Indoor Bloomers for Midwinter Cheer

Streptocarpus 'Party Pinafore'
Streptocarpus ‘Party Pinafore’

Most of us in the Frozen North could really use a hit of spring about now. How about flowers, for instance? Or better yet, how about a lush plant in full bloom, providing a colorful (and therapeutic) dose of midwinter cheer?
That won’t be happening in most of our gardens for a few weeks yet (although here in southern New England the early witch-hazels often open their spidery blooms before February is out). On the other hand, any number of plants will provide a bevy of winter blooms in a sun room or kitchen or any suitable indoor space, given a modest investment of care. Furthermore, some of them double their display with equally showy foliage.

Purple-leaved Oxalis

One sure sign of spring’s approach is the mass arrival of purple-leaved oxalis (Oxalis triangularis) in supermarkets and department stores, in anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day. This handsome and easy-to-grow perennial is much more than a one-holiday wonder, however. Although the deep-maroon, three-lobed, shamrock-like leaves give it obvious St. Patty’s Day caché, they are perhaps even more appealing in winter, especially when punctuated with the pale pink, funnel-shaped flowers that this South American native produces year-round. Plants can also be purchased as “bulbs”, which are actually scaly, caterpillar-like underground stems (rhizomes) that should be planted horizontally an inch or two below the soil surface in Fafard® Professional Potting Mix. Full to partial sun, almost any potting mix, and anything but total neglect will keep this tough perennial happy. It is also remarkably cold-hardy, functioning well as a foliage accent in mixed borders and other perennial plantings from Washington DC into the South.

Calathea 'Holiday'
Calathea ‘Holiday’


Calatheas, like purple-leaved oxalis, are typically known and grown for their showy foliage. Yet, a few surprise us with blossoms that stand clear of the foliage in an arresting and anything-but-drab display – rather than cowering blandly near the bases of the leaves. Among the best of these showy-flowered peacock plants are a series of hybrids developed in Indonesia in the early 2000s. And none is better than the cultivar ‘Holiday’, whose striking blooms – with rose-pink, pale-eyed petals tipped with olive-green – open sporadically throughout the year. When not in flower, ‘Holiday’ provides ample ornament with its broadly oval, bright green leaves marked by purple-black chevrons and silvery, purple-edged margins. Other ever-blooming calathea hybrids include ‘Constellation’, ‘Jungle Cat’, ‘Maria’, and ‘Royal Standard.’ (Their flowery parent, Calathea loeseneri, also makes a wonderful subject for a shady indoor nook.) All calatheas prosper in full to partial shade, warm humid conditions (although they’ll tolerate less), and a coarse humus-rich potting medium. Fafard African Violet Potting Mix is a good fit. Repot and divide plants yearly or once every two years.

Cymbidium orchids
Cymbidium orchids grow beautifully in the cool winter months.


Terrestrial to semi-terrestrial orchids of many types bloom beautifully in the winter months. Most notably are Cymbidium, Paphiopedilum, and Phaius species, grexes, and cultivars. All provide bright, long-lasting floral color and thrive in Fafard’s Premium Orchid Mix, which offers a perfect blend of fir bark, chopped coir and perlite. 

Spiral Ginger

For sheer nonstop flower power and ease of care, few plants can match spiral ginger (Chamaecostus cuspidatus, formerly Costus cuspidatus). The golden-orange, ruffle-edged, blooms look almost orchid-like and appear year-round on cane-like, 2-foot-tall stems clothed with glossy, dark-green, broadly lance-shaped leaves. Flowering is most abundant in summer, but blooms continue to open throughout fall and winter, particularly in warm humid niches. Give it bright shade, a fertile compost-rich growing medium, such as Fafard® Organic Potting Mix, and moderate watering for maximum display. Other members of the costus tribe, like dwarf cone ginger (Costus woodsonii) and crepe ginger (Cheilocostus speciosus), thrive in similar conditions, and are also well worth seeking out.

Oxalis triangularis 'Francis'
Oxalis triangularis ‘Francis’


No discussion of winter-blooming (and ever-blooming) houseplants would be complete without mention of cape primroses. Members of the southern African genus Streptocarpus, and close relatives of African violets, these little evergreen perennials perch easily on a modest windowsill (fitting happily in a 4-inch pot), where they bloom their heads off year-round, the funnel-shaped flowers smiling from atop wiry, 4- to 8-inch stems. Hybrids abound in all manner of luscious exotic colors and patterns, with the flowers’ two rounded, ear-like upper lobes typically differing in hue from the three lower ones, and their throats often bearing dramatic contrasting streaks. Partial shade, Fafard African Violet Potting Mix, mild humid summers, and coolish somewhat drier winters will result in nearly constant blooms, and loads of midwinter cheer.

Christmas Cactus (or should that be Thanksgiving Cactus?)

Schlumbergera are welcome houseplants for the winter season.

Although bought and sold by the millions during the Thanksgiving season, “Christmas cactus” remain something of an enigma.  For example, why do plants that bloom at Thanksgiving bear the name “Christmas”?  why do they reputedly mope as houseplants, when they bloom so lavishly in your local supermarket?

Their form itself is puzzling. The showy blooms arise directly from what appear to be arching chains of fleshy leaves, which in fact are flattened, narrow-jointed stems. The shape and spininess of these leaf-like stem segments are key to identifying Christmas cactus and its relatives, which all belong to the genus Schlumbergera.

Christmas Cactus Types

Crab (Thanksgiving) Cactus blossom

Crab (aka Thanksgiving) cactus, Schlumbergera truncata is the most common type grown and blooms around Thanksgiving.

Examine the stem segments of the Schlumbergera that throng the stores as Thanksgiving approaches, and you’ll discover the answer to the riddle of their name: they aren’t Christmas cacti at all. Almost all plants sold under the Christmas moniker exhibit the jagged-toothed stem segments characteristic of crab (aka Thanksgiving) cactus, Schlumbergera truncata. In contrast, true Christmas cacti possess bluntly toothed segments that bear pendent (rather than horizontal) blooms in early winter.  If you want a yuletide Schlumbergera, look for varieties of the real McCoy, Schlumbergera x buckleyi  (the hybrid between Schlumbergera truncata and Schlumbergera russelliana).  If you want a Thanksgiving cactus – go to your local garden center or upscale grocer right about now.

Schlumbergera x buckleyi blossom
Schlumbergera x buckleyi is brightly colored and bloom close to Christmas time.

Whichever Schlumbergera you bring home from the store, one thing’s for certain: it ultimately comes from moist, humid, relatively cool upland forests of Southeast Brazil, home to all six species in the genus. In their native haunts, these succulent evergreens grow as epiphytes and lithophytes, taking root in decayed leaves and other detritus that accumulate on moss-covered tree limbs and rock ledges.

Cultivating Christmas Cactus

They are easily cultivated (and flowered) in conditions that mimic their natural circumstances: bright full shade; well-drained, humus-rich, evenly moist growing medium; moderate to high humidity; and moderate temperatures. A hanging basket filled with Fafard Ultra Container Mix will suit them nicely, as will a northeast- or northwest-facing windowsill, or a lightly shaded southern exposure. Water them thoroughly when the top inch or so of the growing medium is dry, applying a complete liquid fertilizer every few waterings.  Many Schlumbergera aficionados keep their plants outdoors (either suspended on hooks or elevated on stands) during the frost-free season.  A spot under a shade tree will provide ideal spring to fall growing conditions in most parts of the United States.


Contrary to popular horticultural myth, neither Christmas nor Thanksgiving cactus requires any mystical lighting, watering, or temperature regimens to induce them to bloom.  Although lengthening nights do indeed trigger flower bud development, natural light cycles at United States latitudes (where winter nights are considerably longer than those in the plant’s native Southeast Brazil) provide ample darkness. Placing the plants in a dark closet for 14 hours a day (as is often and erroneously prescribed) may slightly hasten bud development, but is not required (and may do more harm than good).


Temperatures below 60 degrees F will also encourage bud formation, but “more cold” will not result in more flowering (and white- and yellow-bloomed varieties will become pink-tinged if brought from bud to flower at sub-70-degree temperatures).  In most parts of the United States, ambient outdoor temperatures and natural illumination (with no strong artificial night lighting) will do quite nicely. So rather than exiling your cactus to a closet, move it to a shaded porch for a late-summer to early-fall vacation. Plants may even rebloom in late winter if they continue to receive long nights and proper care.

Christmas Cactus Varieties

Schlumbergera truncata Wellesley

Schlumbergera truncata ‘Wellesley’ is a pretty pale pinkish-purple variety.

Schlumbergera fanciers have it good these days: the numbers of Thanksgiving and Christmas cactus varieties rival those available in the nineteenth century, when Schlumbergera were widely grown and highly popular. Many cultivars (often un- or mis-identified) of Schlumbergera truncata and its hybrids are grown and sold, including new developments such as the Reginae Group, a series of crosses between Thanksgiving cactus and the relatively early-blooming Schlumbergera orssichiana.
Real Schlumbergera maniacs might want to give some of the more obscure and difficult species a try, including the aptly named prickly-pear schlumbergera, Schlumbergera opuntioides, and its hybrids. Christmas comes many times a year if you’re a Schlumbergera enthusiast.

All About Fall Bulbs (Plant them in Late Summer!)

Autumn crocus
Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) adds bright color to fall gardens. (Image by Lestat)

It’s been a long, harsh season. Your garden, and your spirits, lag. But just when you despair that the garden will never return to glory, that the doldrums will drone on forever, a sprightly purple crocus appears among the yellowing foliage of your waning perennial border, and your spirits suddenly leap at the joyous thought that it’s . . . fall?

Yes, indeed. They bloom in late-summer or fall. For although crocuses and other bulbs well deserve their reputation as harbingers of spring, they merit equal celebrity as heralds of autumn. Like their spring-blooming kin, fall-blooming bulbs are admirably suited for bringing splashes of color to dull borders, or for naturalizing in a woodland edge or lawn. And now’s the time to purchase and get ready to plant your fall bulbs for August or September planting. (Soil amended with Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost will offer more fertile ground for your bulbs.) Within just weeks they will be on glorious display providing instant gratification; what more could one ask?

Fall Crocus

Violet crocus
Brilliant violet-blue blooms distinguish Crocus speciosus ‘Aino.’

Of the dozens of species of hardy fall-blooming crocus, none heralds autumn more exuberantly than showy crocus, Crocus speciosus. Vigorous and adaptable, this Eurasian native does well in sun or partial shade, tolerates most well-drained soils, and weathers practically anything fall throws its way. It flaunts violet, 2-inch-long flowers in September, October and sometimes November, and like most hardy autumn crocus, it leafs out in spring, thus escaping winter damage. The blossoms open in sunlight to reveal orange-scarlet stigmas and yellow anthers. Among its many noteworthy cultivars are ‘Albus,’ a beautiful, late-blooming white selection; the October/November-blooming, pale-lavender ‘Aitchisonii’; and ‘Aino,’ distinguished by its deep-violet-blue blooms and superior weather resistance.
The title of most distinctive hardy fall-blooming crocus might very well go to iris-flowered crocus, Crocus banaticus. The remarkable lilac-purple flowers have an elegant, iris-like form and bloom in late September. Equally distinctive are its unusually broad spring leaves, which lack the central stripe typical of its kin. This Crocus also departs from most other crocus in its love of moisture (it frequents damp meadows in nature) and tolerance of partial shade.

Crocus pulchellus
Delicately suggestive of spring, the flowers of Crocus pulchellus ‘Inspiration’ bloom in mid-fall.

The eminent garden writer (and gardener) Elizabeth Lawrence remarked that the hardy ‘beautiful crocus’ (C. pulchellus ) is “well-named, for the flowers are so adorable that it is hard to describe them without sounding foolish.” Even more foolish, however, would be to forego the pleasures of this breathtaking species whose rounded, fragrant, lilac-blue, orange-throated, violet-veined flowers are generously borne in October on white “stems.” Sun to partial shade and well-drained, not overly dry soil will suit it fine. And its many excellent forms, which include the white ‘Michael Hoog,’ clear-blue ‘Inspiration,’ and pearly-lilac ‘Zephyr’, will naturalize through self-sowing.
And the list of outstanding fall-blooming crocus goes on: C. goulimyi with its lilac-blue, scented chalices in October and November; the gold-throated, September/October-blooming C. kotchyanus, hardy, vigorous, and self-sowing; C. medius, whose 2-inch-long lilac-purple blooms in October are among the showiest of the fall crocuses; and C. nudiflorus, another large, purple-flowered, September/October-blooming species that likes moist soil. All these and more could and should be in more of our gardens, particularly in sites with the loamy, well-drained soil and full to partial sun they prefer.

Fall Colchicum

Rosy Dawn
Colchicum ‘Rosy Dawn’ is a real looker in lavender-pink and white.

Curiously, the common “autumn crocus” is not a crocus at all. Although Colchicum autumnale superficially resembles its namesake, it actually belongs not only to a different genus but also to a different family (Colchicaceae rather than Iridaceae). But it joins the fall crocuses as one of the most outstanding ornamentals for the late-season garden, bearing goblet-shaped, lilac-pink, 1.5-inch-long flowers from late August through September. It has also given rise to many splendid cultivars, including  the white ‘Album’ and double white ‘Alboplenum.’ A self-reliant species, it — like many others of its genus — succeeds in almost any well-drained, moisture-retentive soil in sun or partial shade, where it makes a great companion for fall-blooming woodland-edge perennials such as Japanese anemone (Anemone japonica) and toad lily (Tricyrtis spp.). All parts of the plant are poisonous (containing the compound colchicine). Its toxicity does carry some benefits, however: it is unpalatable to most pests, including deer, although slugs will occasionally browse its buds and leek-like, spring leaves.
Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend packAlso occasionally found in American gardens is showy colchicum (C. speciosum), which earns its moniker by abundantly producing fragrant, 3-inch chalices of raspberry-tinged purple-pink (often with white centers) in September and October on 4-inch “stems.” Equally noteworthy is its cultivar ‘Album,’ whose pearly flowers resemble white tulips, and its many garden hybrids, of which ‘The Giant’ and the aptly named ‘Waterlily’ are the least scarce. Dozens of other laudable hybrids and species, however, are virtually absent from American horticulture, such as the delicate ‘autumn crocus’ (Colchicum byzantinum).
Some gardeners bemoan the bare ground created by showy colchicum’s handsome, foot-long, leek-like foliage, which mantles the ground in spring before withering indecorously in early summer. Wiser hands, however, tuck C. speciosum among late-growing perennials or vigorous ground covers such as plumbago (Ceratostima plumbaginoides), smaller hostas and ferns that cover the fading leaves. Summer annuals also make great companions.

Fall Golden Crocus

Sternbergia lutea
The yellow flowers of Sternbergia lutea brighten fall borders. (Image by Eugene van der Pijll)

Sternbergia lutea is yet another fall-blooming bulb masquerading under the common name of crocus (golden crocus, in this case). One of the few yellow-flowered fall bulbs, it lifts its goblet-shaped, 2-inch-long blooms on 4-inch stalks in September and October, perfectly complementing the blue flowers of Crocus speciosus. The leaves appear immediately after bloom, and plants appreciate loose mulch (such as evergreen boughs) over winter. Because of its largely Mediterranean origins, this species prefers sunny, sheltered, well-drained sites and detests summer dampness. It thus grows well in south-facing woodland edges, where encroaching tree roots absorb excess moisture. Long appreciated in gardens and nature (it is thought to be the Bible’s “lily of the field”), S. lutea is threatened in the wild, and should therefore be purchased only from reputable firms that supply nursery-propagated material. Although scarce in the trade, it is well worth searching for.

Autumn Snowflakes

September Snow
Elegant bells of white hang from the dark stems of Leucojum autumnale ‘September Snow.’

Many other hardy bulbs surprise us with fall blooms. Lovers of the spring and summer snowflakes (Leucojum vernum and L. aestivum) can enjoy an August to November flurry of the white, nodding bell-flowers of autumn snowflake, L. autumnale. Valentian snowflake (L. valentinum) boasts larger flowers (3/4- rather than 1/2-inch), but is somewhat more tender. Some rare but beautiful squills also bloom in fall, most notably Scilla scilloides whose plumy, 8-inch “spikes” of starry pink flowers appear from August through September (autumn squill, S. autumnalis, is also worth growing). Alliums also have their fall-blooming contingent, among them A. thunbergii (perhaps best known in its violet-flowered cultivar ‘Ozawa’) and A. senescens, which includes the beautiful, spiral-leaved ‘Glaucum.’ There’s even a fall-blooming snowdrop, Galanthus reginae-olgae, which will winter in a sheltered site. All these require light shade to full sun and well-drained, fertile soil.
So the next time you’re looking for something to perk up your flagging fall garden, consider the lilies of the field or one of the many other autumn-blooming bulbs. Then you, too, can celebrate the first crocus of fall.

Colchicum byzantinum
Fall-blooming autumn crocus (Colchicum byzantinum) add easy interest and color to late-season borders. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Cultivating Diversity with Wildlife Gardening

Naturalistic garden sm
Low dense groundcovers, meadow-like perennial plantings, shrubby thickets, trees large and small, and other vegetation types provide a patchwork of habitats for wildlife. (image by Jessie Keith)

Want to invite more of nature into your garden?  Then cultivate diversity —from the ground up.  Even a small garden can feed, shelter, and house an abundance of animals and insects (and plants!).  And it all starts with the soil.

The key to creating a wildlife-friendly yard is to grow lots of plants and plant species —especially natives.  This is mostly about food: nectar, pollen, fruits, nuts, and leaves.  More plant diversity means more dietary options and niches, supporting more furry and feathered (and warty and creeping) things.  A diversely planted garden is alive with feeding activity.  Bumblebees mob the pollen-rich blooms of blueberries and shooting-stars (as assassin bugs lie in wait).  Butterflies flutter about the sweetly scented flower-heads of spice viburnums and meadow rues.  Caterpillars and other insect larvae browse the foliage of their favored (and —in some cases—exclusive) hosts.  And at the upper end of the food chain, birds, amphibians, mammals, and other omnivores gobble down fruits, nuts, and insects (while hummingbirds buzz in to sip from the tubular, brightly hued, nectar-rich flowers of penstemons and salvias).  Plant more species (especially natives), and they will come – and eat.

More plants also mean more places for your local wildlife to hang out.  Low dense groundcovers, meadow-like perennial plantings, shrubby thickets, trees large and small, and other vegetation types provide a patchwork of habitats where animals and insects can forage, nest, shelter, advertise for mates, and do all that other wild stuff.  Accessorize with some bird feeders, bird (or bat or bee) houses, toad abodes, bird baths, butterfly puddles, and other wildlife-appropriate man-made features, and you’ll have a place for just about every critter in the hood.

Bee on Ageratum houstonianum
Planting for pollinators with favorite bee and butterfly blooms is one simple way to plant for wildlife. (image by Jessie Keith)

If the thought of all that up-close, wildlife-friendly habitat gives you (and your neighbors) a touch of the creepy-crawlies —then keep it at a comfortable distance.  Border it with some hardscape and lawn where the children and dogs (rather than the deer and the garter snake) can play.  Provide some observation areas from which you can safely monitor the children and the wildlife.  But consider leaving some lawn-free corridors to connect your plantings with those of your neighbors (hint, hint).  Together, you can form one contiguous neighborhood mega-wildlife-garden.

And put away the pesticides.  No matter that your spray-can trigger-finger instinctually starts twitching at the very mention of insect-hosting plants.  You’ll doubtless find that insect damage is far less noticeable and less troubling in your wildlife planting than in other, more pampered areas of your yard.  More diversity means less likelihood of one critter spiraling out of control.  So protect that diversity by not spraying it with poison (although in some areas a deer fence might be in order).

As with all gardens, the best way to proceed is from the ground up.  And I do mean ground – as in good old dirt (a.k.a. soil), the base layer of terrestrial life.  For it is life in the underground (comprising mind-numbingly large numbers of bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and other soil microbes), which supports life up in the sunlight, including the plants that populate our gardens.  The healthier the soil is, the greater the possibilities for our gardens – and for their human and non-human inhabitants.

So before you plant anything, check with the soil.  Is it heavy clay or porous sand?  Does it have a nice topsoil layer or none?  Is it in the sun or the shade?  If possible, send a soil sample off to your state’s horticultural extension service for analysis and recommendations (most states offer soil testing for a relatively modest fee).  And in most cases, add organic matter such as Fafard® Premium Organic Compost. This top-quality compost is at the top of the menu for most soil microbes.

To convert a whole swath of lawn to a wildlife perennial planting, use the technique known as sheet mulching.  Blanket the erstwhile lawn with a thick layer of wet newspaper or cardboard, and cover the paper with Fafard Premium Organic Compost (1 cubic foot per square yard) and several inches of “soft”, seed-free organic material (such as leaves or straw).  Add more compost and top with 3 or 4 inches of wood chips.  Allow your mulch parfait to decay for a few months before planting into it, or plant immediately by creating topsoil-filled hollows in the bark layer.  Keep the border edged and weeded while your new planting establishes – and then watch diversity happen.

Scarlet beebalm, purple coneflower and orange butterfly weed
Natives like scarlet beebalm, purple coneflower and orange butterfly weed are sure to draw lots of wildlife pollinators. (image by Jessie Keith)

Fafard is Now Available from Sun Gro®

In July of 2012 Sun Gro® Horticulture acquired Conrad Fafard® bringing together two of the largest and most respected peat-based media companies in North America. Both were founded in the 1920s, so together they bring a wealth of experience along with all the premium horticultural products home gardeners have come to rely upon from Fafard. “The addition of Fafard into the Sun Gro family allows us to further strengthen our commitment to being a technological leader in producing premium quality lawn and garden products for the gardeners,” emphasized Blair Busenbark, Sun Gro’s National Marketing Manager. As an additional step towards integration, Sun Gro moved its headquarters to Agawam, Massachusetts where Fafard was traditionally headquartered.
The Fafard retail line consists of a variety of premium peat-based and specialty plant mixes as well as soils and amendments, so gardeners are certain to find a product to fit their growing needs. All are based on popular Fafard professional growing mix formulations and consistently produce great gardens, which is why they have gained a loyal following.
And loyal Fafard customers can expect the exact same products and consistent high-quality under Sun Gro Horticulture. “The only changes our customers might experience is an improved availability of products as we work to have the Fafard retail product line produced at Sun Gro network of plants across the United States,” Blair stressed. We are proud to know that Fafard planting products have been revered by home gardeners in the eastern United States for generations, and we hope to build upon that relationship for generations to come.