get your fingernails dirty?
Experts share tips for growing flowers
the weather is dreary.
by Johnny Quirin
here, and so are gray skies, bare trees and
foot-high piles of snow. Gardeners might
look at the icy landscape of a West Michigan
winter and wonder if they’ll ever see
temperatures don’t mean it’s
time to put away the pruning shears. Container
gardening is an indoor alternative that lets
gardeners keep their skills sharp during
the year’s coldest months.
an easy way to create the look and feel of summer,
no matter what storms rage outside. Whether growing
houseplants that stay indoors year-round or seedlings
that go outside after the spring thaw, gardeners
have a number of options to keep their homes
green, even in the midst of winter gloom.
Starting with seeds
When temperatures drop, seed catalogs are an
escape, offering a look at the hues that will
fill nursery shelves when warmer weather arrives.
Seed gardening takes effort, but the results
are worth it, said Steve LaWarre, director
of horticulture at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture
“You can always buy plant material in the
spring, but it’s nice to start inside from
seed. You get a variety you wouldn’t be
able to get locally. And a lot of the favorite
like petunias, marigolds and cosmos, can be started
Inexperienced growers should start small and
use a garden journal to track progress. Seedlings
grow best in moist, humid conditions, so clear-topped
take-home food containers or pots covered with
a piece of Plexiglas work well. Fill the containers
with quality potting media, and make sure they
have drainage holes to let out excess moisture.
When watering seedlings, use a clean source of
water — not softened water — and
add enough liquid so that it drips out the bottom.
Not too much, though: “You don’t
want to have water sitting in the tray,” LaWarre
Adequate light also is important. LaWarre recommends
fluorescent lighting — using a mix of warm
and cool bulbs — hung from adjustable chains
that can be raised or lowered as plants grow.
Six inches above the plant is generally a good
height, LaWarre said.
Once the seeds germinate (when their roots poke
out from the seed jacket) gardeners can remove
the container lids. Typically, when the plants
have at least two sets of true leaves, they can
go in larger containers, and when they have at
least six sets of true leaves, they can go outside.
But this shouldn’t happen too suddenly:
Plants should be “hardened off” — slowly
adjusted to the outdoor environment. Move them
into a shady location during the day, then bring
them inside for the night. “Do this for
about a week or so,” LaWarre said.
When the cold weather passes, around mid-May
for most plants or the first of June for tomatoes,
they can stay outside for good. Still, LaWarre
suggests keeping an eye out for late frosts and
being prepared to cover plants if temperatures
drop. “Watch the weather and get out the
bed sheet if you have to.”
Gardeners who don’t mind waiting until
spring — or who don’t have the patience
to start from scratch — can visit a nursery
for plants to use in container gardens. Flowering
nursery plants typically grow best outside, so
gardeners should plant them once the threat of
frost passes, around May 15, said Melinda Koetsier,
co-owner of Koetsier’s Greenhouse in Cascade
Township. “You can have a little garden
on your patio.”
Before they start, gardeners should ask themselves
a few questions. “You’ll want to
decide on sun or shade, and how much time you’ll
spend taking care of the plants,” she said.
For beginning gardeners, Koetsier recommends
dipladenia, also known as mandevilla — a
flowering plant that tolerates heat without wilting — and
coleus, a plant with bright foliage that does
well in sun or shade.
“Petunias are probably the best for people
with hot sun and little time.”
Master gardener Bonnie Moore arranges plants of different colors, textures
When arranging plants, color is important, but
so are a few other things.
“Use texture, different leaf shapes and
Bonnie Moore, a master gardener who is president
and owner of Grand Rapids-based Princessa Designs
Inc., which owns Avantgarde Salon & Spa and
Synergy Salon. “Go with something tall — a
plant that will grab attention — and a
filler and droopy trailers.”
Koetsier describes it this way: “You need
a thriller, a filler and a spiller.”
The thriller is the focal point, while the filler
adds mass and the spiller trails from the pot.
The formula isn’t a rule, though. “If
you have a really pretty pot to showcase, you
might want to go with an upright plant,” she
Above all, have fun and enjoy the variety of
plants that thrive in containers, whether on
a deck in the spring sunshine, or within the
warmth of a snow-covered home. “You can
do pretty much anything that grows,” Koetsier
Bringing it home with houseplants
A houseplant is vegetation that thrives indoors.
Gardeners can take cuttings from one houseplant
and use them to start new plants in other pots
to create an instant indoor garden.
LaWarre offers tips on the process. A typical
cutting has two to four nodes, the places where
leaf and stem meet. To start a new plant, coat
the cut edge with a small amount of rooting hormone
(a powder that stimulates growth), and place
the cutting in potting media. Keep it at 100
percent humidity by wrapping a sandwich bag around
the plant and pot and securing it with a rubber
Using a waterproof heating pad or placing the
cutting somewhere balmy, like the top of a refrigerator,
will keep it warm. “Be sure the soil is
at room temperature or warmer,” LaWarre
said. Additional watering probably won’t
be needed, but open the bag every few days to
check dampness and let in fresh air. When new
growth appears, transfer the plant to a larger
container, and make sure it has appropriate water
Repeat the process with several cuttings and
you’ll have a home filled with lasting
color — and a garden of keepsakes from
fellow green thumbs. “We all have a piece
of a houseplant that was from our mom or grandma
or neighbor,” LaWarre said. GR
Tonya Schafer is a freelance writer in Grand