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Keeping Summer In The Cellar



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Keeping Summer In The Cellar


By Nancy K. Crevier

Main Street residents may have noticed a warm glow of light emitting from the basement windows of 50 Main Street late into the night all winter long and wondered if George and Shane Miller had forgotten to turn off the lights. But the lights are shining down on a little piece of paradise Mr Miller has created in the basement of his historic home. A member of the Horticulture Club of Newtown and an avid gardener, this past October Mr Miller decided to try something he had never done before: bring the outdoors inside.

“Every year I would start over with new plants or bulbs,” said Mr Miller. But he hated to lose the giant exotics and glorious dahlias and flowering bushes each fall that had brought him so much pleasure during the growing season, so he cleared space in his basement, set up eight grow lights, and moved in a huge assortment of flowering plants and trees when the weather turned cold.

 “I have tried to mimic what is out in the garden in the summer,” said Mr Miller, pointing out the vast array of plants clustered together. “This was all vacant space and now it is thriving. I hope to be able next year to move in even more plants,” he said. “I’m just learning all this stuff about growing indoors,” he said, “but I’m very happy and the people who see it are overwhelmed.”

Hibiscus, zebra plants, ferns, palms, begonias, hydrangea, dahlias, and bamboo spread out beneath an enormous banana tree that sprouts a new four-foot-long leaf every ten days. The banana tree is so tall that Mr Miller has to gently persuade the leaves to arch downward from the ceiling. An angel’s trumpet bends gracefully toward the bird of paradise, while an ivy trails on the floor. Everywhere a visitor turns, potted plants reach up to the artificial light. An entire length of a table at the side of the room is filled with cactus plants of all shapes and sizes.

In a separate arrangement, beneath their own set of grow lights, are 17 elephant ear plants, each one four to five feet tall. Even more of the oversized plants stretch to the ceiling in an adjacent room. “Normally, I would plant these from bulbs in the spring outside. But I just love to see them growing here in the winter,” said Mr Miller. The foot-wide leaves of the elephant ear plants are of an impressive size now, but when they return to the outdoors in May, said Mr Miller, the leaves will become behemoths. “They are something else, each leaf around three or four feet in size,” he said.

In re-creating an outdoor atmosphere, Mr Miller has also included imitation birds perched on branches and housed in a cage. Butterflies are frozen mid-flutter above the silk flowers, and the burble of water on the rocks of a miniature waterfall provides a comforting atmosphere. Sounds of nature — the rustling of wind in trees, the chirping of birds, the rush of water — and soothing classical music from a CD player serenade the plants and household members for several hours a day. Tiny white Christmas lights twinkle above the plants like stars.

Mr Miller, who calls himself a “neophyte” with indoor gardening, has found his experiment to be largely successful. Only a very few plants did not survive the move indoors, and he has utilized the input of other gardening friends and the wisdom of Tom Johnson of Lexington Gardens to answer horticultural questions during the winter. The grow lights are on an automatic circuit that turns them on and off every 12 hours, and strategically placed strips of sticky packing tape capture aphids and white flies before they become a problem. He spends only about two hours each day caring for the plants, the bulk of that time spent watering them and pruning the overly exuberant varieties. “I never think of it as a chore. It’s a labor of love. I do it because I like to see things grow,” Mr Miller said.

Under another bank of grow lights in a separate area of the basement Mr Miller is growing seedlings. Pumpkin sprouts mingle with three kinds of sunflower sprouts, while beets, tomato, bean, and melon sprouts push through the soil. It is a time-consuming task, he said, moving the seedlings into bigger containers as they grow, but a task that he cherishes. He is hoping to get the morning glories to grow and bloom even before it is time to move them outside, and is excited about putting in the first vegetable garden he has had in nearly half a century. “I’d like to have a big vegetable garden, a sort of community garden where friends and neighbors can come and pick,” said Mr Miller. “I’ll have plenty, all of it organic.”

He is enthusiastic about the basement jungle that he has created. “It has been a wonderful experience, this garden,” said Mr Miller, “and I could even see where shut-ins could do something like this, on a small scale. They would have fun watching everything grow.”

In the weeks that remain of winter, Mr Miller said he will be planning out what will go where on the acre of land behind his house that he devotes to gardens.

In the meantime, anyone who is longing to lose him or herself in a bit of greenery is welcome to visit his downstairs plantation, said Mr Miller. “I invite anyone in. Just knock at the door and if I’m home, I’ll be happy to show anyone around. People come in out the cold and they just don’t expect to see this,” he said, indicating the green forest he has created. “It’s a little Eden in the basement.”

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