I Is for Indoors


Back garden with meyer lemons early December


This is the time of year, late November through December,  when I devote the least time to the garden. Oh, I’m outside at least a few minutes every day to check on the lettuces, the broccoli, the beets, the onions, the arugula, the chard, and the couple of herbs (marjoram and parsley) I recently planted. And since the oranges and meyer lemons are just about reaching their peak of ripeness, I check the trees for fallen fruit and bring in those that are in good shape.

And, sure, Jean and I rake up some of the leaves that have fallen from the big sycamore in front of the house, especially those that promise to blow into the neighbors’ yards or clog the storm sewer. But many of the leaves we leave. They are good mulch and winter protection for our plants, as are the leaves from the peach tree, the apricot tree, the cherry plum tree, and our neighbor’s peach tree over the fence. The leaves we rake up go either into the community compost toter that is collected each week or into our own compost bin.

All in all, this is the time of year when growth is slow for most of the plants (except the incredible arugula and the beautiful chard), when many days are rainy or misty, and when winter holiday planning is at its peak. After the end-of-year holiday mayhem, January in Northern California is the ideal time to prune back the roses, the Mexican sages (which are right now still in their purple splendor), and the ornamental grasses in our front garden, to get all ready for the first signs of Sacramento Valley spring in February. The rainy season will extend through April or even May, but there are always plenty of sunny days from November through January for whatever needs doing in the garden.


Navel orange, pergola, early December trees

So it’s awfully pleasant to be indoors while the chilly breezes blow the leaves around outside and the roses scrape against the windows. This is also the time of year when the leaves on some of our trees are at their most colorful, so looking out from the warm kitchen is always a sensory feast–especially when Jean is making a fragrant treat, like the cornbread with salsa verde and sausage pictured below.

As strange as this may sound to a snow-watching Easterner or Midwesterner, perhaps my happiest indoor moments at this time of year are when the gentle rains are falling, the sleepy plants are getting soaked, and I can watch the drops ping on the pools in the birdbath and the fountain, while listening to the water making its way from the roof to the downspouts and into the aquifer. Meanwhile, I know that the snowpack is building in the Sierra, ensuring, we hope, a plentiful supply for summer. I’ll never see a blanket of snow from my Valley window, but knowing that the mountains are getting their share is enough for me.


Early December color with coryopsis in foreground


As you can see from above, even when Chris is indoors, he’s looking at and thinking about what’s outside.   So I’m going to talk about some of my favorite indoor plants, since these are generally my domain.

My proudest acquisition a few years ago was a ficus tree.  I got it from an office I worked in that was closing and selling off a lot of office furnishings very cheaply.  Not only was this ficus much larger than any plant I had attempted to grow indoors, but it was in the most wonderful pot.  The pot had a hole into which you could pour a gallon or more of water and the plant would be gradually watered for several weeks.  We somehow moved this wonder to our new house, which had a little sunroom.  That tree grew beautifully there, giving the feel of an arboretum for the three years we lived in that house.

Then Chris got a job offer in California, and I knew I had to leave my beloved ficus behind, as well as the first house I had ever bought on my own and from new construction.  We decided to rent out the house, keeping it as the good investment it would have been without the impending Great Recession, and I explained to our renters how easy it was (but how imperative) to give lots of water to the tree.  They looked at me skeptically,  muttering something about not having green thumbs.  People who don’t care about plants will generally find a way to kill them, I fear, while claiming they simply lack that particular skill.

About a year later, I got a notice from the homeowners’ association that there was some offensive dead growth out behind the house I had rented out, and I would need to have it removed.  A little inquiry turned up the fact that it was my once-vibrant ficus tree in its self-watering pot.  This turned out to be an early warning sign of many things that went wrong in the rental of that home, and eventually I had to sell it.  Removing the dead plant was rolled into a lot of things I needed to do to make that happen, so what started as a beautiful memory became a somewhat bitter one.

As we settled into our first house in California, also a rental, I tried to comfort myself by purchasing a dieffenbachia.  I guess I didn’t think about the fact that these are poisonous to cats, but fortunately our cat never tried to eat it.  Anyway, it seemed to love the light in that house, and it began to grow prolifically.  A year later, we bought a “forever home” for ourselves and our cat and I transplanted the plant to a larger pot.  I began to have some problems with leaves burning from too much sun, I think, but the plant still grew so large that we had to stake it up very strongly and eventually it still broke.  Due to the amazing regenerative capacity of dieffenbachia, however, it has grown back, both from the original stem and one that came up on the side.  Despite all the negative press dieffenbachia gets, I still love this plant.


Dieffenbachia in our living room



Now, my third and final indoor plant love is my Christmas (or whatever winter holiday you want to add in here–it can bloom from Thanksgiving through Easter) cactus.  Again, it has kept getting larger and I have kept repotting it.  Nothing could add more genuine holiday color and cheer to my dining room.  Here it is a few years ago, next to our beautiful cat–another bitter memory, but more about that in a later post.


And here is the Christmas cactus today, too large for our holiday table, but bringing us more holiday cheer than ever.


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