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Winter gardening

Itching to get your fingernails dirty?
Experts share tips for growing flowers
when the weather is dreary.

By Tonya Schafer
Photography by Johnny Quirin

February’s here, and so are gray skies, bare trees and foot-high piles of snow. Gardeners might look at the icy landscape of a West Michigan winter and wonder if they’ll ever see green again.

But freezing temperatures don’t mean it’s time to put away the pruning shears. Container gardening is an indoor alternative that lets gardeners keep their skills sharp during the year’s coldest months.

It’s also an easy way to create the look and feel of summer, no matter what storms rage outside. Whether growing houseplants that stay indoors year-round or seedlings that go outside after the spring thaw, gardeners have a number of options to keep their homes green, even in the midst of winter gloom.

Starting with seeds
When temperatures drop, seed catalogs are an escape, offering a look at the hues that will fill nursery shelves when warmer weather arrives. Seed gardening takes effort, but the results are worth it, said Steve LaWarre, director of horticulture at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

“You can always buy plant material in the spring, but it’s nice to start inside from seed. You get a variety you wouldn’t be able to get locally. And a lot of the favorite annuals, like petunias, marigolds and cosmos, can be started inside.”

Inexperienced growers should start small and use a garden journal to track progress. Seedlings grow best in moist, humid conditions, so clear-topped take-home food containers or pots covered with a piece of Plexiglas work well. Fill the containers with quality potting media, and make sure they have drainage holes to let out excess moisture. When watering seedlings, use a clean source of water — not softened water — and add enough liquid so that it drips out the bottom. Not too much, though: “You don’t want to have water sitting in the tray,” LaWarre said.


Adequate light also is important. LaWarre recommends fluorescent lighting — using a mix of warm and cool bulbs — hung from adjustable chains that can be raised or lowered as plants grow. Six inches above the plant is generally a good height, LaWarre said.

Once the seeds germinate (when their roots poke out from the seed jacket) gardeners can remove the container lids. Typically, when the plants have at least two sets of true leaves, they can go in larger containers, and when they have at least six sets of true leaves, they can go outside. But this shouldn’t happen too suddenly: Plants should be “hardened off” — slowly adjusted to the outdoor environment. Move them into a shady location during the day, then bring them inside for the night. “Do this for about a week or so,” LaWarre said.

When the cold weather passes, around mid-May for most plants or the first of June for tomatoes, they can stay outside for good. Still, LaWarre suggests keeping an eye out for late frosts and being prepared to cover plants if temperatures drop. “Watch the weather and get out the bed sheet if you have to.”

Heading outdoors
Gardeners who don’t mind waiting until spring — or who don’t have the patience to start from scratch — can visit a nursery for plants to use in container gardens. Flowering nursery plants typically grow best outside, so gardeners should plant them once the threat of frost passes, around May 15, said Melinda Koetsier, co-owner of Koetsier’s Greenhouse in Cascade Township. “You can have a little garden on your patio.”

Before they start, gardeners should ask themselves a few questions. “You’ll want to decide on sun or shade, and how much time you’ll spend taking care of the plants,” she said. For beginning gardeners, Koetsier recommends dipladenia, also known as mandevilla — a flowering plant that tolerates heat without wilting — and coleus, a plant with bright foliage that does well in sun or shade.

“Petunias are probably the best for people with hot sun and little time.”

Master gardener Bonnie Moore arranges plants of different colors, textures and heights.

When arranging plants, color is important, but so are a few other things.

“Use texture, different leaf shapes and heights,” said Bonnie Moore, a master gardener who is president and owner of Grand Rapids-based Princessa Designs Inc., which owns Avantgarde Salon & Spa and Synergy Salon. “Go with something tall — a plant that will grab attention — and a filler and droopy trailers.”

Koetsier describes it this way: “You need a thriller, a filler and a spiller.”

The thriller is the focal point, while the filler adds mass and the spiller trails from the pot. The formula isn’t a rule, though. “If you have a really pretty pot to showcase, you might want to go with an upright plant,” she said.

Above all, have fun and enjoy the variety of plants that thrive in containers, whether on a deck in the spring sunshine, or within the warmth of a snow-covered home. “You can do pretty much anything that grows,” Koetsier said.

Bringing it home with houseplants
A houseplant is vegetation that thrives indoors. Gardeners can take cuttings from one houseplant and use them to start new plants in other pots to create an instant indoor garden.

LaWarre offers tips on the process. A typical cutting has two to four nodes, the places where leaf and stem meet. To start a new plant, coat the cut edge with a small amount of rooting hormone (a powder that stimulates growth), and place the cutting in potting media. Keep it at 100 percent humidity by wrapping a sandwich bag around the plant and pot and securing it with a rubber band.

Using a waterproof heating pad or placing the cutting somewhere balmy, like the top of a refrigerator, will keep it warm. “Be sure the soil is at room temperature or warmer,” LaWarre said. Additional watering probably won’t be needed, but open the bag every few days to check dampness and let in fresh air. When new growth appears, transfer the plant to a larger container, and make sure it has appropriate water and light.

Repeat the process with several cuttings and you’ll have a home filled with lasting color — and a garden of keepsakes from fellow green thumbs. “We all have a piece of a houseplant that was from our mom or grandma or neighbor,” LaWarre said. GR

Tonya Schafer is a freelance writer in Grand Rapids.

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