In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
September, 2005
Regional Report

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This randomly striped and mottled geranium (Pelargonium) is one of my favorites.

Saving Summer

Back to school time is always bittersweet for me. Not because my daughter heads back to school, but rather because I know the remaining days are numbered for some of my favorite plants of summer. Each spring when I plant my geraniums and dahlias, cannas and caladiums, fancy coleus and rosebud impatiens, I look forward so eagerly to seeing them grow and prosper in the garden and in containers.

As the summer progresses and temperatures rise, they just perform better and better. Of course show time ends with the first frost, so right about now when they are peaking and blooming like crazy in the waning days of summer, I am so sad to realize it is almost time for them to go!

We all know the inevitable will arrive sooner or later. Some of us passively dread the day, but the proactive gardeners among us refuse to accept the inevitable without a fight. Instead, the more intrepid plan ahead and take steps.

Plants Worth Saving
First, recognize that after frost kills back the tops, many of the summer bulbs and rhizomes can be dug, cleaned, dried off, and stored for the winter. (Typically you need a cool dry area, temperature about 50 degrees.) With a little luck, they will still be in good condition come spring and you can replant them. With a little more luck, they will have multiplied all summer so you will have a bumper crop to save!

Then we have the extremely frost-sensitive plants, such as coleus and impatiens. These collapse on the first frosty night and are a complete loss. To prevent that or to preserve a favorite, some gardeners dig them up ahead of time, pot them, and try to overwinter them as houseplants. This can work quite well as long as the plant is not too shocked by the transfer. Be sure to dig it well
in advance of frost to give it time to recover and become acclimated to life as a container plant before you bring it inside. This procedure leaves big ugly bare patches in the garden ... and also means you'll need plenty of growing space indoors this winter. In my experience, without a greenhouse or extremely bright plant room (preferably with at least south and west-facing windows) these plants tend to resent the move and sulk all winter.

So why not try rooting a few tip cuttings instead? This leaves the parent plant in the garden to bloom until the latest possible day, preserves your favorite for next summer's garden, and allows you to feel a certain sense of control over the weather -- or at least spend a few more sunny hours outdoors puttering happily away.

Coleus and impatiens lend themselves to this procedure, and certainly you can take tip cuttings of geraniums, fibrous-rooted begonias, lantana, and many other popular tender annuals. (Tender annuals would be perennials if grown in a warmer climate such as Florida.) The cuttings are rooted in bright but indirect light so are better adapted to the lighting indoors. As small plants, they also take
up less space indoors. They will, of course, do best this winter if given very bright light, a steady but cool room temperature, good air circulation, and reasonably humid air. Take care, too, to pinch them back regularly to keep them growing dense and bushy and thus counter the tendency to stretch for light during the coming months of short winter days.

Under really favorable conditions your cuttings may bloom indoors for you this winter. Otherwise, look for a jump on blooms next summer. If nothing else, taking and sticking a few cuttings will help you keep busy during the first quiet, lonely days of back to school season, too.


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