January 27, 2019

Winter Gardening Ramps Up - Book Reviews Pour In

There are still endless lists of garden chores for those who garden where winter is mild - California, the Pacific coast, the British Isles, or the US south, but here in New England - winter gardening can often be defined by most people as dreaming and planning. Ordering seeds, starting seeds, making lists with nursery catalogs and websites, and of course, by reading gardening books and magazines. But don't be fooled in thinking that the Northeast gardener is lazy - for more serious gardener often have a long list of projects which go far beyond seed ordering (and beyond. cleaning tools - as who really does that!).

Of course those who are fortunate to have season-extenders, be it a cold frame, a hoop house, a protected porch, a heated greenhouse or inside gardening lights - the summer season is just ramping up in one way or another. I seem to fail in delivering on all the projects I seem to plan on doing. Things like propagating perennials from root cuttings taken in the fall (oriental poppies), or sowing alpine seeds for the rock garden (I'm always too late to send in my order to the North American Rock Garden Society. the Scottish Rock Garden Club or to the Alpine Garden Society in the UK due to my own Holiday drama), but there is probably time to still submit my order for the second round of seed.

It's worth mentioning here that these three societies offer many of the hardest-to-find seeds for home gardeners who are about to move beyond marigolds and who are looking for that 'something different'.  Many of these seeds just which may seem intimidating to germinate or grow, just need to be sown in a loose, gravelly or sandy soil mix, covered in chicken grit and set in trays outdoors for the balance of the winter. By spring, they will naturally germinate.


If you have a moment - could you please write a quick book review on my book or simply click how many stars you think it should have?

Silly, I know, but apparently - it's as important as those Yelp reviews for small restaurants. I 'get it' now. Believe me - I've been just as out-of-touch about these things as anyone, until now. Reviews place a book higher in ranks, higher on lists, which means more sales, and while not really any money for me - as no one really makes money on a plant book - but it will lead to other books, better books and more books in the future.

As for marketing my Vegetable gardening book - don't fret -  it's not in my nature to over-promote here. This may be it for a few months - it's really not my thing.

A tiny note about your thoughts on this book will be much appreciated.  My goal in writing this first book was first and foremost -- to write an honest book with advice that would be useful to either advanced or beginner gardener.

My premise?

No hype, no trends, no fads, no 'hacks', no lasagna, no hay bales, no eggshells, no peeing on tomatoes, no molasses (homemade fertilizer), no manure teas, and as for organic vs inorganic fertilizer? I provide want the plant really needs to grow perfectly, and you - the end-user can decide what you are comfortable with. We are all adults here.

Briefly stated, this is the sort of book I would want to read. I hope you might find it useful in that way, too.


I promise that I will never ask again.

Hardy herbs like this rosemary globe that I've been training, are doing well in the greenhouse. As well as the tiny Haemanthus spp. (yet unnamed but with hirsute or hairy leaf margins).


I will be starting my speaking tour in February and my book tour so many some of you will see me as I travel to some botanic gardens and plant societies with book signings and talks. If you don't have my book and are interested in it, I will be giving away a few copies here in February in a blog giveaway, and of course, it is available at most on-line bookstores globally, and on Amazon. Just google and find it.



Thank God for our mild winter so far. As January is the time of year when our home greenhouse is threatened by heating problems (blizzards, nor-easters and deep freezes). This all happened last year if you remember when early January brought us record-breaking cold and snow. Today, the greenhouse reached 70 degrees and I took the opportunity to begin cleaning and organizing it for spring seed starting. I was surprised at what was already in bloom - many camellias, some tender shrubs, and South African bulbs, but I also bought some Primula obconica and carnations to brighten dark corners, and to use as 'color-fillers' through these dark months. No harm in that. I just repot them into larger clay pots and keep them cool and bright, swapping them out of the plant windows every week or so - which sounds snooty I know - but why not? Less than a grocery bill for a weeknight meal, and it brightens our hearts. I will add that the cool greenhouse extends the life of many potted florist plants, so they'll 'keep on tickin' until their batteries run out around late April.

Single and semi-double camellia's like this pink, variegated one 'Happy Harlequin' are slow growers, but set outside all summer (when buds form) they come into bloom quickly just as the sun begins to brighten in late January. Even light freezes don't bother them. I love camellias so much, that I wish that I lived in a slightly more mild climate (like North Carolina) where they can be grown outdoors year round. You folks are lucky!

I am noticing that while many plants are blooming, some are ahead of schedule which always surprises me. Camellias are well on the way with at least a half dozen varieties in full bloom. Here in Massachusetts camellias cannot live outdoors so ours are potted and kept under cold glass where they provide us with endless blooms from December until March, with the peak season usually being February just around Valentines Day. Appropriate as most camellias either pink, red or white.

Camellia's lead the show in the greenhouse for much of the winter.

I really can't have enough potted camellias in the winter. Sadly they sulk when grown in modern homes, but there was a time when most every Victorian home in New England kept camellias as the rooms were heated by coal or wood, and temperatures would drop to either just above freezing or remain around 40 if the fires were allowed to run out. If you have a cool or unheated room (we have a large great room which we keep unheated most of the winter and camellias would thrive in there) or a garage, even a glassed-in porch, many camellias might do well for you. 

I fertilized my camellia pots (first with high nitrogen then a balanced feed bi-weekly) much of last spring and early summer, and it seems to have paid off with a high bud count. Cottonseed meal was also added to the soil surface just after blooming last winter.

I have friends who keep camellias in the glassed-in-porch of their farmhouse in Carlisle MA, and they never heat the porch - just opening the door to the inner house on the coldest night to allow just enough heat in. Many of these woody Asian natives can handle air temperatures that drop to near 20 for brief periods, as long as their roots don't freeze. There are estate greenhouses outside of Boston that have some camellias more than 150 years old.

An Agepetes serpens (from the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden catalog) shows off it's long branches and hanging stems. I'm still waiting for the pendulous red, waxy flowers to appear one of these years, but I'm not that disappointed as the foliage alone is nice. It goes out in the summer, as it is semi-epiphytic (lives on mossy tree branches) and it dislikes high heat that our summers bring.

'San Dimas' is a well known red Higo camellia that always gives us a good show even when grown in a large tub.

Lily of the Valley 'pips' or dormant buds with roots are being potted-up for indoor bloom and fragrance. I look forward to these blooms every year, but this year I splurged on some nursery-grown stock.

It's bulb forcing time, but as I didn't get a chance this year due to the book to get plenty of bulbs potted up in the autumn, I decided that I just couldn't live without Lily of the Valley forced (some hints here about my next book!). I usually dig some pip's from the garden in November which works perfectly well, but I thought I might splurge and order some fancy ones from White Flower Farm. These are much larger pips and have been grown specifically to be forced by flower farms and home growers. There was a time when forcing Lily of the Valley was a popular winter activity for any plants person, but those days have passed along with other Victorian charms, but January is THE time to bring pips into the warmth, and warmth is what they need if you want to experience blooms in winter. 

A pot of planted-up Convallaria majus pips (Lily of the Valley) is an old-fashioned thing to be treasured. Talk about experiential - Many drawing in old Victorian gardening books show these being grown - forced on winter windowsills, but the real trick is to keep them and their pots, warm. The greenhouse here is too chilly and they will remain slow growing until I bring the pots into 70 F. degree sunlight (or under lights).

I pot my pips (which have long roots) in deep, clay pots - only because I like how they look that way. You can trim the long roots down a bit with scissors if your pots are smaller or shallow, it doesn't make a big difference but it may delay flowering by a few weeks as new roots don't begin to emerge until after they bloom so don't be too aggressive with your manscaping. 

The pips are potted up in a clean, fresh potting mix - No wait. Be honest Matt. really not that clean - I should admit that I used a recycled potting mix from the bottom half of a hot pepper that died. It doesn't matter as I'll be tossing these once they have bloomed - potted in dirty, recycled crappy, used potting mix left over on the bench from some pots used in the garden last summer. That's more like it. I'm not that worried here about virus' or disease. Pots are kept in the cool greenhouse for a week or so and watered well which I think helps them get acclimated. They've already been vernalized (chilled for a period). All that needs to be done now is to bring the pots into the warmth - and bright light (artificial is best) and in four to five weeks the house will smell like May.

Imported Amaryllis are set out to be potted-up into fresh soilless mix. These large bulbs are of newer varieties and were not grown for Holiday bloom. As such, more buds per bulb (up to 3 stems) and they will bloom until March or April.

On this cold yet sunny day, it's warm in the greenhouse so I took advantage of the sunshine and potted up the rest of my amaryllis bulbs. Another dozen of fancier varieties not commonly found at retail or garden centers (spidery ones, new introductions) most of which are late bloomers - I know this as those specially treated to bloom for Christmas are all done with their show, while the larger bulbs like these are just starting to show bud tips. These too appreciate indoor warmth, so they'll be taking up a toasty spot in on our new slate window seat once the carpenter completes that job - hopefully this weekend. Hopefully.

It's been a few years since I've indulged myself with plenty of late winter blooming amaryllis so I am excited to see a spectacular show. All of these bulbs will go into deep and heavy clay pots as this helps keep the tall stems from tipping over. These too I bought at White Flower Farm ( I know, you are going to say that they are expensive) but I promise you - if there is anything worth buying from WFF it's amaryllis. Believe me - I've bought them from most every nursery and these will all have 2 or 3 buds, not to mention the varieties are exceptional. Go ahead - do your homework and you'll see that the price is worth it, at least for amaryllis.

Haemanthus albiflos is a South African geophyte (bulb-like) plant that clearly has a semi-dormant period in high summer when it sulks and prefers to remain bone-dry, but the roots are always active - looking for trace bits of water, as many South African bulbs do (including Amaryllis and Nerine - which is why getting the bulbs to re-bloom the following year is tough - as the roots had been removed the previous year). Haemanthus though is a genus worth growing - even on a sunny windowsill, where they shaving-brush-like flowers emerge in early winter around Christmas. Left potbound though, they will eventually break out of their bindings - like Clivia so choose a sturdy one!

Other southern hemisphere bulbs and geophytes are blooming too, such as this Haemanthus albiflos which very characteristically has broken a heavy, clay pot. Yes, an expensive clay pot that was handmade, naturally. So easy to grow, I love their shaving brush blooms every December, not to mention their vigor (I mean - this one wasn't watered since October, forgotten behind another larger plant and it's still alive. Talk about abuse. I should have known better to use a good pot, or I should have known better and just repotted it earlier.

More small Narcissus cantabricus are blooming like these which self seeded into another pot. So fragrant (like vanilla, not pissy like other winter narissius). The smaller hoop species are all so desirable and easy under glass.

Sometimes I feel like I am boring all of you with repetitive posts. Every January there is a post like this. The same plants in bloom, but usually in a different week. Truth is there is little more to write about here right now, and I think some of you might appreciate an old-school Matt post that is a diary in style, like this.

Japanese primroses - like these Primula sieboldii cultivars from a collector in Japan that we acquired - would do just fine outdoors in our Zone 5 garden, (and many do live here) but these are a bit more precious - new introductions and selections not in the trade (and we are forbidden or asked - not to share with nurseries) as they are gifted. We treasure all of these - some doubles, nodding flowers, and a lovely palette of pink, lavender, and white. Eventually, we will set these out in the garden, but we are allowing them to bulk up a bit in these pots for two years. Kept in the cold greenhouse, they emerge earlier than they would outdoors, where their normal blooming time here would be mid to late May.

Many of my tuberous 'nasturtium' (Tropaeolum species) from Chile and Argentina have emerged with vigor, and are just getting buds on their stems. I still want to try planting a few of these valuable tubers into the ground of the greenhouse as I've been told that when grown that way, they can really show off, but for now, they remain in large, clay pots.

Not all of these Tropaeolum are winter flowering. This T. ciliatum is late spring and summer flowering, and it really never went dormant for me. This is the first year that I am growing it (or second year?) so I am curious to see how it fares.

Winter greenhouse primroses include some store-bought ones as well. I don't bother with those tiny pots of purple, yellow and white primroses sold in 4 inch pots -that appear in supermarkets in January, as they will just die - indoors from the dry heat, or in the cool greenhouse because it is too wet - but the species popular in the late 19th century and early 20th century are very desirable. I still wish that I could get my hands on the most desirable - P. sinensis (to be correct, it's now considered to be P. praenitens)- Cultivaris introduced named varieties in 2016 but just try and find them anywhere. I keep looking, but only a few west-coast growers have trialed them. Surely - buyers will resist until it becomes more common.   P. sinensis was once a very popular potted plant and a winter standard in greenhouses until 1920 or so. Old seed catalog often featured 6-8 pages of varieties. Now, it's lost and no one has it.

A good standby is this - P. malacoides - the Fairy PRimrose, which would do nicely on a cool and sunny windowsill for much of the winter as long as you repot it and never allow it to go completely dry so that it wilts (not an easy task).  In the cool greenhouse these thrive, and are even slightly fragrant when the sun warms them up.

Primula obconica may slowly be making a comeback, or at least, you may be able to find some pots of this wonderful winter-blooming perimrose that will outside any hardy one for your winter window, or outside if you live in the South.

Primula obconica has always kept its popularity in Asia, but here in North America, one needs to look for it. Once I found a few pots at a Trader Joes in January, another time, at a large nursery - the sort that carries ALL of the Holiday plants at Christmas is a good sign that their buyers might snatch-up something more unusual for mid-winter sales. Here in the Boston area I once found them at Brigg's Nursery in Attleborough, and these I found at Mahoney's Rocky Ledge in Wilmington - but don't try finding them there - I bought them all! All 8 of them.

Even a common geraniaum (Pelargonium) such as this gold-leaved variety named 'Janie' can add bright color to a winter window. I happen to love the scent of the leaves (nostalgic, I guess) but who could resist this lime and bronze color? In many ways - who needs flowers?