Bringing Nature Inside With These Classic Plants

October 17, 2011 by


Paperwhite bulbs started now provide fragrant white flowers in time for winter holidays. Photo by Kairu Yao via Flickr.

This post is part of a series of exchanges between Urban Gardens and Seasonal Wisdom, exploring the latest in gardening, green living, and design. Teresa O’Connor shares her know-how for growing food in urban garden containers.
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As autumn leaves fall and old man winter approaches, it’s more important than ever to stay connected with nature – even if that means bringing nature indoors now. Plants are one of the easiest ways to make your urban home more livable when the weather turns nasty. Here are some of my favorite indoor plants for this time of year. These classic favorites have brought color, charm, scent and even flavor to homes for centuries.


Ivy topiary brings life to urban homes in fall and winter. Photo by PotteryBarn.

Evergreen Topiaries
Is it any wonder evergreens have adorned winter homes since ancient times? The vibrant evergreens are a welcome sight when most plants are in dormancy or dead around this time. Ivy (Hedera spp.) is a popular evergreen for topiaries. The plant adds an elegant touch to any indoor décor, and enjoys a long tradition of decorating homes during winter holidays.


A charming cypress topiary. Photo by BySmart.

Topiaries made from cypress (Cupressus spp.) date back to ancient Rome, when Pliny the Elder described cypress topiary standards and other forms in the first century CE.  These days, cypress topiaries of all types are easy enough to find for your urban home at local independent garden centers or online stores.


Prune rosemary topiaries to keep shape, and use clippings in meals. Topiaries from White Flower Farm.

Topiaries made from rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) supply delicious, fresh herbs for cold-season meals. This culinary herb has long been known to be good for your memory and brain power too. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, Act IV, Scene V, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance: pray you love, remember.”

To care for your topiary, keep the plant near a sunny window with plenty of indirect light. Irrigate regularly but make sure plants have good drainage and don’t sit in water. Turn topiaries occasionally so they grow straight. Feed plants with a balanced water-soluble fertilizer, as instructed on the label. Always keep topiaries away from heated air vents so they don’t dry out. It’s a good idea to keep plants in rooms that are a bit cooler at night, so they stay fresh.


Amaryllis adds winter cheer to the home. Photo by Gailf548 via Flickr.

Forcing Bulbs
Just as fall is the time to plant spring-blooming bulbs outside, it’s also the right time to force bulbs to bloom indoors during the cold months. Some of the easiest bulbs to force are paperwhites (Narcissus papyraceus) and amaryllis (Hippeastrum hybrid), because they don’t require a chilling period like tulips and daffodils. You can find both types of bulbs at local garden centers or online stores.


Paperwhites need about 4 to 5 weeks to bloom. Photo by Jonathan Klunk.

Plant the bulbs in soil with plenty of drainage, or in a bowl with pebbles or marbles (just make sure the water doesn’t cover more than a quarter or third of the bottom of the bulbs.)


Paperwhites reward patient gardeners with fragrance and beauty in winter. Photo by briannaorg via Flickr.

Provide indirect light and temperatures of about 50 degrees F. for the first two weeks, then warmer, brighter conditions after that. This will help keep stems short and sturdy. Cornell University also found that giving paperwhites a little alcohol controlled their height too.


Paperwhites bring the smell of spring to winter homes. Photo by creativejewishmom.com.

For best results, look for bulbs that are nicely sized, firm and unblemished. By purchasing your bulbs now, you can ensure that you don’t get stuck with the leftovers no one else wanted.


Close-up of paperwhites. Photo by ceasol via Flickr.

If you stagger your plantings of paperwhites every couple weeks, you can enjoy these fragrant flowers all winter long.


Amaryllis brings vivid color to dreary winter days. Photo by gumdropgas via Flickr.

Amaryllis is another easy and popular bulb to force now for winter blossoms. This exotic plant even decorated the home of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote a Philadelphia seedsman in 1811 that he enjoyed the “fine tulips, hyacinths, tuberoses & Amaryllis you formerly sent me.”


The budding amaryllis is a work of art. Photo by B Mully via Flickr.

Your amaryllis bulb will need about six to eight weeks to bloom. Start bulbs by late October to ensure you’ll have flowers during the holidays and into the new year.


Cheerful ‘Monaco’ amaryllis. Photo by Mikhail Ursus via Flickr.

Just as with paperwhites, you can stagger amaryllis bulb plantings for continuous blooms. Amaryllis bulbs can be used again next year too. Let them lie dormant during the summer, and force them again next winter. Paperwhites, on the other hand, will not bloom again, so enjoy them this season and then toss in your compost pile.


A charming calamondin orange tree to grow indoors. Photo by DocTony via Flickr.

Calamondin Orange Trees
With glossy dark green leaves, fragrant white flowers and golden orange fruits, there are lots to love about calamondin trees (X Citrofortunella mitis).  Just as wealthy, 18th century Europeans had “orangeries” to grow potted citrus trees indoors, we can enjoy these charming trees in our urban homes – without any fancy settings or greenhouses.


Provide enough light for this tree to bloom. Photo by Kulu40 via Flickr.

Among the easiest citrus plants to grow indoors, calamondin trees need at least four hours of sunlight, preferably in a south- or east-facing window. This citrus tree doesn’t require humidity, making it less sensitive to dry indoor heat than other plants. Water the plant when the well-drained soil is dry to the touch, but before the trees shows signs of drooping.


A variegated calamondin tree from White Flower Farm.

With enough light, your indoor tree will produce flowers. But to set fruit, you’ll need to help the tree pollinate, playing the role for the helpful bees left, thankfully, outdoors. To pollinate your tree, use a small artist’s brush to transfer pollen from one flower to another, until all are pollinated. With a bit of luck, the pollination process will result in small fruit forming where the flowers were.

Calamondin trees produce small fruit that tastes a bit like lemon or lime, more than orange. Enjoy a slice or two in your drinks. Then raise your glass and pat yourself on the back for doing such an excellent job of bringing nature’s abundance into your urban home this fall and winter.
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About Teresa O’Connor of Seasonal Wisdom
Teresa O’Connor is a writer and speaker about gardening, food and folklore. Trained as a Master Gardener in California and Idaho, she co-authored Grocery Gardening: Planting, Preparing and Preserving Fresh Foods . Her blog, Seasonal Wisdom, was named “One of Ten Great Garden Blogs” by well-known TV personality and tastemaker P. Allen Smith, as well as among “Ten Best Organic Gardening Blogs,” by The Ecologist, part of Guardian (UK) Environment Network.

Teresa has written for Fine Gardening, Horticulture, Coastal Living and Gardening How-To magazines, among others. She contributes monthly to the National Home Gardening Club’s website, and co-hosted Nest in Style on Horticulture Radio for Horticulture Magazine. Find her on Facebook SeasonalWisdom and Twitter @SeasonalWisdom .

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Head over to Seasonal Wisdom to see the latest Urban Gardens guest post: Living Walls for Small Spaces, where you’ll find cool products for small spaces and also some easy DIY vertical garden solutions for indoors.

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  • http://www.garden-seat.co.uk Garden Seat

    Oh the joy of the scent of those first ‘Paperwhite’ just in time for Christmas. If you stuff a large bowl with them to the point of being greedy there is quite simply nothing to touch them, especially if you stuff lots of beautiful moss betwwen the bulbs.

  • http://7trees4victory.blogspot.com/ 7Trees4Victory

    This is an inspiring article. I think I will order some paperwhite bulbs.

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