Winter Steerage

Winter Steerage

   It’s the bleak midwinter. Too far from summer and too long till spring. You have fond memories of relaxing around your pool in the company of tropical beauties. Oh, you just hated to see them go, but freezing fall temperatures soon put an end to their glory. And if you get excited about plants like I do, some become like members of the family. If those “family members” are lucky, they can travel the winter first class on the good ship Calverts Winter Storage. There, most ticket-holders get a fairly choice spot.   Sure, it’s crowded, but it’s cool and bright with sunshine splashing through the tree canopy, perfect conditions to rest up from the long hot summer.  Regular watering, pest control, maybe a trim or two; but if dormant is their thing, then they will be encouraged to do so. Pretty much the same characters sail in every year; can’t you just imagine their banter? “Ooh Phil, how are YOU doing?”   “Yo bird—if you get any bigger, you is gonna BUST outta that pot!”   “And Mr. Wisk Fern, nice of you to join us again this year.”   “Who’s that big quiet fella tucked back there?”  “Oh, that’s  Shy Silent Sid the giant Sago  he’s new this year and traveling incognito.”

   Then there are the unlucky relatives in the plant world, the ones that missed the boat. No first class ticket for most of them. No sir-ree. Remember the old-time immigrants who sailed over on steam ships in less than ideal conditions? Well, without a personal greenhouse, these plants will be stowaways aboard the third-class section of the ship; the one I affectionately call Winter Steerage.

   My purpose for this little ditty is to help you get your treasured plants through that long winter journey; hopefully in good enough shape that they will recover from their steerage accommodations so they can bounce back and once again keep you company on your deck. I’ll do this by presenting my “tropical travelers”, and if you are so inclined, to give you the inspiration to take on your own steerage class.

   The biggest limiting factor for any plant to successfully overwinter, in steerage or first class, is going to be the amount of light it receives.     Now I know that there are people who have had success with tossing the potted plant into their dim garage, taking it out in spring, and going on their merry way. Since my garage isn’t heated, I can’t try that. It does of course depend on what kind of plant it is, and whether it has a natural “dormant” cycle. A plant that can drop leaves, but also grow lots more, might be one that is less picky about light levels. But putting a succulent-type that doesn’t drop its leaves in a dark corner would be cruel and unusual punishment.

   The brightest spot aboard my good ship winter steerage is the middle shelf of my orchid cart. Some orchids that usually sit there get moved to make room for as many baby succulent types as can fit. (“hey guys—don’t outgrow THE CART!”) There they get direct sun and overhead grow lights also. The aloes happily bloom all winter,  as they do in the summer outside. I’m not encouraging them to grow; I still let them go really dry between watering. One way to tell if a succulent needs a drink is to feel it. If the leaves feel firm, not rubbery or shriveled, let it go another week, then check again. Since all my plants are in saucers to make watering easier, I adjust how much I give them so any overflow gets re-adsorbed soon. Their watering schedule is working out to about once a month. Another thing to be careful about is how you water. I use a small nozzle sprayer hooked up to a faucet so I can reach into tight spots and control where and how much to spray. It’s safer to water around the edges of the pot and not into the crown. Bigger members of the succulent gang spend their winter under a bank of grow lights suspended from the ceiling.    Stragglers and latecomers or ones better able to take less light get another spot in a second room with one plantlight. They all get some fleeting sunlight early in the morning but not enough to make much difference. Here you see a baby golden phil stretching for his “sun”. If you have an aloe or agave that you want to arrive “pristine” in the spring, make sure it is as directly under the lights as possible, or right in front of a sunny window. The further away they are the droopy-er they will become.     If given proper light outside when it gets warm, the new growth will be normal but chances are the old leaves with stay droopy. These guys are much bigger, so most of them go longer between watering. It always seems to rain the weekend of “the launching”, so they go about two months or more before they get their first drink. And then, only enough to keep them from shriveling up. Also, avoid feeding your winter steerage succulents. Since they aren’t getting the light the need to grow, they can’t “use up” the food given to them.

   Besides my orchids that mostly live inside year round, I’m winter-steerageing two bougainvilleas. If tropical flowering shrubs are more your thing, just be forewarned. Oh sure, they were gorgeous during early November,   but wait a few months when they decide to play the ficus game: “hey, let’s drop our leaves!”   You’ll have to put up with a little mess between vacuuming. Your bougainvillea wants to go almost dry between watering. Any leaves it grows will be “shade leaves”—next spring when I take it back outside it will drop those on one of our hellish spring days when it’s 90 degrees with a 35 mph south wind. I’ll cut back the wild or dead stems to shape it and after a while with lots of “food” and direct sun, it will be beautiful once again.       

    One other thing you might have to address during the long winter steerage journey is pest control. The travelers in the first-class group at Calverts are the beneficiaries of weekly scouting and monitoring. Outdoor plants indoors can become overrun by aphids, whiteflies, scale, or mealy bugs without natural predators to take care of them. Likewise, your steerage travelers should be inspected at least whenever you water them. The most I’ve had to deal with is a few mealy bugs that are easily taken care of with a q-tip dipped in alcohol.

   If you have the space and can put up with a little inconvenience, there are some advantages to traveling steerage. You can always decorate them for Christmas!   Here we see papa agave getting lit. Many plants put out a flowering spike when it gets cooler or the days shorter    —how nice to have a corner of beauty on a cold dark winter day!     

4 comments (Add your own)

1. Rizwan wrote:
I heard from some people livnig in Michigan that they have grown palm trees there and bring them inside in the winter, I don't think you can grow citrus trees there, they won't die but I don't think you can get fruit, (not enough sun) Your previous person said that all tropical plants need high humidity, not so, think of Palm springs or Las Vegas (very dry)

Thu, May 3, 2012 @ 6:11 AM

2. Sevda wrote:
- Woohooo! Happy 1st day of spring! I love the vrtieay of your work! Your portraits are captivating and your floral/natural pictures are so beautifully composed. I will check you out often and I wish you a lovely spring.

Thu, May 3, 2012 @ 12:40 PM

3. Wiwi wrote:
Linda,Although I replied to you prtaviely in a timely fashion, there may be some interest by others in the answers to your questions.First, I'll be glad to look at any images you might have and take a stab at identifying. As you might be able to tell from the nature of this blog, I'm still learning the plants of Panama and am far from an expert. Still, I enjoy the challenge and if I can't identify the plant from your images, I may be able to send you to a source that will be of help.Next, buying native plants is not always easy. MIDA is the best commercial source for these things that I know of. Most people get shoots or seeds of the plants they want from friends and neighbors. It's possible that as interest in native plant cultivation grows, a new vivero focusing on them will open.Meantime, I encourage you to learn the names of the plants that you have on your property. You may already have some of the ones you're interested in.Good luck!

Fri, May 4, 2012 @ 1:55 AM

4. Vijay wrote:
I have recently moved to the Chiriqui prcnvioe (the Potrerillos area) in Panama and have photos of some plants I can't identify. How can I send these photos to someone to help me with identification and information about the birds, butterflies, etc that may be attracted to these plants. Also, we want to replant the farm we purchased with native trees and plants for the birds, monkeys, and other wildlife. I have done a lot of research on what Panamanian trees and plants would serve this purpose but now I can't locate a place to buy them. I have checked viveros and MIDA in Conception. Any advice on where to find local fruiting trees specifically for attracting birds, etc.?

Fri, May 4, 2012 @ 3:17 AM

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