Saturday, May 19, 2018

You've Gotta be Cruel to be Kind

Now that I've gotten that song stuck in your head... It's true for plants! Dividing and cutting up plants is a great way to get them back to peak health, even if it looks a bit draconian.

Plants are naturals at growing back after damage. After all, they are at the bottom of the food chain. Plants have adapted to being eaten repeatedly, and many actually thrive when pruned, divided, trimmed, and otherwise gently mutilated. I recently got the chance to do so with two plants- one I've had for awhile that needed a boost and one that I just got from the plant store for 50% off with a sign that said "with a little TLC I can be back to full health!" For plants TLC starts with some mutilating. 

First off, Beard the Fern:
Beard, in all his shaggy glory.
Beard is a purchase I made about two years ago as a fluffy little thing at Benkhe's Garden Center. It's been living in the same pot since I got it, and although it has obviously been thriving, I've noticed the leaves are a bit paler than they used to be and the roots are coming out the drainage hole in the pot, so I decided to divide and repot it.

The first step is getting it out of the pot. I slid a knife around the inside edge to loosen the fern and then wiggled my fingers in between the side of the pot and the root ball. I also pushed from the drainage hole and the whole thing eventually popped out. The roots are getting pretty crowded in there.

The great thing about ferns like this one is that if you look at how they grow there are a bunch of little fronds all sticking up from the surface of the soil, all over. If you divide the plant and make sure you have some root and some frond attached then it will grow into a completely new plant without harming the old one. Slice into the root mass with a sharp knife, then gently pry and shake the fronds apart so they don't break off.

This is what I was left with after dividing the plant. About a third of the root mass is gone.

This is the bit I took off. You can see the fronds have their own roots/

After dividing, repot both the old plant and the new one in fresh dirt. Water in thoroughly. I also gave Beard a bit of a haircut so I could see the pot again. I like the contrast between the pot and the leaves. Now we have Beard, Goatee, and a little piece that broke off that I named Peach Fuzz.

Beard, Goatee, and Peach Fuzz

Beard barely looks like I touched him. What a fluffy plant!
Beard, post divide and trim.

The next project is an orchid. I've never had an orchid other than one that I managed to kill in less than two weeks because I watered it like a houseplant. Orchids take different care than plants that sit in dirt. I previously didn't know this, but you actually treat them more like air plants. They like moisture all at once, and then to dry out almost immediately. Humidity is good, but having the roots in water is very bad. Hopefully this time I know enough to keep it alive.

I got this orchid on sale at Patuxent Nurseries. One of the employees told me to re-pot it as soon as I got it home in the same pot but with bark instead of the peat moss that they pack in there initially. 

Here is the orchid popped out of its pot. The roots are packed into peat moss and the whole thing was rock solid. I needed to loosen it up, so I dunked it in a mug of distilled water for a few minutes. 

You can see that the roots at the bottom are kind of grey-brown and shrivelly looking. Those are rotted from sitting in water soaked up by the peat moss. These (according to some orchid growers on youtube) are ok to trim back to the green, living part of the roots. I also pulled out all of the old peat moss from around the roots.

Looky there! A new, healthy root. Maybe it will live after all.

Here it is with the peat moss gone and rotted roots trimmed off.
There were still a fair number of green roots left, so I am hopeful that this means it's healthy enough to recover fully. I put it back in its pot and shoved some bark in around it just to hold it steady in there. I think that's the only real reason to even have potting medium at all with these.

The recommended orchid bark.
All potted up with bark

I set it in bright indirect light next to one of my air plants so I remember to mist it in the mornings. The lady at Patuxent Nurseries said they can go a week or two without a real watering, so I think I'll just try once or twice a week for now and see how it does. When I do water it I'll dunk it in a mug of distilled water for a few minutes and then take it out and make sure there's no water puddling around the bottom of the container. Hope it does well!

I hope this is encouraging. I started off dividing plants in Science Club in high school when we were tasked with rejuvenating the greenhouse which had been infested with aphids and looked a little neglected. Getting to experiment with the plants and watching them come back to life after cutting them in half really helped boost my confidence with dividing my own plants later on. Just remember that plants which divide well usually have multiple stems coming up from the dirt in a spread-out, not singular fashion. These will provide roots to go along with the leaves and make for a healthy new plant. For trimming plants, trimming dead parts will only help the plant's health in the long term. You can also trim live parts as long as you don't trim more than 1/3 off at a time. (Experimenting shows that some plants can be cut to the ground and come back, but do your research). Anyway, happy mutilating!

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