January Light

Like a lot of northerners, I find our low-light times of the year a tad depressing. Getting up in the dark and having the sun set before most people are out of work makes you feel like a mole. I know it could be worse than we have it in Minnesota—my husband worked for several months in Uppsala, Sweden, and when we first got there in late January, the sun rose between 8:30 and 9 a.m. and set by 3:30 p.m. Imagine dusk lurking in the background not long after lunch. Grim.

January sun stretches across the floor.

So, usually about this time of year, I start watching the sun. I know that by mid to late January, the sun will start rising by 7:30 a.m. and set after 5. More importantly, it seems higher in the sky, so that when we have a sunny day, the light in the house gets noticeably brighter and deeper.

I noticed this change of light recently, and while we are having a severe snowstorm as I write this, I know that flicker of brighter sunlight means we are not too far from the backside of winter. Our new home in St. Paul has a bay window in the living room and it faces due south. We’ve put most of our houseplants there—a Meyer lemon tree, some rosemary, a few succulent type things, some bulbs I’m forcing and my husband’s bonsai. They love the light and when it stretches across the floor I can’t help but think about seed starting and the new gardens I’ll be adding this summer. For me, that stretch of light is the start of the garden season.

From above, houseplants soak in the sun.

It’s been said many times before, but one of the biggest benefits of gardening is that it pushes you toward awareness of the natural world and its rhythms. Sure, I noticed long and short days before I took up gardening, but it was as a gardener that I started to watch the arc of the sun across the sky from winter to summer and back again, to notice where in the yard the light fell at which times of year, to feel its intensity in June and its weak power in November. As a gardener, I really started to listen to bird songs and the rustle of tree branches against each other. (Time to prune?) I started to see the differences in dirt—from the sandy soil in one garden bed to the baked clay in another—and smell more intently the herbs I grew. Nothing smells fresher than lemon balm.

As a practical Minnesotan, I know we have at least two more months  of winter at our feet, but the light of January brings its own cheer. Spring will come.

A Sea of Poinsettias

It was a great Thanksgiving weekend, with visits from family, Black Friday shopping with my daughter and her friend and lots of food, including a pie made with cranberries and the last of my homegrown cherries. It was topped off with a visit to the Bachman’s greenhouses in Lakeville Sunday afternoon, courtesy of my friend Gwen and her husband, John, who works there.


My camera fogged up a bit when we first got to the greenhouses. They felt so warm, compared to the cold outside.
My camera fogged up a bit when we first got to the greenhouses. They felt so warm, compared to the cold outside.

Bachman’s grows about 65,000 poinsettias each year. Many are sold at the Bachman’s stores and the rest are grown for organizations that sell them as holiday fundraisers. The greenhouses (I think we were in three different ones during our walk through) are enormous and two weeks ago, they were completely full, John said. Now, many of the poinsettias have been shipped, but the ones remaining look like a sea of red, pink and white.

These tall poinsettias were striking at about 4 feet tall.
These tall poinsettias were striking at about 4 feet tall.

Poinsettias are native to Mexico and the English name came from the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett. In Mexico, the plant will grow to 10 to 15 feet tall. (Bachman’s grows some poinsettias taller than the usual 1-foot or so size and they are stunning.) The Aztecs used poinsettia leaves as a dye and used the sap to reduce fevers. While poinsettias are not poisonous to humans, they can cause vomiting and other stomach upsets in animals. (They also taste terrible, according to this great poinsettia website.) A member of the spurge family, poinsettias have the botanical name, Euphorbia pulcherrima. The brightly colored tops of the poinsettias are not actually flowers. They are brachts (modified leaves) and the tiny yellow bits inside the brachts are the flowers.

These small poinsettias would be attractive in the office.
These small poinsettias would be attractive in the office.

With the right situation, poinsettias can survive the winter. Here are some tips for keeping your holiday poinsettia healthy.

  • Try to give it 6 hours of indirect sunlight a day. (That may be tricky in Minnesota in December, but choose the poinsettia’s spot with light in mind.) Many sites recommend a south, east or west window, but the plant should not touch the cold glass.
  • Check the soil in the pot daily and give it a good drink whenever it feels dry to the touch. You should make sure the pot has a drainage hole (poke some holes in the foil wrapping, too). When you water, give the plant enough that the water runs out the hole in the bottom. If the plant is on a plate to catch the drips, be sure to empty the water so the plant’s roots don’t get too soggy.
  • If you want to keep your poinsettia as a houseplant, give it a dose of all-purpose houseplant food after the blooming season and once a month through winter.

Will you be getting a poinsettia this holiday season?

flower closeup
The yellow bits in the center are the flowers of the poinsettia.
These pinkish white poinsettias would be a showy addition to your holiday decor.
These pinkish white poinsettias would be a showy addition to your holiday decor.
And more poinsettias
And more poisettias


Minnesota State Fair Potted Plant Show

Cacti on display at the Minnesota State Fair potted plant show.
Cacti on display at the Minnesota State Fair potted plant show.

I’m not much of a houseplant or cacti grower, but I sure admire people who can keep a plant healthy and lush through the winters in our harsh climate. That’s one reason I usually stop by the MSHS Potted Plant, Cactus and Succulent Show at the Minnesota State Fair.

This year’s show will be held the first two days of the fair, Aug. 21 and 22, and now is the time to get your entries ready. The show features categories for growers of everything from African violets to patio petunias, orchids, coleus, roses, begonias, all types of succulents from aloe to sedum, figs, cacti of all kinds and dozens of other species. See the entry information for a complete list of categories.

Not flashy, but a beautiful and healthy looking plant.
Not flashy, but a beautiful and healthy looking plant.

Entrants should bring their plants to the Horticulture Building at the Minnesota State Fair before 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 20. Judging will be done that evening, with ribbons awarded for each category. Judges may also name a Grand Champion and Reserve Champion as well as special awards for exceptional entries.

The show is open to the public during the first two days of the fair, Aug. 21 and 22. It’s well worth a visit for any plant enthusiast.

Another Plant that Refuses to Stop Growing

Sweet potato vine makes an encore.

I wrote earlier this week about the weirdly warm winter we are having and its effect on a few perennials in my yard. But I have another plant that just won’t stop in the house.

Last summer, I planted sweet potato vines in a couple of pots with the houseplant Mother in Law’s tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata) and some petunias. It was a pretty container and, when the annuals faded in fall, I decided to bring the mother-in-law’s tongue (I think it’s also called snake plant) in for the winter. I pulled out all the annuals, cleaned the plants and pots off, and put two matching containers of mother-in-law’s tongue flanking our fireplace.

A few weeks passed, and as I was getting ready to put up the Christmas tree, I noticed something growing in one of the pots — and it’s not a pointy, desert plant. A piece of the sweet potato vine was growing! Now that the holidays are past, the plant has really taken off. I’ve watered it a bit, and it gets very little direct sunlight (sweet potato vines are said to need 6 to 8 hours of sun) but it keeps on growing.

I’ve written before about the persistence of plants. Their drive to survive, to live, to flower, to set seed, to grow, grow, grow, always amazes and humbles me. So, I won’t be pulling the sweet potato vine from its pot. Let it grow, and we’ll see how far it gets.


Lavender Blooms in December

French lavender blooming indoors in December.

I was really hoping this would happen when I brought in a French lavender (Lanvendula dentata) plant from outside in November. Because of the extended Indian summer we had — which now seems decades ago due to the relentless snow of the past week — this plant survived longer than expected. But, as happens with lavender, which is more suited to USDA Zone 9 than zone 4,  it did not bloom.

So, I brought it in, changed the pot, gave it a small dose of fish emulsion, and put it in the sunniest spot I have, on the counter behind my kitchen sink. It is no doubt getting considerably less sun than a heat lover like lavender would prefer, but I’m hoping to nurse it through the winter and then move the plant outdoors again. According to this herb site, French lavender does better indoors than other lavenders. It doesn’t like a lot of water so I will let it dry out between waterings. It also likes lime in its soil, so I may add some crushed egg shells from time to time.

I love the scent of lavender, which is said to have calming properties. Just run your hand over the foliage and sniff. Instant zen.

A Bloom from Beyond?

I spent a good part of yesterday editing copy for the November/December issue of Northern Gardener. (It’s going to be a good one!) And, one of the columnists wrote about care of common houseplants, including Hoya carnosa or wax plant. I have a wax plant that came from a cutting from a plant my grandmother kept for many years. She died in 1985, and the plant has been thriving in my mom’s house and my sisters’ houses since then. Needless to say, it is a resilient houseplant, enduring each winter on the counter near my kitchen sink, then spending the summer on the bright—and lately, rain soaked—deck.

The column mentioned in passing that Hoya carnosa will bloom once the plant is root-bound. Really? This struck me as surprising since as far as I knew none of our plants had bloomed ever. So I called my mother. “Has your Grandma plant ever bloomed,” I asked.  “No, never,” she replied, though her’s does have leaves that change color and become beautifully variegated whereas mine always has green leaves, even though they are cuttings from the same original plant.

I went back to work, and later that evening was rearranging some furniture in a spare room we have. A plant would look nice on that bookcase, I thought, and it’s about time to bring the Grandma plant in from the deck. Well, you know the end of the story.  I went out to the deck to get the plant, which I hadn’t even looked at in weeks other than to note that its pot was flooded with water, and there were two big, beautiful, waxy blooms.

Flowers look like stars made of wax.

Was it the sun, the natural rain (as opposed to our alkaline tap water), that dab of fish emulsion I poured in the pot back in May? Had it finally become root-bound enough to throw up a flower? Maybe it was just time for the plant to wake up and bloom. It certainly woke me up, and that is often the point of keeping a garden. Plants continually amaze us with their ability to endure neglect, bad weather, crowded conditions, disease, and insects, and still bloom and fruit and grow as best they can. Our tiny efforts to make things better for them—by cleaning up the garden, by digging in compost, by making sure the plant is placed where it can thrive—are almost always rewarded with excessive gratitude and abundance.

And, plants often surprise us and delight us and push us to look more closely at the natural world, at dozens of small, bright, stars made of tissue that looks like wax.

Spring Fever with Plants

Mama basil

The wonderful sunshine we’ve been having the past few days and exciting natural phenomenon like Sun-Still-Up-at-5:30 p.m, have got me itching to grow things. It’s still a little early to plant seeds here (though I’m sorely tempted), so I’ve been goofing around with my kitchen window plants.

Check out the little basil plant above. Somehow, despite meager light, I’ve managed to winter over two basil plants from last summer. I started these from seed later in the year, so they never reached maturity outdoors, and I’ve gotten an occasional leaf off of them to flavor a stew or salad. Mostly I keep them going because they remind me of summer.

Baby basil
Baby basil

A couple of weeks ago, while visiting my local big box for some lumber, I saw these gel packs in the garden section. You stick a cutting in the gel and wait for new roots to develop. I suspect this is usually used for houseplants, but what the heck. I cut a bit off one of the basils and stuck it in the gel. About a week later, these little leaves emerged, then roots! I plan to plant all three of the basils outdoors come May but for now, I’m enjoying the wonder of watching something — anything — grow!