Kalanchoe, the perfect houseplant for Maine winters

By Tom Seymour | Feb 01, 2019
Photo by: Tom Seymour A turkey baster is good for watering kalanchoe and other houseplants.

Maine winters are not only tough on outdoor plants, but indoor plants as well. The problem, especially for those who burn wood for heat, is dry air.

Many of our favorite plants just can’t make it through the winter, despite regular watering. And as for misting, a person could mist houseplants all day long with no appreciable benefit. There are some expensive and often impractical solutions to this problem. A whole-house humidifier can help quite a lot, but these are expensive to buy and to maintain. Filters require constant replacing, and they are not cheap. Another thought would be to install a different type of heating system. But who is willing to go to such lengths just for a few houseplants?

There is another way, but it requires us to work with low humidity, not against it. So instead of going to lengths to boost indoor humidity, the answer is to find houseplants that don’t mind low-humidity environments. I recently discussed hen-and-chicks, a hardy succulent that does just fine inside in winter. But these are smallish plants and not very showy. For a slightly larger and certainly more impressive houseplant, I recommend kalanchoe.

Kalanchoe, pronounced with a hard “C,” as in “cat,” fills the bill perfectly. Being a kind of succulent, kalanchoe stores water in its fleshy leaves and can go for quite a while between waterings. In fact, the biggest error we can make is to keep the soil too moist, a sure way to invite root rot, which kills the plant. Kalanchoe should be watered when a finger inserted into the potting soil feels dry. At that point, a complete and thorough watering is called for.

After drenching with water, make sure to allow the plant to drain completely before putting it back on its sunny windowsill. Allow the soil to dry completely before watering again.

Colorful blooms

A native of Madagascar, Kalanchoe blooms in red, blue, orange and yellow. Growers force the plant to bloom, and that is what helps sell the plant. It is better to buy a plant with lots of unopened buds, rather than one in full bloom. That way, you get to enjoy the complete blooming cycle, not just the last part of it.

Now here’s something to consider when buying a kalanchoe, or any houseplant. Don’t do it on a bitterly cold day, since even the short trip from the seller’s place to your heated car can be enough to kill the plant. Better to wait for a sunny, mild day with no wind.

Supermarkets are offering lots more houseplants these days, and sometimes it’s tempting to pick up a couple of plants at typical discount rates. But exercise caution, since the long trip back to the car can suffice to kill your tropical houseplants. Again, try waiting for a warmer day, if possible, before taking any houseplant outside.

Most people buy a kalanchoe in full bloom for wintertime color, and then come spring, or when the plant stops blooming, discard it in the manner of an annual. But kalanchoe is a perennial, albeit with a high zonal range. All the same, kalanchoes are long-lived and the way to keep your plant over the years is to plant it outside come warm weather.

Kalanchoe can be planted directly in the ground, but this means de-potting. Also, kalanchoe does not do well when planted next to other plants. Given that, it is far better to leave the plant in its container and consider it just another container plant. And speaking of containers, kalanchoe does better in clay pots than the plastic ones they are usually sold in. You can’t say that about too many other plants.

While kalanchoe isn’t by any means a large plant, it does attain a height of 12 inches and can be very bushy. And when filled with colorful bracts of flowers, it makes for an impressive sight.

Home gardeners can force kalanchoe to bloom by leaving it in a dark room or closet for 30 days. Don’t water at this time and try not to allow light to infiltrate where you keep the plant. Toward the end of the 30 days, check your kalanchoe for buds, and if it is filled with unopened buds, remove it from the dark area, give it a good watering and place it back on a sunny windowsill. From that point on, the plant can bloom for several months.

Florists and garden centers, perhaps even your local supermarket, still have kalanchoes for sale. So if you need a somewhat showy, but very controllable and easy-to-care-for houseplant, I suggest you look no further than kalanchoe.

Homemade feeders

Many homeowners and gardeners find great joy in feeding and watching songbirds in winter. And now, with nature on the move, some interesting birds are moving to northerly climes, where they were either never present or at least very scarce. Among these are northern cardinals and tufted titmice.

The scarlet color of a male cardinal juxtaposed against a white background of snow makes for a memorable scene. Female cardinals, too, while not as strikingly colored as the males, have the trademark red bill, as well as tinges of red on crest and wings. Females also have the black “face mask,” like the males.

Titmice, on the other hand, are a rather dull gray, with a white belly and a tint of reddish-brown on the flanks. What sets these small birds aside from others is their large, round, bottomless black eyes and the prominent tuft on the top of their heads.

Both cardinals and titmice, while happy to visit hanging suet or seed feeders, will also scavenge for seeds on the ground. It is possible to keep these and other songbirds well fed by a daily scattering of seed on the ground. This removes the need for feeders. But on the other hand, much seed gets wasted with the ground-scattering method.

A better way, and a very cost-effective one at that, is to use an old baking sheet to hold seeds. Just place on the ground and deposit seeds. The low sides of the sheet will keep most seed on the pan, rather than on the ground.

This method has merit, because you can monitor just how much seed your birds can consume during their morning and evening feeding sessions. And when rain and snow are forecast, it’s a simple matter to pick up the baking sheet and place somewhere under cover. When conditions are dry, just set the sheet outside again.

For those who prefer to see their birds feeding from hanging feeders, I have a “MacGyver” sort of device that works perfectly. A friend made this for me some time ago and at first, I wasn’t impressed. But the birds flocked to it and that allowed me to appreciate just how functional this simple device is.

To make one, just select a small sheet of scrap plywood or even a length of wide pine board. You can use laths as sides, securing with wood glue first and then tacking on with fine wire finish nails.

Then, drill two holes near the inside of each corner. Run a cord or thin rope down through two holes at a time, tying off on the bottom. Repeat with the two other holes and you have a sturdy hanging seed feeder. The two loops made by the cords can be tied together for ease of hanging. Or, better yet, run a small branch through both loops. Either way you’ll have a seed feeder that will last for many years to come.

Garlic helper

Did you grow garlic last season? If so, you have a powerful healer in your herb cabinet. It’s cold and flu season now, and one of the best ways to limit the severity of colds is to slice a garlic clove in two and hold a cut half near each nostril. Sniff in the heady garlic scent. But don’t allow the raw garlic to touch a mucous membrane, because it will sting. Do this at the first sign of symptoms.

Even if you don’t need to resort to fresh garlic to alleviate cold symptoms, a diet that includes regular doses of garlic can go a long way toward maintaining good health.

Raw garlic, as in chopped fine and added to salads, has the most salutary effect. But even cooking garlic in various dishes can help. Garlic powder, too, has many of the healthful properties of fresh garlic.

But how well your garlic performs is dependent upon how it was grown and harvested. Often, garlic left too long in the ground will have problems with cloves separating from the bulbs. Also, such garlic left in storage can develop a fuzzy blue mold, rendering it inedible.

Storage methods, too, have much to do with garlic’s taste, condition and efficacy. Garlic must be thoroughly dry, as in no green showing when the tops are cut. Then, the bulbs should be stored in something that allows for plenty of air circulation. I like the nylon mesh onion bags, but even a paper bag, if left open, will help keep your garlic fresh and dry.

And as with winter squash, garlic needs checking from time to time while in storage. Any garlic that has grown soft to the touch should be immediately discarded. Just as one bad apple can spoil the entire barrel, one bad garlic clove can ruin all the rest.

For cooking, nothing goes better with sautéed shrimp than fresh-cut and chopped garlic. In times past, winter was when Maine shrimp were available, but now, regulations prohibit Mainers from fishing for Maine shrimp. But in an ironic twist, we can still buy our beloved Maine shrimp, because Canadian fishermen are allowed to fish and they sell Maine shrimp to Maine outlets.

Even without Maine shrimp, we can still make a great shrimp scampi with gulf shrimp or any small to medium shrimp. Here’s my recipe. Put a slight amount of oil in a cast-iron skillet and heat. Then drop in the fresh, chopped or crushed garlic. When this begins to sizzle, add shrimp and toss as they cook.

Then, when the shrimp are almost done, sprinkle Italian-flavored breadcrumbs over the shrimp, toss one more time and serve. It’s a winter meal that will gladden any heart. And when made with your own homegrown garlic, that makes it so much better.

Tom’s tips

Ever find it difficult to water certain houseplants? Often, plants require moving in order to water and that can prove disruptive for neighboring plants. There is an easy way to water with pinpoint accuracy and without rearranging your plants.

Just dedicate a small turkey baster to the task. In time, you’ll know just how many basters-full each plant requires. It’s easy to insert the pointed end of a water-filled baster through the densest leaves and water your plant, no fuss, no muss and no spills.

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