Indoors, For Now…

After a late start, it looked like winter was actually going to make an effort this year.  We had some cold spells, some snow, lots of ice, and the usual January thaw, but now it’s just losing steam.  A February thaw is in the works, and the freeze out there this morning is the one exception in a ten day forecast that doesn’t even dip much below freezing.  To be honest I’d be thrilled to see this in March or April… not so much February.

hardy cyclamen

I was expecting to spend most of February in the garage, hiding from the cold, and admiring the winter garden which has now officially replaced the workshop.

This weather will quickly bring on the snowdrops and winter aconite, and once that happens I’ll waste every minute of daylight wandering and poking around the garden imagining just how nice everything is going to be this year.  In the meantime though, I’ve come to a decision on a real winter greenhouse, one which involves glass and benches and expensive heating.  Before you get excited for me (doesn’t everyone get excited for people who get new greenhouses?) I want to make it clear it’s not going to happen.  Our local climate is relatively extreme and although that in itself is an excellent reason to get a greenhouse, I just can’t commit myself to worrying about extreme low temperatures, brutal hailstorms and blizzards, heating system failures… and most importantly the extra heating bill.

hardy cyclamen

The hardy cyclamen (C. coum) are at their peak under the winter garden grow lights.  For the second year in a row I’m wondering why I don’t have more in here.

But wait!  Don’t get the wrong impression here.  I’m not having some budget-wise revelation that includes spending less and denying myself things in order to save for our retirement or the children’s education.  I just came to the conclusion that with only a few more grow lights I can change the whole workshop over into a very satisfying pseudo-conservatory.  So I did a little searching and found three more light fixtures on clearance.  $39 a piece, about $120 total… so much better than their $52 normal price.

sowing fern spores

A first time for me.  Fern spores.  You’ll have to trust me on this but there’s a tiny bit of black dust on that silver foil, and hopefully with it and an old baby food tub I can recreate what ferns have been doing for millions of years.

$120 is an amazing bargain compared to buying an actual greenhouse, so in reflecting on how much money I just saved I don’t think I’d be way off in subtracting it from the budget rather than adding, but on second thought a visit to the accountant taught me a new word which might come in handy here.  Depreciation.  From what I gathered (and often what I gather is more what I want to hear rather than real facts) I can take this long-range purchase and pretend it’s really money which has been spent over a couple years.  So for the 2018 budget I’m going to pretend I only spent $30 and we’ll see if I remember the remaining $30s in 2019, 2020, and 2021.

winter sow stratification

Seed starting is well under way.  These will go outside today and spend the rest of the winter on the side of the house under a layer of garden fleece (aka Reemay, or spun row cover) until warmer weather encourages them to sprout. 

The lights are more of a next winter plan, but you never know.  In a fit of boredom a week or so ago (apparently you can’t spend forever sipping beer and staring at cyclamen) someone got it in their head to pot up the coleus cuttings and start a few succulent cuttings.  They’re in the very back of the workshop, in a room with the furnace, and hopefully will stay warm enough there to get shoots growing and roots forming.   We will see.

succulent cuttings

Rootless succulent cuttings newly potted up and coleus cuttings slowly recovering from the last few months on a windowsill in water.

I don’t need more succulents in February, let alone May.  It’s another one of those #becauseIcan moments, but I’m just itching with a compulsion to start more.  Another 25 or 50 more isn’t out of the question and I’m sure something can be done with them in the spring.

In the meantime have a great weekend!

$30 for new growlights

$318 total so far for the 2018 gardening year

The Winter Garden 2017

Once again the new normal in winters is proving itself to be completely abnormal.  Instead of celebrating the depths of winter last week with a warm blanket and a seed catalog I found myself outside in the sun clearing dried stems from around snowdrop sprouts and spreading mulch and compost on top of the earliest spring flower beds.  I loved it for a few days, but to see snow and freezing temperatures in the week ahead was much more reassuring, if only to keep the flowers asleep until safer weather returns.  It is winter gardening season after all, and the 2017 winter garden has been up and running since the holidays.

the winter garden

Life under the lights.

The cool (but rarely freezing) workshop which adjoins the back of the garage is home to my often celebrated winter garden.  A collection of overwintering bulbs and potted plants survive the cold in this dimly lit room, and each winter they are joined by a table top full of forced bulbs, early seedlings, and whatever else I can’t leave to freeze outside.  I’ve upped the number of fluorescent light fixtures to three this year and am feeling rich with all the extra growing space!

the winter garden

A closeup of the different foliage types filling the table.  Snowdrops and cyclamen dominate, the cyclamen are only just starting to put out their midwinter flower show.

Interest in the winter garden rises and falls opposite the outdoor temperatures.  Colder weather means more tinkering indoors, warmer weather results in general neglect.  This week I bucked the trend though, and brought in a tray of primula seedlings before the approaching snow and ice locked them up in their protective mulch pile.

forced perennials

With just a little cleanup I’m optimistic these primroses will look great.  Hopefully blooms will show up in just a couple weeks under the lights.

Three plants have become standards for my winter garden.  Snowdrops are the first.  They’re an addiction so I can’t really reason out why I must grow them here when they’re just as successful (and nearly at the same stage) as under lights… but I do.  Cyclamen and primrose are a different story.  Their bright colors and their overall happiness in this cold back room really cheer up a gloomy winter evening and make this my new favorite place for sorting seeds and planning the new season’s garden.

indoor garden

Each year the winter garden room gains a little more street credit.  Maybe someday I can be surrounded by aged terra cotta and antique garden décor, with a few rustic signs which say ‘garden’ or something similar….  Maybe.  Either that or a beer tap.

As I hide out in my man cave it gives me the necessary time to fully enjoy the snowdrops and other goodies which are coming along under lights.  The bulk Galanthus elwesii which I bought as dried bulbs and potted up for forcing have given me a few nice surprises, but I will spare you from most of those photos.  Here’s one though which I will put in, it’s a particularly tall one growing alongside a peculiar climbing asparagus which I grew from seed last winter.  Asparagus asparagoides is a noxious weed in several tropical areas outside its native African range, but here under growlights in Pennsylvania I think we’re safe.  To be honest there’s nothing really special about it, except that it’s super special… if you know what I mean.

snowdrops and asparagus

Snowdrops and the climbing Asparagus asparagoides.  I don’t think the asparagus would be hardy outdoors, which is probably a good thing.

Ok one more snowdrop.

forced snowdrop

A particularly nice snowdrop with average markings but a second scape (extra flowering stem) coming up, and a third flower coming up off of a side shoot.  A snowdrop which puts out three flowers is a good thing in my opinion.

Until the cyclamen get into full bloom and the primroses burst into flower I’ll just give an update on the hyacinths I potted up just before Christmas.  They’re starting to sprout and I’ve moved them onto the coldest windowsill of the workshop for some light.  Once the flower stems start to come a little more I’ll move them under the grow lights as well.  The fragrance of hyacinths will be a nice addition to the winter garden.

forced hyacinth

The poorly insulated, dirty glass of the shop windows is as close to a coldframe as I’ll get this year.  The bulbs don’t seem to mind though and the cool temperatures keep the flowers from opening up too fast (before they’ve sprouted up out of the bulb).

So that’s where the winter garden is this year.  I planted onion seeds yesterday and in my mind the primroses already look as if they’ve grown a bit since coming inside.  It’s exciting but also dangerous to start so early on that tricky road to spring fever, but maybe the next four days of below freezing weather will help.  I’ll just need to ignore the fifth day when the high is predicted at 50F (10C)… a temperature too high for February and one which is sure to bring on the first outdoor snowdrops.

A primrose path

I don’t mean to brag but my expertise in the genus primula is really growing by leaps and bounds.  Vulgaris and veris were strangers a few months ago but now they’re names I can put a face to and to be completely honest I’m feeling a bit smug…  I do grow them from seed you know.

So I thought maybe it was time to officially rename a few misnamed seedlings and hit the computer for a little looking around online.  My bliss was shattered when I discovered there are more than a few primula species out there.  In the interest of keeping my self confidence up and my ignorance intact I’m not planning on finding an exact number, but my less than indepth research has discovered at least a primula for every letter of the alphabet from P. advena to P. zambalensis, and at least 30 species in just the ‘a’ section alone.  India has over 100 species… who knew?

Well apparently plenty of people knew, so I’m going to just return to my humble garage and enjoy a few of the flowers showing up under my growlight this winter.  Did I mention I grew a primrose from seed?  They’re probably a self-sowing weed in your garden but I’ll be the first to admit that even after a number of years it’s still the simplest of things that make me happy.

primrose belarina pink tartan red

The ‘Tartan Reds’ are indeed from seed, but the double pink ‘belarina pink ice’ was given to me by a friend last spring.  It’s much darker than it should be but I love the color.

I think I mentioned my primrose exploits in an earlier post and warned about more photos of the mealy eyed yellow auricula which was blooming…. and here it is again 🙂

primula aucalis

I think the white flour-like farina which coats the center of the flowers make these blooms really cool.  Notice how much smaller the other P. auricula seedlings are in the pot to the left, I really got lucky with how well this one plant grew!

The other seedlings from last year’s American Primrose Society seed exchange are also pulling their weight.  I’m still surprised that the neglected little things are doing anything at all but they are and I’m grateful for it.  Here’s my next big thing and also the reason I went searching through primrose species lists.  The large pale yellow sounds ok as a P. aucalis, but I am now calling the smaller blooms around it P. veris ‘sunset shades’ and not another aucalis.  I’m surprised by how much I like them, small droopy flowers and all!

primrose from seed

primrose from seed

Many new primula seed were sown last week and I’m sure I’ll go on and on about them some day too, but for now primrose are a nice diversion from my snowdrop mania.  Snowdrops are a problem and I promise to go on far too long about them as well since there’s the promise of warm weather again this weekend 🙂

The persistence of seed

I’ve been growing things from seed for decades.  Odd things such as tuberous begonias and eucalyptus, which aren’t odd in themselves but which might be for the average teenager.  A Saturday trip to the movies for ‘The Return of the Jedi’ and then a Sunday spent wondering if all his begonias will die from damping off disease can get complicated #teenproblems1983.  As usual I digress, but one thing so often repeated is how much patience I must have and how complicated it must be.  I just want to take a moment to say I don’t and it’s not.  To prove that point lets take a look at the seeds I started over a year ago which have been sitting in the refrigerator ever since.  A few days ago I finally made the effort to go through them and to be honest it speaks more of laziness and absentmindedness than anything else.

deno method rose seedling

A single Rosa moyesii seedling sprouting on damp paper towels.  Nearly perfect after a full year in a plastic baggie in the fridge.

The scene was not pretty.  Many of the seeds had molded up (or even sadder) sprouted and then died from my neglect, but one ziplock bag contained an amazing surprise.  A single pale yet perfect Rosa moyesii seedling had edged its way out of the folded paper towels and was just waiting to be freed from its cold, dark prison.  Better gardeners check their baggies every few days and not every few years, but luck was on my side this time and I now have a seedling of something I’d been hoping to sprout for several years.  Of course luck would also have it that my fat clumsy fingers snapped the delicate little stem during planting (so we will never speak of this seedling again) but fortunately I also found a few hellebore seedlings, one of which still had enough flicker of life in it to plant.

hellebore niger seedling

A single hellebore niger seedling.  Given another three years it may amount to something, but for now I’m just happy to see it alive.  Note the other healthier hellebore seedlings in the pot behind it.  These were sown last summer and then sat neglected for three months on the driveway, a method which I’ll have to recommend from now on.

Some seeds wait for other triggers to start the germination process, and for a few baggies the warmth of the dining room table was just what they were waiting for.  Within a week of taking the seeds out of the fridge I had three seedling of the hard to find, yet hopefully amazing, Chinese red birch (Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis).  I may be overstepping my optimism with these size of a pencil point sprouts, but given a decade I may be enjoying a brilliant grove of pink and red peeling bark backlit with the low glow of a late winter sunset.  Or not.  Patience will be required for this one, but in a few weeks I’ll be distracted by snowdrops, then tulips, then iris, then roses, and then before you know it I’ll be wondering why there are birch trees in the spot where I was planning a dahlia bed.

betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis

Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis seedlings.

Not all my seed adventures are purely theoretical.  Two years ago I started a packet of Cyclamen coum seed which would hopefully produce the intricately lined, pale pink flowers of Green Ice’s Porcelain strain of this plant.  Fast forward two years and they did.  What a delicate flower, you wouldn’t suspect this one could survive the driveway germination method but fortunately it has.

cyclamen coum porcelain

Cyclamen coum ‘Porcelain’.

In general the Cyclamen growing in the back of the garage are filling the space with some very welcome winter color.  At this time of year I leave the house before dawn and return after dark and it’s nice to be able to go back there and visit with a few of my plants before going to bed.  It’s a lot safer too.  I can only creep through the garden with a flashlight so many times before having to explain to one of the neighbors that the warm weather is bringing up the snowdrops way too early.

cyclamen coum indoors

Cyclamen coum flowers filling the winter garden.  They’ve been better in years past but still put on a great show.

One final seedling.  Last year I wanted to try a few new primula so I ordered seeds through the American Primrose Society’s seed exchange.  They open their exchange to everyone once members have had their chance, so the sight of dozens of premium varieties still available for ridiculously low prices was irresistible.  Who would think that even these could survive the driveway treatment, and although my seedlings are nothing to bring to a flower show I really can’t believe that one of my ultra cool Primula auricula seedlings is planning to bloom.  I guarantee if it makes it you will see plenty of photos show up here…. and if it doesn’t make it,  please don’t ask what happened since it will likely I did something stupid again and it will be several months before I’ll want to talk about it.


A Victorian favorite, Primula auricula lays claim to thousands of cultivars and several societies devoted to its growing and showing. At this moment I think it’s my most amazing plant, your opinion may vary 🙂

My newly found primrose enthusiasm had me rushing back to the Primrose Society’s Seed exchange.  I thought I was ok last year but for a dollar a packet who could resist?  Actually if I became a member it was less than $0.50 a packet so might as well join while I’m at it and be in a great position next year when the seed exchange first opens.  So I did join and we’ll see what trouble I get into.

Have a great week!

The Winter Garden 2016

An actual greenhouse would be awesome.  To spend the winter nights out in the humid warmth… or even sweater-cool, as long as you can smell that healthy dampness of growing plants, would be a fantastic break from the dry static of central heating.  Since that’s not going to happen anytime soon I’ve got to make do somehow and to that end I have my little winter garden.  It’s two shop lights hung over a table in the small workshop behind the garage.  That’s the reality, but the magic is much more, and of course as with everything else I try to do there’s a story involved.

galanthus in containers

The first of the Cyclamen coum (a nice seedling flowering for the first time), a snowdrop dug from the garden (Galanthus elwesii), and the frilled leaves of a scented geranium are filling the space beneath the lights this year.

Santa brought the kids electric scooters this year, and that has nothing to do with winter gardens but they needed a spot cleared in the garage near an outlet for charging.  Space is tight in the garage so obviously I needed to clean the attached furnace room first.  A day later the furnace room was cleaned and I had room in there for a few bikes, but the cannas and dahlia roots in the furnace room needed a cooler spot.  They had to go into the workshop which had now become remarkably full and as a result also needed tidying up.  A day later with the workshop cleaned and the bulbs stashed away I made the observation that the workbench was really unacceptable as far as winter gardens go.  A few years before we bought this house a pipe burst in the workshop, all was soaked, and the pressboard workbench soaked, sagged, and warped.  It was time to replace the top so off to the DIY store for lumber and hardware.  A day later and the old top was off and a new one had been crafted, more than doubling the tabletop and practically calling for another light to be added, so of course another light was added.

potted amaryllis

Merry Christmas to me.  A ridiculous clearance sale on amaryllis bulbs left me with eight new ones and the repaired workbench is the perfect place to pot them up.  Don’t even ask me how hard it is to find terracotta pots during the holiday season….

So one more day for the stain and polyurethane to dry and then finally I was able to bring in a few things for under the lights.  Just in time since the Cyclamen coum were beginning to flower and I was tired of dragging them in and out of the garage with every frigid weather forecast.

growing bulbs under lights

Twice the growing space of years past and already nearly full.  Overwintering cuttings share space with cyclamen and various too-special-to-be-outside seedlings under the growlights.

I should have tackled this job on a pleasant summer weekend, but at that time the lawnchair was so much more inviting.  Had I been ready to go at the start of the season (or had I built that coldframe I wanted) then maybe these seedling pots of tulips and allium wouldn’t have started to sprout in the garage, and maybe I wouldn’t be the only person in NE Pennsylvania growing species tulips indoors under growlights in January….

bulbs from seed

Hellebore and cyclamen seedlings growing in the winter garden.  The small wisps in the other pots are tulips, allium, and a single fritillaria  seedling.  The economics of spending years nursing along seedlings which are available cheaply (100 blooming sized bulbs for $14 last time I checked) is something else we shouldn’t look at too closely.

To wrap up my ‘How I spent my Christmas vacation’ essay I’ll just add that on the last day I moved an air compressor and rabbit hutch onto a shelf and was able to plug in the scooters.  Don’t ask me how I didn’t see that a week earlier.

pale moonlight eranthis

After two rainy days of 55F (13C) weather the soil has thawed and the first winter aconites have broken the surface. I think they’re perfect and they should be fine even if winter does decide to come this year.

Now I’m all set.  Even though I spotted the first winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) breaking out of the earth this weekend I think winter will still make an attempt at cold before the robins can come home.  Today in between rain showers I put up the bird feeder, braced the pole against tipping out of the mucky quagmire of lawn it sits in, and drug a flat of primula seedlings into the workshop.  Now when the cold hits, repotting a flat of young primrose should be just the diversion for a dark winter evening.

Idle hands and the devil

Two more snow days for the kids, another below zero (-18C) forecast, and one sunny day.  I was fine with the first two but the sunny day set off my spring fever.  Of course with snow everywhere and no other gardening options to be had I ordered more seeds.  I had to.  There’s nothing else to do and even the winter garden has me bored.

cyclamen coum in pots

Under lights the cyclamen coum are still going strong. I love the large flowers on the white with their blackberry noses, I wish a few of the others had blooms as large.

Who knows what I’ll do with all the new seeds.  They’re surplus from the N. American Rock Garden Society’s seed exchange so at 20 packets for $5 they’re what I consider practically free.  Even better when you consider the non-profit nature of NARGS, in that case 40 packets at $10 makes more sense, and when you add on the 20 packets from the American Primula Society which just arrived last week well then you might get a sense of the trouble I’m in.  I already have enough seeds stratifying in the cold to fill my beds once over, so I’m not sure where these will go.

growing seedlings under lights

The second growlight in a warmer part of the garage is in business now. A few cane begonias have been watered and potted up and two pots of plain old onion seedlings are on their way.

I still have to deal with the Annie’s Annuals catalog sitting in the kitchen.  I have it in my head that I need an eucalyptus tree for the deck this summer plus a few non-hardy yucca and some succulents.  I’m afraid that if I don’t get some snowdrops blooming soon I may yet stumble into that mess.  -I would add some delphiniums too even though each year they’re crushed by winds just as they reach their majestic peak…..  but some plants are worth a little heartbreak.

rooting coleus cuttings

Happy birthday to me. A returned gift and $40 credit at Lowes meant a new shoplight for a new spot. This one went in a warm corner of the basement and is perfect for giving new life to the sad little overwintered cuttings which have been sitting in a water filled coffee cup since October.

I should be responsible.  I already spent way too much money on snowdrops and ordered way too many irresponsible tropical bulbs from Brent and Becky’s.  Odd choice considering how much I complained about digging them up last fall.

overwintering succulents and tropicals

Overwintering succulents and tropicals fill the far corner of the barely-heated workshop/winter garden area. Dry and cool keeps them mostly dormant until warmer weather returns.

I hope an end is in sight.  Next week shows five days straight with daytime highs above the freezing point and one day when there’s even the possibility nighttime lows stay just above 32F.  Come to think of it I better start some lettuce and broccoli seedlings, in a few weeks they’ll be perfect to go out into that cold frame I never built.

oleander flower bud

A sign of promise, a flower cluster forming on the overwintering  oleander.   I think it formed last fall and hopefully will grow and develop as soon as the pot gets some water and goes outside.

So I’ll keep my fingers crossed…. if only to keep them from clicking on an ‘order now’ tab since I was looking at geraniums (pelargoniums) this afternoon and thinking a few scented and heirloom ones would be a good idea.   I need a first crocus or snowdrop bloom to get me out of this and back to my senses!  (we all know how reliable snowdrop blooms are for bringing a person back to their senses).  I’ll let you know how it goes 🙂

That wasn’t smart 4.0

Seed starting isn’t the worst thing to do in the winter, but having your May seedlings sprouting in February is definitely not a good idea.  It all started with last year’s massive seed starting failure.  As usual I filled a few dozen pots and set them out in the cold to wait for spring, but the results were far from good, and only a few things sprouted.  I thought it might be the weather, but now I’m leaning more towards a bad batch of soil.  So this year for a bunch of seeds I figured I’d skip the soil and go back to the Deno method (click here to see how that works) of sprouting seeds in plastic bags.  I set up a bunch of seeds which I thought would benefit from a nice bit of cold before sprouting, but also thought it might be a good idea to give them a week or so of warmth first.  You can guess what happened.

deno method seeds sprouting

Just five days later and I have a mess of sprouting seeds to deal with.  After having failed twice already with these Californian thistle seeds it looks like they didn’t need a cold treatment after all!

So now I’m faced with a bunch of seedlings which will somehow have to survive my care under lights for at least 2 more months.  Even with the cool temperatures out in the winter garden slowing down their growth it will still be a long haul. Another not so smart thing was finding a baggie of needle palm seeds which I must have given up on two years ago.  Apparently there was a (now brittle and cracked) outer shell which I didn’t know about and which probably should have been removed prior to sowing.  It will be a true testament to the lives of seeds if these go ahead and sprout now.

needle palm seeds

Seeds of the hardy needle palm. Stored moist for a year, bone dry for another, cracked out of their shells, rubbed along the file and replanted this month. Not likely to lead to success but you never know 🙂

I’m much more optimistic about seeds I received from this year’s HPS seed exchange.  I potted up this happily sprouting red buckeye (aesculus pavia) seed yesterday and will try and find a cool spot for it until things warm up outside.  Also arriving pre-sprouted are two packets filled with Southern Magnolia (m. grandiflora) seeds…. don’t ask about that, I don’t need one borderline hardy southern magnolia let alone two dozen, but I should have plenty of time to think that one over since I’m hoping they’ll be slow growing.

sprouting chestnut seed

Some seed need to be planted immediately, so it helps that the donor of this seed ‘moist packed’ the seeds in damp peat when collected and then sent them in to the exchange. Sure beats receiving a dried out seed that will never sprout (such as my palm seeds became)

The rest of my seed exploits should also be in better shape.  I did go traditional and put out two trays of little pots to suffer through the rest of winter under the deck, and they will hopefully not run into problems this year, but the rest of my perennial seeds went into baggies and are sitting in a box in the fridge.  It all feels pretty promising to me.  Even the ones that had already sprouted in their baggies are coming along nicely after a few days under the growlights.

seedlings under grow lights

Carefully planted into soil the little seedlings greened up and sprouted normally. I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in my end of Pennsylvania who has half-hardy Californian cobweb thistles (cirsium occidentale) growing along indoors under lights. That must mean something, I’m not sure what.

My little primrose continues to make me happy, and I’m sure you’ll also welcome seeing yet another picture! 😉

yellow primula polyanthus under lights

The first yellow primula polyanthus in full bloom. A little sparse, but still perfect….. and the cyclamen aren’t too shabby either!

Never fear, I also have a few onions sprouting so not everything is odd and nearly useless flowers…. but I also have to warn you there are two more primrose divisions on the cool windowsill which are only now starting to put up buds.  If the weather keeps going as cold as it is you might be stuck looking at them all through March!