Shelter the living, but don’t make zombie plants

Warning: balcony gardeners, patio gardeners, porch gardeners and container gardeners of all kinds. You are now entering a critical time for your plants. From the middle of October on, you will be tempted by stretches of sunny days and comparatively mild nights.
“It’s still pretty nice out,” you’ll say. “I’ll leave the houseplants out just a little longer.”
It’s terribly hard to resist the siren song of warm autumn days, but just like those bad old sirens of legend, don’t give in. You – or your plants – will come to a bad end.
That’s my way of saying it’s time to clear the decks (and balconies, patios and porches) of those pretty flowers and foliage that you’ve enjoyed since last spring. The good news is that you don’t have to say goodbye to your summer loves forever – some you can save for next year. The bad news is, it’s not easy to winter over container plants. More bad news: sometimes it just isn’t worth it.
Making the cut
I’ve learned over the years that it’s best to follow nature’s lead when you’re trying to decide what to keep and what to (sadly) pitch. Find out a bit about your plant’s background and where its ancestors came from.
My charming gardenia, for example, is a native of Africa. It likes sun, heat and humidity, and will hate my generally dry, dark house. If I can’t talk a friend with a greenhouse into giving it a winter home, it’s a goner.
Same goes for annual flowers and herbs. Oh, they may struggle along indoors, but they’re really zombie plants, with just a semblance of life. Better to take cuttings of things like geraniums or plant new seeds for basil, marjoram and oregano. Exception: parsley laughs at the cold. I’ve harvested it under a light cover of snow. In fact, I just bought a little pot of it to include in a fall/winter container planting I’m making.
On the other hand, lots of tropical foliage plants get along very well indoors, even if they’ve summered outside. Houseplants like ficus, jade plant, clivia and purple wandering Jew won’t mind life indoors. Just don’t expect them to put on a lot of growth until the days get longer. Even plants need a rest.
Rosemary is a very popular herb that will put up with some cold. In fact, some people seem to be able to be able to grow it in their gardens from one year to the next. I don’t have that much faith in our capricious winters, so mine live in pots on the porch in summer and come indoors for the winter. They live under grow lights, with lots of breathing space, and are misted very rarely and watered only when dry. They’re a little straggly by spring, but they don’t get that nasty white mould.
Now (or yesterday) is the time to bring your tropical pals inside. Hardier rosemaries and similar things you can leave out until nighttime lows hit freezing.
Please, avoid toting any plant straight from the outdoors to indoor warmth. If you can, give them at least a few days’ transition in a protected place like an uninsulated porch.
Give me shelter
Perennials in containers have been popular for years now. They’re a good solution for flower-crazed people who have run out of room in their gardens. (Yes, I’m one of them.)
Potted perennial flowers, vines and grasses survive the winter pretty well. Do NOT bring them indoors – they need a cold spell to sleep off their summer efforts. And don’t just leave them out there exposed to the elements. I was careless last winter and lost a cherished clematis, ornamental grass and black lace sambuccus to the cold.
Best to move them to an uninsulated space protected from the wind before day temperatures drop to zero. A garden shed or garage is a good idea. One friend who has neither puts an outdoor table in a protected corner of her garden, then covers it with a tarp that reaches to the ground. Her ornamental grasses and other container plants rest there until spring, safe from wind and sun.
Of course, that’s a lot of shuffling and schlepping. But you save time and money by not having to plant new containers every year. And it’s kind of nice to welcome old friends back in spring.


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