IT DOESN'T TAKE a lot of effort, time or resources to ward off the bleak-winter blahs -- by creating a little springtime garden indoors. You don't need much: some planting containers, vermiculite, sharp sand, pea gravel soil and a sunny window (or a fluorescent light).
Then you're ready to grow some plants -- flowers or vegetables, from seed or bulbs -- for that younger-than- springtime look in the dead of winter. I enjoy starting seeds and watching the plants grow; it's more difficult than beginning with seedlings or bulbs, and the failure rate is much higher. But it's also challenging and it involves you in the total life cycle.
The best way to get flowers is by forcing bulbs -- altering the plant's normal cycle to induce flowering when you want it. All you do is place the bulbs, growing crowns exposed, in pea gravel in a fairly shallow container. Water and, after a week or so, add a little weak fertilizer every 10 days.
Paper-white narcissus and hyacinths are the most popular, though you can force many kinds of bulbs. I've done tuberoses, calla lilies and agapanthus with some success. I also like to experiment: Not long ago I noticed a garlic clove beginning to sprout in the refrigerator. Since each segment of the clove has the potential to become a plant, I broke it apart and planted the individual segments 3 inches apart in pots and am now watching the 14-inch-high plants flourish. I don't know what they'll do, but I ought to at least get a little fresh garlic out of the experiment and, with a lot of luck, a flower or two.
The showiest plant for your winter garden is the amaryllis. It's simple to grow, requiring the absolute minimum of attention and care, and puts forth dazzling trumpet-shaped flowers (in sets of four) about the time you feel really oppressed by winter.
Being an avid gardener, I also use my winter garden to propagate cuttings and to start seeds for planting outdoors in spring. It's a terrific feeling when the plantlets spring to life before your eyes, and the scent of the freshly watered seedbeds and foliage is like a real breath of spring.
I'm no expert, and I try everything. Right now, the seedling beds are occupied by a bunch of leftover seeds from last year: some loosehead and ruby lettuces, pixie tomatoes -- a variety that can be grown indoors in containers -- marigolds and some mystery seeds I neglected to label. What they are doesn't matter so much anyway; it's the thrill of seeing this green evolution against the leaden winter.
Seeds are best started in vermiculite or a combination of vermiculite and sharp (coarse) sand. I've had a lot of success sealing seedpots in plastic sandwich bags and placing them in a container on a warm radiator to germinate. The bags are mini- greenhouses that keep the emerging seedlings warm and moist. When the seedlings shed their seed casings and stand erect, I remove the bags and put the new arrivals in the window garden.
You can easily make an artificial light set-up if your window lighting is insufficient (my situation). You can use fluorescent fixtures attached to the underside of a board suspended from the ceiling with two pulleys. That enables you to raise the light as the plants grow, and makes watering easier. The more light you provide, the more you can grow. The lights should be on at least ten hours a day and about eight inches from the tops of your plants. I've taken it a step further, installing a six-foot track light with grow-light spotlights. More expensive, but it looks great.
If you want or need expert advice, most garden shops have a slew of publications on growing seeds and bulbs; you can also get such material free from your state and federal departments of agriculture.
Most recently I've begun something new -- aquarium gardening. I already had a 25gallon tank set up with a filter; I like to catch a few of the small baby fish that are spawned in my backyard ponds and bring them indoors for the winter to watch their growth and color development. I bring in some aquatic plants from the ponds to provide food and oxygen. And recently I bought a few plants at a pet store. They're hardy, requiring no special heating system, and, like the fish, provide a constant source of peace and enjoyment. You'll find them colorful, beautiful and quite reasonably priced. If you have no fish, you can purchase feeder goldfish which are sold so many for a dollar.
I think you can and should try whatever you like -- who says it won't work? The more adventurous you are, the bigger the kick when something pans out. Besides, if you have an outdoor garden, you can get a real jump on the outdoor season. Even if you don't have a real garden, many of the plants can continue their growtn outside in containers or pots, and may even establish themselves as permanent residents. I've ad that happen, too. Several years ago I forced some tuberoses, and, after they had bloomed, I set them out in my garden. They're supposedly not hardy enough to survive and flourish that way, but after a year's hiatus they returned, bloomed and are just fine. This is just by way of saying you needn't fear the Maverick Syndrome -- go ahead and give it a try, 'cause if you don't you'll never know.
And all the while you'll be creating a gentle oasis in the middle of a tumultuous world.