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Winter's On the Way! Make Plans NOW
For Plants in Pots and Other TenderStuff!
Question. Hi, Mike: I love your show;great advice! Now, I need some on how to winter over the two daturaplants I purchased this spring. They're perennials, I'm told, and doingfine right now, but I hear they die in winter if left outside. Whatshould I do? I travel a lot during winter and can't tend them properlyas houseplants. Can I dig them up, pot them up & put them in thebasement? If so, do I not water them at all until spring?
They produce seed from prickly balls,which burst open when dry. If Igather the seed in the burst pods, will they produce new plants if Iplant the seed in spring? Do I need to put that seed in therefrigerator in a plastic bag in peat, or what? Thanks for anyhelp.
---Judy from Princeton, NJ
Answer. Hey—thank YOU, Judy; this isthe perfect time of year to talk about plants that are too tender toleave outside for the winter.
But first, a warning. Your daturas (scientific name Brugmansia) aregreat plants. They can grow in very wet areas and their beautifultubular flowers deliciously scent the night air. But those flowers (andevery other part of the plant) are so poisonous you'd likely hear itsother common name—Angel's Trumpet—if you chowed down on a flower or aleaf. Daturas should not be grown anywhere near children or food plants(a little sap or nectar dripped onto a strawberry below could make youreally sick) and you should always wear gloves when handling them.
OK? Now, if you were one of ourSouthern listeners, you wouldn't haveto do anything. But you have heard correctly—in your Zone 6 garden,this semi-tropical plant (and many other garden favorites planted byunsuspecting growers) will perish overwinter. You could dig it up andpot it up IF you were willing to keep it going as a houseplant overwinter. But most people don't bother; they simply treat it as an annualflower—which would be especially easy for you, cause you're alreadyplanning on saving the seeds.
To do that, let those pods dry asbrittle as can be, and then harvestthem at the end of a nice, long dry spell. Let them dry some moreindoors and then seal the dry seeds up in a glass jar with some ofthose silica gel packets you get in vitamin bottles and keep it in acool, dry, dark place. (NOT the fridge; too damp!) This basic adviceapplies to almost all saved seeds, except tomatoes, which are special.Anyway, datura seeds don't need the cold treatment you're describing,but a very nice site, http://www.brugmansias.org,warns that they are covered by a corky coating. So before you startthem next Spring, soak the seeds in water for 24 hours and that stuffshould come off.
OK; general rules for tender plants.Woody, shrubby things too tropicalto survive your winters—like citrus and bay leaf trees—should really begrown in pots. No plant enjoys being transplanted a couple of times ayear, and planting in pots will also keep them smaller, making themmore manageable when you have to bring them in for the winter.
If you're going to pot up ANY plantcurrently in the ground for wintersalvation, get started NOW. In the evening, make a big circle aroundthe plant with a sharp shovel, lift it out of the ground, pot it upkeeping as much of the root ball intact as possible, water it well andthen leave it outside (NOT in direct sun) for a few weeks to let it getover the shock. Then, before frost, choose one of the following threeoptions:
• Wash the leavesreally well several days in a rowwith sharp streams of water to get rid of any buggy wuggies and bringthe plants indoors to a solarium or sunny windowsill. Depending on theplant, the amount of sun and your latitude, it might bloom and growover winter, but more likely it will go kind of dormant. Either way,water it on the light side and give it no food other than some dilutecomposttea (if you must); plants inwinter don't need food and can'tuse much water. This is your only choice for things like bay leaf andcitrus trees.
• Take the pots toa place that stays cool but abovefreezing—like a basement or attached garage—and hope that the plantssimply go dormant instead of dying. (Think good thoughts; clap in youbelieve in fairies….) Do not feed these plants at all, and waterthem—lightly!—only two or three times all winter.
• Group themtogether against an outside wall of yourhouse (preferably one that leaks heat, like a chimney) and bury them inshredded leaves, a good foot deep on all sides. NOT whole leaves—theywould mat down and smother the plants. This trick works great withgeraniums—but so does just about anything else.
Summer blooming 'bulbs'. Ifyour ground freezes hard in winter,you have to 'lift' tropical summer bloomers like dahlias, gladiolas,cannalilies, tuberous begonias and the like. Get those VERY tenderbegonia tubers out of the ground early—long before frost. Leave theothers in the ground till after the first frost blackens theabove-ground growth, then pull the 'roots' out of the ground and cutoff the above-ground stuff. Then pack those tubers, rhizomes, bulbs,etc. in slightly damp peat moss and/or vermiculite and store them in acool spot that won't freeze—40 to 45 degrees is ideal. Or better still,pot them up and grow them as houseplants till next Spring! You mightget some flowers, but you'll certainly have HUGE leafy plants to putout next year that will bloom a good month earlier than planted tubers.If you only get a few light frosts in your region—or you live in themiddle of a big city in zone 6, the plants are close to a structure andyou're a gambling kind of gardener—just cut the plants to the groundaround December and cover with a few inches of well-shredded leavestill Spring. Not sure of your summer bloomers' tenderness levels? Lookit up at www.bulb.com.
• ANY plant in apot. If it drops belowfreezing where you live, you cannot leave potted plants outdoors. Arose or a dwarf appletree, for instance, will surviveeven a frigidzone 4 winter in the ground nicely, but that same plant in a containerwill perish on the first bitterly cold night in zone 6 when its rootsfreeze. Your best bet for roses (which are darn finicky about nothaving their roots in the ground) and non-citrus fruit trees (whichrequire a certain number of chilling hours to bear fruit) is huddled upagainst the house under a blanket of leaves. Or, if you have room inthe garden outside, just bury the pots in the ground before it freezes;this will insulate the roots nicely. Then just dig the pots up againcome Spring. Most other potted plants should go into a sunny window ordormant down in the basement.
And remember—little to no food andvery little water over that winter!Many more plants are killed by overwatering and overfeeding than bydrought and hunger.
You Bet Your Garden ©2004 Mike McGrath