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Notes from a 'Plant Whisperer'

By Carolyn Newstrom July 25, 2021 0 comments

Today's resident expert is M.E. Wilcox, a plant whisperer extraordinaire. M.E. and I first met several years ago via a local photography club. Little did I know back then that our interests would intersect once again through our love for plants.

M.E. has a long history of lovingly tending her plants and trees and it's so cool to see how well they respond! She's set up a very interesting situation where her houseplants--large and small--are moved inside and upstairs during the winter months and back outside once the threat of frost has passed. This is repeated every year, year after year. They not only survive this routine but seem to thrive in it. Her success with plants, whether easy-care plants or finicky plants, is inspiring. She graciously took time to answer a few of my questions about plant care. You'll find the questions and answers (aka pearls of wisdom from years of experience) below. 

Here is a sampling of what she has going on at her place. Her houseplant collection is something else. So beautiful!

 M.E. Wilcox in her Upstairs Plant Room

M.E. Wilcox Tropical Plants Outdoors 

M.E. Wilcox Crotons

M.E. Wilcox Tropical Plants and Crotons Upstairs Plant Room


1. What is your plant background? (when and why did you first get interested in plants?)

Throughout the 70s, my parents were into plants. When I was around 8-10 years old I recall making regular visits to the local nursery with my mom. We’d pick out plants together. She enjoyed building up her yard with various bushes, tomatoes, peach trees, and elephant ear plants just to name a few. Mom tended to the plants and my sister and I would often help her out. Then there was my grandmother. She had gorgeous rose bushes. I grew up within 5 miles of both sets of grandparents and they loved plants too. Plants were a big part of my life from a very young age (came by it naturally). Sometimes, when mom took me to the library, I’d bring home garden books.

During the years I lived in SE Asia (Indonesia, Myanmar & Singapore), I had beautiful outdoor tropical gardens around my houses. These gardens were made up of mostly tropical plants and a few garden-variety houseplants. All my plants were kept outside as there was no A/C inside the houses where I lived. Both the plants and I spent lots of time together outside.

How did you know what to do to care for each type of plant?

During those years in Asia, there was no internet and no resources at my fingertips like there are today. Instead, I had to rely on my intuitive sense of ‘what to do’ with each plant along with keen observation skills. I’d carefully examine my plants at least once a day—sometimes twice a day. I’d look for signs of disease, watering imbalances, and signs of pests. The wonderful thing about plants is that they give us little tell-tale signs of impending problems. Plants don’t just go from thriving one day to dead the next. They give us plenty of warning that something is amiss.

2. Do you propagate to add more plants to your collection?

Yes! I used to just dump trimmed branches and trimmings over the back fence into the untamed land behind our property. Now I propagate new plants from the trimmings and sell them. Some of the larger plants I sell for $100-$200! Sometimes I need to trim up to 3 feet off of my vining plants. They are easily propagated. It’s a very easy process: I first place the trimmed vine or stem into a glass of water and wait for the root to form. Once the roots show themselves, I transplant the stem or vine, roots first, into soil in a pot and the plant grows up fine from there.

3. Do you purchase new plants every year or do you add to what you have by growing new plants from seed or seedling?

Most plants that I own I inherited from my father. He had a greenhouse full of plants so both my sister and I inherited a lot of plants when he passed (He passed away quite suddenly). My sister had a florist shop, so she kept most of his plants there for the longest time. Then, 13 years ago my Mom and my sister moved in with me. My Dad's plants moved in too. For years I did not add much to my plant collection because I had plenty of plants. Now that I’ve been selling off some of the larger plants, I have room to add a few more and I will!

4. How often do you purchase struggling plants from the discounted section of the nursery or from a store's garden section and put them through rehab?

Lowe’s has a discounted ailing-plants section in their nursery. I’ve been known to bring home a struggling plant from Lowe’s and bring it back to life. I’m also occasionally ‘gifted’ a dying plant from a friend. I find it fairly easy and very rewarding to nurse a struggling plant to one that is thriving and looking great!
Years ago, I used to pick up discarded plants in Singapore that were left on the street for the trash collectors to pick up. I’d fill my lap with discarded plants and ride home on my scooter with them. That was quite the picture! So, yes, I have a long history of playing ‘plant doctor’ and I enjoy it.

5. How do you prepare the soil for new plants? How about for plants that need transplanting?

It depends on the plant. Nowadays, I start with good quality soil. If a plant likes fast-draining soil I amend the soil with perlite and/or sand or a bark mix. If a plant loves constant moisture (such as ferns), I use soil right out of the bag and skip the amendments. It’s best to find out in advance what each plant likes, soil wise, and go with that.

6. Once it's time to begin feeding your plants, what do you feed them and how often do you feed them? Does it vary from plant to plant?

I find I’m most successful with fertilizers when I follow the directions on the label of each particular type. If you do this, you’ll never over-fertilize.
I have around 10 different fertilizer types on my gardening shelves because different plants need different fertilizers. It's best to research individual plants to learn what their nutrient needs are. N-P-K on fertilizer packaging stands for Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium. Match the N-P-K of the fertilizer to the N-P-K requirements of each particular plant. Keep in mind that some plants have different N-P-K requirements depending on whether they are blooming or not. Plumerias are in a class of their own - they do best with a fertilizer tailored to their needs. You may find other plants are stand outs as well.

The interesting thing is, back in the 70s we didn’t have the resources and products we have today and my plants still survived and thrived. Go figure! Perhaps that’s because they fell into the low-maintenance category (ivy, Pothos, snake plant, elephant ears, etc.). These types of plants are a lot more forgiving than tropical plants.

7. What is your watering routine? Do you use tap water, rainwater, or filtered water?

I use rain barrels to catch rainwater. I have three set up outside and one set up inside (upstairs) in my plant room. When the plants are upstairs in the winter, we pump the water from the barrels downstairs up to the 60-gallon rain barrel upstairs. If/when we run out of rainwater, we use water from the tap or from the hose and that works just fine as well.

I don’t use a moisture meter. Instead, I’ve learned to use and trust my finger! Just when and how much to water depends on the plants. I use two different protocols: one for summer and one for winter. In the summer, many of my outside container plants get watered every day. Some plants are soaked and some get just a dribble depending on the type of plant. Tropical plants, in general, need lots of water so they get a good soaking. Ferns need to be consistently moist all the time so they’re watered liberally every day. Some plants need to dry out thoroughly between watering (i.e. cacti & succulents).


M.E. Wilcox House Plants in Upstairs Plant Room


8. What do you do to keep mold and pests at bay?

As of two years ago, pests have become a problem. This is something new. They were never a problem before; never like this. I suspect this is due to climate change and from the overuse of pesticides that kill off beneficial predator insects--the ones who used to eat the plant-harming insects. Some plants are bothered by just one type of pest and some plants are bothered by two or more different types at the same time. 

To deal with pests, I try to go pesticide-free whenever I can. A good strong spray from the hose works well if you catch the problem early and keep treating the plant every day. Next, I’ll try using a spray with a mix of water and Castile soap (or Ivory liquid). I inundate every leaf of the affected plant with this spray. This works on insects that have exoskeletons - it suffocates the pests. You can’t see some variety of pests with the naked eye so you have to completely soak every leaf. If pests get out of hand, and the soap spray doesn’t work, it’s time to pull out one of the pesticides available from the garden store. I generally choose pesticide granules which are put on top of the soil and mixed in. The granules are less likely to harm the beneficial pests and pollinators. The pesticide effect of these granules lasts for 6-8 weeks. By the way, I hate killing bugs! If I can catch a bug, such as a katydid, I'll do that and then release it into the forest out back.

So far as mold goes, white mold on the surface of soil is not harmful to plants and it’s not hard to get rid of. Just let it dry out and it will fade away. You could also just pick it off the top of the soil if it’s more than just a thin layer.
Beware of using banana water on indoor plants. Because it’s fruit-sourced and retains the smell of bananas, it can attract fruit flies.

9. What do you do about lighting in the winter when you bring your plants indoors? Do you use full spectrum LED lighting in your plant room or does that room get plenty of natural light in from the windows?

The light that comes in through the 4 skylights above and from the two large windows on either end of the room upstairs provides just enough light in the winter. I don't use extra lighting and they seem to survive just fine. It helps that the room is climate controlled and naturally humid most of the time.


M.E. Wilcox House Plants 2 in Upstairs Plant Room


10. What is your rule for choosing the right-sized pot or planter when you bring a new plant home from the store or when your existing plants are in need of a transplant (e.g. they've out-grown their current pot/planter)?

It's best to gently slide the plant out of the pot and look at the roots (easy to do with the smaller ones). If the roots have started spiraling around the bottom of the pot, it’s time to move up a planter size. Also, if there are more roots than soil, it’s time to move it up a size into a new pot, adding fresh soil.

Speaking of "fresh soil", container plants need to be repotted with fresh soil every 2-3 years (depending on the type of plant) as repeated watering causes the nutritive ingredients in the soil to drain out right along with the water.

Sometimes the big plants that have gotten too big and tall need a soil refresh. To control the size, trim off some of the roots when it’s repotted (just a little bit…not a lot). Add fresh soil to the same pot and put the large plant back into the same pot. The large plant may grow a little bit bigger but not as big as one would see if it were repotted into a larger pot.

The Bird of Paradise have large roots that like to travel far and wide. In fact, the root ball will actually push the plant up and out of the container if it runs out of room to grow inside the pot. If this happens, re-pot the Bird of Paradise into a larger pot.

11. What is your favorite type of pot?

Succulents & cacti prefer terracotta as terracotta absorbs some of the excess moisture. Most of my other plants are in plastic pots. I do have some smaller plants in decorative ceramic pots that stay inside my house year 'round. Plastic pots and planters are lighter in weight and are easier to move from place to place. I used to use all black nursery pots for uniformity. However, in the summer, small plants in black nursery pots get too hot as the black color absorbs the heat of the sun. I’ve recently switched to using bright green plastic planter pots for my smaller plants (keeping to the same color to maintain uniformity). My hanging baskets are typically black plastic pots.


M.E. Wilcox House Plants under Eve Outdoors


12. What are some of your favorite plants?

I love crotons (Croton Petra, as an example) – the leaves are large and variegated and so beautiful.

I keep lots of African violets in my kitchen over the past 30 years. It reminds me of my father (it came from his collection originally).

I love flowers –all types—I have mostly hibiscus, gardenias, African Violets, plumerias and begonias.

    All of these do well in containers. In fact, everything I own is in containers out of necessity. Snakes live in the forested properties on either side of our house and they like to come and ‘visit’. We had to remove all ground cover and lay down rock in order to protect our three dogs from the snakes. The snakes would also take out the baby bunnies that were born on our property. The only way I can have a garden is to house my plants in planters and pots, so that’s what I do.

    During the pandemic I started an Instagram account for my plants (it was a really popular thing to do).

    If you'd like to follow me to see more of my plant & nature photos you can find me here:  ~ M.E. Wilcox


    M.E. Wilcox African Violets on Shelves 

    M.E. Wilcox with her Large Coleus Plant 

    M.E. Wilcox Plants around the Pool 

    M.E. Wilcox with her Norfolk Pine Tree 

    M.E. Wilcox Pothos Plant Indoors



    Thank you, M.E., for sharing your tips and tricks and secrets-of-success with us! I have a feeling that although you score a 10 in plant-care technical ability, it's the love and TLC you share with your plants that makes all the difference. We'll call that 'artistic expression'--another score of 10 out of 10!

    Written by Carolyn, founder of eSproutz. All photos were taken by M.E. Wilcox.

    Published on 7/25/21


    Visit eSproutz for indoor and outdoor garden supplies and inspiration. Our Pots and Planters Collection includes a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors--perfect for houseplants of all types.

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