Mike Klingaman's garden column, The Real Dirt, has been uprooted from the features pages of the Saturday Sun and transplanted to Sun Magazine. For the last seven years, Mike has introduced readers to the plants and animals that inhabit his Carroll County homestead, including Katydid, the asparagus-eating dog, and his fifth-grade sidekick, Beth, who believes boy seeds grow up to be vegetables and girl seeds grow up to be flowers. Among the collection of Mike's characters is the subject of today's reflection, the Man With 600 Hungry
Bob Farriss traveled extensively before he got hooked on horticulture. Now he is saddled with 600 houseplants and he seldom leaves town.
"The plants are running the show, but I can't complain," says Farriss, of Cleveland, Ohio. "I guess I'm sort of a plant freak."
Alan Craig rises at 4:30 a.m. to tend his houseplants before leaving for work. It's a peaceful period for Craig, a forklift mechanic from East Aurora, N.Y.
"I wake up, go downstairs to my 'plant room' and just shut out the world," he says. "It's a room where I'm in control."
Craig, 47, is president of the Indoor Gardening Society o America, an organization whose 1,200 members grow plants under artificial lights, on windowsills and in greenhouses. Farriss, 70, is a former club president with a passion for houseplants: He bought a home especially for his flora when it overran his apartment.
Both men agree that successful indoor gardening is more a measure of common sense than a green thumb. African violets, begonias and even orchids are easily grown by anyone with a minimal knowledge of plants and a $10 artificial light fixture. The basic rules: Avoid overwatering, fertilize regularly and check for pests. That includes the family cat who likes to curl up under the Gro-Lite after upsetting the plants.
For more information, contact the Indoor Gardening Society, 5305 S.W. Hamilton St., Portland, Ore. 97221. Annual dues are $15. Members, mostly amateurs with small basement nurseries,
receive a bimonthly newsletter and cultural guides on growing many types of houseplants.
They also share their personal gardening successes. One member raises everything from camellias to corn in her kitchen; another sterilizes his garden pots in the dishwasher. A Maryland man turned his clothes closet into a snug little greenhouse; a Wisconsin woman grows flowers under artificial lights beneath her basement staircase.
Farriss likes to sterilize his potting soil in the microwave oven. Does it help? Six hundred houseplants suggest as much. His home is bathed in greenery, from begonias to cactuses to orchids. Sunlight streams through every naked window. Drapes are not welcome here.
One can hardly move inside without bumping into one of 24 plant tables, each one illuminated by a pair of 4-foot fluorescent tubes. Three humidifiers hum continually, adding precious moisture to the air and boosting the electric bill to $250 each month.
It takes Farriss three days to water and inspect his entire plant menagerie. "I don't go out much anymore," he says. "I used to get friends to baby-sit my plants, but no one will do it now. No one wants the responsibility."
Farriss offers this sage advice to novice gardeners:
"Don't worry if you fail the first time," he says. "Look what happened to me."
With 75 houseplants, Craig's collection pales by comparison. But he is no less dedicated to his hobby.
"Growing plants indoors is almost like having a pet. You become devoted to them," says Craig.
He takes snapshots of his favorite flowers. A mechanic who uses torque wrenches and other heavy-duty tools at work, Craig displays a gentler touch around geraniums, 300 of which he has grown from seed.
He labors for hours in his cellar workshop, which is surroundeby chicken wire to keep out his two cats. Here, Craig tests new flower varieties and does plant experiments, some of them quite weird.
"I like to push a plant to the limit, to see how much abuse it can take," says Craig. "I'll wrap it in a black plastic bag, or put it in front of a window fan, or on the cold floor. Sometimes the plant dies. But I feel the need to know these things."
He reports his findings to club members.
"It's a very exciting world," says Craig. "Many people aren't aware of what can happen in a little plant room.".