Have you given up on your tender outdoor plants yet? I confess I try to keep them going as long as I can. This means my neighbours see me staggering around with an unlikely collection of cardboard, sheets and towels, tenderly wrapping up my giant basil and gallant cannas like some kind of weird garden mummies.
But that’s just me.
One of these days I, and others like me, are going to have to bite the bullet – or the trowel or the clippers – and pull the dang things up. But lots of gardeners do ask, “Can I dig up my hibiscus/basil/geranium/whatever and move it indoors?”
The short answer is: no.
Our lovely annuals are just that – annual visitors who spend the summer with us and then depart. Forever. There are a few exceptions, if you like a challenge or really, really want to save money.
If you want to save flowers like gladiolus, flowering begonias and cannas, which all grow from corms, you can try digging up the corms and storing them until spring. (Corms are those knobby brown things that the stems and roots grow out of.) It’s a bit tricky, though. You have to wait until frost turns the foliage brown and the leaves dieback. Then, before the ground freezes, you have to dig up the corms, brush the soil off and lay them out to dry on newspaper. When they’re dry to the touch, but not shrivelled up, pack them in peat moss or shredded newspaper and store them in a cool, dry place.
With geraniums, old-time gardeners used to dig them up and hang them, roots and all, upside down in a cool, dark place. Geraniums have those fat, fleshy stems that are similar to succulent plants, so they can survive a pretty long time in suspended (literally) animation. If you have a quiet corner of the basement where you can let them dangle like large greenish bats, go ahead and try it.
A better way
Frankly, I haven’t the time or patience to do that much work, with no certainty of success. I have been known to take a cutting of an annual that I’m fond of – a very nice geranium or impatiens, for example, or an ivy that I’ve been using in a mixed container planting. But that’s not saving a tired old plant – that’s starting a brand-new one.
Take as many cuttings as you have space and energy for. You can start them in water or soil, then pot them up and keep them in a very sunny spot or under plant lights. They probably won’t flower during the winter, but you’ll have greenery around the house and new plants ready to go out when spring rolls around.
Herbs can be picky
Herbs are a different story. I’ve asked around and most people don’t have much luck growing them indoors during the winter, no matter how much garden articles bubble about a pot of chives or basil on the windowsill. Most of our favourite herbs want lots of sun and heat (basil, lemon verbena and marjoram, for example). Few houses in the Beach can offer a sunny, south-facing window.
Other herbs actually like – or even need – a bit of frost. Sage, chives and parsley will sulk and look sickly if you try to grow them in our nice warm homes. If you have an unheated or very cool sun porch or solarium, you might be able to have an indoor herb patch. Otherwise… well, it’s unlikely.
If you simply can’t live without fresh herbs in winter, try growing them from seed in a very sunny (not just bright) place. Basil and marjoram are both easy to start from seed and a treat to have around. I’d skip the cold-lovers because, even if they sprout, it’ll be very hard to keep them happy indoors.
Rosemary, one of my favourites, is just plain unpredictable. I grow it in a pot outdoors all summer and bring it in under plant lights for the winter. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I still don’t know why.
Whatever you decide to do about winter herb-growing, do be sure to harvest your summer crop before the frost gets to it. Home-grown dried basil is totally unlike the stuff you buy in jars.
Mary-Fran McQuade is a local writer specializing in gardening and lifestyle.