Even if you successfully keep your poinsettias alive this winter, they probably won’t have the red abundance they once did, and you might need something else to brighten your surroundings until the robins announce that spring is here.
If you’re a veteran gardener, you may have planned ahead and placed some spring bulbs in the refrigerator for a few weeks before potting them and putting the container in a sunny window. If you didn’t plan, don’t despair. Area florists and garden centers have done this for you. You can have cheerful, brightly colored tulips blooming in February. If not, you can find preplanted bulbs ready to go.
Glen Benedict Jr., at Benedict the Florist in Salisbury, Maryland, says he has potted tulips, hyacinths and dwarf narcissus available in the late summer to take home, and, if you treat them right, they will reward you with fragrant blooms right into the winter months.
Paperwhite narcissus, a perennial favorite because of the fragrance and the delicate white blossoms, often look better in the store than they do after you get them home. Benedict says the secret is hydration and light – bright and plentiful.
“If you place the pot in a sunny window and keep it hydrated right up to the bulbs, they should do well,” he says. “Some gardeners swear by adding a capful of vodka or gin to the water, or dissolving an aspirin in the water.”
While these techniques can’t hurt, he says the most important thing is light. According to Benedict, the plants in the greenhouse are up to five inches shorter than the same varieties he’s brought into the store because they grow leggy as they struggle to get to the sun in his store.
But you don’t have to force bulbs indoors in order to get a fresh breath of early spring inside the house. Any flowering tree or bush can be forced to bloom early. Just go out and cut a few branches of forsythia, flowering quince japonica, or even a branch from a fruit tree. You can enjoy flowering indoor plants such as apple or cherry blossoms inside well ahead of those outside.
“Put them in a vase with water and bright light, and you should see something in four to five days,” Benedict says. Once the dormant limbs get warm and the sugars start flowing up the stalk they will “think” it is spring.
Another way to bring nature inside is to grow fresh herbs on your kitchen windowsill.
Although herbs can be grown in the garden and dried for winter use, there’s nothing like cutting a fresh sprig of parsley or other herb for your prized dinner entree. If you have a sheltered area in your garden, you may be able to enjoy fresh rosemary all year long, but some of the most useful culinary herbs require more warmth. Basil is a favorite, and it will respond to frequent pinching by bushing out.
Brent Kenney, at Grist Mill Gardens in Pittsville, Maryland, is closed until the spring, but he’s busy planting herbs and annuals that will be transplant-ready by April 1. The good news is you don’t have to wait until you can set plants outside to enjoy them. Kenney says that, if you want to start from seeds (readily available at garden centers that stay open through the winter), you can fill a bright, sunny windowsill with small pots planted with herbs or even marigolds.
“It takes six to eight weeks for the plants to become large enough to transplant, so February is not too early to start them,” he says, “and you can watch them grow until spring.”
The best indoor plants
For color right now, Kenney recommends tropical plants such as bromeliads and garden crotons (Codiaeum variegatum). “Crotons will tolerate low light conditions and produce a burst of color.” Most, but not all, varieties of bromeliads require more light.
A Norfolk pine will reward even the most lackadaisical caretaker with greenery and a fresh woodsy scent. After a few years, it can even serve as a small Christmas tree, provided your lights and ornaments are not heavy.
Many tropical plants offer indoor color and the fresh touch of green all year. A popular choice for your home or office is a jade plant (Crassula ovata) because it survives in low light. I managed to kill one with too much attention, but if you are forgetful about watering it, it will love you.
Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura) doesn’t bloom, but the green leaves of the Erythroneura variety have prominent red veins and provide a lot of color. These are not quite as easy to grow because they don’t like to go dry between watering and need protection from the light (they prefer full shade). However, they will thrive in the bathroom because of its high humidity if they are not exposed to direct light.
Good choices for those of us who do not have a green thumb include golden pothos (Epipremnum), which enjoys bright but indirect light – this native of the Malaysian jungles even thrives with a northern exposure.
The ubiquitous Philodendron comes in many varieties, but most of us are familiar with the vine; a delightful alternative is the Prince of Orange, a hybrid with distinct copper-orange foliage that can grow to 24 inches in height.
Although it will tolerate low light, if you have plant-chewing pets, you might want to avoid Dieffenbachia, nicknamed Dumb Kane or Mother-in-Law’s Tongue, though there are many nontoxic plants to choose from. “If you have a sunroom, then you can grow almost anything inside, even majesty palms, which grow quite large,” says Kenney.
Take the indoors a step further
If you really need daylight and can afford to splurge, then consider adding a sunroom. Linda Baker of Country Sunrooms said that modern sunrooms are manufactured with corner-to-corner glass, bringing the outside in.
Many of her clients are “individuals who need space also ... an extra room for hobbies or for entertaining. Sunrooms can be playrooms for kids or pets, or a spa where adults can exercise totally protected from the elements.”
The typical installation adds about 168 square feet of living space. Manufacturers and installers often offer custom additions with several different roof styles.
Although a sunroom is a luxury, the “green” features make it an investment that pays energy-saving dividends. Passive solar designs collect heat. Thermal solar installations include hot-water heaters that can reduce your heating bill by up to about 30 percent.
Photovoltaic installations can supply electricity to power lights and electric appliances. Most homeowners choose to connect the sunroom to the rest of the house by way of French doors to bring in welcome light and heat and help you forget that it’s still winter outside.
Ann Wilmer putters in her garden in Tidewater, Maryland, where she grows culinary herbs and flowers suitable for cutting, both of which find their way to her table.
Light therapy makes sad folks happy
For some, winter blahs are more than being shut in by inclement weather; they suffer physical ills from the shortened hours of daylight.
The good news is that just before Christmas, the days begin to get longer again. But for those who cannot wait for spring, specialized lamps and light boxes might be an easy option, providing exposure to a full spectrum of light as they mimic sunlight.
Many of these are pricey. Therapeutic light boxes are the most expensive and range from $200 on up. Expect to pay at least $100 for a desk lamp and slightly more for a floor lamp.
The desk lamp models are designed for use with computers, for studying or close detail work, or as a shop light. But, they also can provide light therapy.
You will find these and similar products advertised in hobby catalogs and magazines because another benefit of this type of light is that they ease eyestrain by making it easier to see your work. If you don’t get one for Christmas, you can find one at a shop that specializes in tools and materials for hobbies that range from fine arts to quilting.
Plants for a healthier indoors
Residents of homes built since the 1970s may be exposed to vapors from chemicals used in the manufacture of modern building materials, especially carpet. These chemicals leave behind a residue that evaporates over time, but during the winter – particularly in a well-sealed energy-efficient home or office – the evaporation has nowhere to go.
Scientists and doctors have yet to determine how long-term exposure to low doses of these chemical vapors affect humans. But NASA research has found that houseplants reduce the amount of exposure to these vapors. Most of us simply find that live plants enhance our environment aesthetically, but there’s a growing body of evidence that indicates live plants substantially improve indoor air quality.
Other traditional favorites are spath or peace lillies (Spathiphyllum spp.) and snake plant, Sansevieria ‘Laurentii.’ Not only are these suited to low light and indifferent care, but they also remove toxic vapors from the air through the tiny openings in their leaves. Peace lilies produce tiny flowers on a spike surrounded by a spathe, or bract, that resembles a bloom. And snake plants will actually bloom if they are mature and happy. Flowering plants such as gerbera daisy and chrysanthemums are available in pots year-round and do a terrific job of removing benzene from the air. These can go outside come spring.