December 20, 2011

High Maintenance Houseplants

Let me state at the outset:  I love White Flower Farm.  They are the class act of mail-order gardening and their Litchfield, Connecticut headquarters contains, without question, some of the finest display gardens I have ever seen – and I have seen a lot of them.  So, when White Flower Farm sends me catalogs and emails, I read them.  I do so as much for the writing style (both friendly and learned) as well as for the breadth of uncommon plants being offered.

This is what our jasmine should look
like in January (photo from
White Flower Farm)
Two weeks ago, I received an emailed offer from them that was too good to pass up:  a jasmine plant (Jasminum polyanthum), with buds already set, that was both attractively priced and the purchase of which would support the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.  I pushed the ‘buy’ button.

The plant arrived a few days later.  White Flower Farm knows how to package a live plant for shipment: an oblong box held the pot in such a way that, irrespective of whether UPS acknowledged the ‘this side up’ plea, the potting mix would stay in place and the plant would be undamaged.  The plant’s tendrils were cushioned (though one arrived broken, which is still a very good survival rate).  Best of all, the plant had hundreds of tiny buds that will lead to a beautiful and fragrant display in January and February.

And, inside was a complete booklet of care instructions.  This is where things began to get complicated.

According to the booklet, in order to promote blooming, the jasmine plant needs to spend the next month in a very unusual environment.  It needs a) “a cool place” with b) and c) “bright, indirect light”.  We are fortunate to live in a home with 64 windows, and that excludes skylights.  But finding a location that met all three criteria was going to be tricky.  According to the video on the WFF website, our jasmine should be kept in a room “between 50 and 60 degrees”.  We tend to keep most parts of our house at 65 degrees in the winter, which is cool by most homeowners’ standards, but above the level specified.  Some exposures get bright sun, but we eschew curtains in those rooms specifically because we want the solar heating benefits. 

We finally settled on our master bathroom, which drops to 62 degrees during the day, has a large, triple window, and which faces northwest and so gets no direct sunlight between November and March.  Of course, we’re only in that room for a brief period each day, but we’ll cross that particular bridge when the plant starts flowering.

If finding a proper place for the plant while it’s getting ready to flower is problematic, the real high-maintenance part of its ownership comes once the blooming cycle is done.

“After bloom, give your plant at least six hours of direct sun and normal room temperatures.”  Check.  We can definitely do that.  We have lots of windows with direct sunlight.

“When the danger of frost has passed, set the plant outdoors for the summer, shifting it gradually from a shady spot to full sun.”  OK, we’ll put it in our screened porch in May.  Sometime in June, we’ll let it spend a few hours a day on the back deck. Maybe I’ll set a timer.  In July, it moves to the deck full time.  Maybe.

“To encourage the formation of flower buds for next winter, be sure your plant experiences the cooler temperatures and shorter days of early autumn.  The plant needs 4-5 weeks of nighttime temperatures between 40° and 50°F, plenty of sunlight and the complete absence of artificial light after sundown.”

Next spring, the jasmine goes out on
our screened porch with the
rest of the houseplants.  No special
treatment thereafter!
The jasmine wants what?  Our cat requires less maintenance than this plant.  We have very little control over the nighttime temperatures around here.  We can get a frost in September.  “Plenty of sunlight” rules out the screened porch which provides some retained heat but fails the sunlight test.  As to the ban on artificial light, I’m at a complete loss. Maybe one of those birdcage covers at sundown?

Because I have an investment in it and I happen to love the smell of jasmine, I’m going to pamper this plant for the next month.  With luck and a little TLC, January and February will include a sweet, heavenly scent around our house.  Come May, we’ll pop the jasmine out onto the screened porch with our other houseplants for a spring and summer of leisure.

But after that, it gets no special treatment.  It lives by the house rules.

(December 2012 update:  To bring the story full circle, we kept the jasmine on our screened porch until mid-September; then put it in our basement, which gets low light through a bank of windows and stays at a relatively constant 55 degrees. The jasmine is covered in buds as this is written and is coming 'upstairs' for the holidays.)

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