Let It Live

Pelargonium x hortorum "Mrs. Pollock" can't be found in garden centers ever spring, and is worth saving over the winter.

Pelargonium x hortorum “Mrs. Pollock” can’t be found in garden centers every spring, and is worth saving over the winter.

 

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.

This variegated geranium is also worth saving.  It has bloomed all summer under tough conditions.

This variegated geranium is also worth saving. It has bloomed all summer under tough conditions.

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.

This rose scented geranium has grown into a massive shrub over the summer.  These sometimes overwinter in the ground for us here in Williamsburg.  These root easily in soil, and cuttings may be the best way to overwinter a plant this large.

This rose scented geranium has grown into a massive shrub over the summer. These sometimes overwinter in the ground for us here in Williamsburg. These root easily in soil, and so cuttings may be the best way to overwinter a plant this large.

 

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.

 

This massive basket spent last winter in the garage. We brought it back inside on Friday evening before the weekend storm.

This massive basket spent last winter in the garage. We brought it back inside on Friday evening before the weekend storm.

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.

August 7, 2014 garden 023

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.

Purchased in late April in tiny pots, these geraniums can be dug out of the large pot which has been there home this summer, and brought insid for winter storage.

Purchased in late April in tiny pots, these geraniums can be dug out of the large pot which has been their home this summer, then  brought inside for winter storage.

 

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.

 

July 7, 2014 opening flowers 011

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.

An ivy leafed and a scented geranium share this pot with a eucalyptus

An ivy leafed and a scented geranium share this pot with an Eucalyptus

 

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.

June 19 garden 008

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.

June 19 garden 010

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? 

June 19 garden 012

 

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

 

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

7 responses to “Let It Live

  1. Great post, E! Geraniums are the only reliable bloomer for my cool sunspace, which can get in the 40s on certain nights in Jan. They cheer me up when the cold wind blows and the snow piles deep. I loved your combo of caladium, geranium and coleus – gorgeous!

    • Thank you, Eliza 😉 So happy to know we share a love for the sweet little geraniums, too. My dad nurtures them all through the winter in his sun room, too, and they are a balm for the heart in deepest winter! That particular geranium in the photo you mentioned remains covered in buds. I have to make the effort to keep it. It has been a joy all summer long. (the squirrels got the coleus… the Caladium is already lifted, and the Begonia still struggles along. Soon, pansies will bloom where the geranium held court all summer 😉

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