Sunday, January 3, 2016

Winter Gardening: Reading, Houseplants

DiffenbachiaCornell3002Here are a couple of books to consider reading this winter from the comfort of a cozy chair as you wait for spring to come.

Anyone interested in growing any kind of plant should be glad to receive How Plants Work, the science behind the amazing things plants do by Linda Chalker-Scott, a professor of horticulture at Washington State University. This is not a how-to garden book but instead a book to help you understand and appreciate how plants grow. The author has a very readable writing style and explains the whys of many gardening practices and plant functions. She also debunks several garden myths about nutrient supplements and management practices. Every serious gardener should read this book this winter!

Building Soils for Better Crops, Sustainable Soil Management by Fred Magdoff (University of Vermont) and Harold van Es (Cornell University) is a very thorough book that avid gardeners will find fascinating. It is written for growers and farmers rather than home gardeners but the information is excellent and applies to home situations as well.

There are many, many more gardening books from which to choose. You might consider starting a winter book group with your gardening friends so you can share your favorite books and ideas. One of my favorite things to leaf through in the winter is seed catalogs. Some are better than others and have lots of good information in them. Others are only out to sell you more. If they make big claims, watch out. If they include lots of growing information and helpful charts to compare varieties or products, give them a closer look. Talk to your friends about which catalogs and companies they like and consider putting in a group order with them to save on shipping and ordering way more than you need.

Catalogs are especially helpful if you’re looking for a particular variety of vegetable or flower, and not all catalogs carry the same selection. Luckily we have a nice long winter to give you plenty of time for winter study!

Most of the common houseplants grown in the northeast have one thing in common: they tend to like the same growing conditions as humans – and that’s what makes them successful growing in our homes. There are exceptions, of course, but most houseplants like filtered light, moderate temperatures and adequate water. These conditions translate into a roof to block direct sun, central heat to keep temperatures in the 60’s during winter, and a watering can. A humidifier would be a welcome addition as well.


Most houseplants are tropical, meaning they are used to the above conditions. Think about this as you decide where to locate your indoor plants in winter. Observe where the sun comes through the windows on sunny days. With the sun lower in the sky in winter, it can penetrate much farther into your house than in mid-summer. A shade tree blocks the summer sun, but in winter the same room can actually be significantly brighter with the leaves off the tree. The days are shorter, of course, but we mostly want our plants to produce leaves, and those are not particular about day length.

An important consideration is drafts. Your upholstered armchair may be nice and cozy for you in winter, but the windowsill next to it, where your plant may be located, is a very different micro-climate. Windowsills are usually great for sunlight but terrible for cold, drafty air.

Consider the location of any forced air heat ducts that can feel like a hair dryer to tropical-loving plants. Fireplace mantels are a terrible place to locate your plants, even though they look so nice up there. Woodstoves create extremely dry air which all but desert cacti will find challenging, so try to set up a humidifier and both you and your plants will be happier.

Here are some of the more durable houseplants in case you’re looking for ideas for difficult sites indoors: dieffenbachia, pothos, Chinese evergreen, peace lily, and one that is new to me called ZZ plant which I hear is virtually indestructible.

Photo of Diffenbachia from the Cornell University Horticulture Department.

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Amy Ivy is a Regional Vegetable and Berry Specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Eastern New York Commercial Horticulture Program. Amy also often leads local foods production research funded by the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program. She can be reached at 518-570-5991,

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