Round Robin: Wintering in Outer Space

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DENVER, Colorado–I admit it: I watch TV. There, I said it, even if it doesn’t fit the image that gardeners usually prefer to project. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no couch potato. During the growing season, I rarely have a spare moment, and I’m lucky if I catch the evening news.

In winter, however, I like snuggling up in a comfy armchair while the snow falls and tuning in to a favorite program like “Star Trek” or “The X-Files”. I’m sure there must be gardeners who spend the entire season doing constructive craft projects that involve dried flowers and herbs, twigs, moss, and a glue gun, not to mention figures of cherubs, cats, ducks, bunnies, cows, and other barnyard creatures. I would sooner cough up a fur ball. That, of course, is simply one man’s point of view–one whose imagination is fired more by the possibility of extraterrestrial life than by a craft fair.

There is a bright side to receiving some herbal objet d’art-and-craft as a gift. Most are flammable (if one tries hard enough), and there’s nothing like a crackling fire while one watches TV. My attention is usually distracted by other matters, however, such as scanning seed and nursery catalogs.

I also attend to a sun porch filled to capacity with potted plants–refugees from the winter cold. It’s difficult to squeeze more than a hundred pots from the patio onto my tiny porch. In this scruffy group are variegated Cuban oregano (Plectranthus forsteri and P. madagascariensis), bay, aloe, Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa), and several species of salvia. The bathroom and laundry room windows, which face south and west, are lined with pots of scented geraniums and tender tropicals.

It’s futile to worry much about how they look. I’ve cut their water by half, and they’re not getting any fertilizer until February and March, when the days lengthen and the sun’s rays strengthen. Then they’ll get groomed and pinched. In the meantime, they’re a leaf-dropping mess. I treated them with a dormant oil spray before I brought them indoors, so my battles with whiteflies should not reach intergalactic proportions this year.

My basement “greenhouse”, lit by fluorescent lights, teems with life. Cuttings that I struck in October prosper with sixteen hours of light and the cool temperatures, usually about 60°F. The point is to develop husky, slow-growing plants, so I fertilize with half the recommended dosage of an all-purpose fertilizer.

Silver-leaf licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare) and its chartreuse-colored cultivar ‘Limelight’ will cascade gracefully out of my patio containers next summer. They’ll be joined by my cuttings of purple heart (Tradescantia pallida), tender lavenders, scented and fancy-leaf geraniums, copper leaf (Acalypha wilkesiana), lantanas, deep maroon Mars coleus, bronze-leaf Gartenmeister fuchsia, and Blackie sweet potato. I’ve become more and more interested in using foliage plants, many of them herbs, for long-lasting interest in outdoor containers. The climate on my sun-drenched patio is similar in summer to that of southern California, so why not exploit the possibilities?

Mail-order catalogs provide more intriguing candidates for the coming season on my patio. I’ve practically memorized the one from Logee’s Greenhouses, but I should go through and whittle down my selections from the hundreds I’ve circled with a red marker. But that can wait–“Mystery Science Theater 3000” comes on next.

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