Q: My geraniums grew really well this summer, and I have some pretty ones that I want to keep for next year. How do I go about doing this?
A: There are several kinds of geraniums, including some perennials that survive without coming indoors, but I assume you mean the zonal geranium that has a slightly two-toned leaf and a big cluster of flowers on the end of a stalk. These plants grow in a dry and warm Mediterranean climate. They can't stay alive when frozen, but they can survive months of dry cool weather without much water.
In warm climate regions, plants that are considered annuals by the rest of the country develop just fine all year long. The winter is often a good time to take stock of how everything is doing in the garden. Many plants slow their growth rate or stop developing for several months, making this a perfect opportunity to decide if the plant has reached its desired size. You can take cuttings or collect seeds to begin a new fresh garden in the spring.
In cold climates, you need to complete one of the following methods to save geraniums and other potted plants for next spring.
If you have a sunny window or a greenhouse, geraniums can be left in the pot to grow during the winter. They do prefer more than 10 hours of daylight each day — 12 hours is even better. In areas with short winter days, you may need to supplement with grow lights to help with blooming. Or you can let them slow down their growth and go partially dormant.
In their natural habitat, there is no one running around pulling geraniums out of the ground and hanging them upside down for the dormant season; however, if you want to do that, you can. If they are planted in the ground, dig them up before a frost and shake all the soil off the roots. Hang them in a dry location where the temperature will remain in the 40s or low 50s. It might be necessary to soak the roots for an hour or so once a month to prevent them from completely drying and dying. All the leaves will die, but the stem should remain plump and not shriveled. Next March, replant the geraniums in pots and remove any dead stems. If the stems are too long, go ahead and cut them back in the spring.
If your geranium is located in a flowerpot, bring it inside and don't water it. Store it in the same location as the uprooted plants, in dry cool conditions. Check on them occasionally, and add a little water to the soil once in awhile to keep them barely alive. Next spring, remove the dead areas and begin watering. Place them in a sunny window.
Another method involves more work, but can receive more plants. Cut the top 4 to 6 inches off each branch. Remove and discard any flower stalks, even if they are just buds. Then take off all the leaves on the bottom 2 or 3 inches of the stem. Dip the cutting into rooting hormone powder or liquid, which is available from garden centers. Place the stem in sand or perlite and add water; a whole tray of them can be made from recycled plastic containers. Put the geraniums in a sunny window, not in the sun, or under a fluorescent light — it will take a month or two for them to begin rooting. They can be potted over the winter, or you may wait until spring as long as you keep them watered. During the winter, a little diluted fertilizer will help once they are rooted. The bottom half of the plant, which the cuttings came from, can be saved as in the first three methods or thrown away.
Other garden-potted plants may be preserved in the same ways. The common dracaena spike plant that is used in the center of a pot can be saved using all the geranium methods.
Q: When I was a kid, my mom and the neighbor ladies would gather seeds from the marigolds and other plants. They spent the afternoon doing something to them, and then in the spring they replanted them with great success. I want to do that with my daughters. What do I need to do?
A: Many garden plants are easy to grow from seeds, but annuals are the easiest. Your mom saved the seeds from plants that were open-pollinated varieties, which return very similar each year. Newer plant varieties may not turn out the same because they are often hybrids — the offspring of hybrids probably won't look as identical to the parents as the open-pollinated varieties. Another problem is that many new varieties involve double flowering, meaning the sexual parts of the flower are gone and replaced with more petals to make them look prettier; they produce few seeds.
If you know of a plant that you want to save, there are a few steps to complete. First, wait until they are mature and only pick healthy-looking seed heads or fruit. You might want to tie a paper bag or nylon stocking over the end of the plant to collect the seeds before they fall off or blow away.
Next, clean as much chaff off the seeds as possible. Chaff hides insects and their eggs. It also may be moist, which will encourage fungal disease problems. If you collected berries or other fruits like tomatoes or cucumbers, you will need to remove seeds from the gooey stuff (a technical term used by botanists) before letting the seeds dry out.
Only store clean and dried seeds. Place them in a cool and dry location in paper bags, not plastic. Plastic bags retain too much moisture, helping fungal diseases to grow.
Label the bags. You will forget what seed is in each bag, and other people may be inclined to throw them away if they are not labeled. The tag needs to state the kind of seed with details about the name. List the location and date in which the seeds were gathered; knowing the age of the seeds will be useful in the future. Seeds slowly grow when stored, but will eventually die if not planted. Some seeds can last for many years, while others should be planted next spring.
Most seeds must be stored in a cool and dry location. The vegetable drawer of the refrigerator is a good place for most seeds. The paper bags with seeds can be stored in airtight containers within the drawer.
E-mail questions to Jeff Rugg, Kendall County unit educator, University of Illinois Extension at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about Jeff Rugg and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.