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December is cleaning time for me, and each year it gets more insurmountable.
During spring and summer my study accumulates piles of “stuff” so that by December there is only a narrow aisle from the door to my chair. It’s like archeology, working down layer by layer, often discovering things lost for months.
In the process I ran across some handouts that were made for last spring’s talk at the Philadelphia Flower Show on overwintering tropical plants. In past years with different topics I have filled the room, but in March gardeners don’t want to think about winter and there were a lot of empty chairs. The right time to talk about that is now, and I already have the notes. And an excuse to put off further cleaning.
The default method is to leave tender plants out to die and buy new ones next spring. You know I’m not about to do that.
Many tender plants produce seeds that are easier to start in spring than tomatoes, and unless you are one of those demented people who got the garden all cleared and cleaned weeks ago, it isn’t too late. Castor beans and daturas have big seed pods easy to find, pick, and save. Don’t worry if they look a little moldy.
Amaranth produces huge quantities of seed, and you don’t have to do anything. They will plant themselves in mind boggling numbers, called weeds by the unappreciative. But if you collect some seeds, you can start them earlier than nature will. If you had a hybrid this year, you might get lucky and have it revert to one of my favorites, a dark red plant that grows to eight feet every year. I have no idea what it is except that it was one of the species parent of a love lies bleeding hybrid years ago. Or you might get something ugly. That’s the way with hybrid seeds.
Many summer favorites grow from bulbs, tubers, or corms. No, don’t run away. I’m not going to go over all that again. I just note that large plants like dahlias, cannas, elephant ears become small, easily stored lumps after frost.
Not so with some of my favorite tropicals. They get big and stay big and have no tiny bits to store. In fact, they get bigger every year (which is one of the reasons I keep them from season to season) but my sun porch doesn’t. For people who have as much window space as they have plants, things like burgmansias, hibiscus, and my favorite, Persian Shield, can be kept through the winter like oversized house plants. Even if you don’t have huge south facing windows, the ideal, they will likely survive, though there will be considerable leaf drop.
If window space is at a premium, you need to make big plants smaller. Vigorous tropicals can be cut back by half at least. Most even benefit from this, so even when you don’t do it to save space, it’s a good idea to cut them back next spring before the main growing season. In drastic cases you can hack them back to just inches above the soil.
When you cut plants back, you are left with a pile of leftover plant parts. You might as well root them, so you can have even more plants next summer to fill your deck or trade for things you don’t have. Or you can take rooted cuttings to overwinter in really cramped spaces. A five foot brugmansia in a 24 inch container can be transformed into an eight inch windowsill plant for the winter, much easier to care for.
So that is one piece of paper from one pile. Time to go back to cleaning and sorting and see if I run across something for next week’s column.
Duane Campbell is a nationally known agricultural expert. He can be reached at R6, Box 6029, Towanda, Pa 18848 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.