It’s that time of year when a gardener’s thoughts turn to the coming frost. In most of Virginia, that’s sometime around mid-October. Many can't resist trying to preserve some tender plants for next spring.
“Gardeners are frugal. There’s no better plant than a free plant and so if you can get it to survive for next year so if you can get it to survive the winter that’s pretty much a free plant for next year that you don’t have to spend money on," says Holly Scoggins, Director of the Hahn Horticulture Garden at Virginia Tech. She points to a striking specimen with huge lustrous leaves that stands as tall as we do.
“This is a Colocasia, they’re called ‘elephant ears, this is Colocasia ‘black coral.’ This is a brand new introduction that we’re really proud to have here at the garden. And it’s got 2 to 3 foot, glossy black leaves, with a purple hue to the stems. This is definitely a plant that I would want to save over the winter."
Scoggins says it is possible to get tropical plants through the winter, but it takes work. It means digging them up, shaking off the loose soil, and storing them in a place cool enough to stop their growing cycles, but not so cold that they freeze entirely. She says the key is to know when the frost dates are for your area.
“A lot of times, your tender plants, it won’t hurt them if they get a little frost damage. In fact it might help slow things down if you’re going to dig them up and take them in."
There’s also a less labor-intensive approach that can help some plants weather the winter. Technically it’s called, taking your chances.
“There’s a wonderful term, tender perennials or ‘temperennials’ and this is a whole class of plants that may come back or may not come back. It depends on the winter, it depends on the amount of moisture we get, it depends on snow cover. Snow is an excellent insulator actually.”
But some people, who may remain nameless, just can’t bear to leave their favorite plants out there to brave the cold months. Scoggins says there’s a name for that.
“We hate to see it go and we call it ‘pet plant’ syndrome, when there’s a plant that you bought at a nursery far away, you mail ordered it, or it was expensive, or it was passed down from a friend, we just can’t le t it go so we do our best to help it survive the winter to plant it out another day.”
Still sometimes, even the most careful planning won’t help keep outdoor plants alive indoors. But with the optimism of an associate professor of horticulture, Scoggins says that can lead to yet another of the joys of gardening.
“As most gardeners know a dead plant is an opportunity. So you can go out in the spring and get something new to put there. So that’s the upside of your plants not making it through winter.”
The first frosts in Virginia normally arrive in mid October and don’t depart until the middle of May.