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In the Darkest Days of Winter, Gardeners Find Ways to Cope

This time of year is tough on many gardeners: there is little daylight and little to do in the garden. And there are no flowers to pick and place on the table.

Recently, the weather has been dismal: dark, gray days with precipitation off and on. Over the centuries people have combated the darkness with candles, bonfires, holiday lights and sprigs of greenery placed on the door or brought inside. Let’s look at what we can do.

First, I regularly visit my local independent florist. Florists are a dying breed, along with independent bookstores and family-owned hardware stores. Call me an old codger, but I believe there is value in supporting all of these institutions, even if I pay a dollar or two more. The owners have a wealth of knowledge and are happy to help you find just what you need. Often their prices and quality are actually better.

I believe that the flowers I get from my florist last longer and look better than flowers bought at a big box store. I ask my florist to put together a bouquet for me, and she picks a nice selection — $10 will usually buy a generous bouquet.

Keeping the bouquet fresh takes regular maintenance: I change the water every day or two, and trim off half an inch of stem each time. It’s also important to remove all leaves that might get into the water. When the leaves die, bacteria grow and slime forms — blocking the uptake of water to the flowers. So they wilt.

A few years ago I called my florist to see if she had any potted phalaenopsis orchids for sale. Surprisingly, she told me to go to a big box store. I was amazed to see them for sale under $15. Certain big box stores obviously have suppliers who sell them truckloads of these hardy and gorgeous orchids. So most florists don’t even try to compete.

Phalaenopsis orchids are relatively easy to maintain and can be coaxed to produce more blossoms in future years. They want bright diffuse light; a table top in a bright room is fine. The key is to avoid overwatering. These orchids grow slowly in a fast-draining bark mixture without soil. The roots are in a plastic mesh pot that sits inside a pot that has no drainage hole. I lift the inner pot out, and allow water to run through the bark chips once a week. I allow it to drain, then return it to the “cache” pot. If you water the plant in the outer pot, it collects water at the base — eventually drowning your orchid.

I also scavenge twigs, branches, dry flowers and berries to add to flower arrangements, or to create arrangements in their own right. Each fall I cut hydrangea blossoms and store them in tall flower pots without water. They last well all winter.

Teasel is a dreaded weed for corn farmers in the Midwest, but I grow a few plants each summer and use it as a dry flower in winter arrangements. This plant is biennial, meaning that it blooms in its second year of life and then dies. It gets to be over 6 feet tall and displays wonderful seed pods that have sharp barbs and spines. The key is to learn to identify the first-year plants, so you can weed out most of them before they mature.

Evergreen boughs are nice indoors at this time of year. Just be careful where you make your cuts. Never take the top of a small tree or the tip of a prominent branch. Most do not replace the missing branch, or will send out several new branches instead of just one. You can spoil the look of your evergreen by snipping branches carelessly. Cut inner branches, or take pieces from inconspicuous places.

Canadian hemlock is plentiful in woods everywhere, but the needles do not last well indoors. (Identify it by the short, flat needles). Your best bet is to buy a Christmas tree that is a little too tall. Cut off branches at the base and use them in vases or swags. White pine lasts well in a vase and is very common. Identify it by the five long soft needles per cluster of needles, one for each letter in w-h-i-t-e.

Of the berries, the brightest and best looking is winterberry (Ilex verticillata), our native holly. These are understory trees or tall shrubs that grow wild in wet places and swamps, but also make satisfactory garden plants. They are dioecious, which means you need a male bush to go with the females — or no berries. The berries are commonly sold by florists and grocers and look great — though they tend to drop a few berries on the table before long. I don’t know how to keep that from happening. (Tell me if you do, please).

Last but not least, I am cheered by outdoor winter lights. In recent years the lighting industry has come up with LED lights that use almost no electricity — less than 5 watts a string instead of the 5 watts a bulb we had in my youth. I place them in my garden on trees and shrubs and light them late into the winter. It’s all part of staying cheerful while living in the Great White North.

Henry Homeyer lives in Cornish Flat. His web sites are www.henryhomeyer.com or www.gardening-guy.com.