The Q&A Archives: Wintering Over Red Hot Hibiscus

Question: I've a couple of Red Hot Hibiscus that have done really well in my garden. I love the different foilage colors they offer. However, as winter is looming, how do I care for them? Do I prune them back and mulch them, or let them be and the leaves will in next spring?
Thanks for any guidance you have to offer.

Answer: Your Hibiscus is a tender or tropical hibiscus, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis. A shrub usually no more that 3' tall when grown in a pot (8-10' when grown in the landscape in mild winter regions), its 4"-8" flowers are open for only one day, but they may be produced in profusion.

In its native tropical habitat it blooms for most of the year, slowing down only in the cool, or dry, or wet season, as the case may be. In Michigan, the seasonal climatic changes are much more extreme. While the Chinese hibiscus loves to be out in full sun in your hot and humid summer and will bloom profusely there, it must be brought in before first frost. How you handle it in the winter depends on your facilities.

If you have a greenhouse or a sunny garden room that is fairly warm, and your hibiscus can be in sun for several hours each day, you can keep it full-foliaged and blooming, at least to some degree, through the winter. The frequency of watering and fertilizing should be reduced from the summer maximum; the soil should continue to be kept evenly moist but not saturated, but the frequency of waterings to achieve this will be reduced as the plant's activity slows.

If you have no such facility, you can still keep your hibiscus alive for the next year. In September cease fertilizing and reduce water until the leaves begin to fall. Before frost, bring the plant in and place it in a cool place (not freezing) where it will get some light-it does not have to be sunlight or even bright light. Stored thus, you may allow the upper inch or two of soil to dry out; but water enough through the winter to keep the roots moist.

The next spring, when the weather has thoroughly warmed and there is no chance of another frost, it will have few or no leaves. Bring it out onto the terrace in the sun and prune it back as far as you wish. Resume the water and fertilizer and watch it grow and, in a few weeks, bloom-and even more profusely due to its pruning-back and dormant period.

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