Down to earth — my indoor garden grows

(Originally published October 15, 2014 in EastBayRI newspapers.)

What was it I said about bringing fewer plants back inside for the winter? I seem to have lost my resolve. Weeks ago, when I was on a tear to be tidy I did throw a couple of plants on the compost. They were real stragglers, too unattractively unhealthy to take up precious windowsill space and probably should have been pitched long ago. Nonetheless, I felt virtuous enough to justify deferring decisions about the rest. Now every plant on my deck is like Welcome Back Kotter’s Horshack, with one hand raised to the sky, shouting, “Ooh, ooh, ooh!” and I can’t help but want to pick them all.

I remember mentioning an intention to let go of an enormous angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia) that never bloomed. As if to prove me impatient and mean it’s bedecked with buds now. Not only will it be impossible for me to compost the plant but I’ll have to give it a prime spot on my entry porch—the plantry—instead of sending it straight down cellar into the dark where it belongs for the winter. But won’t I feel lucky in a few weeks when its big, dangling, pale-yellow flowers fill the evening with lemony sweetness?

Speaking of lemony, it’s high time to find windowsill real-estate for citrus plants too. I brought the Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia) inside weeks ago when the night temperatures started to fall into the 50s but I really should offer it to any gardener who turns the thermostat up in the winter instead of layering on sweaters, as I do. Key limes are tropical and would prefer temperatures that hover in the 60s if not 70s. Come to think of it, so would I.

This evening in the plantry
This evening in the plantry

Meyer lemon plants (Citrus ×meyeri) can tolerate more cold—into the 40s—but will do their best winter growing and flowering in the 60s at least. They also want plenty of sun. Unfortunately, the brightest place in my living room happens to be a west-facing corner flanked on one side by our official, but rarely used, front door. I’m on the fence about spending another winter with one out of only two entrances (exits) completely blocked by a spiny behemoth. If it hadn’t set fruit and if nurseries offered trade-ins, I’d have downsized already.

Gardenia and friend in the plantry
Gardenia and friend in the plantry

My gardenia and sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans) are also beginning to outgrow their welcome. I remember when the gardenia was just a rooted cutting at Logee’s that I added on impulse to a boxful of tiny begonias (now also huge). It was cutest thing. This winter it will entirely fill our only south-facing window. A small price to pay, I suppose, for dozens of bone-white swirly flowers that scented the backyard all summer long. The sweet olive, which these days stands as tall as a ten-year old, earns its floor space by blooming all winter and not demanding the sunniest window.

Both plants would be perfectly happy out in the plantry but I’m holding every inch of space out there not already taken by the brugmansia for my favorite tender perennial salvia, cuphea, plectranthus, and African blue basil plants. I’ll dig and pot them up just before the first hard frost because for now, they’re still busy blooming, feeding the bees, and calling to migrating hummingbirds. In the meantime, I took a bunch of cuttings so one way or another, every shelf and most of the floor, is spoken for. As long as I can get into (and out of) my indoor garden this winter, I guess I’m pretty OK with that.

What’s changed since I wrote the above: The sweet olive landed in the plantry after all and I’m enjoying how its scent greets us as we pass through. And the south-facing sunbeam in the living room that I earmarked for the gardenia is actually occupied by two cats and a dog. Maybe I won’t bring so many stock plants in after all. Have you moved any of your garden indoors yet? Can you still get through your doors and see out the windows?

Down to earth — why my houseplants hate me

(Originally published on April 16, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life under the headline “Don’t abandon indoor plants”)

It’s not often that I imagine my plants quoting dead poets. Or living ones for that matter. But I can almost hear my indoor collection sigh, “April is the cruellest month.” Suddenly, right when they need me the most, I have abandoned them and gone outside to garden. It’s not as if I can help it. None of us could. We’ve been waiting so impatiently for spring to arrive that as soon as the sun came out, the peepers peeped, and the ice-cream trucks started making their rounds, didn’t we all bolt out of the house like a shot, not to return until supper? Trouble is, like everything outside, our houseplants are going through a growth spurt too, which must be every bit as painful as T.S. Eliot suggests.

All winter long I was able to keep a once-a-week watering schedule. Doing the rounds every Saturday morning worked out perfectly. Plants like begonias and citrus that needed to go a little bit dry between watering did, and the ferns and ficus that needed more consistent soil moisture somehow managed to never quite dry out. The half-dormant plants out in my chilly “plantry” required watering even less frequently. Every other Saturday seemed to suit them fine.

That has all changed now. Longer days and a sun that keeps rising higher, hotter, and brighter are universal cues to get growing even for plants that spent the winter relatively warm behind or under glass. And as they begin to photosynthesize in earnest again, they take up more water from the soil and more nutrients too. Come to think of it, this is the time to begin fertilizing. If only I wasn’t so distracted by the garden outside.

Alocasia R.I.P.
Alocasia R.I.P.

Some of my houseplants have reacted to my distraction by handing out ultimatums. For many of them, wilting is a red flag signaling, “pay attention to me right this minute or I will die.” For others it’s an incommutable death sentence. The stress of abandonment and temperature fluctuations between sun-warmed days and winter-chilly nights, together with succulent new growth has also suddenly attracted infestations of aphid and scale. Since I hadn’t noticed sap-sucking populations in residence over the winter, I have to guess that they spontaneously generated out of thin air and opportunity. “April is the cruellest month.”

I’m not sure how they got word but the fully dormant plants stored down cellar in the dark seem to know it’s spring too. Perhaps warmer ambient temperatures can be credited for spurring some anemic looking new growth that begs for the light of day. In any case, it’s time to give fuchsias, salvias, tuberous begonias, fig, and brugmansia a transition and a head start on the season. They should come upstairs and in this particular household, the only way to make room for more plants is to move others out.

April nights are cold but as long as the long range forecast doesn’t mention any temperature too near or below freezing, plants like New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax), camellia, and geranium (Pelargonium spp.) that hail from temperate (rather than tropical) climes can begin to join us outside in the garden. And just like us as we venture out, they could use some protection — in their case, shade for a couple of weeks at least — to keep them from burning.

Meanwhile, all of the plants still stuck inside need attending to. They need watering much more frequently. Fertilizing. Insect patrol and grooming. Time that I’m sure we’d all much rather spend outdoors. But to lose, this close to summer, any of the plants that helped keep us sane over the winter, would be truly painful. So let’s not forget about them in April. 

Any casualties in your household lately? 

Under the weather

front gate pile of plow poop

The garden probably isn’t as sick (literally) of winter as I am. Everything must be happy enough tucked under a nice insulating layer (or two) of snow. Except maybe the lavenders. But they have recovered from previous snow splits and if they don’t this year, it’ll just mean it’s time to replace them with the one everyone is pushing pushing pushing. Lavandula × intermedia ‘Phenomenal’ is supposed to be ultra-hardy (to Zone 4) and tolerant of every kind of abuse from humid summers to crushing winter snows. Gotta try it, obviously, either way.

I promised to give the enormous miscanthus at my entry gate to a friend and am grateful right now for the reminder to never, ever plant anything more precious or fragile right there. Exactly where my neighbor’s plow person dumps their driveway snow. Grass was a good choice for that spot – it could stand to be flattened and unlike the rest of my garden, it was never full of wildlife that might frighten off our mail carrier. So perhaps I’ll trade it for another that doesn’t grow quite so hey-yuge quite so fast.

If only we hadn’t had a run of frigid temps without snowy insulation I wouldn’t be worried about my marginals. Salvia guaranitica was just barely holding on as it was – struggling perhaps because of my lousy soil or the over-crowded conditions. Fingers crossed. Last I saw the yellow-speckled leaves of Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’ they looked pretty wretched and I can only hope that even in that sorry state they helped insulate the crown. I’ll be sorry to lose that one if I do. If I’m very, very lucky though, temps will have dipped low enough to slow down my rice paper plant. I would much prefer Tetrapanax paperifer ‘Rex’ to stay under 15′ tall in this tiny garden. Being knocked back to the ground every year would suit me fine.

Are you worried about anything under the weather in your garden?

Indoor flowers for winter happiness

Camellia 'Minato-No-Akebono'Lately every time I open a door to the plantry — whenever I come and go from the house — I am hit with a light clove-y (or is it cinnamon-y?) pink fragrance that makes me dim my eyes and suck in deeply through both nostrils. I’d use every pore if I could. Especially whenever it’s too cold to smell much of anything outside or on those rare days the neighborhood is damply downwind of the town’s biosolids compost facility. (It’s great stuff but super stinky.) The source of the perfume is a little camellia I picked up at Logee’s a few years ago and it is blooming more heavily this year than ever before. Its tag is long gone and it doesn’t appear to be in their catalog anymore but I did a quick internet search: although this rings no bells at all, it looks like a Camella lutchuensis ‘Minato-No-Akebono’. During the summer it hangs out with everything else in the partial shade of my deck and right now it’s seeming to enjoy the chilly temperature fluctuations out in the plantry (from the 60s during the day down into the 30s on very cold nights). Last year I brought it into the living room (which has a more consistent temperature around 60F) for its bloom period and it didn’t put on anywhere near the same endless show.

purple shamrock - Oxalis triangularisWhich isn’t to say that my living room is flower-free right now. Oxalis triangularis is going nuts blooming though it hardly needs to. Its largish burgundy leaves that fold closed like upside-down butterfly wings are plenty entertaining enough. Not to mention tangy and delicious. From what I understand, this plant wants to go dormant though it has never indicated such a desire to me. I hope, since dormancy might only last 4-6 weeks, that it won’t particularly miss it. Or perhaps these flowers are its last hurrah.

Do you grow either of these plants? Do they make you as happy as they do me?

Anatomy of a plantry

The plantry nearly filled and ready for winterEvery once in a while Z suggests like he did today that perhaps it would be cool if the plantry were bigger. And then he gets this furrowed look as if he’s actually calculating measurements, drawing plans, and ordering materials. And I can’t help getting kind of excited even though any kind of remodel – especially one entailing digging new foundations and putting in skylights – is way beyond our budget. No matter. The plantry is awesome just as it is. In fact, (I think I’ve mentioned this before) an enclosed entry porch was one of the selling features of a house I would have otherwise dismissed for its boring vinyl sided, mid-century, ranch-ness.

Bumped out on the south side of the house, with windows facing east, south and west, the plantry warms up beautifully during the day from fall through to early spring when it actually heats beyond comfort if I forget to open windows. Overnight, the temperature dips with the weather and can fall below freezing on cold nights especially after a chilly day. It’s the perfect place to overwinter tender (not tropical) plants and I fill it to the gills with things like New Zealand flax (Phormium spp.), parlor maple (Abutilon spp.), rosemary, coprosma, orchid cactus, night blooming cereus, various pelargonium, Clivia miniata, pink jasmine, panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa), and echevaria. Anything that needs light over the winter but doesn’t mind chilly near-dormancy.

Abutilon 'Kristen's Pink'Tricolor sage and pigeon planter with lobelia

To ensure that nothing freezes, I set a timer to turn on an electric radiator in intervals through the night. The plantry is also kitted out with a bench, a bespoke sideboard with drawers (thank you, Z!), an Ikea Hyllis shelving unit with shelves installed upside-down to catch watering overflows, a spigot and hose (thank you, Z!), and a custom sized waterhog mat from L.L. Bean to keep major overflows from reaching and rotting the walls. Cuteness is also important, obviously, because this is the only way to enter the house. (The other entry – the actual front door into the living room – is blocked by houseplants over the winter.) So I do what I can – with my mother’s help in the goose planter department. All the plantry really lacks, because it only measures 7’x5′ not including the passage between doorways, is room for a small table and chairs; a place to sit and eat breakfast on warm mornings.

organized plantry: watering wand, dogpoop bags, wreath ribbons, and toolsGoosegirl planter with echevaria

Where do you overwinter your tender perennials and shrubs?