The second week of October is about the time when the first hard frost can put a sudden end to summer plants.
Make this the week you remove pitiful petunias and pull up other annuals with fading flowers. Now is the time to dig and store tender bulbs such as canna and dahlias, move any houseplants back indoors and try your hand with lady luck when it comes to being a gambling gardener.
Saving tender plants over the winter can be risky business and the stakes are death defying – in the literal sense. The payoff is not having to purchase new plants in the spring. Lucky winners can recycle favorites year after year.
Here are a few tips for “Saving Summer” by wintering over tender plants even if you don’t own a greenhouse.
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1. Save dahlia and canna tubers
You can dig and store tender bulbs each autumn or leave them in the ground, but cover the soil to keep out the rain. It is the wet winter weather that rots these tender bulbs more often than the cold that freezes them to death.
A covering of oil cloth, plastic or even a pile of water-repelling sword fern fronds placed on top of the soil will give tender dahlias, cannas and even bananas a chance to survive winter. First cut back the stems to just above soil level. Spread the water barrier on top and add a wood mulch or stones to keep it in place. Remove the covering in late spring and see what pops up.
2. Move tender potted plants up close to the house, under the eaves.
You can easily overwinter many succulents and tender plants that have gray or silver foliage such as licorice plants, lavender and dusty miller by keeping them away from heavy rains and in potting soil that drains quickly.
This is the reason why your neighbor with a container garden on a covered porch or patio claims her dusty miller has lived for years in the same pot while the same plant in your garden must be replaced every spring.
Winter Warning: Very tender succulents such as echeverias must be moved indoors to survive the winter. Keeping them dry under the eaves of the house is not enough protection from the freezing nights ahead.
3. Store fuchsia baskets and geraniums in a garage or shed.
Miracles do happen and after a mild winter your hanging fuchsia basket or potted geranium might just make a Lazarus move and surprise you with their resurrection in the spring.
You can dramatically increase the odds that these plants will be with you next summer by cutting them back by one half now and moving the plants to a cold but not freezing garage or shed.
Let the soil dry out to encourage winter dormancy and add a little water only on the major holidays – a little drink to toast Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and St. Pat’s. Once Easter arrives you can repot these survivors and bring them indoors to a bright window.
In May these bonus plants can be moved back outdoors and you’ll have a second summer of blooming beauty.
Full disclosure here: Overwintering geraniums, tender hibiscus, hanging fuchsias and other patio plants can be a bit messy. You must also be willing to put up with these plants inside your home in the month of April when they are just waking up and still in the ugly stage.
When you overwinter plants in a garage, basement or shed they are also likely to suffer leaf blights and mite infestations. Finally, overwintered plants won’t flower and start looking great until mid-summer or even August. If you don’t have a greenhouse and don’t enjoy a challenge, just uproot these tender plants now, add them to the compost pile and enjoy buying professionally grown and perfectly beautiful new plants in the spring.