Houseplants Brighten Winter Doldrums

This is the time of year I usually get garden fever. It has been months since putting the garden to bed, and the recent spate of arctic weather makes longing for plants and sunshine even stronger. When stuck indoors, even the most desperate winter monotony can be tamed by tending indoor houseplants.

Even this most practical Garden Guru who grows mainly food plants has a soft spot for a few traditional houseplant favorites. Believe it or not, there are even some tasty tropical plants that you can grow as houseplants.

Easy traditional favorites

Go to any garden center, or even a grocery store, and you can find a selection of basic houseplants. This column isn’t long enough to list all of them, but I do have a few favorites and suggestions.

Of course, the easiest to care for are the old stand-bys like pothos and philodendron (both the vining and split-leaf variety). These are fairly simple plants that even take low light. Sanseveria (mother-in-law’s tongue) and dracena (corn plant) are equally easy-to-care-for common plants.

While these are indeed fine houseplants, I tend to appreciate a little more personality in my plants. My favorites to grow are African violets and orchids. These little gems are wrongly accused of being hard to care for, but they really aren’t all that much more difficult to care for than other plants.

African violets can bring a splash of color to any windowsill, and it is easy to find basic colors and varieties. One secret to healthy violets is a nice, light soil mix.

Special pre-mixed soil that is high in peat moss can be purchased, but you can mix up your own with regular potting soil with extra peat moss or coconut coir. If you use one of those self-watering pots, you’ll need to add more peat moss, even to the pre-mixed soil.

The other secrets to growing them are to keep them well-watered but not over-wet, and give them plenty of indirect light.

There are also several plants in the same family (Gesneriaceae) that make great houseplants. In addition to violets, I also grow the related plant Streptocarpus, or cape primrose.

Several specialized nurseries and breeders offer a variety of these plants. I splurge and get mine from Rob’s Violet Barn in New York (www.violetbarn.com).

Orchids are another class of plants accused of possessing divalike qualities. There are several different species grown as houseplants.

The most common one you will find is the Phalaenopsis, or moth orchid. This is the big, showy-blossomed flower you see most commonly at box stores and grocery stores.

Three other common orchids areDendrobiumOncidium and Cattleya (the ones you see in corsages). Most orchids like medium light and watering every other week or so. Some say that you can use an ice cube to water the plants, which is technically true, but it is just as easy to hit them with a splash of water.

The media you pot an orchid in depends on the type, but most prefer very loose growing conditions — most tropical orchids grow on trees. Common media have lots of sphagnum moss and bark in them. It is even possible to recycle wine corks as part of the media.

Houseplants you can eat

Look through many garden catalogs and you’ll see several tropical plants that make great houseplants. Citrus trees like lemons, limes and mandarin oranges are common catalog fare.

You can grow something a little more stimulating if you find a nice coffee tree for your collection. But you can also find some things at the grocery store to add to your houseplant collection for little cost.

A common trick is to grow a pineapple by cutting the top from a fresh pineapple, removing the base and bottom few leaves, and sitting the top in soil. The plant, a member of the bromeliad family, will bloom and produce a pineapple if kept happy and healthy (and no, pineapples do not grow on trees).

You can also grow your own ginger as a tropical houseplant — a great way to have some on hand for your favorite Asian dish. Simply plant the fresh tubers you buy from the produce aisle in potting mix and treat like any other houseplant. It will grow into a tall, spiky plant that, if you are very lucky, will bloom with vibrant yellow flower.

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