In our climate, most of winter is spent indoors. It's time to bring the garden indoors till it's time to pack away the woollies.
Step 1: Buy some pot plants. If you are feeling lavish, go for great big luxuriant ones, towering kentia palms or a massive philodendron, or an enormous basket of pansies, or even bright cyclamen, African violets or long-blooming orchids for your desk. If you need an excuse to be extravagant, remind yourself that as well as cheering up a room, pot plants also help moisten dry winter air and will soak up pollutants, though sadly this varies according to the plant, the temperature, the pollutant and other variables, so the result is negligible unless we are talking about indoor ivy's ability to absorb the odours of benzene.
If cash is tight, grow your own. They may not be as ornamental but they'll be fascinating and fun. Put a choko in a pot of soil, with the fat end poking out, and it will quickly grow a trailing or climbing vine if put near a warm sunny window. So will a hunk of sprouting sweet potato, or a sprouting spud. Even the greenish top of a carrot will give you ferny growth. Better yet, plant the whole carrot, again with the fat top above soil level and with luck, sunlight, warmth and regular watering it will give you leaves and then a round ball of white blooms in summer, which might even ripen into lots of carrot seed to plant.
Try the traditional watercress or mustard grown on cotton wool, or lettuce seeds for mini lettuce leaves to snip off for sandwiches or salads. Just remember that all of these will need warmth, watering and a sunny window to give you greenery.
If you have kids, keep the base of your next bunch of celery. Place it in a glass of water, about 6cm deep, and watch more celery leaves grow. Admittedly this isn't decorative, but it's educational as well as just slightly and happily ridiculous to watch something green and edible grow from rubbish.
While we're on the subject - never throw away the base of your spring onions. Plant them, keep them well watered and by a sunny window, and depending on the heat and sunlight, you should have a good looking shoot in a week, and several crops of spring onions from your original bunch - and a better harvest in your warm indoors than in your frosty garden.
Ivy is a weed outdoors but indoors - assuming you vow never to throw it away while still alive - you can haul out a bit of what gardeners think of as a weedy nuisance and it will grow quite fast, and look especially attractive if you have some elegant driftwood for it to clamber up. Just don't throw it in the garbage without microwaving it till it's very dead.
Another cheap option is a punnet of pansy seedlings. They'll fill a large pot or basket with blooms in a few weeks. Ornamental kale seedlings will also grow fast, look good, and taste, well, like kale. If you want to speed your seedlings up, plant each seeding in a small pot, a segment from an old egg carton or better still, an ornamental egg cup. Make sure the soil is wet, then place it in an old jar, with the lid on. The seedlings will grow fast, not need watering and look anywhere from eccentric to delightful, depending on the attractiveness of the jar and pot. Once the seedlings are about as tall as a match stick, take them out, or they may begin to rot.
We grow coffee bushes indoors in winter, and put them outside in summer. I've also grown indoor cinnamon trees, lemon myrtle, and all spice trees, none of which grew large but all produced something edible - enough for, say, two cups of coffee, or enough cinnamon scented "petioles" to perfume a jar of castor sugar. If you're planning on planting citrus or any other evergreen tree or shrub this spring, buy it now, place it in an attractive pot, and enjoy it indoors for a while.
READ MORE: JACKIE FRENCH
Step 2: Water. I need to put up a large sign on the front door saying 'water' as every winter I forget how much pot plants dry out in winter, just like my skin. Heating the house speeds up the drying. Water indoor plants at least twice a week, unless they are cacti and other succulents, and then only water if the soil is dry, or they may begin to rot.
A tea pot is an excellent vehicle for watering. It rarely spill water onto tables or the floor, and it's also a good way to use a neglected tea pot now tea bags have become almost universal. If you use your pot for herbal tea, using it to water the plants will also mean there is less chance that the herbal residue will turn into a mess of mould and mildew if you forget to wash the teapot out after drinking your cuppa.
Step 3: Do not feed. Plants don't take up much tucker in cold weather, and even your warm house may not be as warm when you aren't there to turn the heater on. Wait till spring.
Step 4: Cheat a bit. The gorgeous blue blooms I've been admiring for years in the home of a green-fingered gardener are actually stiffened silk. I've sat next to those blooms for hours at a time and never noticed.
Too many artificial plants look like a B-grade movie celebrity with a square chin, plump lips and teeth that could blind you at 20 paces. But a tactful touch of "of course it's real - real silk" or similar brightens the room either on their own, or surrounded by freshly picked stems of bay leaves or whatever other greenery you have that will obey your vase shape. A branch of cumquats, calamondins or citrons or even small mandarins, on the other hand, come with their own splash of bright orange. Kids can snack from the vases.
Actually the brightest "indoor" plant we have right now is outside, on the windowsill - I luckily have a wide windowsill outside my study. The whole windowsill used to be lined with pots till a shrike thrush turned macho and spent months attacking his own reflection, knocking off my pots in his fury. Now there's only a rich red geranium (okay, pelargonium) left in one corner. As the pot sits against the stone wall that faces the sunlight in the morning and radiates warmth at night, the plant is rarely without a bloom... as long as I remember to water it.
This week I am:
- Rejoicing in the fairy-like umbrella skirts of mauve tree dahlias that have suddenly appeared about three metres above the ground. It's always a toss-up if we'll get a decent tree dahlia blooming - one really heavy frost and they're gone. But the next few weeks should have fairy flowers fluttering all around the garden.
- Enjoying watching someone else mow under our fruit trees to make sure all fallen fruit is obliterated.
- Pruning off dead twigs and mummies (dried-up fruit, not the kind found in ancient tombs) and looking for the dark wood that means canker in the tree, then pruning back to the good wood. I don't trust others to prune my garden. There's no one rule for pruning - each plant has its own pruning needs and times.
- Probably not planting broad beans, as I'm the only one in the family who loves them. Onions, winter lettuces, small varieties of cabbage, and broccolini seedlings can be planted now, as well as peas, sugar snap peas, snow peas and mini kale.
- Standing under an umbrella of branches of autumn gold leaves and wondering if they're bioluminescent, as at dusk they seem to glow, and picking out which young trees will get the mulch of autumn leaves this year.
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