Our gardens in many lights

jeudi 15 janvier 2015

Welcome to the winter garden

Cet article en français.

I have a wonderful view of my avocado plant when I wake up.
Hélène :
I've been hoping to make an article about interior plants for a while now, because this is an opportunity to talk about plants we cannot grow outside, in our northern climate.

On the other side of my 
bed soars
the imposing form of my
Dieffenbachia plant, giving
me the impression of
waking in the jungle.
But here's the thing. While some have an easy time making a plant grow in a container, it's the opposite for me. Take away as many variants as possible from me and then the plant will thrive. It took me years to make a plant actually grow in a container instead of merely surviving.

Many magazines and books suggest absolutely superb interior plants. But according to my personnal experience, most of these plants have a difficult time in our interior conditions: a heated house with a very dry atmosphere, a planting medium that loses nutrients after a couple of weeks but mostly, little strong, natural light (especially in winter). Furthermore, south facing windows are rare, particularly in apartments and althought it's the optimal orientation for the well-being of plants, in Québec, it's not always enough.

A jade plant (Crassula). It once had
a very nice trunk. I overwatered it
at some point and it rotted. Luckily,
it had produced a lot of babies
from regrowth, all of them ready 
to take over.
I also learned that the type of
container shown  above is not
good for that kind of plant.
A shallow container with a layer
of gravel at the bottom is better
(picture shown under the next
Most interior plants sold in nurseries come from the tropics... Our dry environment is not pleasing to them! They will be fine in the nurseries where you bought them (it's really humid in there) but once in the house, you may witness their slow wilting throughout many excruciating weeks.
There are exceptions. For example, the picture above, left, show a tropical plant that survives easily our dry predicament: meet the dieffenbachia.

Some plants fall in dormancy in winter because of the lack of sun. If you don't change your watering habits (more in summer when the plant grows, less in winter when it rests), you may find yourself with an overwatered plant. So the real trick with water is not only "this amount of water for this type of plant in that type of container". It's also checking if, under 2 cm of the surface of the planting medium, the medium there is dry or humid. If humid, don't water. Why under 2 cm? Because the surface dries quickly anyway and it's not representative of the amount of water the medium is currently withholding.

It's true that some plants "drink" more water than others; like this jade plant seen above. It's a succulent. This type of plant is renowned for storing water in its leaves, like a cactus. This allows them to survive long stretches without being watered otherwise, using their stored water to function. But give too much water on these plants and you will litterally make them rot! You really need to let the soil dry out (just like in a desert) before watering again. And watering just a small amount of water every odd day is not good either because it never gets dry enough for plants need to breathe, too. Jade plants are easy to start anew: you take a cutting from the mother plant (a stalk with about four to six leaves), you plant this stalk in a new container with a soil that drains well and voilà! A new plant.
New Jade transplants, baby-size.
Boom! same plant a year later. You are not mistaking; it's greener and stronger. The type of container helped a lot to avoid overwatering and the south-facing window is responsible for its healthy color and the bigger size of its leaves. The plant is just in such a better shape than before.
Despite some of my failures, I always persevered - the jade plant above is a testament to that, having suffered more than its share by my clumsy hand. It always stayed alive however and it's 13 years old. I had some good calls and some bad. With the years, I got better and better. On the next picture is one plant I'm very proud of: my lime tree!

In summer, my lime tree is outside, but in winter it's in. My cat Buttercup is in the picture too,
if you want to play the game "Where's Buttercup?"
  It's not a bad idea to have a citrus tree in the house! It's not growing in our northern conditions otherwise! Like pretty much all my plants, this one comes with a story as well: I was supposed to have bought a Meyers Lemon tree. But once it was pretty clear that the fruits the tree was sporting would never turn yellow (I waited 4 months for a mature-looking fruit to  change color, but it never happened), I summed-up that it was another type of citrus tree I had ended up with! Citrus trees are not the prettiest plants around, with long, thorny arms that grab anything and everything. And throughout winter until spring, my plant loses so many leaves, I'm positive that I killed it! But my plant has tremendous qualities. First off, it makes the most delicious fruits compared to those little green balls sold at the supermaket. Secondly, the flowers. It's my favorite smell! As soon as the tree blossoms, you will find me often there, between those thorny branches, inhaling deeply.
New fruits and blossoms on
the lime tree.

It's not an easy plant to grow. The sun, at least in my house, is insufficient in winter even with a southern exposition. As mentionned above, it makes my plant lose its leaves: tiny yellow dots grow bigger and bigger until the leaf is completely yellow, then it falls. The plant looks about ready to kick the bucket when I can finally place it back utside where it slowly comes back to life. 2014-2015 will mark its fourth winter.

I read that book a couple of winters ago. I experimented growing lentils, garlic and... avocados. The result is shown on the main photo at the top of this article and also on the left one. It's a giant of a plant that provided me somehow with to heads from the same seed (normally, it's just one). It's greeting me every morning as soon as I open my eyes. The fun with avocados is that they are easy plants for beginners since their needs are relatively easy to read. When they need water, the leaves droop so it's easy to notice. It's a plant that drinks a lot according to my experience, regardless of the season. Avocados need a good amount of sun too for leaves that have a healthy, deep green color, althought I did place mine at one time in indirect light and it didn't suffer too much. If you have kids, it's a fun plant to start up, too, but you have to be patient because, depending on the type of avocado, it can take up to 3 months before the seed shows any sign of rooting out.

What a depressing view whenever my Fittonia needs water. Half an hour after being watered, the plant will have regained its normal stance, like that shown on the picture just above this one.

The mosaic plant is up front and dwarfed
compared to the bigger container shared
between a variegated dragon plant
(Dracaena) and an Epipremnum plant.
Another easy to read plant is the Nerve plant or Mosaic plant (Fittonia). Whenever it needs water, it becomes completely limp, a stark difference from its upright usual self (pictured above). It  has the reputation of demanding a lot of humidity: it's been sold to me as the perfect terrarium plant. All in all, I have to water it every two days or so but otherwise, it  does very well in the house, just as is. Its container is very small, tiny even, which makes this little plant perfect for small nooks and corners. It would probably do very well under a glass bell, too. It tends to burn when exposed to direct south-facing sun; indirect light turned out better for it.

Speaking of tiny plants that can easily be placed in tight corners, here's a very interesting one with the most lovely names (it has a lot, here are a couple): String of hearts, Chain of hearts, Rosary vine. Ceropegia Woodii of its latin name, it's a tiny vine with deep-green, heart-shaped leaves with the most charming silver patterns.  Its underside is burgundy. It's native of Africa and its water needs are minimal. The long vine can reach up to two feet which makes it ideal for a hanging basket and for weaving the vines wherever convenient and beautiful. The best is that its light requirement seem minimal, therefore indirect light agrees with it and it's even sufficient to make it flower!
One of the picture under this text as a white mass suspended on the vine (Third picture of the Chains of Hearts). That's a new root system just waiting to make contact with the soil in order to root itself, so if you want to make a new plant, cut the vine  just before this ball and let it rest on bare soil in a new pot. That's all you need to do!

Yep, that's a flower.


On the opposite spectrum of plants coming from the tropics, here's a plant from our part of the world that has been turned into an interior plant: a Norfolk pine - however I don't remember which variety. It's very elegant in an elongated container. This plant offers an interesting vertical aspect and is easy to care for: even more, putting it out of direct sunlight seems the best way to keep it healthy! It gives a tiny conifer scent when rubbed but nothing much; not enough to make the room smell coniferous. Nevertheless, having a small conifer in the house makes my heart rejoice!
Within the more classical array of interior plants, there is the dragon tree (Dracaena) that can be solid green or variegated. Mine is variegated and absolutely superb with striped leaves in green, cream and pink!

It's supposed to be a plant that curb air pollution in the house. I had it for four years so far and it's in a north-facing window (indirect sunlight), just like the Norfolk pine, mentionned above. These two plants are thus very tolerant.The only thing that's worth mention, my cats liked to chew on the leaves of the dragon plant. Luckily, this habit passed in them, at about the time the plant became so big the leaves were hard to reach, because that plant is toxic for cats (the
dieffenbachia and epipremnum mentionned above are too, so be careful). If your pets have a tendancy to munch on plants, avoid these species.

There's still are other ways to make things pretty in the house: by bringing plants from outside or with dried-out specimens. For example, a bouquet of dried flowers can bring interesting textures inside.

The Viola flowers faded, but
the plant itself still retained some
Every year I try to bring my rosemary inside. Most of the time, it dies but I keep trying! What seems to work for me is putting the plant in a room of the house that isn't heated but well-lit. Otherwise, it looses its scent in a matter of weeks and dries up, even with plenty of water and sun.
Last year I brought a Viola plant inside that survived through the winter all right and made plenty of new flowers the following summer. It wasn't making any in winter, but for the space it took, the experiment was worth it.

Finally, I can only recommend this book, the one that really made a difference in my inept attempts at rearing plants inside. Take the time to read the last section about humidity, light and how to choose plants too; it comes back in all gardening books, but the way the author of this one writes it, it was a revelation for me!
A water bubble, used for slowly watering a container in the Dieffenbachia.


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