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.