Care for Tender Plants

Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Maybe you have a greenhouse – lucky you – and need only check for leaks and test to be certain the heaters and fans are working. Get that wonderful space secured, including doors that close instead of the plastic sheet I have, and get the pots ready for the transition. Just like moving plants indoors and frankly, like we should all do about once a month, pots need grooming for the transition. Plants in pots growing on the ground may have rooted in, like my tiny banana tree did. You have two choices then: trim off the roots or repot the plant. If water runs right through or if roots have popped up on the soil surface, consider the latter. Otherwise, prune the excess roots and move on to the soil surface. Clean out leaves and pine straw that have fallen into the pot, and clip off any old flowers or dead leaves. If needed, prune the plant so you can get it through the door and, if it has thin leaves, to reduce transition shock. Most potted plants harbor a potential problem or two, such as insect eggs waiting to hatch in the warm indoor microclimate of your living room or greenhouse. Drench each pot with a solution of soapy water or a contact insecticide, and then rinse with clean water. If pests have been a big problem, it is smart to propagate, rather than try to nurse the plant back to health. Clean saucers with soapy water, too, and when all is dry, use a cloth to wipe the outside surfaces dry and move ‘em indoors. Ok, you say, but there are too many plants and not enough space indoors. That’s the time to think of your tropical plants in slightly different ways. There are very tender tropicals, some that can become perennial outside the Tropics and others that bloom in winter or rest then. Each sort can tolerate something the others cannot. For example, croton plants cannot tolerate cold weather at all but adapts well to indoor conditions, as does shower orchid. Not an orchid at all, this vine puts on beautiful flower shows in late winter in its native environments as well as the indoor garden. You’d miss it if you put the vine in cold (not freezing) storage. Lots of plants with tropical origins can lose their leaves and even stems to cold weather, but rebound quickly so long as their soil and roots do not freeze completely. Night blooming jasmine, yesterday-today-tomorrow and many more woody tropicals can spend the winter in their pots outdoors with simple protection and may be able to survive in protected garden beds as far north as Memphis. Wax begonias and angel trumpets often become returning perennials, at least for a few years, in similar shielded sites. Even those who have greenhouses and indoor gardens can lack space to store plants, and some of them deserve a rest or to be out of view when not at their best. All but the tenderest tropicals can be safely contained for the winter inside a garage or shed. It is also a good alternative for pots so large you’d have to move furniture out to move them in. You can build a lean-to and cover it with plastic or adapt a porch to offer protection. If the storage space is warm enough to protect a clay pot from freezing and cracking, it is warm enough to store plants in big pots if you can protect the roots from freezing. The leaves and stems on top may not look happy, but so long as the roots make it, they will resprout. You need a place out of the weather, with a little light such as a garage window or a shop light on a timer to offer a minimum of 3-4 hours of light daily. The pots will need only minimal water, but do not let the roots dry out completely. If a safe heat source is available, plan to use it but only rarely. The bigger the pot size, the more likely it can survive here. Gather up bales of hay or pine straw and use them to surround your pots. Squeeze them in there, pot to pot, and prune the plants to keep them tidy and close together. We’re not trying to grow plants, just keep them alive!
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