COMPLEAT HOME GARDENER: No guarantees, but some perennials will survive winter

  • Tue Oct 20th, 2009 12:08am
  • Life

By Marianne Binetti

The third week in October is a beautiful time of year here in the Pacific Northwest as fall foliage reminds us all we are more than just the Evergreen State. There is still time to add vine maples, Japanese maples and big leaf maples to the landscape for years of fall color.

If you don’t have enough room for a fall foliage tree consider colorful fall shrubbery such as the burning bush (Euonymus alatus compacta) which is the only shrub I know that caused an unnecessary call to 911.

It seems an Auburn area homeowner (new to the area) looked out her upstairs window, down toward the neighbor’s yard and immediately called to report a fire. Sirens, fire trucks and a few laughing firefighters later, the poor woman was embarrassed to find out the bright red fire in her neighbors yard was actually a planting of burning bush. True story, and the reason that once you see the burning bush in all its fall glory, you’ll never be able to forget it’s name – especially if you’re a firefighter.

Q. How can I save my geraniums this winter so I don’t have to buy any more next spring? I remember my grandparents saving their geraniums every fall right before Halloween, back in the day when everyone saved money and grew plants from seed. I don’t have a greenhouse but neither did they. T., e-mail

A. Thrifty gardeners still overwinter their geranium plants. This works best when we have mild winters. The key is to keep your geraniums cold – but not freezing – and barely moist. The easiest way is to pot them up, cut them back and place the plants inside a frost-free shed or garage. Water just a bit once a month, just enough to keep the soil barely moist. They will drop their leaves and look ugly but still have a glimmer of life. In April, you can trim off any brown or dead sections and bring those geraniums back to life by placing them indoors close to a bright window. Fertilize and water but don‘t place them outdoors until May. Next, be patient: when you overwinter geraniums and fuchsias they take a few months to catch up.

Here are some other inventive ways readers have successfully overwintered plants in our area:

1. Place plants in pots inside a Styrofoam ice chest and store on a covered porch. Don’t cover plants with the top of the chest – let some light in. The Styrofoam is a good insulator from the cold.

2. Place geraniums and fuchsias in pots under a deck close to the house. Putting pots inside an open cardboard box adds to the insulation.

3. Dig a hole, place pots into the hole and cover the plants with an upside-down garbage can.

4. Move plants in pots to a cool basement and place near a window.

5. Uproot geraniums from soil, tie twine to the stem and hang them upside-down from a rafter in a garage or shed. It sounds like torture but I’ve seen geraniums survive using this hanging method.

5. My personal favorite: Shove an outdoor patio table against the house. Place plants under the table and cover the table with a plastic or oilcloth tablecloth to keep out the rain. Lift the sides of the tablecloth on mild days to let in a little light.

Remember, the key to getting geraniums and fuchsia baskets to survive the winter is to make them go to sleep. Hibernation makes winter bearable. Keep the plants cold but not freezing with just a bit of water and a sliver of sunlight. Then near the end of March, wake up your sleeping uglies (they will not be beautiful) gradually with sunlight and a light feeding by using half as much plant food as the label says. Good luck! Sometimes all this works out great but often you get the plants to survive until April 1 – then Mother Nature has a good laugh as your plants break dormancy, sprout new leaves and then drop dead. Gardening is an adventure; don’t take it personally.

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Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of “Easy Answers for Great Gardens” and several other books. For book requests or answers to gardening questions, write to her at: P.O. Box 872, Enumclaw, 98022. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a personal reply.

For more gardening information, she can be reached at her Web site,

Copyright for this column owned by Marianne Binetti.