Sometimes it’s better to say goodbye

by OCMGA Communications Committee

Several of the finest summer container plants are problem children in winter: unable to withstand frost, yet all ill-suited to life indoors. They don’t die if you bring them into the living room, but they look so bad you almost wish they would. Lantanas drop all their leaves. Hibiscus drop many leaves and even make pale, weak new ones, the better to support even more bugs.

Off to the basement! Except that you can’t. Unlike, for instance, fig trees, these tropical and sub-tropicals plants don’t go truly dormant. Short-term dark storage is possible, but only for six to eight weeks. They may not be actively growing, but they still need light.

What to do? The ideal off-season environment for such fussbudgets is about 50ºF, with moderate humidity and low but consistent light. If you have an unheated room with north-facing windows, group the plants there. A sunporch (with a space heater for supercold nights) will also work, if you keep the plants well away from the windows and don’t mind opening them on bright days when the room warms up.

You can even try the basement if you’re willing to invest in grow lights, though it may take a bit of experimenting to determine the right number of lights, and a bit of ingenuity to rig them up at the proper distance from the plants.

No matter where you put your plants, don’t let out of sight be out of mind. It takes only a few hours for temperatures to rise or fall significantly enough to require adjustment. The plants will need minimal care, but they will need water from time to time, and may develop insect problems. Keep the soil just moist enough so the roots don’t dry out. Watch for bugs, and spray with insecticidal soap as soon as they show up.

In other words, as a general rule, the best way to keep these plants over the winter is as memories: take a lot of pictures — allow them to die, or give them away — at the end of the season, and start over with fresh ones next year. The only exceptions that make sense are for rare plants that cannot be replaced, huge plants that can’t be replaced, and of course, homemade standards, the training of which is a multi-year proposition.

In Search of the Great Pumpkin

by OCMGA blog editor Vicki Schilleman

  • Pumpkins originated in Central America
  • Pumpkins are really squash
  • The largest pumpkin ever grown is 2,323.7 pounds.
  • The largest pumpkin pie weighed 3,699 pounds, and is 20 feet in diameter
  • Pumpkins are grown all over the world on six of the seven continents, with Antarctica being the sole exception. They are even grown in Alaska.
  • A pumpkin is not a Jack O’Lantern, until it is carved.
  • Pumpkins were once recommended as a cure for freckles.
  • They were used as a remedy for snake bites.
  • Pumpkin seeds help avoid prostate cancer in men.
  • Halloween evolved, in part, from the Celtic tradition of All Hallow’s Eve.
  • Native Americans fed pumpkins to their horses.
  • Pumpkin flour can be used in place of wheat flour. It has many health and medicinal benefits.
  • Pumpkins are gluten free.
  • At the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621, the pilgrims did not serve pumpkin pie, Rather, they made stewed pumpkin.
  • Food manufacturers use tan colored pumpkins to make pumpkin puree.
  • The furthest a pumpkin has ever been shot from a cannon is 4,491 feet at the Morton Pumpkin Festival, Illinois in 1998.
  • The world’s fastest time to carve a face into a pumpkin is 54.72 seconds by Stephen Clarke set on October 23, 2001 in New Jersey.
  • The Halloween practice of pumpkin-carving has its origins in an Irish folktale about a drunkard named Jack who trapped the devil in an apple tree. This led to great problems when Jack died. Denied entrance to heaven or hell, he roamed the earth, lighting his way with a hot coal in a pumpkin.

Bulb Planting

Who doesn’t have problems with squirrels or skunks digging up bulbs you plant in the fall? It seems to be a widely held problem. Bulbs are vegetables so anything that wants to eat vegetables will go after them. I have yet to see freshly turned earth that doesn’t draw an inquisitive squirrel even if they don’t want the bulb or plant. Instead of putting them back, though, when they realize it’s nothing they want, they just leave them laying on top of the ground. Terrible manners! Putting fencing or hardware cloth over your freshly planted bulbs will discourage digging.

With skunks, who are carnivores, they may be after grubs or worms, but usually its bone meal. As cinnamon is to apple pie, so bone meal is to bulb planting; almost everyone uses it whether they need to or not.

Bone meal, a by-product of cattle processing, is rich in phosphorus, which is important for plant strength and flower quality, and it is an ideal source of this element because it is slow, gentle, and very easy to use — even if you apply too much it won’t hurt anything.

Chemical sources such as superphosphate, on the other hand, are quick-acting but very strong, so they must be used carefully. If they touch the roots, they can damage or even kill plants; they unbalance the microscopic life of the soil; and because they’re highly soluble, the dissipate rapidly, often washing out of the earth and into the nearest waterway, where phosphorus is a pollutant.

Given these problems, it’s no wonder that bone meal has long been the gold standard for phosphorus supplementation. Recently, though, concern about mad cow disease has caused some to ask if humans could become infected by inhaling bones meal from infected cows. The scientific jury is still out, but meanwhile, there are two alternatives.

The first is to just say no. If your soil if rich in organic matter, all that supplemental phosphorus is probably unnecessary.

If stunted growth, decreased flowering, or a soil analysis tells you that you DO want to add phosphorus, you can use rock phosphate instead of bone meal. It’s very slow acting, but it’s also very safe, and not attractive to skunks.

Note: It’s generally not necessary to fertilize spring-flowering bulbs when you plant them. Assuming you’ve bought quality bulbs, next year’s bud is already inside and your first season of bloom is assured. Just work the soil throughly, so it’s friable and drains well. When the leaves appear in spring, sprinkle some compost or well-rotted cow manure around the base of the plant, or water once with a high-phosphorus soluble fertilizer, diluted to half-strength.

Drought vs Fall

In our area of Wisconsin, we’ve had very little rain during August and September. When I go up north where we had a lot of rain this year, I see the leaves starting to change and wonder if the lack of rain will ruin our chances for good color at home. So, a little research …

While summer droughts cause many problems, the weather that matters for fall color is the weather of the moment. The perfect display is a balancing act: enough rainfall just as autumn begins, temperature, and sunlight during the period when lengthening nights initiate the process that gradually closes off the leaf petiole. Cool temperatures reduce chlorophyll production, and as it breaks down, the yellows and oranges of other chemicals show through. No matter what you’ve hear about a certain Jack, frost is not essential for color; in fact, it is actually a problem. Freezing temperatures produce muted colors and can kill leaves. Bright, sunny days encourage the production of red chemicals in some trees. But the most important ingredient for a perfect display is a four-year-old on her first trip north.

The most beautiful autumn displays, the ones that cause a sharp intake of breath when rounding a bend on a back road, happen when we are very young or very old, the times when we are most observant and most willing to be thrilled. In the years between, the quality of displays is up or down, with the credit or blame going to the vagaries of weather.


Twice in the past couple of years I’ve had friends asking me why their plants are struggling. I’m no expert, but a little probing found the answer pretty quickly: there was a black walnut tree in the vicinity.

Black Walnut

Although the reasons for it are not fully understood, allelopathy (pronounced al-lull-LOP-path-ee) is a kind of antagonism between two plant species. The black walnut may be the best known example. Its roots, leaves, and branches produce a substance that is toxic to some other plants grown in the same soil. Tomatoes and alfalfa are among the susceptible species.

Alleopathic effects have also been found on the balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera), whose roots inhibit the growth of the green alder (Alnus crispa mollis). The toxins produced by the roots of the desert sagebrush (Salvia leucophylla) and the California artemisia (Artemisia californica) result in their being surrounded by 3 to 6 feet of bare space. It’s likely that this is a survival strategy, insuring the allelopathic plants have more of the available nutrients and water.

The allelopathic property of the annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is frequently mentioned, but it is not as strong as many fear. It spreads only a foot or two, and can be mitigated by regularly raking up the seed hulls and discarding them.

For information on plants that can survive the proximity to a black walnut tree, see the following article:

You may also want to refer to one of our earlier posts: