The Violet Fern

A Colorful Tale of a Garden in the Making

The Great Plant Experiment


You know you have graduated as a gardener when you begin conducting “experiments,” and I am conducting a doozy. I tried to “google research” a how to on this but didn’t find exactly what I was looking for (of course, this could mean that it is not possible), but I went ahead anyway based on my gardener’s intuition and common sense. I may pay for it dearly. I may never see my beloved houseplants again but then again … it … just … might … work!

This morning, in Clayton NY it is 39° F, not too bad. (Of course, here in Cedar Key FL it is 70° F, I admit I prefer the latter.) So, the dilemma is what to do with 34 house plants and then some in an unheated house in zone 4 for the months of December, January, and February? I couldn’t burden anyone with this large number of plants. I suppose I could have divvied them up among five or so different friends but this migration is going to become habit and I need a system that I can rely on without help. I myself, have watered plants for vacationing friends and even as a Master Gardener, it is somewhat stressful being responsible for someone else’s living things. So, this is the basis of the great plant experiment.  What will my plants need to survive? Non-freezing temperatures, light, and water. It took me three afternoons to set up my “lab.”


Our cellar is an old one. It is the foundation for a house built in 1876. It is made of limestone and is set slightly below the frost line of 4 ft in North Country. Our cellar technically shouldn’t freeze even with the heat and all systems turned off. It remains a pretty constant temperature year round. I imagine it functioned as a root cellar at one time and we do store wine and root vegetables in it. I haven’t actually recorded the temperature over time to see what it averages (poor scientific practice), but I’m guessing it is right around 60° F in the summer and 50-55° F during the winters. I think, although it may cool to 40 some degrees during extremely outside cold temperatures, it will not freeze. I reason that the plants, grouped together, will also hold more warmth.

There are two windows my plants are set between. One is S facing and the other is W facing. If the sun shines, which may not be often, there should be light. I could have set up some lights with timers but the idea is to put my plants into dormancy and I am banking on this. Cooler temperatures and less light should coax most of my plants to enter a dormant or near dormant state.

I set up a watering system for most of my plants. I am most confident in providing water vs. temperature and light. Some, I am not even watering: begonias, sage, cotton lavender, and a wire vine. These are already dormant. The begonias are cut back to the ground. The Sage, cotton lavender, and wire vine were left to freeze outdoors (and freeze they did). Water runs freely through our cellar floor. In the event of a thaw or rain, water will run beneath these pots as they are set directly on the cellar floor.


For the house plants, I invested in some ceramic plugs (twice because the ones that shipped from China arrived in NY yesterday). Although, the package says worry-free, I still worry. I soaked most of them before inserting into the pots and I tested a couple of the plugs ahead of time with great success.




Success! This sippy cup was full.

I cut strips out of old t-shirts for “wicks” for plants I didn’t have plugs for. Most of the wicks were soggy when we left – so they work!


Some plants are resting on garden stakes that act as rails over plastic tubs filled with water. The plugs and wicks trail into the tubs. Those that are taller than the tubs simply sit beside tub with a plug or wick trailing into it. Some rest upon bricks to bring their height up above the tubs.



Some of my plants received a haircut or thinning. This philodendron received a good haircut.


Meet Medusa. She is an Aloe. She was one of the plants that I thinned if only to be able to move her. I am sad to say, that a great deal of her ended up in the compost pile. I didn’t need any more plants but next year, with more forethought and better planning I can give some of her away (I hope there is a next year).


This experiment will be 100% successful if all my plants live. If all my plants live, I will be finding new homes for a great many of them. I think the Norfolk Pine has the best chance along with some of the cacti. The orchids and violets are the least likely. Two orchids came along with me to give to a friend. Two or three orchids may come with me next year (if they survive) to enjoy the winter. Somehow I think “enjoy winter” is an oxymoron (unless you migrate, then it is perfectly understandable).

I will follow up with you. I hope it is nothing but good news. I would appreciate any plant love you can send. Because a forth requirement for survival is necessary and that is plant love. I held a long pep talk (more than once) with my plants before leaving, but leave I did. I have taken two walks already today. There are butterflies, bees, birds – a Bald Eagle flew overhead this morning – and here is just one of many beautiful views …


I won’t say I don’t care – because I do my plant babies! – but I will say, I am joyful to be here in my winter home. It is so refreshing to feel the joy of life this time of year and not to cling to life in the cold. Wonderful, joyous lives do go on past summertime in North Country. My poor plants.


Author: Kathy Sturr

Cultivating art, growing soul, and creating plant-based food in the beautiful 1000 Islands, New York and Cedar Key, Old Florida.

17 thoughts on “The Great Plant Experiment

  1. Pretty ingenious, let’s hope it works! I think lucky you, being a snowbird! Skipping winter is a lifelong fantasy of mine.

  2. Plant love coming your way! Happy snowbird-ing 🙂

  3. Your plants look beautiful, Kathy. Here’s hoping they’ll still be beautiful and healthy when you return. I am a big gardener, but I don’t do houseplants – I have a cat who is always trying to eat them!

    • Thank you Beth. I hope, I hope. Maybe I shouldn’t do houseplants either, anymore! Mojo tried to eat a few plants when he was a puppy, but I had a long talk with him.

  4. Your ideas are brilliant-some out of the box thinking there-go girl! You have a good time+ your plants will be there for it looks like a “plan” that may work..:-) Happy Warm Escape!

  5. Well I can’t blame you as your winter is that much worse than mine and we are but a couple hours apart….I won’t say I am not jealous, as I would like to live February in the warmer climates. Good luck with your ingenious experiment. I cringed leaving my herbs for the 10 days we were in AZ. Sending lots of plant love and good wishes your way!

    • Thank you Donna. I told myself once I arrived here I wouldn’t worry about them but find myself checking the weather in Clayton and worrying anyway! I hope ALL of them survive |:

  6. you a snowbird, and our neighbours swallows from England ;~)
    The Norfolk pine our tenants kindly abandoned here, has been homed by another neighbour – so we are all happy.
    Wishing your plants a good hibernation, till you return.

    • Thank you Diana! I hope to find a little place down here in Cedar Key and plant that Norfolk Pine in the garden someday! Please make it, please, please. I will feel terrible if even one plant dies but I am an official snowbird now – there’s just no turning back. Thanks for your good wishes.

  7. Pingback: SURVIVOR (A Follow-up to the Great Plant Experiment) | The Violet Fern

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