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Hamptons Life

Oct 9, 2017 11:19 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

The Indoor Garden: Turn To Houseplants As The Weather Cools

Oct 9, 2017 11:32 AM

As a plant addict, there are times when I just can’t help myself, and even as the leaves are falling from the trees, and the pumpkins are showing up at every garden center and supermarket, I still find myself pulling into garden centers from Albany to Southampton to see what’s new and ask what people are buying. It’s my little way of taking the horticultural pulse of the area as I travel about.There’s a small supermarket not far from my home, and for most of the year they have these rolling tiered carts or gondolas in front of the store with various indoor and outdoor plants. Last month, I noticed something I’d never seen before: One of the carts was layered with various-sized pots of Celosia, also known as cockscomb.

Hmm, I thought. Celosia in the fall? This is a plant that likes it warm, is in the Amaranth family and is native to East Africa, where it goes by the Swahili name of mfungu. I have to say, these plants were magnificent looking and—while one good frost would do them in—I could see the appeal and the possibilities for using them outdoors for instant color until that day when Jack lays down his first frost.

But then I began seeing them in just about every garden center I’d visit.

When I dropped in to Fowler’s (formerly Lynch’s) in Southampton Village to see what they were displaying, there were, of course, the rows and rows and table after table of the ubiquitous fall mums. But, to my surprise, there were also tables and tables of Celosia—not just the traditional plume varieties but several styles and colors that have only recently shown up and are used as bedding plants. Here they were, in all their beauty, tall and short, spiky and knobby, in yellow, pink, red and some variations of the three.

Not quite sure what to make of this trend. Obviously, it’s an effort on the part of growers to extend their selling season, and of retailers to tempt us with more choices for our gardens and pots before it gets too cold. But as tender annuals, these plants are surely not the new chrysanthemums, and I hope no one is expecting them to be perennial, or that they’ll survive on the indoor windowsill.

Still, they sure beat the ornamental cabbage and kale, though they won’t last quite as long in the garden. The celosias need a sunny spot, and they prefer it on the drier side and won’t tolerate being in cold, wet soil for too long.

And at another supermarket, as you enter the only door that you can get in, you pass what I call the “ambush room.” This is just before you enter the market, past the first set of doors, and here’s where the red and yellow peppers were a dollar each this week. The week before, it was the first crop of the season of Mallomars that were on sale (they don’t sell these in the summer, since the chocolate cover on the marshmallows melts in the heat), but last week there were dozens and dozens of croton plants. And every time I saw one in someone’s shopping cart in the market, I wanted to tell them about this plant—but I bit my tongue.

Now, the crotons (Codiaeum sp.) have remarkable color, with some being green with yellow spots on narrow sword-like leaves, while others have broad leaves that have various patterns of yellows and oranges with red. It’s a wonderful plant, because it’s so colorful and it can be quite attractive as a houseplant when everything else seems to be fading away.

It does have one very bad trait, though: It hates cold. This is not a plant to be left outdoors at this time of the year, and just one cold night near a cold window and the next morning you’ll find it dropping all its leaves.

They also tend to drop their leaves from the bottom as they get pot bound and mature, so the lush plant that you buy in a 6- or 8-inch pot in October will look quite different come next spring. They can be re-potted then and pruned from the top, and this can often force them to send out new shoots that can fill in during the summer months.

But it’s a good idea to temper your expectations on this plant and just enjoy them for as long as you can. They can get tall as they mature, and if your thumb is green enough to keep this plant happy for another six to eight months, it might even flower for you. Alas, the flowers are not that exciting—but it’s always exciting to have a tropical plant happy enough to go into flower.

And, while we’re on the subject of houseplants, the next month or so is the prime time to pick some up, bring them home, and get them acclimated for the cooler and drier months indoors. Here are a few recommendations that just about anyone can be successful with:

There are a number of ficus or rubber trees that make great houseplants. The large-leaved or fiddle leaf ficus have been very popular in recent years, as is the old standby the Ficus decora. Both will grow tall if allowed, but their growth is very slow during the winter months.

The variety “Ruby” has large, dark green leaves that are variegated with muted but interesting appearances of white, purple and red. The plant is upright, with branches reaching out slightly from the center. When you buy one of these, it will be compact and tight, as you’re buying pieces that have been rooted directly in the pots. As they get older and taller, the vertical branches can be trimmed back to force new growth to emerge lower down on the plant. They prefer bright to moderate light, don’t need full sun, and are easy when it comes to watering.

Jade plants once were very popular, and I saw three different varieties at one local greenhouse. Jades (Crassula sp.) like a sunny spot, and while you can find them in 4-inch pots up to very large specimens, it’s usually advisable to start with a small one and let it grow on you. The leaves are succulent and glossy green, and the branches can get quite thick if you continue to prune the plant back to a dozen or so main stems.

A mature jade can easily fill a 20-inch clay pot and end up weighing 50 pounds, but it will be an incredible specimen that’s easy to care for. Even better, this plant will adorn itself with starry white flowers in early spring as long as it gets plenty of light, very little water and just a tiny bit of fertilizer.

I grew up on philodendrons. They were cheap, easy and foolproof, but way back then there were about three varieties to choose from. Now there are dozens.

Sometimes these plants are sold as vines, and some of them, like Congo Rojo, emerge out of their pots on strong, upright stems, with the foliage arching out to the sides. Colors can range from simple green to dark greens with hints of red, while others are variegated with white. They can be found growing up bark totems, in hanging baskets or as sprawling specimens, like the P. selloum, that can reach out 6 feet from the pot.

Most can tolerate low light, but they all thrive in high humidity, even though they’ll survive less. If you’ve got a bright bathroom that needs a plant, this is the one.

Many, many more choices—and the garden centers are full. Take advantage of the selections but know the plant’s needs and characteristics before you take it home.

Keep growing!

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