January 24, 2014

The January Garden Club Meeting

I was the guest speaker at a garden club on Boston’s South Shore yesterday.  January has been a very good month for ‘Gardening Is Murder’; clubs want to be entertained rather than educated, especially when there is a foot of snow on the ground.  And what I provide is, for all intents and purposes, entertainment: the practice of gardening packaged as humor.

Because my presentation involves PowerPoint, I typically arrive well before the meeting starts so that my setting up is not disruptive.  I sit quietly through the business meeting, and then I get up and do my thing.

The business meeting yesterday was an eye-opener into the purpose and workings of an active garden club.  Even in the heart of winter, the club is vibrant.

Wayside gardens, like this one in my
town of Medfield, are frequently the
work of garden clubs.
Like most clubs, this one has a ‘garden therapy’ group that does outreach at retirement homes.  There was a report on the club’s most recent outing – making small floral arrangements in vintage teacups with the residents of an area nursing home.  There is also a ‘junior gardeners’ group that teaches horticulture to a group at the local school and it, too, had been active since the club’s last meeting.  If I heard the report correctly, the junior gardeners will go as a group to the Boston Flower & Garden Show in March under the club’s sponsorship.

For its own members, the club is organizing a trip to the greenhouses at Wellesley College in early March as well as an overnight outing to the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden for August.  The latter will include a talk by Bill Cullina, the Garden’s executive director and a noted horticulturalist.

Like many garden clubs, this one plants and maintains multiple wayside gardens around town.  Those sites are currently under heavy snow cover but keeping up those locales from early May through the first heavy frost is not cheap.  Clubs need to raise funds for their planting and this one will hold its annual plant sale at the end of May. Organizing and running such a sale is a volunteer-intensive effort and, through the meeting, a clipboard was circulated for members to sign up for specific tasks.

Plant sales and garden tours are
staples of garden club fundraising
efforts.  Support them and you
support your town.
Garden clubs are also social groups and one of this one has a long-time member who is in uncertain health.  The club devoted several minutes to discussing what it will do to make certain the elderly member knows she has not been forgotten by her friends.

This was one club on one frigid morning in January.  All over the country there are other clubs doing similar things.  They are educating themselves, doing outreach to their community, and beautifying their towns. 

I guess the takeaway is this:  come spring, you will likely read or hear about the garden club in your community raising money through some kind of an event – a plant sale or a garden tour, for example.  Please participate.  Whatever amount you pay will be returned to your town with long-lasting benefits. 

January 13, 2014

A Winter Lift from Fellow Indoor Gardeners

I had the pleasure this past weekend to be the guest speaker for the Hobby Greenhouse and Indoor Gardening Group of Massachusetts, an ungainly name for a very lively group of people who don’t believe that the gardening season ends with the first hard freeze.  It was a surprisingly large crowd who ventured out on a nasty Saturday afternoon for some camaraderie, plant- and tip-swapping. 

Part of our indoor garden
The group was formed in 1981 as the Hobby Greenhouse Association to give home greenhouse owners an opportunity to compare notes.  John Russo, the club president, explained to me that the current name – adopted in 2006 – recognizes that having a greenhouse is just one facet (and a somewhat rarefied one at that) of enjoying the pleasures of living with plants year-round.  Some members have full-fledged stand-alone greenhouses, some have partial glassed-in spaces.  One very spry lady with whom I spoke, lately residing in a retirement village, makes do with a particularly sunny window.

I came across a statistic last year that the average home contains five houseplants.  If that is the case, then the Sanders household is somewhere at the far end of the bell curve.  We don’t quite have a hundred, but we’re within reach of that figure.  Some are long-term residents, having been with us for decades.  Others are transitory.

Three primula that came home
with Betty
Among the latter are a trio of primroses – primula vulgaris – that came home in Betty’s grocery bag late last week.  On one level, primroses are lowest-common-denominator houseplants.  You can purchase them this time of year from every supermarket for a few dollars a pot.  Native to southern Europe and western Asia, in nature their bell-shaped flowers are white, pale yellow and pink.  Today, breeders have turned them into veritable rainbows.

Primroses are also the ultimate easy-care houseplant.  If you don’t over-water them, they’ll happily bloom indoors until summer.  If they start to flag, put them in the basement for a few weeks and watch for a new crop of flower buds.

Orchids are the other winter pleaser that plant breeders have made accessible to everyone. They’ve come a very long way in the past decade. Once orchids were rare, temperamental and outlandishly expensive. Today, tissue culture technology has made them readily available, especially phalaenopsis and dendrobium which adapt well to growing in homes. Ours occupy a tray in our upstairs hallway where a southeast-facing set of windows provide all-day light. We provide the moisture they need by resting the orchid pots on trays filled with a thin layer of pea gravel and water.

Paphiopedlium 'Napa
Valley' in a south-
facing window
Orchids require more care than primula. They need a reasonable amount of air circulation and higher humidity than most homes can provide in winter. They’re prone to spider mites, scale and aphids and so need to be watched (a little alcohol or soapy water is the best medicine). But the payoff is worth the effort: months of spectacular flowers on spikes and, miracle of miracles, re-blooms on plants that have been allowed to rest and gather energy.

I cite these two plants because attending a meeting of a group like the HG&IGGM keeps me excited about being a gardener (or, at least a Principal Undergardener) even in the throes of winter. 

I came home from that meeting and did an inventory of our indoor garden, and felt pretty good about our level of commitment.  Given that it will be nearly four months before anything can grow reliably out of doors, being an indoor gardener is a very good thing.

January 3, 2014

Houseplants to the Rescue

There is snow falling heavily outside as this is written.  The wind chill is well below zero and gale-force gusts are forecast overnight.  Inside, though, there’s a date palm in fruit; orchids in bloom; and a croton with splashy red, gold and yellow leaves.

Welcome to winter in my home, where houseplants are king for a season.

One of the greenhouses at
the Lyman Estate
It is, of course, possible to see stunning displays of flowers and greenery in mid-winter.  Here in eastern Massachusetts, Wellesley College has a wonderful complex of greenhouses open to the public as does the Lyman Estate in Waltham.  I'm certain there's a comparable indoor garden near you, whereever you live.  But visiting those indoor gardens requires getting in a car and driving, and the pleasure is just for an hour or so.  By all means, go see those places, but why not stop in at your local garden center on your way home and start your own collection?

That’s what we did several decades ago.  It started with the usual suspects: a hibiscus and a ficus tree.  Then we added a bougainvillea or two.  Or three.  We bought a peace lily (spathiphyllum) which grew and was divided.  Each division doubled in size and was then divided yet again.  Today, we force them on guests. 

Dracaena 'Lemon
Surprise' - one of our
Our houseplants are family; they’ve followed us around the country.  When we move, one car or truck driven by one of us and dedicated to ensuring that every plant arrives undamaged.  Moreover, every houseplant has a history: it came from a road trip to Logee’s in Connecticut or by mail from White Flower Farm.  We bought it at the flower show or it came via a garden club plant swap.  It was a gift from a friend or there was an end-of-season sale at Mahoney’s or Weston Nurseries.

For seven months of the year, our houseplants get fed, watered, re-potted, rotated indoors and out, and generally pampered.  We take such good care of them when the outdoors is filled with blooming things in order to toughen them up for times like these.  From mid-October until the end of April, they will be continually stressed by low light levels, extremely low humidity and drafts.  Moreover, any hint of an insect infestation can send a plant into a quarantine from which there is often no return.

Two of the four
bougainvillea that keep
me company while I work
To me, houseplants are a form of rescue: a lifeline to a world of beauty when the outdoors is inhospitable.  I grew up with tropicals, which perhaps starts to explain my affinity for them as an adult.  I wake up to a cheerful variegated philodendron and a jasmine that is starting its bloom cycle.  We eat breakfast to a collection of succulents that grow in exotic shapes and textures.  I do my work in an office flanked by a pair of bougainvillea that will flower pink and yellow next month. 

By April, we’ll have landscapes of early bulbs to admire. Come May, we’ll all be enchanted by annuals and perennials, more bulbs and flowering trees.  For the next three months, it will be the houseplants that keep me sane.  They continually remind me that, even in New England, gardening is a year-round avocation.