Banish winter with house plants

Posted: Friday, December 14, 2001

POUND RIDGE, N.Y. (AP) -- Whether you're an expert in the greenhouse or just a windowsill guy, indoor plants expand the joy of gardening through the year. And new cultivars add the thrill of discovery.

Anyone just starting out will find much help in books or online. Some nurseries specialize in house plants and are highly geared to meet demands.

Logee's Greenhouses of Danielson, Conn. (888-330-8038, www.Logees.com), for example, sells over 1,000 varieties and this year alone they added more than 30 new ones. Logee's even has a horticultural hot line (860-779-7481) to handle questions on plant culture and care.

Surveys have shown that the best-selling house plant over time is the poinsettia. That scarcely surprises since much of its popularity comes at Christmas time. Saving it for another year is hard, involving steps like long periods in dark closets, so many people just buy new ones every year. But, as in many things, you get a sense of achievement doing it yourself.

Next of the best-sellers are chrysanthemums, followed by azaleas, Easter lilies and African violets. Repeat purchases are true of these, too. Two-thirds of plant purchases are in the supermarket, some of them, no doubt, reflecting impulse buyng.

An easy way to launch your indoor experience is with bulbs, like narcissus and tulips. They come individually or in collections, don't require much care, and provide dazzling displays on windowsills, coffee tables or just about anywhere you put them.

Amaryllis is a spectacular one. Both Logee's and White Flower Farm of Litchfield, Conn. (800-503-9624, www.whiteflowerfarm.com) have lovely offerings.

For more demanding plants, I've found the proper use of light an important factor in success or failure. You should know ahead of time whether a plant wants full sun, partial sun or shade. Flowering plants generally want full sun most of the day while leafy plants, like ferns, prefer shade. You damage shade plants by giving them full sun, while bloomers won't produce in the shade.

In the house, full sun means south, southeast or southwest exposure; partial sun means east or west exposure; shade means northern exposure or the interior of the house. If you're shopping for house plants at a nursery, instead of by catalog, make sure you get the cultural requirements. Shipped plants usually carry full instructions. At a nursery you've got to ask.

Artificial lighting has achieved impressive success in the nurture of plants indoors. Mostly it's based on fluorescent tubes, but there are also mercury-vapor or metal halide spotlights. Charley's Greenhouse Supplies (800-322-4707; www.charleysgreenhouse.com) has a wide array of lights for the novice or seasoned grower. Lights are fine for display of ornamentals, but I've found them especially useful for the starting of vegetable plants.

The important thing with lights is to realize they're far less powerful than the sun. The seed flat must be placed close to the lights to achieve healthy germination. Fortunately, the latest models of light stands are equipped with easily maneuverable controls to lower or raise the tubes. Herbs like parsley, chives and basil thrive all winter under lights.

Aside from light, other vital factors are temperature, humidity and soil, with plants differing widely in their requirements. Also, there's ventilation. You've got to watch out for strong drafts of cold or hot air and also gas and fumes. The Jerusalem cherry, for example, hates cooking gas and its buds will blacken at the slightest whiff.

African violets, which easily bloom indoors, will go on a long time under lights but also prosper when nurtured in an eastern exposure and protected from the noonday sun. But beware of proximity to a cool window. Also, water from the bottom (the saucer) and not the top.

Begonias are highly prized and new cultivars keep coming out. Logee's 2001 catalog offered what it called five outstanding new begonias. The revised edition of the authoritative America's Garden Book (Macmillan 1996) lists as many as 18 begonia species well suited for house plants. This 1,042-page encyclopedia, incidentally, is as good a source as you can get on indoor gardening.

But there are, of course, books dealing exclusively with one plant. Some potted trees do well indoors. A good example is the Benjamin fig or weeping fig, botanically Ficus benjamina. But beware of repotting in ever-larger pots. It can become too big for most rooms and its limbs tough to prune.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: George Bria retired from the AP in 1981 after 40 years that included coverage of World War II from Italy.

End advance for Thursday, Dec. 13



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