How Does A Gardener Get Through Winter?

If you are a gardener living in a tropical paradise, you “don’t” get through winter–you just keep on gardening.

And while I have always said that I welcome the break from “true” outdoor gardening that 4 seasons bring, I find myself doing certain things to “get through” the cold and dark days up here in the frozen north of New England.

One of the most important things that I do is force bulbs. And I don’t just force the tender bulbs like amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus (although I do that too–I’ll have separate posts on those!)

I force bulbs that the rest of us grow outside in the ground here in New England. In fact, this year, I bought so many that I did plant my extras outside so I got the best of both worlds. I have bulbs for forcing inside and I’ll have bulbs coming up outside in my landscape in the spring. That’s what’s known as a bonus!

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Specifically, I always force hyacinth. I’ve been doing this so long I have a nice collection of these forcing jars (or forcing vases, they’re sometimes called). You can often buy them with a bulb already started but I don’t think that’s how I got them. I seem to recall getting these–or most of them–from gardening catalogs. They don’t seem to sell just the vases online too readily anymore.

My preferred colors are purple and white and that’s an easy mix to find.

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Last year, when I was cleaning up my potting room, I also found these great little forcing vases. I have snowdrops in them.

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And this year, again when I was cleaning up, I found these little forcing vases. I am forcing crocuses here. I also planted some crocuses in a small flower pot. Because they’re corms, they have these odd little protrusions on them. Originally, I had tried them in the same jars with the snowdrops but they were too big. So finding these other vases was great. My crocus mix is also purple and white.

I have about 20 of each of the bulbs so I have lots to force when these finish. I am keeping them in a cool place so they’ll be ready when these finish up. As the season wears on, it will take less and less time for each of these bulbs to be “forced,” (because I am keeping them cool so they will already be chilled).

As it is now, the smaller bulbs will want 8-10 weeks and the hyacinths will want 10-12. That means they’ll be ready for me in the true dead of winter–when I want them most!

Don’t Panic, This is Perfectly Normal

And now a break from our house plant discussion, to mention something else.

Last Friday, when I showed the photo of the Fiddle-leaf Fig, sharp eyed viewers may have noticed something from the window behind the fig. There was something that looked like straw out that window.

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Here it is for those of you that were too busy looking at the fig. Yes, this is my back lawn–under a bed of pine needles.

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Here are some shrubs, under the same bed of those same needles.

What on earth is happening? Are all my pine trees dying?

Well, thankfully not, although you wouldn’t know it from the needle drop. This happens to evergreens, more or less (this year it’s more) every autumn. I suspect the needle drop is heavier because we had a very wet spring, summer and fall; therefore there are more needles to drop.

All evergreens, both broadleaf (hollies, rhododedrons, mahonias and the like) and needled drop a portion of their foliage every autumn. It’s just that in some years, that “drop” is much more pronounced than in others. And if the “drop” is particularly heavy–or if you are new to gardening or new to a particular type of evergreen, this may be new to you. Don’t panic–it’s okay.

If you are concerned that something is NOT normal, by all means, take a branch or small piece (in a sealed plastic bag) in to your nearest garden center or cooperative extension service. They should be able to tell you whether what’s going on is normal for your plant, or if you have an issue that needs addressing.

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But if you have a tree that looks like this, don’t worry–’tis the season!

Wait, What? This Plant is Trendy Too?

Because I write this blog (and columns here and there for other publications) I get a lot of things sent to me. Most come via email but occasionally I will actually get an old-fashioned press release in the snail mail.

Just recently I got an email newsletter about how we all ought to be ramping up our house plant design for the holidays (oh my. Even I am not quite ready to think about house plants for the holidays, but then again, I don’t get paid the big bucks for this).

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Interestingly enough, the newsletter had things like rex begonias, variegated and green dracenas paired, side by side, the ubiquitous ZZ plant and this plant–the Ponytail Palm (beaucarnea recurvata).

First thing to know–of course this is not a palm. It is native to Mexico, so for those of us growing in colder climates, we are doomed to grow the poor things in pots.

I have read that proper culture says that we are not to snip off the ends of the leaves as they grow. That may be fine for these plants “in the wild” but in our “over-heated” (or under humidified) homes, the ends of the leaves get quite messy and brown. I snip away with abandon once a year on mine–I can’t stand the look of a half dead leaf. The rest eventually dies off and is then removed anyway.

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The other important thing to know is that these plants prefer to be grown on the dry side. The swollen caudex (or caudices–in this instance, I have about 5 in this pot!) actually stores water so it is possible to over-water them and kill them.

Finally, I have not found that mine are particularly fussy about light–they grow in fairly dark conditions quite nicely. The photos I have seen of them “in the wild” show them in bright light and flowering. Mine haven’t done that, but I expect it’s a light issue (or maybe a light and warmth issue.

You can see that the one above is on a coffee table in the middle of a room. Granted, it’s an extremely bright room–the room has two bay windows that face south and east–but it’s still no where near a window!

As for the trendy part, I suspect it’s the sculptural aspect of these plants that makes them trendy. While I can’t see them being used in the way that the snake plants are–as room dividers, in a row–these are definitely funky accent plants (provided the tips of the leaves aren’t brown, of course.)

And since they’re very easy care, this is definitely a “trend” that could be appealing, especially at the holidays!

Last Year’s Media Darling

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This is the fiddle leaf fig (ficus lyrata). Last year, it was everywhere. This year, it’s still popular, but not quite so much as last year. My theory on that in a moment.

Just “google” fiddle leaf fig care. The first thing you’ll see is the amazing number of contradictory instructions. So that’s trouble right there. If even the so-called experts can’t tell us how to take care of it, what hope do folks who are growing this thing for the first time stand?

I am actually trying it for the second time. My first one made it through 2 winters in my chilly New England house. What it didn’t do was grow–at all. Not one inch or one leaf, not even when I put it outdoors in a protected location for the summer (in between my 2 chilly winters).

I finally gave up with that one, composted it and am starting over. This may turn into “how many fiddle leaf figs can one person kill….”

What I can tell you is that the plant is native to tropical parts of Africa–so about as far from New England as you can be. It’s going to hate the next 6 months around here. Perhaps I can redeem things and make it up to it next summer. If not, there’s always the compost pile.

More Trendy House Plants

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I know that few people can imagine that the humble snake plant–or mothers-in-law tongue–or what ever it is that you might call sansevieria–is “trendy.” But believe it or not, designers adore them!

How on earth can this be? Well there are several reasons for this. First, they have that wonderful, upright, vertical shape that makes them great for accent pieces or I have even seen them used in trough planters as room dividers.

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Next, they are wonderful plants for cleaning the air, so along with your accent piece/statement plant/room dividing screen, you get a double duty plant that is actually doing the work of taking toxins from the air.

What sort of toxins? Formaldehyde, benzene and toluene are at least some of them, making this the perfect plant for home, office or dorm.

Formaldehyde is in all sorts of things from paper bags, furniture, flooring, indoor heating and even air fresheners–and even more things! Benzene is a by-product of household heating. And toluene can be found in copiers, printers, nail polish and beauty products.

Suddenly these plants are looking pretty darn trendy, aren’t they?