Break the winter blands with a little greenery indoors. Learn about the most popular options for indoor gardening, and discover some special arts that combine creativity and gardening.
Christmas is all packed away and your backyard’s a frozen wasteland. You yearn for some color, some dirt to play in, something to remind you that light and water and soil still add up to beauty and bounty.
Maybe it’s time to apply that angst to an indoor gardening project. Whether you’re a novice or a green thumb, a cook who longs for fresh herbs or an adult wanting to share a fun project with a child, indoor gardening yields big returns for a small investment of time and money. Besides, plants filter your air and make your home a healthier place. Just ask NASA, which outfits its spacecrafts with houseplants to enhance air quality.
There are many approaches to indoor gardening. Maybe you’d like to create a whimsical fairy garden or terrarium, or hone your skills in a specialized category like bonsai, bamboo, orchid, topiary or herb growing.
Perhaps you anticipate a room bursting with colorful spring bulb plants, like hyacinths and tulips, even as frost lingers on the windowpane. Or maybe you just want to grow a variety of healthy, happy blooming or non-blooming houseplants that add beauty and oxygen to your living space. Here are some thoughts on each of these fine options.
Fairy Gardens & Terrariums
Did you plant a terrarium when you were a child? The container may have been as simple as a large glass pickle jar or a covered fish bowl filled with pebbles, soil and a few plants. Terrariums are popular again, with some new twists. Elegant and whimsical containers are easy to obtain, ranging from a tabletop glass cloche or bell jar, to a stand-alone Wardian case – so named for the British doctor who discovered he could transport plants across the ocean inside of glass cases. Terrariums require little maintenance in exchange for the joy of watching a tiny, rainforest-like world evolve.
Choose slow-growing, moisture-tolerant plants in a variety of shapes, colors and textures, advises Dee Speaker, greenhouse manager at K & W Greenery, Janesville, Wis. “To prevent algae from building up, keep terrariums in an area with bright light, but not hot, direct sunlight. And don’t overcrowd or overwater plants. Condensation in the enclosed terrarium will keep them plenty moist.”
Fairy gardening has become very popular in places like California and Minnesota, and Speaker sees it catching on locally, as well. “Fairy gardens are about fantasy,” she explains. “They tell a whimsical story through miniature plants and accessories. They’re not enclosed like a terrarium. Any container with good drainage will work.”
A wide variety of plants may be used in terrariums and fairy gardens, and many new miniature varieties are being developed and sold just for this purpose. Among the many that Speaker recommends: Baby tears, small ferns, miniature African violets, creeping fig, dracaena, aluminum and lipstick plants, and herbs like wooly thyme and rosemary.
“Fairy gardens are a fun project for people to work on together. They can be changed up with different accessories in different seasons,” says Speaker. “We carry a whole line of fairies and their accessories, like bridges, houses and fences. It’s fun to watch grandparents bring a grandchild in to pick out one new item for the fairy garden.”
K & W offers Make and Take sessions to help people get started on terrariums, fairy gardens and other planting projects. Those who become highly accomplished may eventually incorporate bonsai trees, carpets of moss, miniature blooming vines that cascade over trellises and arbors, water features, and even small live animals, like turtles or lizards.
“The ideas seem to be endless,” says Speaker. “And it’s really fun to have a lush little garden to tend in the dead of wintertime.”
Remember: You don’t have to have a green thumb to grow a garden Tom Thumb would relish.
Bonsai & Other Specialty Plants
Related to the realm of miniature gardening is the ancient oriental art of growing bonsai trees (pronounced bones-eye). Many people are surprised to learn that bonsai is not a tree species, but a method of growing and shaping a small plant or tree.
Ogle County resident Bob Seele has been growing bonsai trees for the past 17 years. The hobby brings out his inner artist, while utilizing his green thumb and affinity for precision and spatial concepts.
“I was a carpenter for 28 years and liked building something very pleasing to the eye, which requires precision,” says Seele. “You don’t build a cabinet to be mostly straight. You build it exactly straight. Likewise, a bonsai is always in the process of improving and becoming more and more pleasing to the eye.
“The actions you take are very intentional, when it comes to pruning, or even choosing the pot that complements that particular tree.” Seele uses art terms like “negative space,” and “scalene triangle,” as though he were painting a canvas. “I can look at a tree and know when something is wrong or really looks good.”
Newcomers to the hobby can read up on the bonsai tradition and learn from others who enjoy it. The Rock River Bonsai Society meets at the Rock Valley Greenhouse & Garden Center, 785 N. Bell School Road, Rockford, on the third Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. The Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, Ill., hosts a permanent collection of bonsai contributed by the Midwest Bonsai Society.
“Compared to most hobbies, bonsai doesn’t require a big financial investment and you can put as much or as little time into it as you please,” says Seele. “As with most things, the more time you put into it, the more you get out of it.”
Growing orchids is another form of specialty plant growing. The beauty, complexity and variety within this hobby makes it appealing to many kinds of people. There are more than 30,000 species and 200,000 hybrids of this plant. Its ability to adapt to different climates and cross-fertilize with other species make the orchid unique and especially interesting; the plant carries with it a certain mystique and reputation for resilience.
Many types of orchids are difficult to grow, which provides an endless landscape of increasing challenge levels for avid hobbyists, who are not unlike level-obsessed video gamers, in that respect.
But, fear not. There are dozens of orchids that happily grow in your home, and these are the varieties most commonly stocked in local greenhouses.
Start out with an orchid that’s already acclimated to the growing conditions you will be providing, by having a conversation with an experienced greenhouse professional. A more mature plant is less finicky than a young plant.
The only way to be sure the bloom type will please you is to buy a plant already in bloom. Most orchids prefer plentiful light, and don’t like to be moved or repotted.
According to the American Orchid Society (AOS.org), the phalaenopsis or moth orchid is among the easiest of orchids to grow, and appreciates the same conditions enjoyed by African violets.
Another good choice is paphiopedilums, or slipper orchids, which have pretty foliage and will reflower in home conditions.
“Learning where to put them and how to water them correctly is the trick,” says Speaker at K & W Greenery. “An east window is perfect for most of the varieties we carry. Most like bright light, but not hot direct sun. They’ll bloom about once a year, and the bloom will last a good two to three months.”
Learn more about this rewarding hobby from local members of the Blackhawk Orchid Society, blackhawkorchid.com.
Some other interesting specialty plants and plant art forms include bamboo, which can be grown in ornate, woven patterns, or indoor topiaries – plants or vines pruned or trained into certain shapes and forms.
Blooming Bulb Plants
Imagine pots of colorful spring blooms inside your home as snowdrifts pile up outdoors. Better yet, imagine the anticipation of that scene. Envision pungent hyacinths, saffron or purple crocuses, rainbow-colored tulips, jubilant daffodils or one of their cousins, like paper-white narcissus. And, don’t forget the daffodil’s exotic South African cousin, the amaryllis, which is associated more with holiday months than springtime.
“Especially in January, after the holidays, it’s fun to watch spring bulbs grow,” says Jim Behrens, owner of Behrens Blumen Stuff, Dixon. “Buy them potted, when the bulb is just starting to break the soil surface, and watch them grow over six weeks, then bloom. My favorite is hyacinth, because it smells so wonderful and can later be transplanted outdoors. Buy a pot of three to seven bulbs, take it home and keep the soil evenly moist.
The bulb plants need light, but that light doesn’t have to be direct sunlight. Don’t let them get too dried out near a heat vent, but don’t let them sit in water and get root rot, either. Evenly moist soil is the key for so many plants, so if it comes in a basket, keep the bottom of the pot off the bottom of the basket to allow for drainage. They really aren’t at all difficult to grow if you remember that much.”
The same method may be used with tulips, crocuses, amaryllis and other members of the daffodil family. The majestic amaryllis grows fast and the blooms in shades of red, white and pink. The spectacular, large blossoms typically last for six to eight weeks.
“By January, everybody’s ready for some bright color, and it’s a lot of fun to watch the progress of these plants,” says Behrens. “And when they bloom … well, it’s a real boost that helps you get through those long, last weeks before springtime.”
The list of houseplants we can grow is long and interesting, encompassing tropical, sub-tropical, temperate and succulent categories.
“For the most part, most houseplants you find in a flower shop are not too difficult to grow,” says Becky Baeverstad, owner of Enders Flowers, Rockford. “We florists like our customers to be successful with plants, so we don’t typically sell the very finicky varieties.”
Baeverstad is partial to the stalwart philodendron, a plant which seems to thrive on low light and erratic watering. Equally dependable is the pothos, often confused with philodendron.
“They’re two completely different plants,” says Baeverstad. “The philodendron has a nice heart-shaped leaf that’s most often solid green. The pothos comes in many variegated varieties, like golden pothos, and its leaf is more elongated.” Either one is highly tolerant of human error.
Baeverstad also favors the ficus plant, or fig tree, with its shiny green leaves and smooth grey trunk. “They don’t like being moved around, and they need medium to bright light, indirect is fine,” she says. “Beyond that, they’re pretty dependable, if you keep them watered.”
The peace lily also ranks high on the ‘favorite houseplant’ list, says Shirley Crawford, owner of Shirley’s Garden Arts, Winnebago, Ill. “A lot of people just like the name and the concept of peace,” says Crawford. “They’re a very easy-to-grow plant that can tolerate low-light conditions, but they bloom more often with more light – up to many times a year,” she says. Even when they’re not blooming, the strappy, glossy, deep green leaves of the plant are appealing.
“Florist mums are probably the No. 1 indoor plant for bringing oxygen to the air,” says Speaker of K & W Greenery. “Other great houseplants include the rubber tree, Aralia ming, China doll, the spiky, purplish Rheo (Moses in a Boat), spider plant, Chinese evergreen, lemon cypress, mother-in-law’s tongue, silver-striped wandering Jew, Norfolk Island pine, umbrella plant [schefflara], baby tears, hen and chicks, sedum, Mexican heather and myrtle.”
Succulent plants, like cactus, sedum, aloe vera and jade plant, need ample sunlight, but are otherwise easy to grow. They come in blooming varieties, including the much-loved Christmas cactus.
Other blooming houseplant favorites include cyclamen and African violets, which require similar care. “They like a north window, bright but not direct sunlight,” says Baeverstad at Enders. “They don’t like to get too dried out, and they need some fertilizer to bloom. Just buy regular houseplant fertilizer and follow the directions. It’s easy. All plants benefit from some fertilizer.”
A desirable but somewhat challenging plant to grow is ivy, in all its many forms. “It’s vulnerable to spider mites, especially if it’s already stressed out,” says Baeverstad. “The mites just walk into our homes on our clothing – you can’t avoid them. So the best defense is to keep the plant from becoming distressed, and to mist the leaves. It’s harder for mites to propagate in humid conditions.”
“Some people kill their plants with kindness,” says Behrens. “Sometimes ignoring something is better than giving it too much attention.”
“Watering can be a challenge for people, because the symptoms of too much watering are a lot like those for too little watering,” says Baeverstad. “If you overwater, or if a plant isn’t situated to drain properly, the roots deteriorate – root rot – and then they stop drawing water up into the plant. So it looks the same as if a plant is under-watered.”
Crawford cautions customers not to transplant a plant into too large a pot. “People have good intentions and want to give their plants room to grow, but a plant likes to be in a tight container,” she says. “You don’t want it root-bound, but you don’t want the roots spreading way out to find the edges of the container, either. They like to touch the edges of the pot. So move up in pot size about two inches at a time.”
Crawford is also leery of spraying plants with substances to shine their leaves. “I’m not convinced it’s good for them. Just shine up leaves with a damp cloth,” she advises.
Another mistake people make is buying plants from inferior dealers.
“There’s some advantage to buying a plant that hasn’t been shipped directly from Florida,” says Baeverstad. “If it’s grown in the Midwest, it’s used to our length of days, seasonal light changes and so forth. It’s better acclimated to our conditions and will be less likely to revolt when you get it home. To grow a plant in the Florida climate, then stick it in a dark truck for a long drive, then stick it in a dark big-box store for weeks on end, is asking for trouble. I only source my houseplants from greenhouses in this area.”
“Knowledge is the main thing you gain by purchasing a plant from a local greenhouse rather than a big-box store,” says Speaker at K & W Greenery. “Greenhouse staff will help you select the right plant for the lighting and location in your home. We want our customers to be successful so they’ll come back.”
So whether you’re a green thumb, an adventurer itching to try something new, or a nervous novice, why not bring some life into your home or office during the dreary, cold months of winter? Plants only require good soil, ample light, water and your tender loving care. Just like outdoor gardening, your effort will yeild beauty, bounty, cleaner air and the miracle of life and growth, everchanging before your eyes. ❚