time and space to another because it has nothing to do with time or space. *
Bioplasmic fields of energy surrounding each living thing.  Instantaneous communication independent of space and time.  Information unbound by matter and energy.  I wonder if these quirky and almost unknown experiments of wiring plant leaves to recording devices are the first baby steps we're taking on the road to the stars.

Bona Fortuna,

* Byrd, Eldon  Megabrain Report   V.1  n.1

Tompkins, Peter and Bird, Christopher, The Secret Life of Plants.  New York, Harper and                            Rowe. 1973
(By Marlie Graves) 

Sunday, November 10, 2013


I used to live and work in New York City.  Talking one day with a  colleague at my plant care company, I learned that his father was a trader at the New York Stock Exchange.  Amazing!

"How long has he worked there?"   Since he was in his twenties.
" How old is he now?''  Late fifties.
"How's his health?"  Wonderful.
"How does he deal with the stress?"   What stress.. he loves it.  It's a big game to him, he thrives on it.  He looks forward to every day.

And that was an Ah-ha! moment for me.
What is stress for one is not necessarily stress for another.

 If you love what you're doing, it's not stressful, it's challenging and interesting.  In other words, if you're getting what you need, you can adapt to the difficulties, and thrive on what others might consider threat to life and limb.

Houseplant species are much like happy stockbrokers.

In the beginning, all plants grew outdoors in the wild.  They certainly didn't evolve growing in pots in people's houses and offices in temperature and humidity controlled environments lit principally with cool white fluorescent.

While DNA didn't shape plants for the potted indoor life, what it did bestow was ADAPTABILITY.  That means that when conditions became less than ideal  - we'll call that stress -  plants can change their form, processes, even their cells to fit the new conditions.

So when some plants found themselves dug up from their comfy jungle homes, stuck into pots of who-knew-what, traversing the oceans in the hold of a ship, and then spreading their leaves in the parlor of a Victorian home, they set about adapting.

Home was a boggy river bank in Indonesia (what we call peace lilies,) with rain every day, and now it's sandy soil from a European garden? No problem...a change to the root transport system here, a change in the leaves there, we can adapt to getting water once a week.

Home was a field in India (for a Ficus benjamina), now it's a potful of peat and a corner in a living room? We've got this...just drop the old leaves and grow new ones with rearranged chloroplasts, a few changes to the stomata,  and soon we're hitting the ceiling.

How about those vines that grow like weeds all over the jungle trees in Burma?  (You know them as pothos.)  Pull them down, stick the tips into pots of sawdust and bark, put them in pots to hang in restaurants across the world...easy, just stay in juvenile form and take it as it comes.

Then there are pretty little palms happy down under all the trees in their wet Guatemalan jungle (parlor palms, you'd call them,) waking up in a pot of pebbles overlooking someone's terrace in the desert.  No humidity, no soil, no problem....some different roots, adjust the moisture conveyance...we are in business.

Don't get me wrong, not all plants can do things like these.  One of the differences between and within species is the RANGE OF ADAPTABILITY.  Some types of plants can adjust to a wide range of conditions, and some can't.

The ones that can are the ones that are on the lists of "Easy-to-grow houseplants."  The ones that can't are found only in botanical gardens, expert growers, or back home in the jungle.  And sometimes dying in people's homes, because now and then growers will try to market them to folks who don't know about their specialized needs.

The moral of this story - besides to admire the wonderful abilities of "common" plants - is to note that the philosophy of keeping plants by approximating their native habitat has pretty much been disproved.  Also why there is so much conflicting information about plants in the literature - people have success with a lot of different approaches to watering, soil, even light, and record their own experience as "the" way when it's really about the plants' ability to adapt to different conditions.

I think meaningful plant care articles are those that present comparisons among a range of variables - different amounts of moisture, different levels of aeration, different soil mixes, different light values, etc.
You folks then have a place to start for your own experimentation, so you can discover  what works best for your own combination of environmental variations.

Basically, if you start off with champion adapters and give them what they really need - minimum light, neither too much nor too little water, no freezing -  the plants will take care of the rest.   There's lots more to keeping houseplants, of course, but this is really the bottom line.

Happy houseplants and happy stockbrokers...they all know how to deal with stress.

(By Marlie Graves)

Monday, October 7, 2013


Well, after doing well  for two weeks with a determination to post twice a week, I faltered.  Nothing to do now but make a new determination, and continue.  I think I'll try for 1 post / week, and reevaluate at the end of the month.  6 weeks or so ago I sort of ground to a halt - not just with the blog, but all my writing - and I really don't know why, unless it was the difficulties I encountered with trying to put photos into a longer piece I'm writing, a guest blog about sanseveria.  Things like 'why is this so difficult' and 'why am I having such a hard time' and 'I need a new computer' and 'I need to win the Lottey'.  Then 3 weeks ago our cat Mickey, whom we've had for 15 years, had a heart attack, and the whole week was consumed by anxiety - would he get better, was he suffering, will he eat, will he drink, would we have to make the decision to let him sleep.  Took him back to the vet Tuesday, they gave him intravenous and some more medication, but he died in his sleep that night.  Now a new yellow lantana bush is growing in our backyard.

After that I went up to Pennsylvania for a high school reunion, driving with my brother who hadn't been up there since '84.  The planning for (app2600 mi round trip), accomplishment of, and recovery from that excursion has brought me up to current time.

Without further ado, then, here's another short video

Well, thanks to the evil wizards at Google, here will go another video if you cut and paste the link into your browser.  What used to be a simple select and click to put a video into a blog post now involves code embedding and menu locations that I haven't been able to locate yet.  So until I can solve this latest puzzle, or some kind soul will volunteer to enlighten me, it's cut-and-paste.

                          SPECIAL CARE FOR LOW LIGHT PLANTS

Very low light plants need to be treated with extreme care in watering.  You need to  find the balance between the amount of moisture the plant needs to support its slow life rhythms,  and the amount of air it needs to keep its roots from rottiWellng.   Remember, plants in low light just aren't using very much water.  If roots stay damp for long periods of time, they begin to rot,  and eventually the plant will die.  Plants in low light need to become fully aerated (80%aer) between waterings; some even need to reach the bone dry stage.

In general, when watering plants in low light, use only 2/3 the amount of water you would use on the same plant if it were in higher light.  Any water that collects in the liner should be siphoned off after an hour or so.  If the plant cannot tolerate even this level of moisture - if you start to see the over-watering signs of brown tips on the leaves - allow the soil to reach an even higher level of aeration, and/or reduce the amount of water added by 1/2.

While in most cases you don't want a plant to get bone dry,  sometimes in very low light this is exactly what has to happen.  The critcal factor is the amount of time the soil stays that dry.  For most plants, a few days at 90% - 100% aeration  is all the roots can tolerate before some moisture is required.  Not too much, though;  this is the only time you should use the  "small sip" watering technique.  The objective is to avoid any real  run-off, yet to provide enough water to moisten the entire root mass, and to maintain the moisture level at 20 - 30% for a couple of weeks.

Another tricky thing about plants in very low light is that they often don't show damage until it is too late to save them.  The sanseveria (mother-in-law's tongue, snake plant) is especially famous for this.  By the time you see some brown tips on the leaves, or notice that one or two of the leaves are getting soft at the base,  the roots are already wrecked.  Many people, when they see such signs of  over-watering, will cut down on the water as advised;  when the plant keeps getting worse,  and finally dies a few months later,  they are completely confused, and conclude they just can't keep plants alive, etc.

Such confusion can be avoided by testing the soil moisture, all the way to the bottom of the pot, before each watering.  If you find a sansie, or any very low light plant, too wet,  move it to a place with as much light as possible, without burning the leaves in direct sunlight of course, and let it dry down to 80-90% aeration without adding any more water.  This may take awhile,  several weeks even.  Once it has reached this level, you can move it to a darker spot if you wish, and continue with good watering practices as outlined above.

                            SPECIAL CARE FOR HIGH LIGHT PLANTS

Plants in high light locations also require some special strategies.  Because of the higher light, their metabolisms are running at a high pace, and they have increased water needs.  The main objective in watering them is to make sure they don't run out of water before your next visit, but still have an opportunity for their roots to reach the recommended %aer.   If you're on a weekly schedule,  leave a run-off of at least 3" in the liner; a two-week schedule will require a 6" (or totally filled) liner.  This is why you'll want to use the deep liners if you have any high light plants.

If you're not familiar with the plant, the wisest course is to fill the liner the first time you see it.  Don't forget to count so you know how much water it takes to do this.  If all the water has not been used by the next visit, you can make the necessary adjustments, coming gradually to the amount of water that is needed to sufficiently hydrate the soil, while allowing the roots to be sufficiently aerated.  You can take several weeks, even a couple of months to do this, because the high light levels allow the plant to be much more tolerant of wet soil than if it were in low light.

In the unlikely event that the filled liner does not provide enough water for the plant for the duration of your schedule, there are a  few changes you can make.  First, you can remove the liner and set the plant straight into the decorative container,  allowing you to pour in a lot more water.  Second,  you might need to put the plant into a larger pot, with more room for roots and soil  - more about that when we discuss roots and stress.  Finally, of course, you may just move the plant to a lower light location.

End of excerpt from The Color of Your Thumb Has Nothing To Do With It

Watch for the launch of website, on which the full text will be available for purchase, as well as the full video version of the text.

(By Marlie Graves)

Sunday, August 18, 2013


 No one wants to be a plant killer.  But plenty of people are, or think they are.  Mostly they've given up on having houseplants, or they have one that's "somehow managed to survive" but any others are doomed in their care.  

Well, I say it's time for all you plant murderers out there to declare,


I've been talking with folks about their plants for over 30 years, and I've observed that the same things occur over and over again when they talk about their sad experiences. 

So here are what I've concluded are the most common mistakes people make with plants, and what YOU can do to avoid them.


Soil that remain too wet causes the roots to rot and die.  Roots need air to breathe. Remember,  R-O-O-T without O (that means oxygen) is R-O-T.  The bet way to keep from overwatering is to feel the soil with your finger, and test for moisture all the way to the bottom of the pot.  Here's a video that will show you more about that:


Growers use good soil.  Why wouldn't they? If the plants don't grow fast and strong, they don't make a profit.  So, repotting new plants is A: a waste of time  B: often harmful to the plant if it's put into poor moisture retentive soil, into a pot without drainage, or into a pot that's too big.  

Many potted plants can, and do, stay in the same pot for years, while continuing to look beautiful.   Potting into a larger pot is unnecessary unless you want to produce an increase in size.  If you do up-pot, increase one pot size only; that is, (measuring the diameter of the top of the pot) 2" to 3", 3" to 4", 4" to 6", 6" to 8", 8" to 10", 10" to 12" (sometimes hard to find) or 14", 14" to 21".


The flip side of too much is too little.  The cure is to water as soon as the soil reaches almost dry in the bottom of the pot, then always water until there is a run off from the drainage holes.  It's not necessary to empty drainage saucers if you always check the moisture level before watering.

The other cause of underwatering is simply forgetting about the plants.  The best thing to do is to practice looking at plants everywhere you go; coordinate plant care with something else you already do on a weekly or bi-weekly basis; or make an appointment with yourself on your to-do list, send yourself an email, or some such thing.  (Lords of Tech, don't fail us now.)  And get more plants - so you can't miss them, get it?

Or then again, maybe you just are not that interested in having live plants.  Not every one is.  That's OK.  Doesn't make you a bad person.  Your plant-loving friends should still love you anyway, and if they don't, let me know - I'll give 'em a talking to.


Plants need light to live.  Know what kind of plant you have, and what its minimum light requirement is.  If you don't know, do a little research.  In a nutshell, if there's not enough light to read, no plant can live there.  If you can barely read, it's very low light.  If you can read but not for very long, it's low light.  If you have general working light, it's medium light.  If you're within five feet of a window,  it's high to very high light.  Once you figure out the light, you need to water according to that light.  Try this video for a little more understanding 


Some plants are more difficult to grow than others.  Aside from getting the right plant for the light you have, stick to the plants that fit your skill level.  There are lot of lists of "easy" plants, and coming soon from The Ficus Wrangler will be a list of the Fabulous Forty - the plants that are commonly used by the professional plant care industry, because they are the easiest. 


Plants are not puppies!  They actually make their own food, and they use only as much of the fertilizer elements as they need.  Fertilizing is just to make sure the groceries are in the cupboard.  They don't need to be fed all the time, and they positively should NOT be fed if they are ailing.  Fertilizer unused by the plant remains in the soil as salts, gradually raising the salt level in the soil, until the plant starts to fail, and possibly die.  To prevent salt build up, run lots of water through the soil/root mass at least a couple of times a year.  Use fertilizer at 1/2 to 1/4 strength recommended, and fertilize only monthly (high light) to yearly (low light.)


There are only 3 kinds of bugs that commonly infest houseplants - mealybugs, spider mites, and scale.  (There are a few others, but these are the common ones.)  Their juvenile forms are so small they float on the air like dust, and can suddenly appear on any plant.  They don't cause damage at first, but will kill a plant if not controlled.  You need to watch out for them.  Do a little research so you know what they look like; then every time you water, check under the leaves and along the leaf stems for white patches, webbing, or sticky spots. ( While you're at it, turn the plants so they grow evenly, and clean them gently with a big fluffy duster...AFTER you make sure they don't have bugs.)  If you find bugs, spray with a mix of 1 teaspoon mild liquid detergent to 1 pint water; spray the plant completely, especially up under the leaves and down into the leaf axils,  until the plant is dripping.  Do this once a week for a month.  Another upcoming feature on The Ficus Wrangler will be more about pests and treatment. 

These are just basic guidelines - there are volumes more to say about each subject.  My hope here is that, if you really want to be able to keep houseplants alive, but you feel you don't have any "luck" with them, you'll get some hints and ideas of what you could be doing wrong, and where to start to learn better.  

What do you have troubles with?  What are you having trouble understanding, maybe because you've seen conflicting info?  Get back with me any time, love to hear from you.

Until next time.

(By Marlie Graves).



Sunday, August 11, 2013


Continuing on with Vogel's researches  (from the earlier post of Aug 2),  he seems to have become quite obsessed with the notion of the interaction between human and plant.  As he puts it,  " [I charge] the plant with some energy in me...[causing] the plant to build up a sensitivity... It is extremely important that one understand that the plant's response is, in my opinion, not that of an intelligence in plant form, but that the plant becomes an extension of oneself."*

The German mystic Jakob Boehme, in the 16th century, had described being able to psychically join with a plant and rejoice with it at  growth and life.  Vogel wondered if an sensitive person would be able to do something similar.  A young woman, Debbie Sapp, seemed to him to be unusually successful at establishing rapport with his philodendron.  He asked her one day if she could get into the plant.  This is Debbie's description of what happened.

    Mr. Vogel asked me to relax and project myself into the philodendron.  Several things took place as I began to carry out his request.
     First, I wondered exactly how I could get inside a plant.  I made a conscious decision to let  my imagination take over and found myself entering the main stem through a doorway at its base.  Once inside, I saw the moving cells and water traveling upward through the stem, and let myself move with this upward flow.
     Approaching the spreading leaves in my imagination, I could feel myself being drawn from an imaginary world into a realm over which I had no control.  There were no mental pictures, but rather a feeling that I was becoming part of, and filling out, a broad expansive surface.  This seemed to me to be describable only as pure consciousness.
    I felt acceptance and positive protection by the plant.  There was no sense of time, just a feeling of unity in existence and in space.  I smiled spontaneously and let myself be one with the plant.
    Then Mr. Vogel asked me to relax.  When he said this, I realized I was very tired but peaceful.  All of my energy had been with the plant. *
Vogel continued to repeat this study with dozens of people.  He continually found that people needed to be tuned in to the plants in order to achieve results in working with them.  He also worked with a number of children, finding them especially adept at achieving the necessary state of mind.

As Vogel's and  Backster's experiments showed over and over, there seems to be some kind of energy produced by human thoughts and emotions, that is somehow picked up or responded to by some plants.

Despite dismissal by establishment scientists, who scoff that the "experiments" are not properly set up or controlled, and that the results are not repeatable, one has to wonder what is going on.  Unless Vogel and Backster are complete charlatans,  something must be going on, or so it seems to me.

As a prelude to further revelations, I'd just like to note the findings of a researcher at State University at Hayward, California, Randall Fontes, who discovered an electrical potential running from cell to cell in a philodendron plant, and has interpreted it as an indication of a simple nervous system.

So, in my next installment of this curious subject, I'll have some more examples for you of strange things some people have done with plants.

Till then,
                  *Tompkins, Peter and Bird, Christopher, The Secret Life of Plants.  New York, Harper and                            Rowe. 1973
(By Marlie Graves)