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Northeast Gardening: Houseplants Chase Away the Chill

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Lowe’s Northeast gardening contributor Irene Virag shares the way houseplants are her cure for the wintertime blues.

Begonias highlight a window.

By Irene Virag

Geese walk on the frozen pond behind my house. A pipe froze in the attic. And icicles the size of Excalibur hang from the roof. But let it snow! I’m happy in my garden—my indoor garden, that is.

The garden grows in many pots and places: African violets on the kitchen counter; gardenias in the foyer; begonias in the potting room; Anthurium in the study; and orchids, Amaryllis, Kalanchoe, Christmas cactus and primroses warming my spirits elsewhere.

Here’s the lowdown on three of my favorites:

Rex begonia foliage

I was never fond of the pink begonias I’d bring home from PTA plant sales when I was in elementary school. But when I became a gardener, I realized that the waxy-leaf little Begonia semperflorens is just the beginning. There are more than 2,000 species of begonias, and at least 50 times that number of hybrids. Now my summer containers come alive with neon-color tuberous begonias and dramatic angel-wing begonias. Inevitably a few of them make it inside at the end of the season as houseplants.

But my favorite indoor begonias are the regal Rex begonias, known for their fancy leaves.

Rex begonias rule in a range of colors and shapes, from the size of a thumbnail to a dinner plate. They’re charming but finicky, demanding bright but indirect light and high humidity. A humidifier, or a tray filled with moist pebbles should do the trick. Or try a terrarium or a plastic tent at night. Be wary of misting, which can spot the pretty leaves. Don’t let temperatures fall below 60 degrees in winter. And make sure the pots don’t sit in water or the rhizomes will rot.

African violets

These sweet and dainty blossoms delight in pink, red and purple. They include multicolor and mini varieties, as well as hybrids with double, curled and rippled flowers.

African violet closeup

It’s easy to make African violets feel at home. A lightly shaded place, such as an east-facing window that gets only morning sun, hits the spot. Use lukewarm soft water but don’t get it on the leaves. Instead put water in the pot’s saucer and pour out the excess when the plant has absorbed what it needs. Feed it lightly every two weeks with a quick-acting water-soluble fertilizer.

One more thing—in winter keep it dry and cool so it gets a short rest.

Gardenia in pot

My mother wasn’t a gardener, but she had a knack with houseplants, and these fragrant white flowers were as much a part of my childhood as her stuffed cabbage. It was my job to polish the glossy leaves and snip the blooms when they faded. That was more fun than dusting, vacuuming or ironing, so I didn’t complain. And I learned a thing or two along the way. Gardenias are like Goldilocks—they like things just right.

If you want them to blossom to their full potential, give them plenty of light and humidity, just enough water and fertilizer, constant temperatures, a little patience and lots of love.

Gardenia flower closeup

It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it. My gardenia thrives in a south-facing room, where it gets plenty of light but isn’t sunbathing all day. If you can’t give a gardenia four to six hours of bright, natural light, set up grow lights to keep it happy, especially in winter. Yellow leaves are a tipoff that the plant needs more light.

Gardenias favor average room temperatures during the day—around 68 to 73 degrees—so if you’re comfortable, your gardenia should be too. But they like 60-degree nights. Don’t let the plant get too dry, and keep it moist but not soggy. Humidity helps: Place gardenias on a shallow tray of wet pebbles or set up a small humidifier. Misting is only a quick fix, and you shouldn’t spray the flowers. Feed it regularly with a fertilizer specially formulated for gardenias or acid-loving blooming plants.

I can’t say I’ve never lost a gardenia. Aphids, mealy bugs, scale, white flies and red spider mites all threaten. But the flowers are worth the effort.

Besides, fussing with them is still better than dusting, vacuuming or ironing.