Down To Earth

Garden where you find it in the dark days of winter


I have the blues. If this were any other season, I’d be referring to some pretty sky-colored flowers or glaucous foliage. But this time of year in this neck of the woods, a lack of energy and enthusiasm is more common, at least for me, than blue flowers. I blame my darker-than-usual mood on the political climate, not our lovely New England weather. I have spent too much time staring at a screen.

Normally I’d want to spend winter poring through books, magazines, catalogs, and dreaming big. I’ve been known to take notes, write lists, and draw diagrams. I’ll visit greenhouses and attend conferences, give my houseplants regular attention, and go outside to see what’s happening every warm(ish) day. I call that “gardening” and it has always sustained me during the wait for spring. This year I am going through the motions by force of habit.

I have kept on top of houseplant care because I can’t stand to see any living thing suffer*. Oddly enough, I have been so attentive that my staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum), which usually doesn’t do much growing over the winter, has put out several new antler and shield fronds. This is a great houseplant for anyone like me, short on uncluttered flat surfaces. Staghorns are tropical epiphytes, more at home attached to tree trunks and branches than in potting soil. Mine was skewered years ago with a couple of giant nails to a mahogany board, which still looks painful but hasn’t had an adverse affect on its health. It hangs from a picture hook on my bathroom wall, where it benefits not only from extra high humidity but the reminder to throw it in the tub for a cool shower and drip-dry every few days.

In my household, scale* is the staghorn fern’s biggest woe — and an exception to my philosophy of benevolence. The tiny sap-sucking insect hides flat as a flounder on stems and the undersides of leaves, and grows a protective shell as it ages. Perhaps if scale had a face, or looked alive, or didn’t excrete a sticky honeydew that hosts sooty mold, I’d tolerate its presence. Unfortunately, it lacks all redeeming qualities, save one: it’s gratifying to destroy using a fingernail or damp rag. Supposedly one of its life cycle stages involves flight, which might explain why it seems to spontaneously regenerate after a few days. I don’t mind. Grooming houseplants like a chimp is oddly cathartic.

I have also made it a point to go outside and smell the witch hazel. Hamamelis ×intermedia ‘Jelena’ has been blooming in my side yard for a good three weeks already. It’s hard to stay blue with your nose pressed into clusters of skinny orange petals. Believe me, I’ve tried. Nothing lifts the spirits like a reminder that life can be sweet.

Spring then will be the ultimate elevator. I can hardly wait, so I won’t. I placed my seed order the other day and as soon as the package arrives I’ll start sweet peas. Never mind that I chose moody ‘Nimbus’ and ‘Blue Shift’. Sweet peas need darkness to germinate and moisture to soften their seed coat. Some gardeners soak them overnight first; others nick the coat with a knife or file. I’m willing to wait an extra week and simply push them into dampened potting mix. After germination they’ll need plenty of light and a cool but not freezing spot to grow before planting out near the beginning of May.

As I write this a blizzard is swirling around outside. Dark times. A perfect winter day to go through the motions and remember this too shall pass. Don’t we feel better already?

Kristin Green is the horticulturist at Mount Hope Farm and author of 'Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big with 150 Plants that Spread, Self-Sow, and Overwinter'. Follow her blog at


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