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)  

Thursday, August 8, 2013


Hi Y'all,

Got a new thing comin' at 'ya.

I thought I'd try posting some questions that I've received from people, and the answers I've given.  I figure a lot of other people probably have the same sorts of questions.  I also expect, in the future, to be making these common questions the subject of short videos.

 I have both a Peace Lily and a Neon Pothos with browning tips that continue to get worse, but it's odd because I feel like I water them very sparingly already. My Peace Lily will sometimes even start to "collapse" a little, the sign that it needs more water. However, both are in non-draining pots. Was just wondering if you could help me.
Solving problems with plants is always a matter of trial and error.  First thing would be to get them into pots with drainage holes.  New pots should be the same size, or no more than 2" more in diameter.  New soil should have as much drainage as possible.  Don't use moisture retentive potting soil, use cactus soil, and add a quantity of perlite equal to about 1/4 the amount of soil your're using. Or if you want to learn some more about soil, here is a great place to start -

When repotting, cut off any brown or mushy roots, and remove as much of the old soil as possible, either by teasing it out from the roots with your fingers or a stick, or by gently washing it out in a bucket of water.  The old soil may contain fungus pathogens - we call it root rot - that is causing the leaves to tip.

One thing you may not know is that when you buy a plant, don't bring it home and repot it.  If you want it in a pretty container, just slip the plant and growpot into it - see our video #7.

Now we need to consider watering, especially if you don't have the time right  now to put your plants into pots with drainage.

What has probably happened is that when you started watering them, the moisture accumulated in the bottom of the soil mass and rotted the roots there. That's why you started to see brown tips.  The reason you get wilty leaves is that the only live roots are in the top of the soil, so when those get dry, droop goes the plant.

What you want to do (if you can't repot immediately) is to encourage the roots to grow back into the lower region of the soil.  So try it this way.  Don't water until the leaves start to droop. Before you add water, check the soil in the bottom of the pot with a kebob skewer - it should be almost dry.  If it is, go ahead and water your plant with maybe 1/2 to 1 cup of water, (I'm making a guess here because I don't know how big your plants are,) just enough to perk up the leaves.  The next day, check the soil in the bottom again.  You're trying to get an idea of how much water you need to moisten the roots, but not wet the soil in the bottom too much.

If, when you check the soil before you water, it is anything but almost dry, put just a little water on the plants to moisten the roots, then test again the next day.  Hopefully the soil underneath won't be any wetter than it was before.  Your objective is to give the live roots enough water to continue functioning, but not add more water to the bottom soil, so that it will dry out enough that roots can reinhabit it.  Of course, as I already said, the best thing is to repot into a pot with drainage.

The brown tips won't go away unless you cut them off, which you should do, in an artistic way so as to preserve the natural shape of the leaf.  This is a good way to tell if the roots are getting healthier.  When the trimmed ends get more brown tips, roots are still troubled; when trimmed ends don't tip again, plant is getting healthy.

Changes you make in plant environments take awhile to become visible to you.  In other words, you won't see an end to tipping for 3 - 4 weeks, at least.

There are a few other things you can do to help your plants dry out/use extra water more quickly.  Move them to a spot with more light, but watch out for direct sun, it can burn leaves.  Place a fan to circulate air around them.  Take them outside to a shady spot, just remember to bring them in before it gets cold (below 40 F).

Hope some of this helps. I'd love to know how your plants are doing, or if you have any questions or any ideas of subjects you'd like me to address.  Comments space is at the bottom.  (hint, hint)

                                                                                                                     (by Marlie Graves)

Sunday, August 4, 2013


These are questions that people often ask, and it's important to understand that they're not really the questions that you need to know the answers to.  The when and how much are always dependent on the moisture in the soil, the light, the rate at which the plant uses water, the type of plant, and so on.   So I want to give you some tools that you can use to figure out for yourself the when and how much. 

As I said earlier, you can measure the water by using any container - 1/2 a pitcher, 1/4 of a bottle, etc. -  but you can also measure by learning to count!  This means that as you pour water from your watering can, you count at the same speed every time, and depending on how fast or slow you count, and the speed at which the water comes out of the spout, you can tell exactly (exactly enough for your purpose, anyway) how much water  you're pouring.  This is extremely useful.

It's easy to remember, and allows you to generalize to plants you've never seen before; it saves pouring into a measuring device then pouring into the plant; it's easy to make adjustments - for instance, if you give a plant an "8" count,  and it's too wet the next time you come to it, you know that "8" was too much for it,  so you might try a "4" to allow it to use extra water from the "8" watering, and then the next time, try a "6".  Trust me, it's easier than it sounds.
First reach well down into the soil with a spoon and pull up some to test its moisture and make up.  If your sample doesn't come from near the bottom of the pot,  use a probe also - you really need to learn the moisture level down near the bottom .  Don't forget to jot down the moisture level in your notes.  If the moisture level is 6 or under, go ahead and water,  making sure to count and record the amount of water you put into the plant.

When you pour water into a plant, you don't want to dump it all in one spot, you want to pour all the way around the plant at the edge of the soil.  If the soil is very dry and pulled away from the pot, push it snugly back against the side of the pot before you pour.  Lift up the leaves if you need to, to get under them and to keep from splashing.  Most of the roots are concentrated around the outside of the soil mass, close to the sides of the pot, and you want to make sure all of the roots are moistened.  The objective is to water enough to get a run-off into the liner of  1/4 -1/2" if you're watering on a weekly schedule, or 1/2 - 1'" for a 2 week schedule.
Remember,  consistency is a goal.  Plants seem to respond well to receiving the same amount of water at regular intervals, and to a constant cycle of abundant moisture and gentle aeration.   Always remember to check the soil moisture, though,  because water  usage can change throughout the year with changing seasons,  as the plant grows, or if it's dealing with some kind of stress.
 If the plant is too wet - hasn't yet reached it's recommended % of aeration - first check the liner.   Use a dipstick if it's a large plant, difficult to see inside.   If there's water in it, your work is done.  Don't add more water, but you can leave what's in there for another week.  Don't leave water in the liner for more than 2 weeks, though.  If there's still water in the liner after 2 weeks, you'll need to siphon it out.

If all the water in the liner has been used,  but the soil when you squeeze it has visible water coming out, again, your work is done, you don't need to water this plant.  If the soil doesn't have squeezable water in it, but the moisture level is still higher than you would like - say a 6 when you'd like to have a 3 or 4 -  water it 1/2 the amount you did the previous time.
A plant that is too dry -  % of aeration is higher than  recommended - obviously, is going to need more water than you gave it the last time.  A good rule-of-thumb is to give it 1/2 again more water than you did at the previous watering
That's the end of this excerpt from The Color of Your Thumb Has Nothing To Do With It.

For those who prefer details and exactitude, and who like to have lists and tables to post in strategic positions, the book has some lovely ones showing  the range of possible NML's (Numerical Moisture Levels) under differing light conditions, and the adjustment to make in watering amounts.  

The book will be available for purchase at our website, along with full length video version of the text.  Keep watch for the announcement of the due date.  (Yes, it's something like having a child.)

Next time I'll be touching on the special watering techniques for low and high light.  As always, if you have any questions, or ideas for subjects you'd like to talk about, please chime in on the comments.

See 'ya soon.
                                                                                                              (by Marlie Graves)

Friday, August 2, 2013


Long ago (1966) in the fabled land of Times Square NYC, a well known expert in lie detection and lie detection machines, Mr. Cleve Backster, finding himself with an idle afternoon, attached the electrodes from one of his machines to the dragon tree ( Dracaena marginata) in his office, curious to see if the leaves would register any reaction to the roots' being watered.

Instead of moving in the way he would have expected, the galvanometer was moving in a pattern reminiscent of a human's emotional response.

Intrigued, he decided to see what would happen to the response if he threatened the plant.  He decided to burn the leaf, but no sooner did he form the thought in his mind, than the tracing pattern took a dramatic upward sweep!  There was another surge in the reading when he got some matches, and a smaller surge when he actually burned the leaf.

However, when he later only went through the motions of burning the leaf, without any real intent to do so, the recording showed no reaction at all.

From that moment, Mr. Backster set off on a course of research to attempt to understand what was going on beneath the surface of the Plant Kingdom.

With his galvanometers and electrodes and recording pens, he observed many unusual things.  Leaves continued to cause readings even when they had been detached from the roots, or cut up into little pieces. When confronted with immanent catastophe, or a person who routinely killed plants, they appeared to "pass out," that is to say elicit no reading at all, much like an animal in the death grip of the predator.

They seemed to respond to a person's "lying" or "truthing" much as a lie detector could.   They could respond to the emotional states of a person with whom they had a relationship - the caregiver - even though that person was across the street, across town, or across the country.  And they responded at the exact instant that the caregiver experienced the emotional stimulus.

He observed that plants seemed to "pay attention" to any kind of animal life in their vicinity, and often reacted to the animal's actions before they actually happened.  Furthermore,  he noticed a marked reaction to the death of animal cells, even things as trivial as bacteria dying from boiling water being poured down a sink.

It seemed obvious to him that the plants were picking up signals through some hitherto unsuspected medium of communication. He tried shielding the plants inside Faraday cages or lead shielding, which didn't affect their responses at all.  From this he concluded that, whatever path of communication was being used, it was not within the electro  magnetic spectrum.

At about the same time, in California, an IBM research chemist, Marcel Vogel, began to replicate some of Backster's results.  While he did use a number of electronic recording devices to measure plant reaction, Vogel was also interested in the power of mind and emotion. and claimed to have kept cut leaves alive and green simply by lovingly exhorting them to be healthy, while a similar leaf which he ignored soon turned brown and dead.

He reported the experiment of a psychically gifted friend, Vivian Wiley, who picked two leaves from a saxifrage plant in her garden.  One she laid beside her bed, the other in the living room.  Every day when she woke up, she focused on the leaf by her bed and willed it to live; the leaf in the living room she paid no attention to.  After a month, the leaf in her bedroom was still green and vital, while the living room leaf was brown and dried!

He worked with the object of recording plants' ability to attune to and record the emotional states of people with whom they had a relationship, himself as well as others.  He found that different plants responded more or less strongly, even different leaves on the same plant could be more or less receptive.  He also found that his own state of mind was integral, requiring a sort of meditative awareness of the energetic relationship between himself and his test subject plant.

Vogel continued to work through the 70's, writing articles, lecturing, and appearing on TV.  He sums up his discoveries like this:
"It is a fact: man can and does communicate with plant life.  Plants are living objects, sensitive, rooted in space....They radiate energy forces that are beneficial to man.  One can feel these forces!  They feed into one's own force field, which in turn feeds back energy to the plant." *

Mr Backster and Mr. Vogel published articles, or there were articles published about their work, in The International Journal  of Parapsychology (1968), National Wildlife (1969),  Medical World News (1969), Argosy magazine, and Popular Electronics, among others.  Probably needless to say, the Scientific  Establishment dismissed their observations as basically nonsense.  The idea that plants could have emotions or perceptions of emotions does not fit with scientific understanding of how the world operates; besides that, very few of Backster's and Vogel's results could be repeated by other researchers.  Of course, Vogel's explanation that the mindset of the experimenter was vital to the outcome of any experiment did not help.  But it does explain a few things.

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