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? 

Down to earth – life could give you Meyer lemons

(Originally published February 4, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life.)

It isn’t my intention to brag but right this minute there are no less than five ripe lemons on my Meyer lemon tree, four of them hanging from a single bowed branch tip. It’s a bumper crop this year — we have already used two — and I wish I could share the wealth. Instead I’ll just tell you that if I can grow this fruit indoors, so can you. And I’ll follow that statement with a couple of reasons why I think you should.

A perfectly ripe Meyer lemon waiting to be turned into ice cream...Number one, you don’t have to love lemons to think that this one is delicious. Whatever it is in lemons that makes my face implode in an agony of tartness is almost missing from this species. Meyers, thought to be a cross between a lemon and an orange, are much sweeter and less acidic than an everyday lemon. And although they can be used for normal things like lemonade, squares, and garnish, a quick internet search will result in a stack of gourmet recipes from savory root vegetable roasts to custardy desserts.

Some sources credit Martha Stewart for popularizing cooking with Meyer lemons but I suspect Alice Waters of Chez Panisse had something to do with it too. Or maybe I only think that because my chef has made the Meyer lemon relish from her cookbook, The Art of Simple Food, on several scrumptious occasions. Part of what makes Meyer lemons extra special and particularly necessary for a recipe like Waters’s relish is that their yolk-orange rind is edible, nearly pithless, and delicious. But the rind is also why they are expensive and hard to come by: it’s too thin to protect the fruit during shipping.

So number two, if you want a Meyer lemon for a recipe (and are reluctant to pay dearly for the pleasure) you’ll have to grow it yourself. Many of our local nurseries sell good-sized plants, or you could start small with a cutting from Logee’s Greenhouses in Danielson, Connecticut (They do mail-order but I recommend taking the hour-long trip.) They’ll start flowering and fruiting young. Continue reading “Down to earth – life could give you Meyer lemons”

Down to earth – Start a windowsill farm with microgreens

(Originally published January 22, 2014 in East Bay/South Coast Life. The article ran with a pretty picture of a productive windowsill microgreenery that people thought was mine. I wish. My windowsill farmlet is pictured below.)

Either winter makes me hungry for fresh vegetables or the seed catalogs do. Either way, every year around this time I decide this is the year I will grow vegetables in the garden. For real — not just what comes up in the compost pile. I’m forgetting that I did plant kale, cabbage, lettuce, and basil last year and the woodchuck ate it all down to nubs. Which is the same thing he/she did the year before that. And the year before that. And so on. Or else it was the bunnies.

Every year I think I (meaning my carpenter) should build a raised bed tall enough to keep critters out of the veg. And every year so far I have not decided before spring planting where to put it. Nor have I bothered to buy the lumber or stockpile enough soil to fill it.

I’m guessing that once I decide where it goes (in full sun somewhere near the kitchen door) it will need to stand a good 18” high. The other option I have is to surround my vegetables with fencing. Eight feet high is about right to keep deer out (it’s probably only a matter of time before they wander every Bristol street as freely as gulls do), but bunnies and woodchucks are tricksters. To deter them, a much shorter fence will do as long as it’s made of an unchewable metal mesh and is set deep in the ground. And if I really want to give those guys a challenge, the bottom of the fence should probably even curve outwards a little. I am a lazy McGregor, though, and that’s much more digging than I’m usually inclined to do. Are fresh homegrown vegetables worth it?

Probably. Everyone says so.

To find out, I’m going to start by growing microgreens. (I’ve said this before…) All of my favorite seed companies, like Renee’s Garden, John Scheepers Kitchen Garden, Botanical Interests, and Johnny’s, just to name a few, have done the hard work of combining seeds that sprout at the same time into blends with flavor profiles ranging from mild to spicy. Botanical Interest’s 17 green “Sassy Salad,” which includes arugula, nine lettuces, two mustards, Swiss chard, endive, spinach and bok choy, falls somewhere in the middle. Sounds delicious.

My microgreenery shares its windowsill with cuttings and a sorry begonia.

If I supply enough water to keep the seeds and starter soil moist but not boggy, and put them in a windowsill-full of daylight, I should have at least one meal’s worth of tiny bite-sized but intensely flavorful and nutrient-rich salad garnish within two weeks. Maybe two or three meals’ worth depending on the size of the container (ironically, a store-bought salad mix box would be perfect with a few holes punched in the bottom for drainage) and my dinner party. Set inside a cachepot, a mesclun mix might even look as handsome as a houseplant as soon as it gets going and before I eat it up. The seedlings only need to be grown as far as their first set or two of true leaves before becoming supper so the trick is to have several packs growing at once but staggered in an endless succession. (My last packet of old seeds went into that box. Making a mental note right now to order another batch.)

This will be a good test for me. I figure if I become a successful windowsill microgreen farmer, it will be a slippery slope to wanting some of the same vegetables to grow to maturity outside. Maybe it’s time I finally find a place for that raised bed.

What’s growing on your windowsills? 

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?