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Decision time: What to do with all those plants

It’s “triage time,” the toughest time of year for me and many other gardeners. What plants can I take inside, store outside or in the basement, or plant now? And which plants must I let go – turn them into the soil or compost pile?

Outside plants
Perennials, shrubs and trees still in pots require a decision now. They are the plants you were so excited to find. Now they look at you accusingly, disappointed in your performance. Which of those must be planted and which can be stored against the house or in an outbuilding? Decide, and get on with it.

Inside plants
If you have tender annuals or tropical plants, will they be happy under lights in the house, or is it better to let them go dormant in the basement? And which ones are really worth the effort? Maybe it’s better to let the pros at your favorite garden center grow a new crop for you.

As you make these indoor plant decisions, consider also the human factor: Will you be able and willing to care for those plants in the house? Can you set up adequate lighting, provide humidity and a good watering routine? If you go away for a time, who will water them? Is taking care of houseplants still satisfying and fun? (I say yes.) Or has it become a burden? If that’s the case, which plants are the most precious and pleasing to keep or to give to someone who will love them. (You can’t throw away Grandma’s 80-year-old kangaroo vine!)

Decisions, decisions
As I look at my own motley collection of beloved plants, I have all of the above: precious old houseplants, new tropical treasures, tender annuals, small and large roses and other perennials in pots, a few shrubs and two trees. Before writing I actually walked around the garden and deck to collect all my potted plants and put them in groups. This is the way I handle the triage challenge. Possibly my thinking and process will be helpful for you.

Group one: True tropicals

This diverse plant group is my newest topic for study since this year I was given several tropical plants by my friends Brent and Becky (of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs) and tropical plant growers from FNGLA (Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association). The way to know a plant is to own and care for it; I’m learning.

Two schools of thought apply though: Purveyors of tropical plants and tender bulbs suggest that we let them go and buy them again – not just because it’s profitable for their businesses. It’s also because a fresh supply of those sun and humidity-loving plants perform much better than last year’s beauties that we try to maintain in our imperfect conditions. Bananas and gingers are a real turn-off when they limp through winter and produce wimpy foliage and flowers by August. There’s a case to be made: With so much bang for the buck – buy them again!

Still, I can’t let two large gingers, several cannas, caladiums, pineapple lilies and dahlias go. I will lift and air-dry the tubers, rhizomes or bulbs, and store them in peat in a cool basement for the winter. Most of these plants can wait in the soil until after the first frost. (Start the banana process before frost.) I promise you a thorough article soon about over-wintering these tropicals as well as how to keep our begonias, Pelargoniums (commonly called Geraniums), Coleus and other favorites.

Group two: Houseplants
During a warm spell it’s good to get the houseplants inside, including so-called “container annuals” that might work as houseplants. Change is rough on them. Don’t let them get used to cold nights and then shock them with the dry heat of your living room.

“Plant shock” is real – the best example being Ficus plants, which drop all their leaves the moment you move them. Keep your heat off and open the windows for as long as you can. There’s one exception to this gradual approach: Leave Christmas cacti outside until frost is pending since the cold will trigger bud-set.

Before you take plants inside, wash and groom them (removing dead leaves and stems), examine for pests, and decide which ones need cutting back or repotting. My ancient Schefflera and Norfolk Island Pine are about 8 feet tall so I will have to do some radical pruning. If any plants are so root-bound that the water runs off the pot, or you must water every two days, then put them into the next sized pot in high quality potting mix.

Well before moving day prepare the lighting, platforms, shelves, stools, tables and containers. Wash the trays and decorative cache pots.

Group three: Must be planted
This decision depends upon whether you have sites prepared, help available, and which plants are waiting. I have some large shrubs or small trees in 5-gallon or larger pots that are ready for a wide compost-y hole and good fall watering. I waited until some trips were finished so I can tend them well.

Some perennials are also crying to be planted and they come first; the time to plant will pass quickly. Thorough mulching – after the ground freezes – will be important for anything planted in fall, since the root systems are small and not anchored; they would be killed by drying out or thawing and heaving.

Group four: Store until spring

Some plants in pots will have to wait since I’m just not ready to place them yet. I will stash them against the house foundation, out of the wind (on the east side).

Other gardeners put them in unheated garages. I’ll surround small pots with mulch or bubble wrap, and group them in tubs and buckets.

If they thaw out and dry I will add snow or water. And again I vow never to collect plants that I can’t plant immediately.

Winter is coming. Begin triage – now.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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