Doug’s mailbag: Unknown plants, Christmas cactus and raised bed gardens

Posted on: January 4, 2019 | Written By: Doug Oster | Comments

Gardening editor Doug Oster gets asked a lot of questions. A lot. And he doesn’t mind offering gardening advice. But rather than just limiting those answers to the person who asked, we thought it might be a good idea to share that wealth of knowledge with everybody.

There are three ways to send in your questions:

  • Email askdoug@535mediallc.com
  • Submit your question on our “Your Garden” section of our site
  • Send us a message on Facebook.

(The questions may be lightly edited for grammar/clarity/etc.)

Mystery plant

Question 1: Unknown plants, part 1

Ed: I found this thing in the Venango County woods on New Year’s Eve. Any clue?

Doug: I reached out to the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club, thinking this photo was some kind of fungus and here’s the explanation from Cecily Franklin, the club’s president:

“Hi Doug. That belongs to the Genus Calostoma, also known as stalked puffballs. The link here explains three different species. I believe that your photo is C. ravenii because it has a yellow spore sack and no ‘collar.'”

You never know what you’ll find during a hike in the woods. The mushroom club encourages people to come along with them as they search the woods for edibles. The only way to know if a mushroom is edible is to make sure an expert confirms the fungi is safe. It’s a great club and a lot of fun to hike with them.

Unknown plant

Question 2: Unknown plants, part 2

Jeff: Many years ago, my mother gave me a couple of average size bulbs from this pictured house plant. She got the plant from a now deceased great aunt. I now have three of these plants, from those original bulbs. I assume they are some type of lily. The plant blooms anytime from early December to early February. The length of daylight seem to activate the blooms. Otherwise, as the days get shorter, the blooms come out like a Christmas Cactus. These plants used to bloom around the Super Bowl every year. However, ever since I started putting the plant outside in the summer, it has been blooming earlier. It has bloomed at Christmas time the last three years. The flowers are orange and can have as many as four blooms on each stem. People always think it is an Amaryllis, but it is not. Please let me know the name of this plant.

Doug: I think your plant is from the genus Hippeasturm, which is also the genus of amaryllis. There are hundreds of different cultivars and there are hybrids along with sub species. Figuring out exactly which one you are growing would be tough.

The plants looks fantastic and the fact that you are treating them in the same manner as an amaryllis leads me to believe they are a type of Hippeastrum. Take a look at the link and see what you think.

Question 3: Christmas cactus, part 1

Carol: I just finished reading the article about the Christmas cactus in the Brookes’ home. My brother has the most pathetic-looking Christmas cactus I’ve ever set eyes on. It was from our mother’s home, and I believe it was passed on from a grandparent. When I visit him, I literally pull it out of the pot as the soil around it is like a brick. My question is how can I transplant it into new fresh soil without damaging the root of the cactus that is around it now. I am not exaggerating when I tell you it is like a solid brick around the root. I honestly don’t know how it is still alive.

Doug: As you can see, Christmas cacti are tough! I would get a pot that’s a little bigger than the plant is in now. Add some pre-moistened planting mix, available at any nursery, and just add the plant to the pot. A Christmas cactus isn’t a cactus at all and needs the same amount of water as most houseplants. It should be watered at least monthly, maybe more depending on the humidity and heat in the house.

Maybe it’s time for you to adopt the plant; it doesn’t sound like it’s getting watered.

Question 4: Raised bed gardens

Dave: I am looking at making a few raised bed vegetable gardens and would like to know if I can use pressure treated lumber?

Doug: I wouldn’t. The newer stuff is better, but the science is pretty sketchy on what’s leaching into the ground. I like rough cut cedar; it’s cheap and will last for decades. (I get mine at HP Starr Lumber.)

Question 5: Christmas cactus, part 2

Sandy: I have a Christmas cactus that I inherited from a friend’s grandmother. I have had it since 1976 and her family could not remember when she didn’t have it. My cactus has had a couple of mishaps — it fell out of the tree it was hanging in one year and was quite a mess. It didn’t bloom for seven years after I received it, and I found that if I put it outside in the summer and brought it in after a couple of frosts it would bloom. The Christmas cactus hung under the maple tree for several years until we had to have the tree cut down. It is now too heavy for me to lift so it remains in the west window of my bedroom. What kind of fertilizer should I use for it and when is the best time to fertilize it? Any hints to improve my cactus would be appreciated.

Doug: That’s a wonderful story about the Christmas cactus and yours looks pretty good. You should wait to fertilize until the end of February or into March when there’s enough light for the plant to use the nutrients. I would recommend a good organic liquid fertilizer, there are many brands, you can find one at your local nursery. I like Neptune’s Harvest, but any one will work.

Keep the plant a little on the dry side, but not bone dry. I would also think about taking some cuttings from the plant and starting a few new ones. The leaf segments root very easily.

Previous mailbags

Christmas cactus, gnats, shredded leaves and more

Leaf size, no-light plants and grubs

Canna lilies, elephant ears, daffodils/garlic and more

Hibiscus care, tomato seeds, daffodils and succulents

Early garlic, pencil holly, hydrangeas and tree locations

Bellflowers, sweet potato vine, deer/garlic and more

Lemon tree, Knockout roses, soil repair and more

Butterfly weed, tomato seeds, rose bushes and more

Roses, Japanese beetles, planting garlic and more

Artillery fungus, heliotropes, crown gall and more

Skunks, pawpaws and a memorial tree

Mushrooms, harlequin bugs, fall planting and more

Beautyberry, nematodes, tomatoes and more

Pokeweed, bug identification and voles/moles

Caterpillars, mystery flower, onions and more

Seeds, leaf gall, bulb sale and more

Praying mantis, tomato issues, crabgrass and shrubs

Dogwood relocation, tomato issues and garlic soup recipe

Canada thistle, compost, bolting parsley and more

Blossom end rot, bees, butterfly weeds and more

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See also, Christmas Cactus Preserves Memory Of A Loved One

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Doug Oster is manager and editor of Everybody Gardens with a passion for gardening and a love of sharing is experiences with other gardeners. You will also find Doug’s gardening contributions in the Tribune-Review each week. He’s an Emmy Award winning producer, television host and writer. Oster is co-host of The Organic Gardeners Radio show every Sunday morning at 7 a.m. on KDKA radio in Pittsburgh. Oster’s Outstanding Documentary Emmy was awarded for Gardens of Pennsylvania, a one hour special he conceived and produced for the PBS affiliate WQED. Doug appears every Thursday morning on KDKA-TV’s Pittsburgh Today live at 9 a.m. “Gardening is fun, he says, enjoy every day spent outside tending vegetables, flowers, shrubs and trees.”