Chesterton Tribune

Winter Gardening is an indoor sport

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Of Wonders and Weeds


February is for .... making it through the winter with house plants.

I can’t grow an African violet to save my soul. I’m still struggling to keep alive a Boston fern from 1995. My peace lily, usually a no-brainer house plant, droops, never blooms and has brown tips.

This year, though, I’ve had much better luck with other plants and really am enjoying the ones that are thriving indoors for me despite my house-plant handicap.

In 2006 I went to a June hosta sale and spied a potted plant for $15 labeled “clivia”. I knew I had seen just the bulbs in gardening catalogs for $50 or more and snapped up the pot.

The clivia’s long, strap-like wide green leaves are attractive year-round and the occasional 12-inch stalk bearing clustered hot-orange, funnel-shaped flowers are stunning.

I left the clivia outside that first summer; in the fall I brought it in near a sunny south window and didn’t have high hopes. I watered it occasionally and was shocked last year to have it bloom three times, the last making a striking Christmas table centerpiece.

Unbelievably, it’s sending up another flower stalk already.

I’m glad my clivia, probably C. miniata, can’t read. Also known as kafir lily native to South Africa, books say not to expose them to direct sunlight, yet mine has been all along. I’m also glad I didn’t get the urge to repot it as clivia apparently likes to be potbound.

Some sources say clivia needs a winter rest. Could I be burning out my bulb’s energy prematurely by not doing so? The way I look at it, I’ve got a good thing going and don’t want to mess with success.

Another special house plant I have took five months before it decided it wanted to live here.

Also in 2006 we visited our friend’s home in Florida and part of his partially wooded land was covered with small, lacy ferns that looked like little asparagus-clump tops. I dug up a few, keeping them in a damp paper towel in a plastic bag for the rest of the vacation. When I got home I planted the ferns in five pots and waited.

And waited and waited and waited.

Over the weeks one by one they died. I was down to a single pot, the tiny fern sprout just sitting there in suspended animation. Since it was an outdoor plant originally, I had segregated it on an enclosed porch away from my other house plants. I often forgot about it and ignored it. Did I even water it?

One day I checked and the lone tip was showing new green growth. I was overjoyed.

After 19 months there are now three 16-inch, multi-branched delicate fronds. Patience --- or dumb luck --- truly is rewarded. The fern’s earned its way onto the house plant table in the computer room, but on the less-sunny end.

The fern’s delicacy is a stark contrast to the mother-in-law tongue (sansevieria) I inherited last year. Choked in its original pot, I divided it into six. But I soon found why every sansevieria I’ve seen is choked in a pot: the narrow, mottled 30-inch leaves fall over.

Some green bamboo stakes and a strip of cut-up pantyhose as a tie solved the problem. I discovered it’s hard to find people who actually want a sansevieria plant, even if it’s free. I do have a new appreciation of them, especially since they appear to be indestructible.

I visited my Aunt Irene recently and commented that her new starts of Christmas cactus were blooming while the one she gave me almost two years ago never has. Do you fertilize? she asked, recommending Miracle Grow liquid house plant food.

The only plants I make a point to fertilize are the outdoor hybrid tea roses, but this year there will be far fewer of them to tend.

Last fall I yanked out nine of the 16 teas in my formal, four-quadrant rose bed. Instead of a joy, the roses had become a major frustration.

Every year I had an increasing problem with black-spot disease and when one rose got it, the rest in such close quarters were soon to follow, even if they are labeled “black-spot resistant".

Also, some of the roses I couldn’t even remember their names, let alone their color. If I didn’t love them enough to know that, why was I keeping them around, especially the poor performers?

I kept ‘Christopher Columbus,’ ‘Dolly Parton’ (although I moved it and have yet to see if it survived; the fragrance is heavenly), ‘Gift of Life’, ‘Hot Cocoa’, ‘Queen Elizabeth’ and ‘Auguste Renoir’. I don’t recall the last unidentified plant and will probably pitch it in the spring.

Until then, catalogs, books, surfing the Internet and attending gardening seminars/shows can help us survive the bleak days of winter still ahead. Just be alert when catalog shopping.

The 2008 Wayside Gardens catalog boasts big savings on the trendy yellow peony ‘Bartzella’. It’s an intersectional: a cross between herbaceous and tree-peony forms. Intersectionals die back each year and have huge flowers that bloom over an extended period. But be aware Wayside’s discounted $39.95 price only gets you a peony in a 4-inch pot.

The Plant Delights Nursery catalog sells a flowering-size ‘Bartzella’ for $150.00 in a 1.58-gallon pot.

On a personal note, I want to thank everyone, especially Jeanine, who said they’ve missed my garden column. It’s back, and new readers should understand I’m not a master gardener; I’m an avid amateur who’s still trying to master her own garden, one little section at a time.

Gotta go.

Time to fertilize the house plants.


Posted 2/18/2008