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Saving your flowery favorites for next year

Often Donna Connolly hears her workshop students gasp when she picks up a sharp instrument to give plants the haircut of their lives.

Off come the hot pink flowers of the bouganvilla. Gone are the ruffled fuchsia blossoms.

"You can't hurt it," said Connolly, a grower at Lockwood's Greenhouses. "I haven't found any plant that doesn't grow on new foliage."

When she's finished, the plants will be 12 inches high, nearly devoid of foliage or flower, ready for a well-deserved rest.

This is the perfect time for gardeners to follow her lead, if they want to over-winter plants, either by monitoring them during their dormancy -- as can be done with the bouganvilla and fuchsia -- or by taking cuttings or storing bulbs in the basement.

While there are no guarantees of success, neither is there a big investment of time or trouble.

And when it works, there are rewards. For one, there's the prospect of saving money; wouldn't it be great not to have to replace those hanging fuchsia baskets each year?

Besides that, it's possible to preserve the plant that was the star of this year's garden, realizing that it might not show up at the nursery next year.

In fact, that's why master gardener Francis Evans has kept his geraniums going, some for as long as 10 years.

"I've got a variety I prefer so that's why I recycle," said Evans, who takes cuttings from the "mother plant" and puts them under his basement shop lights, with a timer. He also keeps plants in either a south or west facing window.

"Unless you are counting on reflection from the snow," he said, "you don't put them in a north window."

Another geranium-saving system is to cut the foliage down, shake the roots off and place what's left in a paper bag or towel on a basement window ledge until spring. Sometimes, for some gardeners, it works.

"I hear it works, though I haven't tried it," said Teresa Mazikowski, a gardener at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens. "I think you have to draw a map of the basement so you can remember where everything is."

One of her triumphs is keeping a fuchsia going for three years, in the same pot, in the same soil.

"After I cut it down, I'll give it a good watering and then throw it in the basement," she said. "In the spring I start watering it and give it a bit of fertilizer. With any luck you get a new plant and it comes back even hardier."

One of the easiest plants to root, she said, is coleus, admired for its striking foliage.

"You can chop the whole plant down," said Mazikowski. Cuttings can go right into water-filled glass containers until they root and then be transplanted. If you want, they can be potted up immediately in some growing medium, with a boost of rooting hormone.

Even exotic and tropical plants, accustomed to more heat and light than they could ever get in this locale, can be kept over in the right conditions, said Connolly.

Mandevilla and passionflower, for example, are plants that some manage to keep alive through the winter here. First, they get those much-needed haircuts, then they're placed in a cool spot (50 to 60 degrees), with light.

"You want to keep them alive, but dormant," said Connolly, who adds that they should be watered enough to keep the roots barely moist.

Bulbs, often planted in the spring and forgotten by the fall, can be lifted now and brought in. Caladiums, grown for their showy tropical foliage, should be taken in before the first frost and allowed to dry in a warm spot, in their pot. When the foliage has dried and died, it should be removed before the bulbs are placed in peat moss to be stored at temperatures of 50 to 60 degrees.

Before anything comes into the house, experts say, it should be decontaminated. Evans said he hits his plants with a jet from the hose.

"That will knock off 95 percent of the pests," said Evans, who has become particularly careful about bringing greenery indoors. "You want to make certain that you aren't dragging in any fellow travelers," he said. "A couple of times I had to wipe out all the plants in my house."

After the hosing, he treats the plants with insecticide, at least twice, and checks them for spider mites, aphids and other pests, keeping them in "quarantine" for a week after he brings them in.

While commercial insecticides are availble, Mazikowski said a homemade mixture of one to two tablespoons of liquid soap in a quart of water also works well. Besides spraying the leaves, she waters the soil to kill any eggs, she said, applying the spray two or three times before bringing them in and then giving the plant another treatment a month later.

Even though expert gardeners use these techniques, along with heated grates, large-paned windows and misting machines to simulate the plant's desired environment, even they don't always succeed. Let's face it -- we are trying to make a passionflower believe that it's growing wild in the sandy soil of the Andes Mountains, rather than in a bedroom in Western New York.

So, not every plant will thrive and survive in these contrived conditions.

"But what do you have to lose?" said Mazikowski, who admits that she can't bear to toss a plant out.

She also realizes that for some, it's too much bother.

But for others, keeping a plant -- and their hopes -- alive is its own reward, until they can be in the garden again.

e-mail: pvoell@buffnews.com

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