Over the years I’ve made an experiment of trying out new plants to overwinter on my windowsills. These experiments keep me amused over the winter months and provide the first-hand experience with specific varieties required to make solid suggestions. I generally experiment with herbs since they’re the plants we all want on hand most during the winter to take a clipping from now and again. They’re also the plants that most gardening literature tends to lump together. I mean, how many kits have you seen promoting a windowsill herb garden with herbs that have no hope in hell of surviving the best conditions and most diligent gardeners? There are times when I see someone pick up that kind of impossible gardening kit in a store and it takes all my willpower not to run over like a crazy person and stage an intervention. Those kinds of disappointments have a way of turning would-be gardeners off forever. No, it’s not you. It’s the stupid kit.
My windowsills have got to be the best examples of where not to grow going. My feeling is that if I can make a reasonable go of it with a specific plant than just about anyone can. On the one hand they are south-facing so they have light in their favor; however, it’s often either too cold and draughty or extremely dry and hot from the electric baseboard heaters that sit directly below. My poor overwintered plants are forced to contend with a constant shift in extremes. When it’s chilly the soil takes a while to dry out. When the heat is pumping they can get dry and dessicated overnight.
Naturally, only the most forgiving plants and varieties come away unscathed. Any plant that looks half-alive in time to transition outdoors for the summer is a winner.
One of my current experiments is with a thyme variety called ‘Oregano’. Confusing, I know. Is it a thyme? Yes? Is it oregano? No, but it does have a hint of oregano smell and flavor.
In general I find that thyme, oregano, and marjoram are very forgiving windowsill herbs — possibly the easiest of the popular culinary herbs. Thyme tends to do the best. Some new growth can get a little leggy if there are too many dark days in a row, but it’s as simple as snipping those bits back slightly. Thyme is a tough and hardy plant that doesn’t mind a chill now-and-again. It overwinters well in my climate (zone 5b-6b? I never know. It only gets more confusing depending on where you are in the city.) and I’ve even had success growing it in large bins left outside through months of deep freezing and fluke thaws. The low creepers tend to do better than the taller plants but I am often surprised by just how many manage to survive, period. Thyme also doesn’t mind periods of dry heat, which is why it is one of my go-to herbs on my extremely hot and sunny rooftop.
‘Oregano’ thyme is a low creeper, which is why I think it is doing exceptionally well this winter. We went away for a week recently and while some of the leaves dried out in my absence it really doesn’t look like it suffered much at all.
My French lavender topiary on the other hand… I am only just beginning to accept that the thing is dead and gone. I’m permanently stuck in the denial stage of grief. Perhaps saying it out loud is the first step.
I’m writing this post today for all of you out there, who like me, have hit the cold, hard wall of Winter head-first. If success is measured by achieving an intentional purpose then this has been one of the most successful winters in years. There has been snow, and lots of it. It has been cold. Very cold. The winter dull drums started to creep in under my skin about a week ago and now I’m at that can’t-take-another-minute phase. So I’ve been thinking, What can gardeners like myself do to lift ourselves out of a Winter funk and turn our eyes towards a Spring that is still so far out of reach and buried under a dirty, blackened with exhaust and dog feces snow pile?
- Reflections – The first thing I did was turn to my own book. I wrote about this very topic once. Of course, it was during the summer months when I was blissed out on sunshine and fresh produce. What did I know about winter hardship then? Huh? The first suggestion I gave was to enjoy the time away from the garden to reflect on last year’s experiences and dream about what is to come. Great idea except I’ve been riding that horse for a couple of months now. I like quiet time in a comfy chair with a warm beverage but to be honest I’m kind of over it right already. Take the snow away! Give me green!
- Visit a Greenhouse – The urge to get inside a greenhouse comes on me like clockwork at this time every year. Go on the first sunny day that comes up (if you get one). Bring a camera, or in my case four. I find that taking pictures helps me to focus on the smaller details, get wrapped up in the plants, and forget about winter. A couple of hours with living things in even the lousiest greenhouse and you’ll be a little bit more prepared to face it. Most largish cities have a public greenhouse. I’d lived in Toronto for many years before I discovered that Allan Gardens Conservatory is open to the public and free. When in doubt ask around.
- Force Winter Blooms – You need colour! Forcing colourful blooms indoors is literally as simple as cutting a few branches and sticking them in water. If you don’t have trees you can always ask around or try your local floral shop. Some stores have caught on and sell locally-supplied branches at this time of year. You can also try forcing bulbs like hyacinth and paperwhites if branches aren’t an option.
- Get Fussy with Your House Plants – Most of us probably have a house plant or two or fifty brightening up our living spaces. I’ll admit that at this time of year the general day-to-day maintenance of my indoor garden becomes a robotic routine. My time with these plants just doesn’t seem to cut it anymore. This is the perfect time to spend a couple of hours doing a big overhaul. Your indoor plants have probably been to hell and back over the course of the winter. With spring on the horizon it’s the perfect time to do a little repotting, pruning, and showering. The extra attention does wonders for the plants but always seems to give my own spirits a huge boost too.
- Focus on Seeds – To begin, look through catalogues, look online, make lists, talk to others about what they are growing this year. Wait, you’ve already done that? Yeah, me too. The next step is to get some seeds. We are fortunate in this day and age to have so many options available whether we’re seeking to purchase or trade. You can buy some online, buy some from a local garden shop, trade with friends, trade online, trade through a local community group. Find out if there is a Seedy Saturday in your area. Join a larger seed exchange organization like Seeds of Diversity, Seed Savers, or Kokopelli.
Perhaps you’ve already acquired your seeds for this year’s crop. Pull them out. Look at them. Take some out of the package — I like the beauty and variety of beans for this best. Just looking at seeds makes for a minute or two of happy thoughts.
Now grow some. Tending to tiny seedlings as they emerge from the soil is a hopeful and optimistic activity that looks to the future. Someday spring will come and those little plants will turn into bigger plants and then they will go outside and suddenly it will be spring. We’re just on the cusp of seed-starting season in my area. However, it is not too early to get started with hot peppers, especially the habaneros which require a longer season than most. If you’re in a warmer region than your choices are likely greater than mine. Filling out a seed starting chart will put your options into perspective. You can also try growing a window box of greens. I like the Micro Greens ‘Spicy Mix’ from Botanical Interests because you can start harvesting them when they are not much more than sprouts.
I brought this little succulent home with me just the other day, another impulse plant purchase in a long line of plants that simply could not be left at the store.
I think it is a Haworthia cooperi but I must warn you that I am not 100% certain. There are just too many of these darn things with subtle variations that I am not sophisticated enough to distinguish. The aspect of this plant I like most are the amazingly translucent parts of its fleshy leaves. These clear-ish areas are commonly referred to as “windows.” You can see through them almost as if you are peering inside the plant. When the sun hits these windows the effect is beautiful, elegant, and a little bit creepy.
The deep orange background in this photo is the Windowsill Cozy I crocheted for my windowsill last winter.
Allow me to introduce to you yet another alternative to the Christmas Tree.
A few weeks back I bought this tiny $3.00 string of miniature LED lights meant for creating miniature Winter Wonderlands. I have a thing for miniatures that stems from repeated childhood trips to the Hobby Shop to visit the rotating display of doll house props for a doll house that would never be. I have to admit that I didn’t really care about the doll house as a play object but rather imagined it as a vessel to hold all those neat miniature Victorian-era do-dads. I just love tiny things and dioramas: tiny food packaging, tiny figurines, tiny ghetto blasters, HO scale anything… everything is more fun in miniature form.
Since I do not have space to store, let alone display the props of a Winter Wonderland (although I do collect HO scale models for a possible future giant diorama that will never be) I thought the lights would be best put to use draped over a small plant. This Tillandsia streptophylla* is larger than my outstretched hand and doesn’t particularly match the scale of the lights, however I enjoy turning them on at night, pausing while reading a book to gaze up at the brightly illuminated bulbs.
*Note that my Tillandsia is starting to put out a flower stalk from the centre!
All photos by Derek Powazek
I first came across the work of Derek Powazek online about 10 years ago when I was working as a graphic designer in the interactive department of The Place That Shall Not Be Named. Derek’s retired online public complaints machine Kvetch.com was a touchstone to sanity for me, a place where I could find solace in the sane (and sometimes not-so-sane) ramblings of others slogging away in poorly managed cubicle communities across the globe or post my own discontent. You may have heard about Derek via one or more of the myriad of awesome projects he has spawned since including the recently relaunched Fray, SF Stories, and JPG magazine. The self-described Author, Designer, and Troublemaker is internet famous as the online storytelling guy; he loves to tell stories and is always coming up with new ways to get you to tell yours.
But over the years he has dropped hints of a behind-the-scenes interest in plants. When he recently posted a series of photos showing the assortment of gorgeous and incredibly healthy orchids he is not only keeping alive but prompting to bloom in his San Francisco apartment, I knew there was more there than a passing interest in a couple of houseplants named Fred. Derek graciously agreed to entertain my questions about his orchid interest and success.