For the most part, the leaves have fallen from the trees, the geese have departed, and the days are too short to really sustain summer plant life, even if the night temperatures allowed it. It is time to come indoors. The outdoor season is over for us.
Over the years I may have approached this season improperly. It is time for houseplants, so it has been my tradition to lunge into the winter columns with the annual demand-suggestion. You know, “every Alaskan plant owner needs to have a set of supplemental lights to help their houseplants get though our legendary dark days of winter.”
I sometimes point out how we humans use “SAD lights” to get us through the shortest days, so why wouldn’t our houseplants need light help too? Or, thinking I am tapping into the source of all human motivation, money, I point out how we spend so much more money on summer plants, which only entertain us for a few months; we ignore the nine months of kinship with indoor ones.
What I have not done, at least in a while, is point out that no matter where in this country you live, there is an overwhelming chance that your houseplant ultimately can be traced back to some exotic and tropical place that caught the eye of a plant explorer who transported it back to cooler climates for entertainment purposes. They surely don’t belong in your house in XYZ, Alaska.
You know the stories, so vividly exemplified in one of the movie versions of “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Captain Bligh needed the scarce water on the Bounty for plants he was transporting on his decks. Or the one about Ambassador Joel Poinsett, who secretly smuggled a few plants (eventually named after him) out of Mexico. Captain Cook came upon Norfolk Islands while deep in the Southern Hemisphere, and the home of the houseplant pine is decidedly tropical.
To make the point, we don’t normally grow Northern-originated plants. I am not seeing devil’s club or Sitka roses in anyone’s living rooms. The reason is, you can’t give them the dormancy and other conditions they require. The same is true with our tropical houseplants.
The bottom line is that to grow plants properly in the winter in Alaska, you simply need some sort of supplemental light system to help out. Ideally, every houseplant should be grown full time under them. Doing so brings out the full compliment of that plant’s character. You may even get blooms in the dead of winter.
The big exception to tropical derivation are annuals and vegetables. No one here needs to be told you need additional light if you want to grow food indoors in the winter.
I used to simply suggest a simple, two-bulb, fluorescent shop fixture with one cool white and one warm white bulb, plus a cheap timer to turn the lights on and off so you don’t have to. These are still viable solutions, but the choices have greatly expanded with the introduction of box store lighting departments and the acknowledgement that cannabis is a plant worthy of growing indoors. This has greatly expanded options for your non-cannabis plants. If you have an opportunity, do visit a so-called (and properly so) “grow store” either in person or via the internet.
There you will find a dizzying array of lights, one of which will meet your budget as well as your needs. You will also find things like reflective grow tents, perfect hotels for plant holidays or special reflectors you can use with your existing lights to increase their reach and efficiency. There are lights to use in kitchens, set ups for closet fixtures, thin fluorescents for cabinets, all manner of very efficient LEDs and more.
Bottom line: If you are going to have houseplants all winter, let them perform at their best by imitating the conditions of their original homes. In almost every case that means supplemental lights.
And, since we use lights here (right?), let’s take on the mythical rule not to fertilize houseplants during the winter months. The notion is that they are dormant — complete nonsense, starting with the fact that all gardeners (and houseplant owners are gardeners) should be growing organically. We feed the microbes. They feed the plants. And guess what? Indoor microbes do not normally go dormant for the winter. Nor does the plant when you grow it properly, with access to lights.
One of the great things about plants is they control when and what they eat given a proper array of nutrients. (I won’t go over it here, but it is in my books, the Teaming series). There are all manner of organic houseplant fertilizers (microbe food, right?) ranging from kelp, bone meal, rock phosphate, humic and fulvic acids and fish emulsions, as well as fish hydrolysates. Compost teas and extracts and worm teas are great, too. The liquid formulas are the easiest to use and recommended.
That is it. You are stuck indoors for nine months. Get your lights on. Feed your soil microbes. Enjoy gardening indoors this winter.
Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar
Alaska Botanical Garden: 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 29. There may be a few spaces for dinosaur planter night. Recommended for ages 6 and up. All children must be accompanied by an adult. All materials will be provided. $20 per adult with child, plus $10 for every additional child. Pre-registration only, see alaskabg.org or call 907-770-3692.
Amaryllis: Put yours in a dark, cool location for the next two months or so.
Thanksgiving cactii will have buds by now. Christmas cactus should be under natural light (I know, no supplemental needed!) and cool at night to trigger blooming.