Plants that make winter just a little bit brighter

An orange Rieger begonia in full bloom, perfectly happy indoors on a cold winter’s day and with enough color to light up a room.

Well, we’re really up against it now, the first 30-degree dayhaving come and gone. It’s indoor time and for many gardeners thatfeels a little like nicotine withdrawal. There are, however, anumber of things one can do to add some cheer to the bleak, greydays ahead.

The first is to think color. Whether you have only one or twoindoor plants or dozens, they need to be more than green tobrighten up a room. Many will bloom fully and long with only alittle help from a south-facing window. One of the best flowers forthis simple choice is one of my favorites, the Rieger begonia,usually available at Becky Smith’s florist shop in the Heights.Riegers come in a number of colors – white, pink, shades of yellowand orange as well as a bright rose. They don’t mind the dry heatof the winter home. In fact, the only times I’ve ever lost one iswhen I over-watered. So all things considered, they’re really a topchoice. Another is cyclamen and again, this is a plant with a widerange of color, all shades of pink, rose and white.

Besides color, what else makes a gardener cheerful? Growth! Oncethe holidays are past, a pleasant investment might be one of thosesmall seed starter kits available in almost any hardware store.During the winter months there’s not enough warmth in the sunlightfor these to be successful indoors. So one additional step isneeded and that’s the purchase of a small light unit. It’s truethere are large and expensive models, some as large as a small car,but there are also smaller, compact ones. Choices range from singlelamp bulbs on up to 1,000 watt high intensity lights. You can use asimple shop light system or purchase a ready-made, movablesetup.

In addition, you’ll need a timer; indoor lighting, regardless ofthe kind, has significantly less intensity than sunlight and mostlight units need to be on for 14 to 16 hours a day. If you startimpatiens indoors towards the end of January, they’ll be ready togo outdoors 90 days later, just about the right timing.

If you decide to go this route, remember that seeds are not theonly choice. If you have a favorite plant (especially if it’s abegonia), why not make some more? It’s always fun to get somethingfor free and cuttings are definitely free. If you have a gardeningfriend who’s willing to swap, you can actually have double-free!Many plants will root in water but these roots will not be strongenough to support growth; in the last analysis, you will need thoselittle pots and soil. However, where cuttings are concerned, youmay be able to make do with that proverbial south-facingwindow.

I’ve probably told you before about one of my gardening mentors,whose last name I never learned and whose death I never knew aboutuntil that spring when the house was dark, the annual beds emptyand the perennial garden full of weeds. She had a home and largegarden in Southold, on Route 25 right past Catapano’s nursery. Itwas a very long time before she would sell me anything, claimingpeople always did the wrong thing and when the plant died becausethey’d mistreated it, they’d show up and want their money back.

My various attempts at seduction worked finally, perhaps becauseone year I sent her a Christmas card, addressed only to “Alice, theflower lady, Southold, NY” with the zip and she got it. But I knewshe lived alone and flowers seemed to be central to her veryexistence and when the winter would approach I would begin to worryabout her. Then one day, after I made some comment about wintercoming and that she must hate that, she laughed and took me down toher basement. There was a veritable jungle of lights and plants andgrowth!

Where there’s a will, there’s a way!