Gardening with Galligan: Bring color with houseplants

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO Here’s a white kalanchoe. White plants mix well, enhancing other shades.

Here’s a white kalanchoe. White plants mix well, enhancing other shades.

Still no frost!

We’re two weeks past the average date. The roses opposite St. Agnes Catholic Church in Greenport are still blooming their little heads off. Here on the Island, I’ve closed my beds and emptied my window boxes, so I’m definitely feeling fall-ish. And enjoying every minute of it.

Moving along with houseplants, my strategy has been to group mine together in one place with west-facing natural light. I choose only those that can adapt to once-a-week watering. I’m taking that path again this winter.

I’ve already bought two large orchids and will get a few more. Then I’ll add the following three plants: several kalanchoe, a few begonias (the tuberous kind, although the others would work, too) and a fern or fern wannabe — one that sort of fountains up and provides a green backdrop for the colors. I think there should be a color scheme, not just everything all together. The best orchids, at least the ones I like best, are purple, so I find myself using that palette, the pinks, lavenders and whites. In other words, no yellow.

Maybe some year I’ll head in that direction but I’m not there yet.

Let’s start with kalanchoe, and how to pronounce it; I mispronounced it for years as having three syllables with the accent on the middle one and the final syllable sounding like “oh.” Wrong. It has four syllables and the accent is split, on the first and third syllables. The final “oe” is two syllables, sounding like “oh” and then “ee”: kal’ an koh’ ee. Hard to pronounce but easy to maintain. There are more than 100 varieties in this genus, but only a few are commonly used.

They’re actually succulents, so if the soil dries out between watering, they won’t mind in the least. They’re used to warm, arid climates so the house in winter is just right for them, but night temperatures should stay above 55 degrees. Books say they should have a south-facing window, but mine have done fine facing west. Kalanchoes have a wide range of color — red, pink, yellow or white. Any ordinary potting soil is fine and they don’t really need to be fed in winter.

My second stalwart is the tuberous begonia, a plant I am increasingly fond of with every passing year. I use them now in all my window boxes, as well as in beds; I find that by the end of the summer, the ones in the window boxes are pretty well spent and potting them doesn’t really make sense, so I buy some and start fresh.

If you like the wax begonias, the tuberous Rieger begonias, they are entirely different; you wouldn’t know the two were even related. These plants are referred to in the literature as “disposable,” meaning enjoy the bloom and throw them out when the season is over, but of course, you don’t have to if you have the time and patience to bring them into bloom again.

They are photoperiod bloomers, which means that as the number of hours of light drops, bloom is stimulated. Nice, huh? And winter-friendly, which really doubles their value. Their only drawback is that they have a slight tendency towards diseases that cause rot. Err in the direction of under- rather than over-watering. A high-phosphorous fertilizer is recommended.

Next week, onward into fall!