Gardeners getting anxious for winter to end can jump-start the growing season by germinating sprouts indoors, building cold frames to capture the sun's radiant energy, and cultivating tropical plants inside that can be moved to patios later.
This is a great time to make a survey of colorful winter bloomers and evergreens to inspire future plantings. Some ideas:
■ Shamrock plant, a species in the Oxalis genus. The St. Patrick's Day favorites aren't really shamrocks; Oxalis are commonly known as wood sorrels. These easy-care clover look-alikes are widely available in local floral outlets at this time of year. Their three- and four-lobed leaves come in various colors and patterns. Pots of the tiny bulbs survive for years, alternating as sunny windowsill denizens through the winter and patio pots in a shady spot in the summer garden. They produce spreading mounds of colorful foliage and delicate nodding flowers, occasionally going dormant and then resprouting.
Favorites are the regal triangularis, which has deep-purple triangular leaflets that close like butterfly wings in the shade, and the striking Iron Cross, which forms a cross of rusty carmine markings where four heart-shaped leaflets intersect. These, and some less common varieties, can be found at local garden shops and online sources, including Easy to Grow Bulbs (Easytogrowbulbs.com) and Brent and Becky's Bulbs (Brentandbeckysbulbs.com).
■ Chia. For a quarter of a century, we've encountered chia in the form of the Chia Pet, so brilliantly marketed on television that just its mention brings to mind that classic catchphrase: Ch-ch-ch-chia! Whimsical little terra cotta sculptures that range in shape from pets to cartoon characters and even presidents are used as bases for sprouting hairy green crops of chia seeds.
But chia, known to botanists as Salvia hispanica, also holds an interesting history and promise for the future. Native to Central America, chia was grown by the Aztecs as a basic food crop. Recently, it has gained the attention of nutritionists because it is high in omega-3 fatty acids and fiber, and of researchers looking for bio-fuel fodder.
Chia sprouts are fun and inexpensive edible greens that can be grown at home in about two weeks. When mixed with water, the seed coatings form a sticky gel, which allows them to cling to a porous surface. The outside of unglazed terra cotta pots or even towellike fabrics or sponges work well. They need to be kept moist and in a sunny spot. I like to use mine as miniature meadows for Easter scenes, adding foil-wrapped chocolate eggs and tiny bunny, chick and sheep tchotchkes. They're good for tabletop fairy gardens as well. Chia seed is available locally at Good Foods Market & Café, 455 Southland Drive.
Also go to Chia.com, the Web site for Joseph Enterprises Inc., whose founder, Joseph Pedott, began marketing the Chia Pet in 1977. You'll also find some fun chia lore at Chia Power, Chiativity.org.
Here are some of my favorite winter bloomers to consider for your landscapes next winter:
■ Evergreen ferns have fresh-looking fronds all winter, softening the landscape. Snow simply highlights their feathery foliage. Try the hardy autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) as a companion planting below a deciduous shade tree. You'll be rewarded with year-round color, as gold and copper spring growth turns deep green in summer shade.
■ Witch hazel shrubs (Hamamelis) are best known for their odd flowers, surprisingly spicy poufs of scraggly yellow, crimson or orange zestlike petals that appear in late winter. From a distance, the branches take on a warm glow; up close, you'll find that they have a sweet fragrance as well. The Ruby Glow that I planted last spring is in full bloom now. You can find a wide selection of hybrids at Fairweather Gardens (Fairweathergardens.com).
■ Lenten rose, or hellebore, comes into bloom in February, with nodding sepals about 3 inches across that resemble wild roses. Ranging in color from white to pink, purple and even yellow, the foliage is shiny and evergreen with serrated edges on the leathery leaf margins. These work as a tough, easy-care perennial ground cover or edging behind a low rock border or along steps in a shady spot. A superb collection can be seen at Plant Delights Nursery Inc. (Plantdelights.com).
Trap radiant solar heat by building a cold frame topped with recycled paned windows. Simply dig a pit about 2 feet deep, with height and width to match the dimensions of your windows, then line the sides with wood or rock, being sure to allow for drainage, and close it in to warm up. Slant the angle at the top toward the south to make the most of the sun's rays.
You can fill your frame with good soil for direct planting or place pots or transplants inside. Leafy lettuce and spinach or herbs such as basil are good choices for beginners. Be sure to prop the glass open on warm days to avoid overheating.
For more information, go to www.ca.uky.edu/agc/pubs/ho/ho67/ho67.pdf for the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service publication "Propagating Plants In and Around the Home."
Also, consider attending a free lecture, "Growing a Successful Garden," from 6 to 8 p.m. March 8 at The Arboretum, 500 Alumni Drive. Horticulture extension professor Rick Durham will cover basics to help beginners with issues like soil preparation and maintenance. Advance registration is required; call (859) 257-6955 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Master gardener Susan Smith-Durisek: email@example.com.