Garden Notes: Light returning

Do you want a winter garden on your sun porch?

Winter-blooming camellias: here, Camellia japonica ‘Debutante.’ —Susan Safford

The good news: witch hazel blossoms have already started to unfurl. On Jan. 17, the sun will have risen at 7:10 am and set at 4:39 pm, versus rising at 7:13 am and setting at 4:18 pm at the winter solstice. By January’s end, we shall receive almost 10 hours of daylight. The bad news: “As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens” –old adage.

Cut branches to force in water. Prune out crossing branches on shrubbery.

Plan ahead to reduce use of chemical de-icing products, such as calcium chloride, sodium chloride (salt), potassium chloride, urea, and calcium magnesium acetate on steps and walkways, especially adjacent to garden beds; they may damage plants, walkways, and soil. Store ashes, sand, and sawdust — even hay — or a mixture, to use instead. Read more at

Turn your compost. Mulch (cut-up Christmas trees?) once ground has frozen. Study seed catalogues and submit seed orders in time to get the discount!

Late-dug potatoes grew to sizeable proportions, compared with the earlies’ measly size. ‘Daisy Gold,’ however, was scab-prone.

Houseplants, sun porches, and winter gardens

Increasing daylight is cheering for houseplants. They must somehow manage with indoor conditions (lack of humidity, poor light quality, and household dust) that are really inimical to thriving, compared to the worlds where they originated.

Certain insects seem endemic to certain plants. Some of the houseplants I choose to grow are subject to scale, in particular camellias, citrus, and cyclamen; others are white-fly magnets: hibiscus, fuchsia, and pelargonium. With orchids I check for mealybugs.

Control plus vigilance is a more realistic goal — rather than outright elimination — in dealing with these insect problems. Spraying with insecticidal soap and horticultural oil, safer for indoor use, provides it. The MO is regular checking and respraying.

The Island outlook seems to have changed. Many acquaintances routinely ask, Where are you going this winter? My inward reaction to the well-meaning question is therefore probably curious: Personally, I do not want to go anywhere. I am a winter person. The summer here is such a pressured blur. I want to be home, enjoying my house and garden, even though there isn’t any greenery or beaching to be had.

One of the reasons you will find it difficult to tear me away is that the camellias come into bloom now. The three in my small collection are ‘Debutante,’ ‘High Fragrance,’ and ‘April Dawn.’

Back in the days when people seldom traveled far from their homes, in any season, especially in winter, some had “winter gardens.” These were bay windows or sun porches, well supplied with natural light, where tender plants could be wintered over.

Vastly wealthier people may have built and heated truly luxurious, expansive conservatories accommodating full-size trees and shrubs, such as citrus and grapevines, which provided for the table, plus a lot more purely ornamental plants. Teams of gardeners practiced great skill to husband them.

For the humbler sun porch, plants such as geraniums, fuchsias, abutilons, or certain other typical summer bedding plants will do. They can be wintered over and propagated, and like the cool, bright conditions, which often contribute to plant health.

Camellias (Camellia japonica and hybrids) are ideal for such spaces. They bloom in winter, are long-lived, are suitable for pot culture, and like cool temps. Members of the tea family, they are captivating plants. A more perfectly beautiful plant-form, in every way — foliage, habit, and flower — can hardly be imagined. No wonder camellias have cast such a spell over plantspeople and artists for so many centuries.

Flower forms and colors include single, semi-double, anemone, and double flowers ranging from white to shades of pink and red, including variegated or “broken” colors; flowers often feature prominent golden stamens. The elegant foliage is deep green and gleaming, with leaf edges minutely serrated.

My prized “New Garden Encyclopedia” (Wise, 1946) contains a great deal of useful information about camellias, including pot culture. (These older gardening references often supply detailed cultural information about everything now promoted on websites as “new, exciting.”)

Attention to watering correctly is important. “Bud dropping sometimes causes a considerable loss of flowers, and perhaps the chief reason for this is dryness at the roots, particularly after the buds have set.” Check leaf undersides for minuscule scale visually, and by running a fingernail along leaf midribs.

Should longtime potted camellias have compaction at the center of the root ball, the best way to water is to immerse them in water for a couple of hours. However, good drainage is also important: “Sodden soil will also cause trouble.”

Acidic soil consisting of equal amounts of good loam, peat (or, nowadays, peat substitute such as coir), and sharp sand work well. Camellias do not need repotting often, and “should never be over-potted”; if necessary, or to renovate the soil, do it immediately after flowering. Camellias in pots or tubs appreciate being outdoors for the summer, in a partly shaded place.


‘Regenerative Backyard Gardening’

One way to face food insecurity and environmental issues is to acquire some growing skills. Despite naysayers’ pessimism, growing food to eat is empowering and leads to further success.

A program of three free workshops, “Regenerative Backyard Gardening: Gardens of the Future,” led by Roxanne Kapitan, kicks off Saturday, Jan. 19th, from 10:30 to 12 at the Oak Bluffs library. Further workshops, same time slot, take place starting Feb. 16, West Tisbury library, and March 23, Vineyard Haven library.


PHA Winter Walks

Winter focuses our attention on evergreen plants and plant forms. It is a good time to visit PHA; there are plants of interest or in bloom at all times of year. Polly Hill Arboretum’s next winter walk is scheduled for Feb. 9 at 10 am.