A Winter’s Tale (or, Adapt or Perish)

The story of the last plant I grew inside my residence for more than a short time (until last year, that is) began the year this country celebrated the Bicentennial. For you younger readers, that was 1976, while I was a senior at Penn State. A pint-sized Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) cheerfully inhabited the sole window in the basement apartment I shared with four other guys, none of whom looked at plants in the passionate way I did and still do. After graduation, the slow-growing pine kept me company as I worked at my first job as Senior Gardener at Woodlawn Plantation in northern Virginia from 1977 to May of 1978, throughout the summer of 1978 that I spent living with my brother and sister-in-law while working for the City of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and then during my time in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Soon after we received our fast-track Masters degree in December 1979, the pine and I drove to my parents’ house in Pittsburgh, where I would await the beginning of my position as curatorial intern at the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia. However, the pine didn’t enjoy the trip to Pittsburgh much, because I had neglected to cover it as it rode shotgun in my little white Chevy Vega. The sun shone brightly during that trip, and while I might have considered the sun’s brilliance as a positive omen for my future, the pine got sunburned so badly that much of its rich green foliage turned dead brown only a few days after I carefully placed it in my parents’ house. The End.

 

While the side-lesson of this tale is to advise you to cover plants lightly when you transport them in your sunny vehicle for more than a short time, that’s not the main story line here. I want to pass along a few other bits of recently acquired horticultural advice, drawn from a five-month experiment in overwintering plants in my house. You see, I began growing container-grown showplants in someone else’s greenhouse in the late 80’s. The first greenhouses were at Ken Selody’s Atlock Farm in Somerset, New Jersey. My plants and I enjoyed that arrangement until the summer of 2012, when we relocated to Wisconsin. While employed as a horticulture instructor at Lakeshore Technical College until the summer of 2018, I was fortunately allowed to quarter my plants in the LTC greenhouse. During all of those years I almost never had plants in my house; my cats would have devoured them, given that they perked up when I brought broccoli and other green vegetables into the house, waiting for bits to fall on the kitchen floor to be scarfed up. Also, I was spoiled by those greenhouses and the high-quality plants their abundant light and warmth could provide. So when I decided to leave my teaching position, I knew I would need to make some big decisions regarding my plant collection. Long story short, my container-grown plants now follow a program of six months inside my house and six months in my little backyard greenhouse. Beginning this routine marked a return to growing plants inside my residence after practicing almost 30 years of greenhouse culture, and this blog will take you to this subject from time to time. You’ve figured out by now that I no longer have cats – the last one shuffled off this mortal coil more than a year ago.

 

After spending a few light-filled months last year in my newly constructed polycarbonate-glazed kit greenhouse, all of my treasures were relocated near the windows in five rooms of my house. The ones that I decided (hoped?) could handle the coldest air temperatures and the lowest light were nestled all snug in their beds (tables, actually) for a long winter’s nap in my front room.

 

Two rather large specimens of Fatsia japonica and a standard (tree-form) Pelargonium ‘Mabel Grey’, a lemon-scented geranium that I grew and trained from a cutting, occupy much of the southwest corner of my front room. They have required regular watering throughout winter, expressing their thirst by wilting ever so slightly. Of course their tight quarters (their containers, that is) mean that there’s very little potting mix left in their root-filled pots to hold any water in reserve, so I shouldn’t be surprised that they need to drink routinely. While the geranium will be moved into a larger but still manageable pot in a few weeks, those big fatsias have reached their weight and pot-size limits and so will be planted out in the front yard when conditions permit. Being cold tolerant, that should be in July. No, no, I kid about the climate and weather here in Sheboygan by the Lake: they will be outdoors before the end of April. Maybe.

 

Most of what you see here represents my Agave collection. In spite of the fact that they seem to like to stab me (those spines might as well be hypodermic needles), I wouldn’t be without them. They remind me of sculpted flowers, they grow slowly but steadily, and boy howdy do they make excellent showplants. More to follow about that on these pages. In the meantime, I can tell you that they have remained happy in the cold (usually low 40’s) air and essentially low light of the front room, and most of them have received little to NO water since October. Yes, that’s a Norfolk Island pine in the back, given to me by a former colleague and apparently happy in the relatively dark northwest corner, well out of any damaging sun’s rays. It has been watered sparingly but regularly during its winter vacation.

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