Down To Earth

One last chore before winter

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Just about everyone I know has brought their winter clothes out of storage and put summer stuff away. I haven’t. My tank tops and t-shirts will spend the winter in my dresser alongside long-sleeved brethren. My sweaters, which have been gathering dust in the closet all summer are making me sneeze now. Call me lazy or blame my lack of organization, as I do, on having a damp basement where only things we don’t want but can’t part with go to molder and be forgotten about forever. There is just one category of possession I put into winter storage and bring to light again in spring. It won’t surprise you. Any plant that goes completely dormant, loses its leaves and rests during the dark months — but doesn’t want to freeze, can’t stay in the garden and isn’t allowed to take up precious windowsill or plantry space. Down they go.

Just not quite yet. As I write this most of those tender plants, which must be somewhat protected by my house, overhanging trees, and the garden’s unruly overgrowth, are still waiting for a proper killing frost to trigger dormancy. I have a couple of potted figs (Ficus carica) small enough to be carried down the bulkhead steps. One of my neighbors uses a dolly to wheel a much larger tree into his garage. Some gardeners push the zone and keep their figs planted in the ground, heavily mulched for winter with fallen leaves. My dog sometimes walks my by a 25-footer, trained to grow horizontally and covered every winter with an enormous blue tarp. When mine outgrow the basement, I’ll give those methods a try.
My favorite fuchsia, ‘Gartenmeister’ has a place down cellar next to the figs. Most of its leaves have dropped but it’s still dangling coral-pink trumpets from every stem end and will struggle to produce increasingly anemic and pathetic flowers all through the winter unless I whack it back to a low framework now. I’ll give lantana the same treatment and with any luck I won’t have to buy more of those for the hummingbirds next year either.

My dahlias never did much this summer because I neglected to water them but there’s a plastic bin waiting for any surviving tubers. I’m in the habit of leaving a bit of stem to attach a painter’s tape label but I read recently that the stem can harbor funky bacteria and fungi. Better to cut it off as close as possible to the crown and write names directly on the tubers with a sharpie. The dahlias I planted in the cutting garden at Mount Hope Farm bloomed like champs but suffered somewhat from a fungal scourge most likely from over watering. Go figure. Those I’ll try soaking for a few minutes in a dilute bleach solution (1 cup to 3 gallons of water) and allow to dry completely before bagging them with vermiculite, which should help regulate moisture levels. At home I have gotten away with wrapping them in newspaper. Gladiolus might survive in the ground if winter drainage is sharp but they’re easy to lift and easier than anything to store, dry and loose in paper bags or leftover nursery pots.

Ideally, plants in dark storage should be kept cool, somewhere between just-above-freezing and 55F. Check. And, lucky for me, it’s OK to all but forget about them down there. I give the potted plants a drink once a month or so to keep the soil from becoming completely crusty, and periodically eyeball tubers and corms for signs of rot or shriveling. If only clothing were as easy to keep in a damp cellar, I’d have room in my closet for a whole new wardrobe.

Kristin Green is the horticulturist at Mount Hope Farm and author of 'Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big with 150 Plants that Spread, Self-Sow, and Overwinter'. Follow her blog at trenchmanicure.com.

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