In From the Cold

Summer’s stars perform indoors during the dark days of winter.

A  gardener’s goal is to garden. And so it follows that if your livelihood or pleasure comes from working with plants, as colder weather approaches you transfer the scene of your activity from the great outdoors to an area within the house – perhaps a sunny room or simply a south-facing window. You may also transfer the very plants that you’ve treasured outdoors.

Those of us who want green growing things around us throughout the year may be responding to an ancient hunger for the natural world. There seems to be a green gene that demands plants throughout the year.

When I started to research the topic of indoor gardening on the Island, I expected to talk to people who brought a pot or two of geraniums inside, took in an amaryllis to watch it flower, or coaxed a Christmas cactus into bloom at Thanksgiving. But I found many families who have had success with all kinds of plants – whether they are keeping tropical plants alive by protecting them from the Island’s cold and windy weather or propagating others by planting cuttings indoors for winter growth.

Tropical plants on the Island are not uncommon. One reason for an interest in and success with tropicals goes back to the nineteenth century, when botanists brought back plants from South America that could adapt to indoor life. In their native habitat, these plants grew in a dense, leafy canopy under tall trees where light was diffuse and dim; they also survived through dry spells. Since Victorian homes could simulate similar conditions, houseplants such as orchids, clivia, philodendron, and African violets could thrive, as they can in our homes today.

Tess Bramhall, president of the Vineyard Conservation Society, grew up with plants in the house. Now she maintains a year-round garden room at her home in West Tisbury, where a gardenia tree has been blooming for forty-four years, in spite of occasional mealy bugs, scale, and red spiders. Fear of the caterpillars that destroyed so many trees on the Island during the past two years kept her cherished gardenia and orange trees indoors this summer, but in the spring, they are usually placed in dappled shade outside, surrounded by a wire fence to protect them from hungry deer.

The green gene runs strong in the Bramhall family. Daughter Emily’s south-facing window and skylight provide the right conditions for tropical plants such as hibiscus, jasmine, and oleander, which she brings in and out with the seasons at her Chilmark home. But success brings its own problems: the ficus must be pruned back to fit indoors. When a palm tree, which Emily has nurtured since high-school days, grew up and up and up like Jack’s beanstalk, she had to cut it way down to make it more manageable. This autumn, Emily was thrilled when her night-blooming cereus flowered for the first time; the white bloom lasts one night only. But early on, she established the rules: she is a busy woman, running Bramhall and Dunn, an upscale furnishings and clothing store in Vineyard Haven, and the plants must adapt to her lifestyle. Luckily, the plants don’t need to be watered as often during the winter months as in the summer. Yet she finds enormous joy in her greenery, and considers the plants as beloved family pets, like her golden retrievers.

There are other unlikely plants sharing winter quarters with Island residents. Wiet Bacheller, originally from Bandung on the Indonesian island of Java, is in charge of her tropicals during the time of year when they can live on a sunny back deck in Vineyard Haven. But come the threat of frost, they are carefully brought into the house, where husband John’s challenge begins.

A ten-foot frangipani (plumeria) will not fit in the living room if it grows any larger; this was a pocket-sized plant in 1972 when it came from Hawaii. Delicate yellow blossoms come and go on it and another frangipani that’s about half the size. The banana tree also winters indoors, where it’s festooned with lights at Christmas. A rose-colored hibiscus, a plant that grows the limon fruit (a cross between a lemon and lime), and a potted, purple passion-flower vine, both strangers from a tropical land of sun and rain, have adapted to this Island of cold and wind, moving indoors before winter and back out to the deck in the spring.

“When I bring them out in May or June,” John says, “the leaves fall off the frangipani and gradually grow back in, and the same thing happens in the fall as the plants acclimate to the drier, darker house conditions.”

Not all of the Bachellers’ plants are so uncommon, though. Wiet proudly shows off a large begonia, with bright red flowers cascading from a pot. “This was a gift from a student when I taught his third-grade class,” she says. “He’s in high school now.”

People can certainly be sentimental about their plants. And it’s only natural that many Vineyard houses, which have been handed down through several generations, would shelter plants that have also been handed down. Barbara Harnen lives in a house her grandmother bought in 1900 in West Chop; the house was later moved to its present location in Vineyard Haven. Along with the house, her grandmother moved a native hydrangea. Every year Barbara takes cuttings from that hydrangea and transplants the young seedlings to pots in the spring. Her grandmother had a Christmas cactus that still blooms faithfully at Christmas and Easter.

“My grandmother did not buy plants. She propagated what she wanted from cuttings and seeds,” Barbara says. “We even have a peach tree she started from a peach pit.”

In the fall, Barbara brings in the goldfish plant she bought twenty-five years ago at Winterthur, the du Pont estate outside Wilmington, Delaware, which is famous for its gardens. In the spring, she sets it out on the porch, merely transferring the hanging pot from one location to another.

Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club member Mary Lou Perry tends a special geranium that grows in her West Tisbury garden in the summer and indoors all winter. Twenty years ago, it decorated a basket on a table at her daughter’s wedding. Since then she has taken cuttings from that plant, and its progeny have continued to fill many baskets. She’s also had success with a special lavender called Goodwin Creek, which blooms all winter in a south-facing window in her home and would not survive outside in a Vineyard winter, as other lavenders can.

Some members of the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club do their own shuttling of plants at their homes, but they also come together at the greenhouse at the Wakeman Center in Tisbury (the home of several conservation groups). Starting in late September, members meet weekly at the greenhouse until the end of May to clean, plant, and tend the cuttings from members’ gardens. A partial list includes begonias, geraniums, hydrangeas, boxwood, and herbs, such as rosemary, sage, and perennial thyme. They have also raised some of the native plants that are at risk of disappearing: Mary Lou gathers seeds from joe-pye weed, clumps of sandplain blue-eyed grass, seaside goldenrod, asters, butterfly weed, and blue vervain. The young plants have been donated to Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation and other Island conservation organizations. She’s also taken cuttings from hollies and azaleas to grow for the Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury.

“Anyone can bring us a cutting,” Mary Lou says of the garden club. “Sometimes the entire plant is brought in, dipped in Safer [Insecticidal Soap] solution, planted, and continues to grow. We then continue to take cuttings from that parent and plant them, and in the spring return the large original plant to the garden.”

Wesley Brown of the garden club warns, “There can be problems in bringing plants in from the out of doors.” Anything you bring in can bring with it insects. Watch out for aphids and whiteflies, and before you actually bring in a plant or cutting, check the leaves for signs of insect damage – holes in the leaves, chewing along the leaf edges, or tiny black dots on the underside of the leaf, indicating insect droppings. Always dip the plant or cutting in a mild solution of Safer soap.

By the end of May, the garden club’s greenhouse is bursting with greenery. Some plants are fully grown and flowering, ready to plant in the garden (though that date may be a bit early for the Island’s cool spring). Other plants are still growing sturdy and strong in four-inch pots. They are ready for the club’s big annual Memorial Day weekend sale at the Old Mill in West Tisbury.

No matter what kind of plant you’re bringing indoors for the winter, you may face unexpected challenges. Caroline Gakenheimer, former president of the garden club, discovered that when she put new windows into her house in West Tisbury, they filtered out too much sunlight for her plants to grow all winter. Now she does her winter gardening at her Boston home.

Heather and John Hoff, owners of Oakleaf Landscape in West Tisbury, realized their cats were as interested in their plants as they were. Cohabitation was a problem solved by placing their trailing philodendron and peace lily on a high shelf, beyond the reach of the felines. Even the palm tree is above the floor. The Hoffs have learned that cats sleeping in pots of spider plants destroy the plants, so they limit the number and size they bring in from the greenhouses.
In the spring, the plants go out, and the cats sleep on the deck in the sun.

Some of us share our lives between the Island and the mainland. Before I leave in the fall, our tender tropical plants are consigned to the greenhouse at Oakleaf Landscape. Tibouchina (princess flower), brugmansia, mandevilla, thunbergia, and jasmine thrive in large pots on or near our sunny porch during the summer but could not withstand the Vineyard winter. Before we return in spring, those tropical plants will be back on the porch or in the garden, ready to welcome us. John Hoff provides this winter greenhouse service to other clients as well, for their exotic plants such as agapanthuses, figs, and rare lilies.

During the mild days of fall, Island nurseries are preparing plants for the holiday season. Cyclamen, poinsettia, Christmas cactus, old-fashioned abutilon, fancy-leaved begonia, and geraniums will be available, as well as blue-spiked agapanthus, passion-flower vine, and foliage plants such as elephant ears and colorful caladiums. Traditional herbs – pots of thyme, sage, cilantro, basil, and rosemary pruned into a Christmas-tree shape – are ready for a sunny kitchen window. Such plants can be brought outside when the warm weather arrives. 

I have found certain plants at nurseries on the Island that I cannot find in my local garden centers on the mainland, plants to brighten up the house during the dark days of winter. When we return to the Vineyard in the spring, we will bring back the same plants, which will continue their growth in the garden. Summer or winter, outside or inside, a gardener has to garden.