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Brightening the Dull Gray Season.

I'm writing this column almost as a response to an e-mail I received that had a ticker type calendar attached that informed me that there were two months and a week until spring. I was going to write about the winter that just wouldn't come, or, at the very least, stay for a while. And then everything changed. I awoke to 9.4 degrees F. this morning. The forecast for the coming weeks is, indeed, that winter will be with us for some time to come.

Reports did come in from downstate, only a week ago that said forsythia was beginning to flower and that fruit trees were following suit and daffodils, too. The NYBG even had spirea and candytuft flowering. Saturday, January 6th, the temperatures here hovered near 60 degrees F. The andromeda outside the front of my house had buds swollen and, while not open, seemed ready to do so.

The gill over the ground looked vigorous and my climbing rose still had leaves and some new and tender looking growth. Even the Clematis had a few new leaves. The grass was green, the ground unfrozen, fern leaves, pulmonaria, poppy foliage and feverfew all looked poised to greet a premature spring (or delayed winter) with a flourish of new growth.

We've seen some snow flurries and a few days where temperatures were a bit more seasonable, but for the most part it has been fall-like days in January. Until this morning, that is. There is nothing like a bone chilling day with some strong winds to remind us the calendar is a good guide to what we should expect, sooner or later. The gray skies, muted sunshine, and the overall feeling of winter and dullness and snow are only days away, late, but not out of character. I guess this is why so many take vacation at this time of year.

What seems to pull us out of these doldrums is treating the pleasure centers in ourselves. The senses are what need appeasing. Certainly warm tropical air and plenty of sunshine are great lures. So, also, is well prepared and presented food. The visual and aroma centers are put on high alert even before the taste buds can take in the joy. For the aural centers, some great lively music also enlivens the spirit to dance and sing.

Flowers, too, are high on the list for lifting one's spirits. Their appeal comes from their beautiful structure, color, fragrance and feel. Some believe our sense of smell is our most provocative. Fragrance may well be one very ancient factor of flower survival.

To cheer up your home during these days when many are affected by their shorter length and subdued light, think of flowers. Bring some fresh flowers into the house from your local florist. Memories of flowers live deep in our minds and hearts. They are welcomed by everyone and make a wonderful, cheerful gift during a visit.

An assortment of flowers invites us to the challenge of arranging them for display that pleases others and ourselves. Satisfy the inner artist in you, and go to it. If you purchase flowers, make sure the florist provides a commercial preservative to mix in the water and extend the vase life. When you get them home, strip off the lower leaves, give the stems a fresh diagonal cut, and plunge into several inches of warm water into which you've dissolved the preservative. If it goes missing, 1/4 teaspoon each of chlorine bleach and sugar to a quart of water will do nicely. Spare the aspirin and copper pennies; they'll do nothing to improve the bloom duration.

Few flowers can rival the intense fragrance of narcissus and hyacinth blossoms. Most florists and nurseries will have these bulbs potted up and blooming. They are available just for this time of year because knowledgeable nurserymen have prepared these for forcing ahead of time.

You might have cut and dried some everlasting blossoms during the late summer and early fall and have them on display as well. In winter, we need to be reminded of the coming spring and all the joy it provides to our inner soul, as well as their healing power and silent ability to elevate our mood.

Many flower shops are also beginning to carry forsythia branches, quince, even dogwood. Think about what you have in your landscape. Many trees and shrubs that bloom or leaf out in early spring can be cut and brought into leaf and flower indoors in the winter. The time required depends on the plant and the treatment it receives after being cut. Forsythia is one of the easiest. Cut a bud-heavy branch or two and place it in warm water. It will take a little time to break dormancy, but you will have the pleasure of seeing it happen, day by day. Change the water so it is always clear.

There are many branches you can force to brighten up your winter indoors: red maple, magnolia, redbud, flowering crabapple, cornelian cherry, cherry, flowering dogwood, pear, alpine currant, honeysuckle, pussy willow, spirea and more. If you wish to hasten the process a bit, place fresh cut branches into a large tub and submerge the entire branches in water for a few days. Start with warm water, and in a few days, remove them. Give a fresh diagonal cut, place cut ends in warm water once more, and voila, they will provide you with spring fever of the best kind. Look out at the winter and snow and revel in you indoor blooming garden.

If you enjoy growing and caring for houseplants, winter is a great time to find a new addition to add to your collection. If you have a bright, reasonably warm room, one where the temps range not much lower that 60 degrees F and may go up to the mid-70s or higher if there is reasonable air movement, you have very many choices before you. Colorful foliage, interesting textures, and unusual flowers can provide lots of winter interest, and, sometimes, wonderful colors and fragrances as well.

I'll suggest some of the easier to grow houseplants that will endure all year, year after year: African violet, anthurium, bromeliad, Chinese evergreen, crown of thorns, dwarf orange tree, fan iris, flowering maple, geranium, hibiscus, night-blooming jessamine, Kaffir lily, moth orchid, oxalis, sea onion, peace lily, wax plant.

If you do your homework and decided to go looking for a plant, remember it is winter. Houseplants are tropical. They need to be wrapped for protection from the cold until they arrive home safely.

I started my horticultural career in a store that sold only houseplants, so my short list is full of nicknames for which there are many sub-titles and categories. The web had much information. Search, e-mail me, and feel free to ask for help with any of this. If I can, I will be happy to assist. I have complained against nicknames in the past as being the least accurate and most likely to cause confusion. Botanical (Latin) names rule, but many laymen wouldn't know where to begin, so I chose to use nicknames. They are good starting places.

Bringing the spirit of spring indoors and maintaining it for a while will brighten many dull winter days. Enjoy the show and move them around in the evening, being certain to return them to their best growing spots during the daylight hours so they can thrive.

Kick back, relax, and enjoy the show you have personally created all around you, inside, where it is warm and somewhat spring-like. Breath in the smell of moist earth and the fragrances of flowers. Enjoy the plant and seed catalogs. If you doze off, you're likely to be transported to your garden. What could be lovelier in January and February?


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on January 24, 2007

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