Geraniums, likes so many plants we purchase as annuals each spring, are actually tender perennials. This means they will live indefinitely.
A true annual lives only to produce its seeds.
Once it has fulfilled its purpose in life, the plant, like a fragile moth, will only decline and die. Think of cornstalks after the harvest and you will understand.
Have you ever seen a corn stalk put out a second round of flowers and ears of corn? Of course not.
But many of our favorite ornamental plants, like geraniums, may live on for many years, if simply kept from freezing over the winter.
Like a Bougainvillaea in Southern California, it will grow and bloom so long as it has light, warmth, and moisture.
A scented geranium; zonal or bedding geranium, Pelargonium x hortorum; or an ivy leaf geranium, Pelargonium peltatum, will grow large and strong over time, giving many flowers.
We often don’t see an individual geranium plant reach its potential, because we discard our maturing plants each autumn with the first frost, and begin a new with little seedlings or cuttings each spring.
It is surprising to compare what our one year old and our two or more year old geranium plants look like this November.
The plants I found space for in the garage last autumn looked positively bedraggled by spring. Yet, when watered, fed, and set back outside; they all bounced back to beauty within a month.
Those overwintered plants have been covered in flowers non-stop this summer.
The plants I purchased in little 4″ pots this past spring grew and bloomed. None of them died. But none of them ever grew to “spectacular,” either.
They kind of limped along. Now I understand that like many other perennials, geraniums will grow more vigorously and bloom more generously as they age.
This is a hard time of year for gardeners.
We’ve been busy and attentive to our gardens all summer. And now as the days grow shorter and cooler, some of us are looking forward to a brief break and a rest from the endless round of watering, trimming, feeding, weeding, mowing, and general involvement of the last several months.
Many of us feel a bit overwhelmed at the sheer volume of potted plants we might want to overwinter, and wonder how to possibly take care of them all inside for the next several months. While we hate to see them die, it is hard to figure out what to do with them all.
But there easy, no-cost ways to keep tender geraniums through the winter.
There are basically three ways to overwinter a mature geranium plant. (A fourth strategy would be to take and overwinter cuttings, discarding the parents.)
Which method you’ll choose must be based in how much space you have, how much winter sun light you have inside your home, and how much “fussing” you’re willing to do to over winter your plants.
The first, easiest way, is to clean up your currently outdoor potted geranium plant, trim it back a bit where needed, and set it inside your warm, sunny, living space.
Keep it watered all winter and let it survive inside. You may or may not get blossoms, depending on how much light you can provide. I’ve seen geraniums blooming in January when kept in a sun room.
The second way is to bring the whole potted plant inside to a partially lighted garage or bright basement.
So long as there is some light, and temperatures stay above freezing, the plant can survive with minimal moisture.
Geraniums can go into a “dormant” state, with little or no new growth, and remain alive for many weeks. Although the leaves may drop off, life remains in the roots and stems.
Break the dormancy in early spring with water, more warmth, and brighter light. It is wise to cut the plant back by 1/2 to 2/3 when bringing it inside for this sort of storage.
The third method is one I’ve never tried.
It again relies on the plants’ ability to go dormant for a while without actually dieing. This is the method if you don’t have space for pots inside.
Dig your geraniums before the first frost, and shake the roots free of soil. Trim back long roots and long stems. Keep the bare root geranium in a garage or basement over the winter.
Most instructions for this sort of storage suggest hanging the plant, upside down with twine, in your basement. Of course the leaves will shrivel and drop away. Some of the stems may even die.
Take the plants down about once each month and soak them in water for an hour or so, to keep the plant from drying out completely.
Rehang the plants after each soaking, until early spring. Re-pot each plant in fresh potting mix and place it in light and warmth to break dormancy.
The plant should respond and begin growing again within a few weeks.
Why go to such trouble to overwinter geraniums? I can think of at least three good reasons to make the effort:
1. Geraniums are better plants in their second, and subsequent years. You’ll have a bigger, brighter, more floriferous plant next year if you keep it this winter.
2. Your special cultivar may not be on the market next year. Plants come and go in fashion. I get frustrated each spring looking and looking for plants which simply are not offered locally. Finding it in 2014 in no way guarantees the shops will have it in 2015.
3. These plants add up in expense. A single geranium plant may cost $5.00 in a 4″ pot. However, how many do you plan to purchase? This adds up very quickly.
Overwintered plants may be easily harvested in early spring for cuttings. A little effort adds up to considerable savings over replacing all of your geraniums each spring.
Now that we’re down to the brass tacks of November, and imminent frost anytime now in Williamsburg; I’ll be tending to my geraniums.
These were last on the list of plants to bring in because they truly don’t mind cool weather. It is frost and freezing temperatures which kill them… not the low 40s and upper 30s we’ve had thus far.
And the more I think of it, the more I want to try to save. Is it compassion, thrift or greed?
Hard to pin it down. But, I’ll bring in as many as we can find a spot to keep over the winter.
Woodland Gnome 2014