I decided to try something different this year: Bring the outdoors in. For starters, I placed a pot of red, cayenne peppers on the kitchen windowsill. Then I dug up a few clumps of Iceland poppies and re-potted them in potting soil. They now have a front-row seat in a south-facing window.
But my all-time favorite winter plant is window box geraniums. If you were to walk up to our front door, you’d pass a line of red, pink and white geraniums. The lineup is intentional: They’re out of the rain so they dry out a little before I bring them inside for the winter.
If you’re looking for dependable, longtime blooms to keep your spirits up ‘til spring, geraniums are your gal.
Besides, with such a lovely rainbow of flower and leaf colors it is hard to watch beautiful geraniums die from a hard frost.
There are several ways to overwinter geraniums.
KEEP THEM GROWING IN CONTAINERS
Geraniums grow easily indoors. Before the first hard freeze, cut back stems to half of their original size and inspect them carefully for signs of insects or disease.
Before you do any cutting though, here’s the Golden Rule of Gardening: Give your plants notice. Let me explain: It’s an act of respect to notify a plant before initiating any major process such as repotting, transplanting, or pruning.
“Necessary garden tasks can be highly intrusive acts to plants,” says Judith Handelsman, author of Growing Myself.
Back to your geraniums — after notifying your plants and then cutting them back, transplant them into containers filled with potting mix.
Set them in a (preferably) cool spot with plenty of bright, direct sunlight. Water plants well to help the roots settle whenever the soil begins to dry.
I like to set the plants in the kitchen sink and sprinkle them with lukewarm water until the soil is well-saturated.
Hold back on the fertilizer, and water them less, as geraniums act like succulents in that they store water in their stems.
Through the winter, rotate the plants and pinch shoot tips once or twice to encourage branching and prevent leggy, weak growth. By the way, plants kept in containers over the winter are typically larger than most geraniums sold in the spring. This allows you to have a head start on growth and blooms for next year’s garden.
In March or April, feed plants an organic fertilizer. Remember to harden off your plants by acclimating them to the Great Outdoors before moving them outside.
TAKING CUTTINGS FROM OUTDOOR PLANTS
Geraniums root readily from cuttings. This is also a great way to multiply the number of plants for next year’s garden. To take a cutting, remove a 3- to 4-inch section of the plant’s stem tip with a sharp knife. (Remember to give the plants notice first).
Pinch or snip off the leaves from the lower half of the cuttings and stick the cuttings in a jar of water or in a moist, porous, well-drained rooting media such as coarse sand, perlite or vermiculite.
After roots are about 1-inch long, transplant cuttings into a 3- to 4-inch container filled with well-drained potting soil. Place in a sunny window and water as needed. Pinch shoot tips back; again to encourage branching and prevent spindly growth.
DORMANT STORAGE (THE BIG SLEEP)
Geraniums are unusual in that they can survive for most of the winter without soil. All thanks to their thick, succulent-like stems. To overwinter geraniums in dormant storage, dig up the entire plant before frost and gently shake the soil from the roots.
Place the plants inside open paper bags, a cardboard box, or hang them upside-down from the rafters in a cool, dark location for the winter. Temperatures between 45-50 F are ideal.
Check on them two or three times during the winter. Take the plants out of the bags, boxes or down from the rafters and soak the roots in water for 1 or 2 hours. This is a good time to inspect the stems. While many of the leaves will die and fall off, the stems should be firm and solid.
Toss any geraniums with shriveled stems into the compost pile, since those plants will most likely die. Pot up healthy dormant geraniums in containers in late March or early April. Water plants thoroughly and cut back any dead stem tips.
Place potted plants in a sunny window to initiate new growth. It often takes several weeks for plants to kick in with new growth after dormant storage. And you might have extra plants to give as Christmas gifts.
No matter how you overwinter your geraniums, they will be healthy, free-flowering plants for spring. After being indoors all winter, your geraniums may be as anxious as you are for spring gardening.
Meanwhile, I just stopped by to give the newly-planted Iceland poppies a pep-talk. “You can do it!” I told them. “I’ll be here for you.”
GARDEN JOB JAR
Have tarps, sheets, spruce branches and other frost covers handy.
Plant flowering bulbs for a beautiful display next spring.
While the season is still fresh in your mind, jot down notes to build your wish list for next year.
Make jam, bird feeders, sauerkraut, pickles.
Be bear aware: Don’t leave smokers outside (when not in use) and store bird seed, chicken feed, and pet food properly.
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