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.

Water pH and Your Plants

The late, great Malcolm Burleigh, an award winning grower and breeder of cacti and succulents, approached me once with an idea for an article in Northern Gardener about the pH of city water and its effect on plants. Malcolm and one of his cactus-growing friends from California had discovered that city water tends to be much more alkaline than rain water and that the change in pH made a big difference in plant performance. Rain water generally has a pH of 5.6–compared to a pH of city water in St. Paul (where Malcolm lives) of 8.2 and in Northfield of 7.4. The result, according to Malcolm, is that plants don’t perform well when they are watered with city water rather than rain. A retired chemist, he recommended adjusting pH downward with the addition of acid, usually vinegar or a low-pH fertilizer. For gardeners in St. Paul, he recommends one-half tablespoon of vinegar in five gallons of water. Malcolm noted remarkable improvements in his flowers and cacti since adjusting the pH of his water.

houseplants in sun
Adding a touch of vinegar to city water may improve the looks of your houseplants.

This got me thinking about last summer. Even though I watered my vegetable and flower beds and pots regularly during the dry part of the summer (basically June and July), nothing seemed to perk them up like a good rain. Now that may well be because they got a better dousing with rain than they did with me half-heartedly hitting them with the hose, but it could also be the quality of the water. Since reading Malcolm’s article, I have been doing an unscientific test of his theory on my houseplants. I water about once a week and give the plants a good drink with tap water that has been adjusted with vinegar. (I only mix up a gallon at a time, so I need about a half teaspoon.)

Adjusting pH for houseplants is one thing–an entire garden is another. Malcolm uses a watering system that involves a sump pump, a 45-gallon garbage pail, and an octopus hose system. I don’t have the technical skills to set that up, but I may look at ways to collect rain water to use on my gardens during dry spells. I’ve seen many rain barrels around Northfield, so apparently others are considering ways to harvest rain water as well. If you’re interested in reading Malcolm’s entire article, check it out here: water.pdf