indoor botanical cheer to mark the winter solstice, with kathy tracey

WHEN SHORTER, colder days have us indoors more, a bit of botanical company can make it all a lot brighter. This edition of the podcast has suggestions for some winter solstice decorating, for bringing a bit of nature indoors for the offseason to reconnect us with the garden and provide some cheer. And not just the obvious holiday centerpiece or wreath, but the right succulents for winter bloom and easy care, and some unexpected found goodies from outdoors to call into action, too, and how to make them last.

My guest is Kathy Tracey, co-owner with her husband, Chris, of Avant Gardens Nursery in Dartmouth, Mass., a source for exceptional plants in person and by mail. They’re also known for their design services and popular how-to classes, including lots of botanical crafty ones.

Get her year-round tips for growing amaryllis and reblooming them; for making cut branches last indoors; and even some of her recommended houseplants that don’t sulk in winter heating season.

Read along as you listen to the Dec. 19, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

botanical winter decor, with kathy tracey



Margaret Roach: Hi Kathy, are you feeling crafty? [Laughter.] Long time no see or whatever. Yeah, so I’ve been kind of indoors more, although it’s been unseasonably warm so far, but still, I’ve been indoors more and I’m like, “O.K., how can I brighten it up in here?” I think most of the birds took all my winterberry hollies, from outside. But you are someone that I really turn to for inspiration on the aesthetic part. You have such a strong aesthetic, and like I teased you, you’re crafty as well.

So at your house, I don’t figure it’s a traditional full-on holiday decor, knowing your other work and so forth and your style, I assume it’s a little more naturalistic and more subtle. So what are some of the things that you’re doing this holiday season indoors, or not even holiday, just winter?

Katherine Tracey: With the winter solstice are the shorter days, and nature is becoming, outdoors is becoming, more brown all the time. But we do have evergreen branches that we can cut. Over the years we have planted lots of wonderful conifers on our property, and it’s a nice time to do a little pruning, bringing in those branches to put on windowsills with strings of white lights. It brightens up the home a little bit and we’re not going to all the trouble of putting up a Christmas tree and that sort of thing.

Margaret: Have you ever used… You said white lights. I saw—I think it was on your blog, on the GardenForeplay blog, where you post all kinds of interesting things—I think I saw you used the white lights, even with your amaryllis and so forth, you really took it to the next step. It was just like, “Here are some amaryllis, which we all know and is ubiquitous,” but you made it even better. Tell us about that.

Kathy: Yeah, I just took strings of white lights and laid them around the base of the pots and in the evening the lights illuminated the amaryllis and pots of begonias and so it was very festive. In the daytime it looks wonderful, but at night there’s a little less light. So using your little sparkling string of holiday lights brightens up.

Margaret: Did you ever try those ones that are, are they LED battery-operated or whatever? Do you know what I mean? The ones that don’t even need to be plugged in?

Kathy: Yeah, the fairy lights, I think they’re called. There’s a little less glow, but you don’t need to have an outlet nearby. You can tuck the battery charger under a branch of evergreens, and it gets disguised that way, and that’s quite nice, too. So yes, that was really nice to bring in flower color as well as making it festive indoors.

Margaret: Right. So you just were mentioning amaryllis are like houseplants, and even though I said in the introduction we’re going to talk about some non-traditional things, they are traditional, but one of the things you do is you are good about keeping them year to year, I think—the aftercare and so forth. Do you find that they all go to sleep on schedule? What happens at the end of bloom season, what do you do? So here we have this nice indoor winter display and then there’s greenery, and then what do you do?

Kathy: When the flowers fade, you should remove the flower head so that they don’t form seeds, because that takes energy from the bulb. But the leaves will remain green for some time and you should let the leaves stay on the plant so they can photosynthesize; that brings energy into the bulb. Water, and occasionally fertilized with an all-purpose fertilizer during the growing season. Once it gets warm outside in May, you can bring your pots out to maybe a partially shaded spot and water as needed.

But when we get toward the end of summer, late August, September, you want to start withholding watering and encourage the foliage to die back, and give it a cool period. And that’s the key to get the bulbs to think about taking that break they need and having enough of a rest, but come into bloom for the winter holidays.

Now that being said, how do you cool plants off [laughter] in late summer when it’s still quite warm? Some people might have a cool basement or a refrigerator that they have room to tuck plants in. I have one in my garage. And if you don’t have room for putting a potted plant in your refrigerator, you can unpot the plant right then and remove the soil and store the bulb in a baggie, and keep it in a chilled spot, like a 45- to 50-degree refrigerator and leave it there for two months.

Margaret: So that’s not the refrigerator that you’re using for your food, right? It’s not 45 or 50 in your current refrigerator, just so people understand that. Do you know what I mean? In your home fridge?

Kathy: I think it can be a little cooler, you can go down to 40. I think my refrigerator is 43 degrees.

Margaret: Right.

Kathy: And if you have room in your regular refrigerator, you can put them in there, but most of us don’t have that space to spare. And then in November, pull out those bulbs. If they’re bare-root, pot them up. If they’re still in their pots, just bring it out into the light.

And here’s a key: Water them just once. Soak them and then just wait. And that takes patience because you’re thinking, “O.K., come on, let’s see some green.” Don’t water again until you start seeing signs of green from the center of the bulb. And then once you start seeing green, then you can get on a regular watering schedule as needed. And if you want to, you can give them a little phosphorous, a high-phosphorous fertilizer.

That’s not what I always do. For example, this year I completely forgot about the amaryllis [laughter] until we started talking about them, and realized that they had been sitting in the greenhouse under a bench, where they were maybe not getting total darkness, but it was darker and they weren’t getting watered. They still have green leaves on them as I speak, but they are starting to lose those leaves. What will happen now, now that the greenhouse is cool, it’s in the 45-, 50-degree range at night and then the daytime it warms up a bit more. The bulbs will grow. They will try to send up flower shoots, but I probably won’t see flowers until late February or maybe even March.

Margaret: Right, right. So it’ll still go through the process, but it won’t go through it on the same schedule.

Kathy: That’s it. Yeah.

Margaret: So speaking of, these are indoor houseplant-y kind of plants. I feel another thing we can do to make it a little more festive inside is call some of our houseplants into action. And I know that at this time of year, I’m trying to give everybody the most light that they can get and so forth. But some of them I’m going to move into a spot at least temporarily, like on the table, and really enjoy it more. And I know you really use your houseplants, and I say “houseplants” because a lot of yours are in greenhouses and stuff—I say it in quotes—more creatively, didn’t you tell me you just made an arrangement the other day where you used one of your Sansevieria as the centerpiece of it?

Kathy: Right, the snake plant. One of the easiest houseplants, of course to grow, they need very little. In fact, you’ll kill them if you over water them. So withhold watering. I should mention that they are toxic to pets, but pet owners are pretty on top of these things, too. But yeah, the dramatic vertical thrust of those leaves of the snake plant or Sansevieria really looked striking in an urn that I had. And I tucked in some ivy at the base and it was bringing the outdoors indoors for a winter display. And you could put strings of lights on something like that and have a lovely little illuminated decor in your home.

Margaret: I think the ivies, you just mentioned the ivies. Some of the ones in the houseplant department, some of them may have beautiful variegation, even like gold and green and whatever. And that could be an easy, inexpensive addition to this type of… Do you know what I mean? If we’re going to adopt something.

Kathy: Right. And ivy are very easy, forgiving houseplants. You can let them get quite dry. You’ll know if you’ve let it gone for too long. I think people err on the side of either watering too much or not watering at all. And it just means that you have to pay attention to your plants a little bit, but ivy are forgiving. If they get a little bit on the dry side, they hydrate so quickly with a good soaking.

Margaret: So we’re going to call some of our houseplants into action. And in the garden center right now, the houseplant department is usually—because they’re thinking gifty ideas; they want you to buy some—there’s some interesting things. And you’re like the succulent queen, you have this incredible mastery of succulents indoors and outdoors and so forth. But I’m better with the ones outdoors and not so good with the ones for indoors. And I wondered, are there any that really figure into indoor, they can be happy in the winter with us living indoors? Which ones do I have the best shot at?

Kathy: If you have a sunny window, then the aloes [above]—and there are many besides the aloe vera plant that we know for medicinal purposes, for skin salves—there are miniature that have been bred. And these little cuties come in array of tones, from almost white leaves, through various shades of green to coral-red colors. And often they have these little raised flecks that adds to the texture. Some have been given names with holiday things like ‘Christmas Sleigh,’ ‘Blizzard,’ ‘Snowstorm,’ ‘Snowdrift.’

These little gems don’t need much at all except some bright light. Water them—and the question on watering succulents, here is what I usually suggest to folks: Once you’ve watered your succulent, feel how heavy the pot is. We have this memory of how heavy things are when we go to pick it up the next time. And when you feel that the pot is light, that’s when you water them and give them a good soaking, and then let them dry out in between the waterings.

Margaret: Right. So do it by feel; do it by feel.

Kathy: Yeah. It’s hard to tell sometimes because they don’t wilt. And everybody’s home is different. Some people keep their houses very warm, and there’s lots of dry air and those factors will dry out plants more quickly than, say, if you keep it cooler, like in the 60s, like our old house. That has an effect on how much water the plants take up.

Margaret: Well, so speaking of dry indoors, and inhospitable to certain kinds of plants, especially: People shouldn’t feel bad right now if some of their houseplants, I’m saying, “Hey, let’s showcase some because they’re so beautiful.” Well, some are looking downright unhappy, you know what I mean? They had a nice time in the humidity, outdoors, all season, and then they came in, and the heat’s on and so forth, and it’s dry and nasty.

And so some of my begonias, my rhizomatous begonias, my fancy-leaf begonias, some don’t hold up as well as others in the winter. It doesn’t mean they’re dying, it just means they’re sulking, and we have to know what to do. So do you have any that really are more durable, more bulletproof in the winter indoors? And also what should we do there as far as the watering/not watering is there… I’m afraid what people do is they start feeding them and that’s the worst thing to do, I think.

Kathy: You’re correct.

Margaret: In the winter, I mean.

Kathy: You’re correct. They’re going into a little bit of shock because the days are getting shorter and our homes are dry. And although begonias don’t want to be in wet soil, they do appreciate humidity. They looked their best, I thought, this year in September. We suddenly started getting more rainfall, and the humidity factor just brightened them all up. But then we bring them indoors and we’ve got our dry heat, and many of the fancy-leaf varieties, just like you said, sulk. It’s time to ignore them, really.

One selection I’ve always been impressed with, because it has a more textured leaf, is ‘Art Hodes’ [in large pot, above].The upper side is a pebbly, olive green, and the underside has reddish tones. So it works with the holiday color scheme, and it gets occasional white flowers throughout the year, but most heavily in the wintertime. That one seems to be more forgiving of indoor, dry conditions.

But what I would do to help with the humidity is perhaps set a tray of pebbles underneath the pot and fill that with water. So as the water evaporates around the plant, it does give a little air of humidity around where the plant is growing.

Margaret: And that variety of that begonia is Art Hodes, like Arthur, and H-O-D-E-S.

Kathy: Yes. That, we’ve had for about 25 years.

Margaret: Wow.

Kathy: I don’t even remember who we got the plant from it. It’s not commonly available, but it’s a very easy plant to grow. It’s an easy plant to propagate. And it’s one of my top begonia recommendations.

Margaret: O.K. So if we go outdoors—and obviously we’re not talking about going foraging on someone else’s property or on public land; we’re talking about going outside, right around where we are. There’s some goodies in all of our yards. You mentioned at the beginning some evergreen bits and bobs we could take judiciously off some evergreens that were growing. But there’s other things, too.

I mentioned that normally I have winterberry at this time, but when we take a branch of anything, how do we condition it to make it last indoors?

Kathy: Woody plants, it’s helpful to split the stem at the base so that water gets taken up. A simple cut often isn’t enough. And by splitting the branch, I mean take the cut end and then use your pruners to do a little incision to split the stem and water gets absorbed so much better that way.

I should mention that winterberry, someone asked me the other day why they didn’t have any fruit this year on their winterberry plant and they had a bumper crop last year. Winterberries, Ilex verticillata, they bloom on old wood. So if you’re doing a very ambitious cut on your winterberry for a display this year, you may be sacrificing your bloom and berries next year. So be careful when you are taking those cuts, that you don’t decimate the whole plant.

Margaret: And in a droughty year I had here, they can really perform less, even if I didn’t prune at or take any at all.

Kathy: That’s true, too.

Margaret: A droughty year. Because a lot of plants that are trying to produce fruit, they’ll drop part of their crop or all their crop in self-defense, so they don’t die in a drought. So there’s that too. Yeah.

Kathy: That’s true. Yes.

Margaret: So what about other goodies like cones, and who knows what else that’s out there that we should be on the lookout for? Any other tricks?

Kathy: Last week we had, a tremendous windstorm come through. Rain, wind, I mean the house shook. It’s an old house, but it shook. And the next morning I went out and they were branches everywhere. We have an ancient oak tree on our property, and some of those branches from the tree that had old man’s beard moss and lichen on them had come down. But when I looked at them, I thought, “Wow, I could use this in a wreath or an arrangement.” The silvery-white and mossy green really is a nice way to bring a little color and texture indoors. The same holds true with all the pine cones that fell, that were on the ground already. We have a lot of white pine in our area, and of course gathering those pine cones is not causing any harm at all. [Above, fallen cones and lichen in a bowl ast Kathy’s.]

Margaret: Right. Because they’re in the street or whatever, or they’re in your driveway or they’re on your patio or whatever, so they’re down already.

Kathy: Yes.

Margaret: So the lichen, some of the branches that fall after a storm with lichen covering—that would be gorgeous.

Kathy: I think so.

Margaret: Yeah. Huh. Oh yeah, that’s a good idea. And with that, we’re not trying to put them in water and keep them, right?

Kathy: Right. They’ll just dry naturally. We also found little patches of moss, green moss, and I don’t know the correct botanical name for the moss that grows on our oak tree, but it’s this brilliant green, and I gathered little patches of that that had fallen down. And I’ll tuck that in plant pots, especially if there’s bare soil showing, and it dresses the pot a little bit. I’ve actually even used that around aloes. Remember, we’re not watering the moss, we’re not trying to keep it alive, or we possibly could try to keep it alive. But when I tucked it among my little aloes and other succulent plants and pots, it dressed up the soil a little bit and added some bright green.

Margaret: Right. I want to go back to the houseplants again, because I’m suddenly thinking, “Oh, I should have done this, and I should have gotten that.” [Laughter.] I’m having some ideas. What are some other, I mean, this year I grew for the first time, I saw it at the time of year in the garden center when all the annuals were out, they had Syngonium, which are a houseplant with a sort of arrow-shaped leaf, I guess I would call it. Is that what you would call it?

Kathy: Yeah. It’s in the aroid family. And the breeders have developed some beautiful leaf forms ranging from white into peachy pinks and different shades of green. And that’s an easy plant that we can bring indoors. I think it likes a bit more humidity, but we know that we can maybe bring it into the bathroom once a week when we’re running the shower, hot shower, and that will help hydrate the plant.

Margaret: Yeah, I’ve been really impressed because I bought it, as I said, to use in with some annuals, some more traditional annuals, as my foliar filler. When at the end of the season I saw them out there in the pots and I thought, “Oh, I’m going to try these as a houseplant,” because they’re frequently sold as a houseplant. And I’ve been really impressed with how they didn’t miss a beat. So that’s something that in terms of the way that ‘Art Hodes’ begonia, sort of an investment plant, that we can use in our outdoor displays, our indoor displays. I’m impressed that these are pretty tough characters.

Kathy: That’s a great suggestion. Some of us grow Caladium as bulbs, of course they don’t hold up as houseplants at all, but they do go dormant. And then you can wake them up in late spring, once we start getting into warmer weather. But the Syngonium would be a nice alternative to white Caladium leaves because it gives a similar look.

Margaret: It is a good point. It’s a similar look. You’re right. And yet you don’t have to rest it and then start it up again. So we’ll see. This is my first year, but they haven’t missed a beat at all, outside or inside. So who knows [laughter]?

Kathy: Another low-light houseplant or tropical plant is Peperomia.

Margaret: Yes.

Kathy: And Peperomia are quite easy as long as you don’t overwater them. Most of them are succulents. They have a thick, succulent leaf. But again, so many new selections have been introduced in various shades of green. And there are quite a few species. I’m not sure what the number is, but it’s up there with the number of species that are available. But again, if low light is a problem, Peperomia would be a good choice.

There’s the popular… There’s also Pilea, too, which, the delicate little artillery fern Pilea, there’s a variegated one and then the straight species, and then there’s the Chinese money plant and-

Margaret: Oh, that crazy thing. Yes. That was so popular.

Kathy: Yeah, people get confused because there’s actually, there’s a Pilea peperomioides, which is the Chinese money plant. And then there is Peperomia polybotrya, which is also a Chinese money plant, but it has more teardrop-shaped leaves. And of course Pilea has a different flower form than Peperomia. So that’s one way to distinguish the two, but at first you could be easily be confused when you look at them because of the common name. [Above: Peperomia, on the right, and Pilea peperomioides on the left.]

Margaret: I’ve tried the former but not the latter, but I can now go look for it, so thank you. And Kathy, thank you for making time today to talk to us about some alternative ways, both with a little foraging out in the yard after a windstorm and cutting branches and calling our houseplants into service and so forth.

(All photos by Kathy Tracey; used with permission.)

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 13th year in March 2022. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Dec. 19, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Deborah Bowen says:

    Enjoyed your guest ‘s creative ideas. Also reassured as my “Escargot” Rex Begonias are really not happy after being brought indoors this year. I have them by a north window in the bathroom. They used to be in a west window in a warmer room. Do you think those two changes are the problem?

    1. Nicole says:

      So happy to see Avant Gardens featured in your podcast. I’m a local resident and it is nice to see this place getting the attention it deserves.

  2. Hal Gershenson says:

    I wonder if Kathy’s favorite begonia was named after Art Hodes, a jazz musician who played around the Chicago during much of the 20th century. Hodes died in the 1990s so I imagine that the begonia was named some time ago.

  3. Ginny says:

    Thanks for some creative ideas to brighten up the house during winter. A couple things I’d never thought of, like tiny lights at the base of plants to light them up. When I remove the fairy lights from the mantle, that’s where they’ll go next! Thanks Kathy and Margaret.

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