A Garden Blog About Saying Goodbye

I'm a gardener in Chicago, IL, and I'm leaving my garden behind at the end of the year - The Last Garden is about my garden's final year. Share & Enjoy.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Houseplants in Winter

Some of my houseplants in a southeast window.

For me, houseplants are accumulated during the wintertime to stave off insanity. Several years ago, I got tired of having to compost away countless pots of dead specimens, forgotten during the summer, and so I managed to limit myself to only those I could keep alive in some form or another throughout the year.

I can't really help anyone with curbing the unbearable urge to surround oneself with endless numbers of plant and plant-like organisms during the long cold months. I still don't know how I manage that. Just close your eyes, take a deep breath, and walk away. Of course, it's never that simple, but that's all I have to say on the subject.

What has been helpful, for me, at least, is keeping in mind the kinds of plants that stay alive in my house. They fall into three categories, and I'm fairly strict about never getting houseplants that stray outside those categories. Here they are:

Forced Garden Plants:

A primrose, a Hyacinth, and a paperwhite that's
apparently decided that this is a race and it's going to win.

This category is the easiest for me, though I confess that I have (almost) completely failed to provide representatives of it this year. Normally I will take a few bulbs from the garden and from my lineup of new fall bulbs and pot them up to be forced, but this year autumn was chaos and it didn't happen. So, my forced garden bulb representatives are store-bought late season bulbs.

A miniature daffodil in late winter of 2009. For some reason
I can't find any of my other forced bulb photos.

Most years, though, I'll keep Tulips, or some small bulbs like Muscari, Crocus, Scilla or Snowdrops from the garden, as well as store-bought primroses and tropical bulbs (Amaryllis ho!) but we'll get to those later (I know, very sad). For garden bulbs, all you need to do is plant them in good loose potting soil with the bulb tips just underneath the soil's surface, and put them somewhere dark, cold and not too drafty for a two months. 45ºF is apparently optimal, but I stuck mine in the 37ºF fridge and they were fine, and I also just stashed them in the garage, which was about 55ºF in November and then anywhere from 20ºF to 55ºF in December and January. Some years the garage didn't work out too well, but usually it did. The bulbs have to be carefully "tricked" into believing that spring has come when bring them out of the cold, otherwise they'll pull all sorts of tricks with their foliage (it doesn't come up, it all comes up at different times, it comes up and then yellows and dies back a week later) and fail to bloom. I bring them in from the cold into the cool mudroom, then the drafty, chilly corner of the kitchen, and then into the drafty but balmy living room, with about a week in each spot, and they're quite happy blooming and going about their business. After the flowers have faded, I put them in a bright but hidden spot to let the foliage yellow, and then store the bulbs to be planted in the fall with the rest.

This year's store-bought Hyacinth.

Every year I argue with myself about whether or not to force Hyacinths myself or just buy them when they pop up in the stores. The reason for this is one that you absolutely must know - Hyacinth bulbs cause almost poison-ivy-level itching. It burns. I get off somewhat lucky, because the bulbs don't burn my hands, but if I touch them and don't realize and then touch my face, I have a very fun four hour span of time in my future. If I just wash my hands I can avoid such a fate, but a lot of people aren't so lucky. So keep this in mind when thinking about forcing Hyacinths. And, for the forsaken stars, don't poke at your eyes after you've touched Hyacinths. If you do force Hyacinths, the procedure is pretty much the same as for potted bulbs. The only difference is that Hyacinths can also be forced on water in special Hyacinth glasses.

An Hippeastrum 'Red Pearl' bud in 2009. For some reason
don't have any photos of the opened flower.

Yes, this is the part you've been waiting for. Tropical bulbs include the ever-popular Amaryllis (Scientifically known as Hippeastrum, which, come on. Hippy astrum. The answer you're looking for is yes.), as well as other easy bulbs like Clivia, Freesia and Nerine, though those are more difficult to find and I haven't grown them personally yet. So, we're left with Hippeastrum

Amaryllis 'Nymph' from last year.

Lovely thing to be left with, though. Amaryllis may live for years indoors, though I have not yet accomplished this feat. They can be potted up into a nice heavy clay pot in a very well draining soil before the winter solstice. They'll bloom and then die back, and then you just take them out of their pot and let them be dry for a couple months, before potting them up again to do their thing for another year. I have encountered problems because I decided I was going to mix my own Amaryllis potting soil, gosh darn it, and no one was going to stop me. The plants took offense. Just use a good potting soil and don't water too much and you'll be fine. The great thing about Amaryllis is that you can just forget about them over the summer, then pot them up again the next fall.

Winter Houseplants, Tender Garden Plants:

My current palms as well as a fan palm that was fatally attacked
by mealybugs while I was away in November and a fern that refused
to stay watered. Photo from last summer, when they actually looked nice.

I'd like to say this is my favorite category for houseplants, but, alas, I have no favorites when it comes to plants. Or if I do the favorites number in the thousands and are therefore useless. I do have a soft spot for those plants that live outside during the green seasons and then accompany me indoors for the winter. I am both blessed and cursed to live in a very drafty old house - it gets a little cool in winter, but the humidity is always very high compared to modern well-insulated homes. We have resigned ourselves to the chill and, instead, enjoy the presence of some lovely palms.

The Kentia palm, looking quite elegant but for the gnawed leaf edges.

Unfortunately we also enjoy the presence of some lovely cats, which apparently believe they're herbivorous and are constantly browsing on the palms. Therefore, my pictures of the palms are never spectacular, just because all you can do with them is sit analyzing the damage for however long. In practice, the palms don't seem to mind the regular assaults, and they green up the living room very nicely. I have a bamboo palm and a Kentia palm.

The bamboo palm, peeking out from its hiding place behind some
chairs. Observe the mangled canes on the right.

Other than them, I've recently acquired a spider plant. Its leaf tips are already browning, so we'll see if that turns out alright.

The spider plant, temporarily moved to the Amaryllis's table
for photos.

I've only had orchids for two years now, by which I mean I've only managed to keep them alive for longer than six months for the past two years. The problem is that orchids need attention in the summer but I've never been courageous enough to bring them outside. This year I'm going to do it. I'm pretty sure it'll be way too hot (Chicago ranges from 70ºF to 90ºF in summertime) but I'm going to see how it works out. I keep two white Phalenopsis orchids, and two 'Sharry Baby' Oncidiums.

One of the Oncidium 'Sharry Baby' orchids, going incognito
without its chocolate scented flowers. Mine tend to grow haphazardly,
as you can see.

Indoor Plants:

This is another category I really, really like. I won't keep a plant indoors during the summer anymore unless it can take care of itself, so all but one of my pure indoor houseplants are grown under glass. The first one is a giant brandy snifter gifted unto me by my mother. I have many comments about the giant brandy snifter, but I will limit them here to this - my only option was to turn it into a terrarium. So I did. It has helpfully housed a pretty little variegated African Violet (Saintpaulia cultivars) for the past three years. I water it with a long-spouted little watering can, the water runs down the glass, avoiding the leaves, and wicks up through the soil to reach the plant's roots.

The variegated African Violet and its giant brandy snifter.

The one problem with planting under glass is that it is an enormous pain to photograph. Hence, you get this dark, blurry close-up of my second offering, the Greenbox. The Greenbox is a gift for my mother that I set up before Christmas last year, only to realize that I really need to let it settle in before giving it to anybody. I have until June to make it presentable. It contains a begonia, a jewel orchid, two ferns, moss and a Pellionia pulchra. Only the begonia agreed to be photographed.

Lastly we have the moss dish. The dish came to me from my mother (starting to see a pattern here?) and I saw it as a golden opportunity to grow Selaginella moss. It's now two years old and has encountered some difficulty but persevered. Parts of it have always been yellowng away, but I think I've found a solution for that - apparently Selaginella hates having water standing on its leaves. In the covered dish, water is constantly condensing on the lid and dripping down onto the plant, causing it distress. I have a little purple doohickey (in reality small stretchy plastic pads) there to prop up the lid enough to let most of the condensation out before it drips down onto the plant. I only discovered this in late December, and this plant is a very slow grower, so it'll be some time before I see any improvement, assuming there is any. For now, here's my moss dish.

The selaginella dish. I'm fairly certain the white leaves are
caused by water damage.

Indoor Seedlings:

A pansy seedling in a toilet paper tube.

Yes, that's right, folks, I have seedlings in the dead of winter. I'll go into this more in my next post, but the deal is that I want to grow my own pansies in time for April, and it takes them 12 weeks from germination to bloom, so they must be started during the month of January. Yes, I am crazy, I know that already.


No comment.

When I first brought these in in November I felt like I was a bad rip-off of Martha Stewart. Then I realized I've been a bad rip-of of Martha Stewart for a long time, and got over that. Then I realized why I did this. In late winter, when I look out into the garden, it's hard to believe that all the memories I have of the distinct places in my garden are real.

The aftermath of the infamous blizzard of February 1, 2011. For
reference, that fence is about 45" tall.

By February, all the earthy smells of summer have almost disappeared from my memory. I forget the textures, the sights, the sounds of green things. I leave all of my dried perennials up in fall, but by February they've mostly been knocked down by snow or rain or wind. So I just want a reminder of the things that have been, and the things that will be. This is probably an indication of the huge mental problems I will develop after this year, but I am still lingering in the denial phase of this whole extravaganza. And for those of you who ask, "Well, why the heck are you living in Chicago if winter makes you crazy?" I answer, "Absence really and truly does make the heart grow fonder."

Five months ago, and six months into the future...

In Conclusion:

The tables-by-windows situation is very helpful when caring
for houseplants.

I don't have a lot of tips on growing houseplants - I'm not really fantastic at it, but it makes me happy even when I do it wrong. It might seem strange, but, for me, at least, even in the bleak winter the show must go on. So I water the palms and orchids every week and the succulents bimonthly, feed everybody when I feel like they might want it, repot sporadically and hope that summer doesn't bring total catastrophe. I suspect that I will be relying heavily on houseplants to cure the fatigue of living with no garden, and I've been trying to decide which to bring (with little success).

In the meantime, this is essentially what goes on in a garden's house between the first and last frost of the year. I guess if I have one tip regarding houseplants it's this: Pay attention to the plants. Don't think of them like plants, think of them like strange pets. Visit with them. Look at them. Think about them a few times a week. You have to care about them in order to care for them.

I know, I know, this is what you really want to see. For the curious, the flowery
flowers are Zinnias, and the tall, Dr-Suess-Esque flowers are Cleome.

1 comment:

  1. how crazy! you sound like me a few years ago. i finally got internet and can look up each plant as i buy them. i have finally got down sun requirements for each plant and the meaning of slightly moist and my plants are thriving.hang in there and before you know it you will have a house full of beautiful plants! Terri