Gardening: Prepare for Winter by Protecting Your Plants

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Aglaonemas will not tolerate temperatures below 45F.

Special at the Star-Telegram

I know I sound like an alarmist. It’s been hot all fall, and now that we’ve had just a little cool weather appetizer, I’m talking about hauling plants for the winter.

We’re still a month away from the average date of the first fatal frost here in North Texas, so you’re like, “Slow down, Neil. Back out of the panic button.

And it’s good. I’ve been accused of much worse, but I’ll also remind you of those early late-October freezes we’ve been dealing with in the suburbs of Metroplex in recent years. It is happening, and wise gardeners are getting ready.

That is, it’s time to start thinking about which plants you will want to keep over the winter and which will go to compost. It’s a tough decision, but it’s a decision we all need to make. Let me try to make it simple for you by sharing my own thought processes.

My first criterion goes to plants which would be difficult to replace. I have several plants with unusual foliage that I have been growing for 25 years or more. They have top priority. Two are unusual types of peperomias, one was given to me by the late Ralph Pinkus, founder of North Haven Gardens in Dallas. Others are large rhizomatous bromeliads that I grow in pots so that I can sink them into beds. I discovered that armadillos leave them alone.

As you may have seen me write or have heard me say, throughout my adult life I have cultivated selections of coleus which are propagated from cuttings because they do not form flowers and do not do not go to seed. (The seeds stop new leaf growth with coleus.) I guess if I made a list of those “favorite” plants that I think I should keep, there would be 40 or 50.

I also put on this list some plants that would be expensive to buy again in the spring. If I have room for them, I will keep them too. They may not be rare or irreplaceable, but why pay twice if I can save them.

But the plants I save must be types that will survive the winter under optimal conditions. I don’t save copper plants, for example, because no matter how I try to protect them, they seem to look miserable in the spring. And caladium tubers are just too difficult to store. Sure, they’re a bit pricey to buy every year, but the quality and performance is much better when I go back in the spring.

Conversely, I usually keep a few beautiful wax begonias just to have some bloomy color spots in the middle of winter. I will pinch them in half or more to encourage new growth. And I might do the same with a potted geranium if I still had a nice one left during the first frosts. But it would be a total waste of time to try to save pots filled with pentas, angelonias, moss rose or periwinkles. Start over with them.

Oddly enough, some plants are injured at temperatures well above freezing. This is called “cold damage” and several tropical plants like aglaonemas, dieffenbachias and bougainvillea suffer when exposed to temperatures of 45F-48F. They begin to wilt and their growth stops, often beyond recovery.

It is best if you start to “harden” your plants to prepare them for winter. Gradually acclimate them to less fertilizer and a little less water. You don’t want to let them dry out, but you also don’t want to do anything to encourage fresh, succulent new growth at a time when they need to be shut down.

If you have tropical plants that have been exposed to unusually bright light during the summer, take them down to darker conditions before bringing them back indoors. Your goal once you get them inside will be to keep them in the status quo, not to encourage them to grow until spring. Just to remedy this, artificial lighting indoors will not be enough to make up the difference.

Perhaps you understood several paragraphs ago that I had a greenhouse. This is where most of my plants go. What I have written, however, applies to the plants in your house. But if you are thinking of buying or building a greenhouse, let me cheer you on. They are fabulous.

I’ll write more about greenhouses another time here, but be aware that the bigger the better when it comes to greenhouses. Bigger houses give you more space so you can accommodate more plants. But it also provides a larger volume of air, which slows down the rate of temperature change. Small greenhouses overheat quickly on a clear day in the middle of winter.

That’s pretty much the point in any discussion when someone asks whether to keep the plants in the garage over the winter. This is when I boldly warn that the garage may be the worst place for overwintering plants. Unless your garage has full length picture windows and an abundance of skylights, it will be cold and dark in the garage in the middle of winter. Your plants will not be happy and few will survive. They will face gigantic recovery problems in the spring. Use the garage only for short term protection of exterior colored patio pots like pansies during extreme cold in winter.

You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and on WBAP 820 p.m. on Sunday mornings from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Join him on www.neilsperry.com and follow him on Facebook.

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