Don't Throw Out Those Pelargoniums at the End of the Season!

Posted by @jvdubb on
Storksbill geraniums (Pelargoniums) are a beloved staple in summer containers and landscaping. Every fall most of the summer's selections end up being tossed out, or composted, without a second thought. What you might not know is that Pelargoniums are simple to overwinter, and not as houseplants that require care!

I can be a frugal gardener. I'm known to troll the streets on trash day, seeking out discarded pots and containers to reuse for future plantings or to pot up extra plants for gift or trade. I'm notorious for bringing home a plant I purchased (most likely from the junk shelf and only occasionally at full price) and attempting to divide it as many times as possible. So when I found out five years ago that those seasonal geraniums could be overwintered without care, imagine my delight!

I've known for a long time that seasonal geraniums could be brought in for the winter and grown as houseplants. I did not pay much attention to my mother's gardening when I was a teenager, but I do remember a few pelargoniums added among the houseplants every winter. I never felt the urge to do this when I started gardening in earnest. Despite my success gardening outside, I was a dismal failure with houseplants. One year as I was grumbling about the price of pelargoniums while my mother and I were nursery shopping, she again suggested overwintering them to avoid having to purchase them every spring. As I protested, she mentioned that I could store them bare root. What? I was incredulous. I did some Internet research and I came across an article describing the process. Pull the geraniums before frost, shake off the soil, and store them upside down in a paper bag, or even just hang them out in the open in a dark cool place until the end of winter. Easy! Still, I was skeptical. That fall I decided to try it. After all, what was there to lose?

I watched the weather reports closely so I could pull my pelargoniums just before the first hard frost. I didn't quite get it right and some were pretty damaged by frost, but I thought I would store all of them anyway. Again, what did I have to lose? I opted to try both storage methods. Some I put in paper bags and some I just hung on strings in a darker corner of the basement. I put black garbage bags on the windows to make it as dark as I could. I just could not believe they would survive without some kind of protection. I carefully labeled each bag with the color of the pelargonium inside. I labeled the naked ones with masking tape around one of the stems.

I checked on them often during the winter, like a mother hen. I was shocked to see that some of them even had shoots of new growth. Granted, it was weak and yellowish, but they were still trying to grow! I made a note to try to find a darker place for them the following year if this worked. By mid-March I could not take the suspense any longe. It was time to pot them up and see whether they would return. I cut all of them back to two or three inches and potted them up. At the time I did not have a sunny available window at home, so I took them all into work and put them in a sunny window there. My coworkers were very curious. I told them these greenish-brown sticks were going to grow into beautiful plants. They all nodded their heads and smiled, surely thinking I was not quite right. Sure enough, new growth started to appear. Even more amazing was the daily visit by many of my coworkers to check on the progress. It was enlightening to see how a few plants and their growth could bring a bit of delight to someone's day. When the first bud appeared, the crowd went crazy! Okay, I'm exaggerating a bit now.
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I cannot remember exactly, but I think that first year I stored ten pelargoniums, and I would say that eight of them returned to be fully functional selections the following year. The plants that were hung out in the open did just as well as the ones stored in paper bags. The frugal gardener in me was hooked! The second year I did not grumble one bit paying for the plants now that I knew they did not have to be annuals. Not only that, but in the fall I trolled the streets in search of pelargoniums tossed out with the trash or asked neighbors to save theirs for me. My husband just shook his head. He teased that some people ran dog or cat rescues. I ran a geranium rescue! I no longer bothered storing any in paper bags, I had too many to mess with the extra steps. The next two years the only ones I purchased were in colors I did not have, and my friends and coworkers were delighted to get free pelargoniums in the spring.

Three years ago we moved to a new house. I specifically requested that the seller leave all the pelargoniums. You see, this house has a crawl space that is 12 x 20 feet! Perfect for storing dormant plants and tubers. That fall I overwintered more than 50 of these geraniums. Some of them were on their fourth year. In the spring I no longer have to take them into work because I now have two sunny windows.
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In general, I have found that roughly 80% survive dormancy. The longest I have saved a single plant is five seasons. After the third year, I find that they become woody and the resulting plant is less vigorous. Of course, the healthier the plant is going into dormancy, the more likely it is to survive. But I have had some that have surprised me, so I save all of them just in case. I have heard that you should cut the plants back some before storing, check them occasionally to make sure they are not drying out, and water the roots if they are drying out. I do not mess with any of this. As long as your storage area is cool and not overly dry, you should not have to hassle with these extra steps.

This is an example of a top candidate for storage
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The three on top here are good candidates, and the bottom three may end up in my 20% that do not survive.
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This year I am experimenting with storing them in my pump room. Last year the winter was brutal and my crawl space got too cold. The pump room has fewer temperature fluctuations. It does not have windows, so it is dark, but we do have to go in there from time to time, so it will get some light. I am not worried: During my first year storing pelargoniums, they were not in total darkness and I had the same survival rate as I have had every year since.

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Storing pelargoniums over the winter is so easy! Why don't more gardeners do it? Give it a try. You have nothing to lose!

 
Comments and discussion:
Thread Title Last Reply Replies
Updated pictures of my Geraniums in storage by jvdubb Jan 29, 2015 12:24 PM 0
They are no longer under the influence of drugs! by CarolineScott Nov 11, 2014 5:33 AM 10
Pelargonium rescue by chelle Nov 8, 2014 8:34 AM 16
Untitled by donnabking Nov 1, 2014 8:26 PM 1
Great info! by luvsgrtdanes Nov 1, 2014 2:09 PM 4
The paper bag method by zuzu Nov 1, 2014 2:03 PM 3
Love Geraminums! by vic Nov 1, 2014 11:45 AM 2
Storing Geraniums by KurtMN Nov 1, 2014 8:35 AM 0

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