Having a green thumb during the winter months

Spending time outside in the garden isn’t a viable activity during the winter months, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t grow plants indoors, and get a jump start on mapping out outdoor planting for the spring.

“You can get started growing tomatoes and peppers inside, as well as cabbage and lettuce,” said Chris Fifo, senior grower at Swift Greenhouses, Inc. in Gilman. “You can also grow herbs — growing basil from seed is easy.”

Most seed packets come with instructions that offer suggestions on amount of sunlight, rate of watering, and how long it takes to harvest a particular plant. Herbs started indoors can then be transferred to full-sized pots and put outside in the spring. Annuals flowers, such as marigolds, impatiens, petunias, and zinnias, can be started indoors, too, then transplanted outdoors once the weather warms up to the appropriate temperature.

Because the inside of your home isn’t the same as an outdoor environment with natural sunlight, results may vary.

“You can start these plants indoors, but you can’t expect to produce a full crop,” said Richard Jauron, ISU Extension horticulturist. “A sunny window is usually not sufficient lighting.”

Artificial lighting, such as fluorescent lights and UV bulbs can help stimulate growth.

“The light needs to be within 4-6 inches of the seedlings — not 2-4 feet away,” Jauron added.

David Calkins, assistant manager at Earl May in Marshalltown, said a variety of decorative plants are not only trendy additions to the home, but some have positive health benefits.

“Aloe vera is a super plant. It cleans more air in your house per square foot than any other. Spider plants and snake grass are also good for cleaning the air,” he said.

People looking to add a pop of green around doorways, window frames and cupboards, can grow ivy in their homes. Plants such as asparagus fern, can be put in hanging pots for some additional greenery.

“It’s all about the look you want,” Calkins said. “Some plants have bushy bottoms which are good for hiding cords in your house. Some plants are tall and thin, which helps animals stay out of them. Snake plants with their foliage can be a good filler of space.”

Calkins said the top three mistakes people make in caring for their houseplants are as follows: over watering, putting them in high traffic areas, and not removing dust.

For people interested in growing plants that need little attention, Tillandsia, or air plants, are an option. Tillandsia is a genus of roughly 640 species of evergreen, perennial flowering plants. They grow without soil and come in a variety of sizes and colors.

“We see people buy air plants for use in terrariums or globes,” Calkins said. “The trend is creating ‘fairy gardens’ which you can do indoors or outdoors. It’s like building mini landscapes. You can do this with cactus too. I’ve seen people use fake or real shells and hang the air plants upside down in them, in the terrariums, so they look like an octopus. Because they like humidity, you can keep them in the bathroom or near sinks.”

When deciding on what plants or herbs to grow, researching soil and fertilizer varieties is important.

“You need to know what kind of soil and fertilizer to use, because African Violets and cactus take different types, for example, and you wouldn’t put them in the same pot. Understanding NPK fertilizer numbers is important too, to know how much nitrogen, phosphorus and potash is needed for a plant,” Calkins said. “You really can grow plants any time of the year.”

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Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at 641-753-6611 or sjordan@timesrepublican.com