(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 8, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
My grandfather on my mom's side was a gardener. So was his father before him. I remember once when I was a kid being sent into the basement to fetch Grampa. They lived in an old, old house and the basement had narrow little stairs that were hard to navigate even for a small child. The floor was dirt. This was my first time venturing down there and I was nervous to say the least. It was bright, very bright, and had a strong earthy smell. I rounded the corner at the bottom of the stairs and stopped in awe. The entire basement was filled with homemade tables and above every one was a series of lights. It was green down there!! Now I knew why my Grampa spent so much time there in the winter. It was alive with summer things. There was another room down there too and that is where he was. I ducked in and stopped again. The ceiling was covered with hanging, dead looking stems with roots on them. This is the secret I learned and will share with you today.
Grampa always had geraniums in his gardens. Pelargonium x hortorum, the common geranium. Sold in garden centres everywhere, usually for as little as $0.99 cents each. When I say geranium I am speaking of the Pelargonium. There are over 200 varieties of this common garden plant. They are grown for both their beauty and for their tolerance of full sun conditions. If kept deadheaded they will bloom continuously. They like to be moist when it's hot and dry when it's cool. Too much fertilizer will cause too much foliage and not enough flowers. Very easy to grow and available almost everywhere. This is the reason I believe they are treated as a throw away garden plant. Stop throwing them away!!
I am saddened every fall when I see piles of these wonderful plants at the dump. My grandfather would be too. It is so easy to keep them over the winter. Zonal, scented and ivy geraniums are the best suited to winter storing. The regals ('Martha Washington', etc.) need special care and cool temperatures to bloom. Regals are best if kept in their pots in a cool room for the winter.
To store garden geraniums over the winter you need to dig them up before the first frost. Shake all of the soil away from the roots. Now you have a couple of choices. First choice is to cut the stems down to about 3 inches. Place them upside down in a paper bag and hang from the ceiling somewhere cool and dry and dark. Second choice is to hang the entire plant somewhere cool and dry and dark. Ideally in the 45 to mid 50'sF range.
Check them once a month to make sure the stems are not getting too shriveled. If they seem to be, then take them out of their bags and soak the roots in warmish water for 1 hour. In March, remove all of the dead branches from the ones you hung up whole and pot them up. The ones you pre-trimmed should be showing signs of growth.
My Grandfather always hung the entire plant and I still do to this day. Right about now they are starting to grow new shoots. Those of you living in newer homes with heated basements might have a problem here. If you're lucky enough to have a root cellar that will work too. Crawlspace maybe? As long as the temperature is right.
I know people who plant 30 or 40 geraniums every year. Every fall they throw them all away. Such a waste. With this method of storing them through the winter you could have them for years. This fall, before a frost hits, dig up your geraniums and give it a try. It is so easy and so rewarding. Grandfathers always know best.
Thank you to Happenstance, Kell, kniphofia, mystic and philomel for their wonderful photo additions in Plant Files.