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THE INDOOR GARDENER : Braiding Gives Plants Decorative Appearance

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

First there was “The Brady Bunch,” the TV show. Then came “The Brady Bunch,” the movie. Now, for all you indoor gardeners, here’s “The Braid-y Bunch, the Plants.”

Our “Braid-y Bunch” is a family of small woody-stemmed plants that have been shaped into little trees with braided bare trunks and bushy heads. The star is the glamorous braided Keepsake Azalea. Other braided plants--commercially available and easy to grow indoors--include ficus benjamina, hibiscus and pleomele.

The colorful and exotic Keepsake Azaleas are grown exclusively by Yoder Brothers nurseries in Barberton, Ohio, and come in several basic colors--red, white, pink, salmon, orange/red, purple, and yellow--and an almost infinite number of variegated patterns. The little trees come in three pot sizes--4, 6 and 8 inches--and are available in nurseries, flower shops and supermarkets all over the Southland.

According to Bill Aulenbach, Yoder’s azalea manager, the most popular size is the six-inch pot, which is ideal for any bright window of your house or apartment. Larger plants in eight-inch pots can provide a dramatic splash of color in a bright entry hall or atrium, and the smaller four-inch pots make an excellent bedside, window or table decoration.

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Although most of us think of azaleas, all members of the Rhododendron family, as outdoor plants, the Keepsake Azaleas will do very well indoors. The natural blooming season for azaleas, both indoors and outdoors, lasts only about a month to six weeks, but the varieties grown by Yoder are evergreen.

Although their natural blooming season is early spring, azaleas can be “tricked” into blooming outside the normal flowering season: Once buds have formed, the plants are placed in the cold for four to six weeks to break their dormancy. This is done by stimulating winter temperatures in a refrigerated cooler or cold greenhouse. Then the plants are placed in a warm greenhouse to force flowering. Thus, you can purchase the Keepsake Azaleas in blazing bloom all year around.

“These azaleas are actually very easy to care for indoors,” says Aulenbach, who has been with Yoder for 39 years after getting his degree in flora-culture from Penn State.

Probably the most important factor in growing azaleas successfully indoors is to provide enough light. Aulenbach suggests the plants be kept in a bright sunny location during fall, winter and spring. “If you purchase a blooming azalea during the hot summer months, the plant should be placed out of direct sunlight to avoid burning the flowers,” Aulenbach advised.

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When in flower, these azaleas require no fertilizer. “Because azaleas have very fine root systems,” said Aulenbach, “only use about one-fourth to one-half the normal recommended levels of liquid houseplant food when you do feed.”

Watering is a critical factor when it comes to raising azaleas indoors. It’s vital that you don’t allow your azalea to wilt, since wilting will shorten the time of flowering. Depending on the temperature and humidity in your home, you may need to water every other day with a cup or more of water.

“The important point,” he said, “is never to let the soil in the pot get dry. It should always be a bit moist. Water the plant by pouring water into the top of the pot until water runs out the bottom.” And most important, Aulenbach said, your azalea should never be allowed to sit in water. This will cause the plant to reabsorb the salts from the soil and the pot and will burn the plant’s fine root hairs.

To get your azaleas to re-bloom every year indoors, they must be taken outside or placed in a very cool spot for at least two months in winter.

“If you put your plants outside in October or November,” Aulenbach said, “and then bring them back in around the beginning of January, they should re-bloom each year by late February or early March.”

If you have a patio or a garden, your braided azaleas will do beautifully outdoors in an area that gets a combination of sun and shade. Azaleas planted in the garden or set outside on a patio in their pots will flower yearly in the spring.

If you’d like to do it yourself, braiding your own plants is easy if you can find “whips,” which are young, thin-stemmed and pliant plants. Of all the plants in the Braid-y Bunch I’d suggest you begin by braiding a ficus benjamina, which in the necessary small size is the most readily available commercially of all the woody-stemmed eligibles.

Get a small ficus in a four-inch pot that has three or four thin, flexible stalks. Trim the leaves off the sides of the stalks about two-thirds of the way up, then simply braid the stalks around each other and continue to cultivate the plant as you would a regular ficus benjamina: good filtered light; water when the soil is dry, and regular once-a-month feedings with a good liquid plant food.

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Continue to trim off any new growth that appears on the stems, and every once in a while pinch back new growth at the top of the plant to encourage more robust outward growth to increase the size of the head.

Within a few months the braided stems will meld together, and within a year you should have a strong, sturdy, braided trunk with a lush, full head of foliage at the top. I can attest to that: A ficus benjamina that I braided six years ago has become one of the most prized bonsai plants in my collection.

Rapp is a Los Angeles free-lance writer who, as “Mr. Mother Earth,” has written several best-selling books on indoor gardening.


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