The Indoor Jungle

by Neal Sanders
Leaflet Contributor

I write these words a few days before Christmas with a large, unruly bougainvillea brushing the top of my head. To my right are lush orchids and more bougainvillea. I’m not spending the holidays on some exotic Caribbean island, however. There’s a foot of snow outside and the temperature is in the low teens. This tropical jungle is in my own home.

From May to early October, the gardens around my home sport a profusion of containers and our porch and deck are awash in greenery and flowers. This year there were more than forty container gardens ranging in size from 14-inch pots to 30-gallon behemoths. In our screened porch, dozens of individual plants were arrayed on trays and benches. On our deck, more containers and heat-loving tropicals provided color into September.

But when overnight temperatures dipped into the 40s, the tender plants began migrating indoors. The tropicals were the first to make the move, followed by hardier succulents, cyclamen and herbs. As annuals succumbed to frost, the containers that bore them were washed and stowed in the basement. The property has been bare of containers since early November.

Indoors, though, is a Noah’s Ark of the plant kingdom. They crowd in front of every window, especially those with a southern exposure. I share my office with a rack of sun-thirsty plants plus two hanging bougainvillea. The aforementioned orchids are in the hallway where there is a triple window. There are half a dozen neomarica, better known as walking iris, that were cut from a mother plant in late summer. They will grow through the winter, and be given away in the spring. Down in the basement where a bank of ground-level windows allow in feeble sun, a magnificent papyrus – rescued from our water garden – stands four feet tall and brushes up against the ceiling. Nearly a dozen spathiphyllum, commonly called the peace lily, are scattered around the house. There seems to be one in every room.

It is out in the garage, though, that the extent of our plant asylum becomes apparent. Betty mixes perennials and annuals in containers, often with dramatic results. When she pulled apart those containers in October, many of the perennials showed well-developed root systems. She made the decision to winter over the best of the plants.

However, we do not have a greenhouse. What we have, instead, is a large, well-insulated garage that stays above freezing and has a large, southwest-facing window. There, up against the glass are huddled more than a dozen containers. There is an enormous, cattail-patterned concrete urn where a fern is going through its dormancy period. A white Italianate container holds a now-well-established trailing herichrysum petiolare, other known as a licorice plant, that has found its hibernal equilibrium. Various salvia, verbena, and gaura have been sharply trimmed back but are holding their own and seem poised to survive a New England winter.

Logic says we should consider our plants disposable; chuck them into the compost pile as we do hundreds of annuals. But logic isn’t the be-all and end-all of gardening. Strange as it may seem to some people, many of these plants are old friends. The bougainvillea over my head (which also sheds leaves onto my keyboard) is more than a decade old. I know it well. Come February it will bloom a pale purple, much to my delight. The bracts will linger into late April. I could no more imagine leaving it out on the porch to freeze than I could do such a thing to our family cat. (Then again, plants never have ‘accidents’ on Oriental rugs.)

Being sentimental about a plant is, in my view, a very good trait. They bring us pleasure and prod our senses. They invoke memory. Sharing a window with a bougainvillea is a small price to pay for the reminder that spring will come again.

Neal Sanders is a frequent contributor to the Leaflet. We encourage you to read his contributions to our In the Gardens Blog where he focuses on interesting cultivars that can found in the Elm Bank gardens. Neal's first novel, Murder Imperfect, has just been published. You can learn more about it here or order it through Amazon.com.