Winter Garden: Keep memories alive

The outdoor gardening season in Vermont — a six-month affair that lasts from May till October — has surely come to an end for this year. But creative gardeners have all manner of ingenious ways to continue their passion even though the days are short and winter winds are howling.
Many of us nurture indoor plants, such as African violets, philodendron and begonias, on a year-round basis. So when winter arrives it is easy to augment these with some long-term houseguests that spend the other six months of the year outdoors. One friend was telling me about her ‘avocado forest’ which resides on her deck during the summer and takes up residence in her dining room for the winter.
If they are to do well indoors it is critical to provide your winter houseguests with adequate light. A wide windowsill or low table set as close as possible to a south-facing window is the ideal spot for your winter garden.
Many of our favorite cooking herbs — including chives, savory and sage — are perennial plants, meaning that their tops die back when the weather gets cold and then re-emerge next spring. However, given both warmth and light, these same plants will remain green all winter long. And, providing the ground has not frozen solid, even in chilly November it is still not too late to pot up a few from your garden.
Take a small spade or a sharp knife and separate some side roots from the parent plant (which remains in the ground for next spring). Now replant your root cuttings in new potting soil — I like to use one that includes some time-release fertilizer. Set the pot in a sunny spot and water the soil gently. Soon green shoots will emerge and before long you will have enough to flavor your soups and omelets.
Most flowering garden plants, either annuals or perennials, do not take kindly to being uprooted and brought indoors for the winter. However some well-known patio plants, such as rex begonias and geraniums make great winter houseguests.
Rex begonias are primarily grown for their beautifully patterned leaves — their flowers always seem like an afterthought — which means they will grow well even in winter’s lower light intensity. Just be sure not to over-water them.
Patio geraniums (with the Latin name Pelargonium, and quite a different plant from the garden geraniums known as Cranesbills) are perennial plants with cheery colorful flowers and slightly pungent leaves that originated in Southern Africa. Given the short days they may only bloom sparsely indoors, but come next spring they will be ready to resume their flowering on your deck or in a hanging basket.
For successful indoor gardening it helps to use a jet of water to wash all the plants you bring in from the outdoors, thus knocking off any insects or eggs which might want to hitch-hike into your home. And once indoors avoid overwatering them; it helps to let the soil go almost dry between waterings.
If at some point you find that windowsill gardening is somewhat confining, perhaps a small heated greenhouse would help you through those ‘other six months.’
There are many different approaches to greenhouse gardening and lots of different plants you can grow. Some people use an unheated greenhouse as a ‘season-extender’ where they start their seedlings early and perhaps continue growing warm weather crops later into the fall.
For others a heated greenhouse becomes a whole new growing space where they cultivate vegetables, flowers or both throughout the whole winter. In what follows I will tell you about two different heated greenhouses that are very similar in size but used in completely different ways — one ornamental and the other functional.
Both greenhouses have the long axis running east-west. This ideal orientation means that front glass wall and sloped roof both face south and capture the maximum sunlight. And both greenhouses have a solid north wall that is attached to a warm building, thus sharing precious heat.
Eight years ago Dennis Bates of Vermont Sun Structures built just such a greenhouse for us. It is attached to the south wall of our dinning room and has thermo-pane glass panels, double-insulated ‘knee-walls’ and flooring.
It measures 18 feet long and 10 feet deep, which is large enough to provide plenty of room for my ornamental plants, together with a small table and a couple of chairs for people. And although I set the thermostat so that the temperature stays above 50F, even in mid-January the sun pushes the daytime temperature up to the mid-70s.
Because they are renowned for their beautiful flowers in winter, I decided to experiment with growing camellias in my greenhouse, with excellent results. I now have ten plants, all of which I purchased from Camellia Forest, a specialist nursery in North Carolina.
Camellias are woody shrubs with shiny green leaves that originate in south-east Asia. Ornamental camellias, while related to the plant that produces leaves for black teas, have huge saucer-like flowers in colors from red to pink to white. Some varieties begin blooming in October, whereas others wait for the winter solstice to start flowering, and then continue until the spring equinox. Each of my larger camellia plants now produces upwards of 30 blossoms in one winter — bliss to behold on a snowy January day!
I also enjoy a thriving collection of succulents — primarily echeverias with their rosettes of plump leaves that almost look like flowers. Unlike cactus or agaves, echeverias do not have nasty spines — a very important point in their favor.
I like to leave the succulents in the greenhouse during the summer — they enjoy the heat and it is an easy way to avoid getting them overwatered by the rain.
And finally I always find some room for a few cooking herbs, including the classic foursome — parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme — plus a good sized bay-laurel bush, all of which will provide me with flavorful leaves all winter long.
In wintertime the greenhouse at Middlebury’s Parent Child Center is a green oasis. It is also a hive of activity as the young parents attending PCC work together to raise all manner of edibles while their children play nearby.
These New Guinea Impatiens were potted from the Parent Child Center garden and moved inside to brighten up their greenhouse for winter.
The greenhouse which was designed and constructed especially for the center by Jonathan Hescock of Vermont Victory Greenhouses and has been a huge success, both in producing healthy food and also for teaching new gardeners. In the winter a heater keeps the space from getting too cold (a new thermostat will be added soon) and as the days get longer and the sun heats the greenhouse there are three windows that open automatically to provide ventilation (a very nice feature).
I chatted with Shari Johnson, a UVM Extension Master Gardener who volunteers as a mentor for the PCC greenhouse program. She ran off an impressive list of the various crops they grow there — all kinds of salad greens which are harvested multiple times using a ‘cut and come again’ technique, as well as radishes, peas, patio-style tomatoes and even potatoes. They grow the crops in deep planting trays that line the entire south wall, providing maximum sunlight.
Each autumn they also bring in some plants from the outside, both culinary herbs as well as a few nasturtiums, impatiens, marigolds and geraniums to make everything cheery.
The gardeners keep a vigilant eye open for aphids, and quickly apply insecticidal soap to quell an infestation at the outset.
And in the new year, as the days get longer, they will be sowing seeds for vegetables to be planted in their outdoor gardens when spring arrives — and so the cycle of life in the garden continues.

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