Above: This south-facing living room gets its conservatory feel from Ogon sedum, Cordylines, begonias, and more.
Year after year I lug the dolly outside to the garden in late September. Then I heave a deep sigh and put on a pot of coffee. I’m in for a long day. The lucky plants that will spend the winter with me have put on some weight over the summer. I’ll have to prune the Norfolk pines by a third just to get them through the back door. The others all have roots dangling from the holes in their containers. Plants grow, after all. The ones that don’t get a haircut will get new pots. Also before they cross the threshold, they must be bathed to rid them of would-be stowaway pests. I don’t bring in all my plants, obviously—only those that I know will thrive indoors. The head count is pushing three digits. I tell my bewildered spouse that plants improve air quality indoors (they do) and make winter more comfortable for all of us, not to mention more attractive. Nothing improves my mood faster than to find a new shoot or flower bud on one of my houseplants. Plus, I don’t have to buy as many new plants in the spring.
Above: Gravel-lined watering trays beneath plants in the dining room help hydrate them during winter and southern exposure gives houseplants winter sunlight.
“Houseplant” is hard to define precisely. Not all tender plants do well in our dark and arid indoor winters. What makes a good houseplant is a combination of traits that varies from one indoor garden to the next. But all houseplants have to get by on reduced sunlight—not just because they’re under a roof, but also because winter days are short. This is why most houseplants that tolerate low light have large leaves and few, if any, flowers. (African violets, geraniums and orchids are a few exceptions.) I bring in all kinds of begonias—just not the bedding annuals or the tuberous types. Rhizomatous and Rex begonias have big leaves in colors ranging from chartreuse to burgundy. Pond lily, Gryphon, Cathedral Windows, B. boweri, and ‘Black Fancy’ are a few of my favorites. I treat tuberous begonias as I do dahlias and gladioli: I dig up the bulbs and store them in a cool dark corner of the basement.
Decorating with plants is my winter hobby. I move them around as if they were tables and chairs. So the dolly is never too far away. I don’t actually garden, though. By that I mean I don’t repot or take cuttings or start plants from seed. Mollie Kennedy does, with the help of a garden room designed for work, not play. She hired architect Meriwether Felt to add a sunny indoor potting and seed-starting space at the rear of the house. The back door leads to a swimming pool, so Kennedy added a bathroom with a shower adjacent to the garden room at the same time. Felt’s challenge was to create a light-filled space that could stand up to its multiple uses. “Part of the puzzle was how to provide floor-to-ceiling natural light and tuck in all of the shelves, grow lights, and potting-soil bins without blocking light from the windows—and still make it look tidy,” she says. All is designed and built to be utilitarian as well as attractive. The upper shelf is made of expanded metal lath, edged on all sides with a small steel angle and painted to blend in with the other metal selections in the room. “The open lath allows light, leaves, and dirt to fall through. Even the drawers have lath bottoms,” Felt notes. The marble floors are a nod to Kennedy’s Irish heritage. With their greenish cast, they’ll acquire a rich patina over time. Easy-to-clean wall tiles are shoulder-high. Felt installed a hose bib below the sink that can be hooked up to a watering wand. Water is guided to a pair of drains at either end of the floor, which slopes imperceptibly to the drains’ bronze grates. The heavy-duty zinc counters stand up well to gravel and dirt. Shelves along the windows make the most of the room’s southeastern exposure. The upper shelf is for the seed-starting trays. A ceiling fan keeps the air moving and the slender stems strong and healthy. An adjustable grow light above the shelf is raised by pulleys as the plants grow taller. “I call it the Swiss army knife of mudrooms,“ Felt says. I call it heaven.
Indoor Gardening: Pleasures and Perils
If someone started a houseplant hall of fame, the first to be inducted would probably be philodendron, followed by schefflera, rubber plant, ficus, wandering Jew and spider plant. Flowering plants would include the bromeliads, African violets and geraniums, along with a few cacti and, of course, orchids.
My nominees might have trouble making the cut. I love the challenge of trying a plant I’ve never seen indoors. I especially enjoy digging up something from the garden that I can’t bear to part with and pairing it with a container to give it a whole new look.
Most gardeners treat their outdoor container plants as annuals. I don’t. In the summer I plant my Cordylines in formal urns. In the fall I repot them in lightweight plastic containers and bring them in. Their spiky burgundy leaves tower over a tangle of variegated English ivy.
Cacti and succulents require no special treatment to travel between garden and house beyond perfect drainage. Their enemy is overwatering. But then no plant will live long if you let it stand in a saucer full of water.
In addition to tropicals, I bring in tender plants I don’t want to have to purchase again in spring. Last fall I dug up three large patches of a tiny-leaved groundcover called Ogon sedum. Its lime-green color and partial-shade tolerance made it an instant hit with gardeners. Hardy only to Zone 6, it spent the winter in a south-facing bay window and is back out in the garden beefing up for another long winter. When it comes in this fall, I’ll do the same experiment with another tender sedum, Proven Winners’ new electric chartreuse Lemon Coral, which resembles the ever-popular (and hardy) Angelina.
Not all my experiments work. I brought in seven potted mosses that struggled to get through the winter and promptly shriveled up when returned to the garden in May. The sudden switch from the perfect calm of my living room to nonstop sun and soaking rains was just too much.
Houseplants face other challenges, notably bugs. My Acalypha wilkesiana (Copperleaf) spent most of the summer recovering from a mid-March invasion of moisture-sucking spider mites. (Indoors I attack mealybugs, aphids, and spider mites at the first sign of trouble with a home blend of water, vinegar and peanut oil.)
A humidifier is a good idea no matter what plants you decide to overwinter indoors. Misting is a must. I give my plants a shower from time to time. Some are bathed in the sink and the big guys are misted until the leaves are drenched. Then I remove the dust with a rag. I fill large trays with gravel that I keep moist.
I tend not to feed my plants over the winter. Again, neglect is better than over-indulgence. You don’t want to push them when they’re struggling just to get enough light—save the fertilizer for their trip back to the garden. Plants need to rest sometimes too.
By Bonnie Blodgett
Photos by Alyssa Lee
Architect: Meriwether Felt