Sheri Ann Richerson's exotic gardening, elegant cooking, crafty creations, food preservation and animal husbandry... all on two and a half acres in Marion, Indiana!

Tropical and Exotic Plants

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There’s nothing quite like a fresh picked tomato when the weather outside is frightful – and it certainly has been here in Indiana. The catfish we put into the aquaponic system this spring didn’t make it – and with everything going on, I never bought more fish to put back in the tank. I did leave the tank running because there were plants that still needed water. I figured without the fish they would die off sooner or later. That is not the case. While it is true that the tomato plant has some dead leaves on it, it is full of flowers and fruit in different stages of ripening.

Oddly enough I have ignored that tomato plant only adding water to the tank below when it got low. I have not hand pollenated it however as we walk past to go out the door it does get bumped. Another thing I noticed is the fruit is in the center of the plant and on the far side that gets the least light. The flowers are nearer to the door so they do get some light, however they also get the first blast of cold air from outside when the door is opened. That happens twice a day – once in the morning and once in the evening – when we feed the animals.

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Plant lovers know plants make the best gifts. You simply cannot have enough plants and there is always room to add “just one more” plant to the mix. This can drive the non-plant people in your life up the wall. Dodging bags of soil, large pots that don’t quite fit where we want them and that little matter of dealing with watering them in the winter – especially those really big pots that no one wants to move – is challenging to say the least. Usually I put saucers under my pots – but some of my pots – especially the larger or odd-shaped ones – are a bit harder to find saucers for. These require that someone move them into the bathtub at least once a month so I can shower them down.

Yes, I use the shower on my plants. It removes dust from their leaves, adds humidity for a short time and does a very good job of hydrating the soil. After I drench them for about 10 minutes four to six times, I allow the pots to sit in the tub for several hours to drain. I always end up tracking drops of water through the house when I get ready to move them back into their winter home, but those drops of water are easy to wipe up because I have a wood floor.

Yesterday another box of plants arrived. A friend had told me that another friend had the Heliconia ‘Lobster Claw’ that I so adore. I had this plant once, then lost it when my greenhouse was damaged by hail. I was so upset that I gave up trying to replace my lost plants. I was heartbroken because all the rare plants I loved and had worked so hard to keep alive died. In that one night I lost various bananas, heliconias, gingers, the true nutmeg, clove, a vanilla orchid, my Theobroma plants, a dwarf ylang-ylang and so much more. The only plants that survived were the ones in the house.

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Two pineapple plants and a small Worsleya rayneri inside a rustic looking metal birdcage.

Fall is here which means winter isn’t far off and it’s time – once again – to bring your  tropical plants indoors. We all know the drill – move the plants out in spring, redecorate, then panic once the nights begin to cool down. If you’re like me, not only have the plants you moved outdoors last spring grown drastically but you’ve added more plants to the list. Space is tight here and sometimes I truly wonder how the heck I managed the winter before – even with a greenhouse – because as we all know, in cold climates like Indiana you just can’t rely on keeping your greenhouse hot enough to keep the really tropical plants alive. Never mind the ice and heavy snowfalls that often knock the power out – and believe me, a greenhouse cools down real fast when it’s dark outside and the heater quit working.

So, what’s a plant lover to do? Make room of course. Donate or store the stuff you can’t use or don’t need. After all, the plants deserve a place in your house. The other option is to get creative. Choose indoor decor that looks good with or without plants. Now, you may be thinking what the heck does she mean. Bird cages are a great example.  You can decorate with them by themselves or fill them with live plants, nicknacks, candles or even silk flowers.

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Michelia is a plant that has been on my wish list for a number of years. Although it is a member of the Magnolia family, the seeds are not near as easy to germinate.

Michelia is one tough cookie to germinate. I have literally tried everything to get this fragrant, must-have plant to grow from seed – and failed miserably every time. Of course, when I saw the seeds this year, I couldn’t resist – and thus am trying again. This time I am using a different method and the seed actually looked like it was swollen.

 

The seeds contain a germination inhibitor which is likely the reason why they are so hard to germinate.

Here is what I did:

First I ran hot tap water, placed the seeds in a small tea ball and swished them around in the sink and under the running water.

Then I filled a glass jar with hot water – not hot tap water, but hot water from the stove. It was not boiling, just simmering. I then lowered the seeds into this hot water. Michelia have a hard seed coat and I was hoping to quickly pentrate that as well as wash off the majority of the germination inhibitors.

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A small round Black Spanish Radish harvested from the open garden in late November.

Those of us who grow vegetables year-round are really no different than those who grow seasonally other than we choose to grow varieties that – like us – brave the cold weather. Figuring out which varieties do well for us in our individual climates does take some experimentation. We can learn what works well for others by reading articles, blogs and of course participating in online discussion groups – but even then, what works for one person may not work for another.

Here in Marion, Indiana I have found the round Black Spanish Radish does quite well over winter – even in the open ground without protection. I love the dark black color of the skin – and the spicy taste of the flesh. Often though I find it necessary to remove the skin from these radishes before I eat them – it really depends on how tough the skin is – and you can tell by looking.

This is the very first Black Spanish Radish I grew. I harvested it a bit early, however I was quite anxious to taste it.

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Rosemary seedlings that were winter sown.

You read that right folks, December – even in cold climates – is the right time to start sowing seeds outdoors! Now there are a few things you need to know such as what types of seeds to sow, the types of containers you need and a general idea of how winter sowing actually works.

If you’ve read either The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Year-Round Gardening or The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Seed Saving and Starting, you already have a good idea how winter sowing works. If not, read on.

The official winter sowing date is December 21. Now, if you were like us here in Indiana on December 21 this year, you know it was still warm enough outside that waiting a bit longer to begin winter sowing was best. We have snow now – and cold temperatures – so I think it is safe to begin.

The idea behind winter sowing is you plant perennial seeds – which are seeds from plants that return year after year in your specific United States Department Of Agriculture Hardiness Zone. If you’re not sure what your USDA hardiness zone is, you can use our app to find out. There is also a really cool seed calculator, in addition to the hardiness zone finder, that you can use to determine how many seeds you need to plant.

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Even on the coldest day of the year, it is possible to find signs of life in my Indiana garden. This is the Christmas Rose – a lovely hellebore that is sure to burst into bloom in late November or early December.

It is a cold, dreary day here in my Indiana garden – yet, I know I must put on my coat and head outside to wander through my garden – after all, if I do not go today, I may miss a garden treasure. November is an exciting time in my garden. Although it is cold – and we have already had some snow and heavy frosts, there is still something in bloom. In addition to being able to see what is blooming, there are flower buds forming and young seedlings germinating – yes, perennial seeds often germinate in the fall or over winter.

Colorful bittersweet generally persists in the garden throughout the entire winter.

This morning I was greeted by the orange and red berries of the bittersweet I planted on a trellis right off the ramp. This particular trellis is also right beside the pathway that leads from the driveway to the ramp that leads to the front door, so everyone who visits us is sure to see the colorful berries all winter long – unless of course the birds eat them first.

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This particular witch hazel – Autumn Embers – shows off some of the vibrant fall colors Indiana is so well known for.

It’s funny what a difference climate change has made in Indiana. When I first started gardening, the northern part of Indiana that I reside in was a U.S. Department of Agricultural hardiness zone 5a. Several years ago, this same area became a USDA hardiness zone 6a – and believe me, that makes a difference in what you can grow – especially if you are pushing hardiness zones like I am. Bananas, gingers and palm trees have survived over the winter months in my garden. Of course, they had to be mulched well and covered with a make-shift cold frame – but hey, getting these awesome tropical plants to survive in the ground in Indiana made the extra work well worth it!

Of course, I grow so much more than just ornamentals over winter. Everyone knows store bought produce never tastes quite as good as produce that comes from your own garden – and this is true regardless of the season. In fact, winter-grown greens have a sweeter taste and – in my opinion – are far more tender than those that are forced in a greenhouse or grown during the other three seasons. Today I have peppers forming, tomatoes ripening, lettuce that is ready to pick – all inside a cold frame. Outside in the garden kale, Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes) and Brussels sprouts are still growing – and will continue to thrive throughout the winter without protection. Best of all, frost actually sweetens the taste of these three vegetables.

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Amazon Chocolate (top), Snowberry (white/yellow cherry) and Chocolate Cherry Tomatoes.

Waiting for the first tomatoes of the season to ripen – especially if you are growing new varieties – is hard. I grow a lot of heirloom varieties on the farm and always try to have some black or purple varieties. I prefer them because they taste sweeter – but not too sweet. This year I also tried a white/yellow variety called Snowberry. I figured – since I was setting up at the Marion Open Air Market on Saturday’s I needed a unique product that other vendors’ would not have – thus a mixture of white, black/purple and red cherry tomatoes was going to be my “special product.”

Snowberry produces a cherry tomato that is a creamy yellow.

The Snowberry tomato was one of the first to produce. It is a mild tomato without much of a real tomato taste. In fact, the ones that were really ripe tasted a bit more like a grape than a tomato. It was not what I had expected, but they were not bad and the plant produces an abundant supply. In fact, most of the tomatoes I am picking right now are coming from this plant. I don’t know if I will grow it again next year or not. I am going to wait and see how it goes over at market.

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Normally this hellebore blooms around Christmas. This year it bloomed early in November.

Helleborus niger in bloom on November 25, 2011 in my Indiana garden.

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