Heading For The Sills

THE REAL DIRT

November 28, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Windowsills were made for knickknacks, cats and candlesticks. Come winter, however, potted plants take over our windowsills, much to the chagrin of the two cats, who lose the box seats from which they watch the birds.

The plants barge in like VIPs at a baseball game, booting everyone else from the windows and hogging the sills until spring. This upsets our cats, particularly Patrick, a kitten who loves to bask there. Sorry, Patrick.

It's the cactus, not the cat, that needs sunlight. Though the rays stream into our house in winter, the cats have to settle for the light that hits the floor.

The plants, which fled the porch for the winter, land in windows befitting their needs. Proper lighting is the top priority for healthy houseplants; some require brighter settings than others.

The cactus, which thrives in full sun, gets a south window. A rabbit's-foot fern, which likes shade, faces north. The majority of our plants, which need moderate light, grow in windows facing east or west.

The pots aren't placed on the sills willy-nilly. The plants don't touch the frosty glass, nor are they too far from the panes to absorb the light. Sunshine dissipates quickly indoors. Three feet from the window, plants receive one-third less light than those in the front row. Sun-lovers relegated to the bleachers must crane their necks to catch the rays. Eventually they become spindly, stop blooming, turn yellow and even die.

When this happens in our house, the cats are happy, but I am not.

A few potted plants need at least five hours of direct sun each day: aloe, geranium and sedum head the list. These plants demand a southern exposure with an unobstructed view -- no trees or shrubs blocking the sun. Even the cornice of a building can cast shadows that could stunt a plant's growth.

On the other hand, plants enjoy facing bright white buildings, because the light is reflected back onto the flora in those windows.

Smart gardeners pray for snow, because the sun's rays reflect one-third more light in windows when there's white stuff on the ground.

Alas, many homes are long on plants and short on sunshine. Though starved for light, many houseplants still survive indoors. Caring gardeners routinely scrub the leaves, cleaning the foliage with a damp cloth to remove dust that acts as a sunscreen. Rationing water and fertilizer also keeps these plants healthy by squelching such problems as fungal diseases and weak, leggy stems.

Most houseplants manage on two to five hours of filtered sunlight daily. These include old standbys like begonia, gardenia and prayer plant; African violet, shamrock and wandering Jew. Many of them tend to multiply and overwhelm the average gardener, who cannot throw anything away.

If plants outnumber sill space, expand the growing area by placing a bookcase against the sill. Also, give the plants a quarter-turn at each watering, lest they grow lopsided.

A handful of plants thrive in low-light conditions, such as fern, philodendron and peace lily. If there's no northern exposure, west is best. Draw the curtains to block direct sunlight. Or leave screens in the windows all winter to shield these plants from the rays that can burn their foliage.

Other tips for window gardening:

* Unsure of the lighting in your home? Invest in a plant light meter, available at most garden supply stores. Some gardeners use photographic light meters to check brightness.

* It's OK to use a handsome houseplant as a centerpiece or table decoration, as long as you return it to the window afterward.

* If sunlight is in short supply, rearrange plants in windows weekly, giving them all a chance to tan.

* Remove blooming plants from bright light. Too much sun cuts the flowering time of plants like amaryllis.

* Flowering houseplants, and those with variegated leaves, need more light than those grown only for their plain green foliage.

* If all else fails, purchase fluorescent growth lights. The point is, sunlight is free. Electricity is not.

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