In the Garden:
Upper South
January, 2005
Regional Report

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Blooming houseplants, like this Sinningia 'Regina', help make winter bearable.

Houseplants to the Rescue

There's nothing like being snowbound for over a week to make a person learn what is most appreciated and what helps to maintain some semblance of sanity. For me, it's been a combination of the antics of my dog and cat, the flocks of birds at the feeders, and a sunroom filled with houseplants.

That sunroom was originally built with a very prosaic purpose -- a place to overwinter tropicals -- but it has proven to be the center of the house, where people like to eat, work, and congregate. Even if you don't have an entire space that can be devoted to houseplants, I firmly believe that adding them throughout our living spaces enhances our lives in many ways. Perhaps it's the Feng Shui of them or maybe the extra oxygen. Why not add at least a few new plants indoors this winter!

The Basics
Whether you have just a few houseplants or dozens, you'll enjoy them most if they are healthy. As with outdoor gardening, the keys are putting the right plant in the right place, plus a little thoughtful TLC with regard to light, water, humidity, soil, and feeding. A good place to read the basics is here at the National Gardening Web site in the article "Houseplants 101" (http://www.garden.org/articles/scripts/articles.taf?action=print&id=1363).

Lots of Possibilities
My lifetime adventure with houseplants began many years ago shen I was the editor of a houseplant magazine called Plants Alive. Sure, my family always had some philodendrons, maybe a dieffenbachia, plus some African violets as I was growing up, but it wasn't until my stint at Plants Alive that I fully appreciated the wide range of plants that could be grown indoors.

There are so many different ways to go, whether collecting cacti and succulents, spiky bromeliads, sophisticated orchids, the trendy Rex begonias, or members of the wide-ranging gesneriad family, to name just a few. Usually there are a couple of local garden centers that carry at least a modest variety of houseplants. Once enthralled, you can turn to specialist mail-order nurseries that can satisfy every plant whim.

Some Favorites
We may not initially think of houseplants as being long-lived like trees, shrubs, and perennials, but houseplants can be passed down through generations. Because of its near indestructibility, mother-in-law's tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata) probably heads the list. One of my mother's favorite plants to share was the red-leaved oxalis (Oxalis 'Rubra'); it's one of those plants that multiplies quickly and can appear dead, only to spring back to life with a little light and water. Holiday cacti are another group of long-lived houseplants.

Although African violets are thought of as finicky, they're also often shared because they proliferate and have a certain resiliency as well. I have a miniature African violet of my mother's that is at least 25 years old. Another legacy is from both Plants Alive and my mother. The magazine had a giveaway of seeds of a gesneriad called Sinningia speciosa 'Regina'. Thirty years later the plant my mother started from those seeds continues to grow and bloom.

One of my favorite things to have indoors in winter are pots of impatiens brought in from growing outdoors during the summer. Geraniums also make the move smoothly to indoors, and scented geraniums are a particular winter delight. Consider begonias, too.

Be willing to admit up front that you'll have some problems and failures. I'm constantly experimenting, trying to grow plants that are difficult, often with a great deal of success. Amazingly, I have kept a gardenia alive for about five years, and it is now almost 4 feet tall. I've also had decent success growing unusual Asian herbs. I struggle with citrus, however, but I'll keep trying.


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