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Sunday, October 19, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Practical Gardener

How To Keep Geraniums, Fuchsias Over The Winter

Special To The Seattle Times

Q: How can I keep geraniums over winter? And fuchsias?

A: When tender plants reach large sizes at the end of summer, it's certainly difficult to lose them to frost. Several different methods apply to keeping them alive through the cold season.

Leave them outside as long as possible. Light levels are better outside than indoors, no matter how cloudy the day. Geraniums, either the common flowering pelargoniums or the scented-leaf types, will take cool temperatures into the 40s but are damaged in the 30s and killed at freezing. They can be kept successfully through winter if protected from freezing temperatures.

If space permits, geraniums can be brought inside to a well-lighted place and treated as houseplants throughout the winter until temperatures moderate in May. They won't bloom much indoors and will grow slowly, if at all. They are not particularly beautiful or suited to indoors, so keeping them growing as houseplants demands some dedication to their survival.

Cut back any broken branches and water moderately to keep the soil damp but never soggy. Fertilize lightly if at all during the darkest days of winter. In late February or March, the plants will begin to put out new growth and will then need more water and more fertilizer. Obviously if your garden includes a heated greenhouse, plants can be overwintered there.

A cool area with no frost will work for wintering geraniums in dormancy. An unheated garage, a cool basement or any other well-insulated cool building or shed will work. Prune back the tops of the geraniums, leaving about 8 inches of branches. Set the pots in the cool, dark space. The plants can go quite dry during winter, but check and water them once or twice. The stems shouldn't get wrinkled and dessicated. Basically, this method results in keeping the roots alive without allowing the plant to start growing.

Move the geraniums into light in early spring, prune out dead material, repot, and water regularly.

Fuchsias require different care.

Geraniums can dry out and still survive. Fuchsias, however, must stay moist all winter to grow again in spring. Some common "basket"-type fuchsias such as "Jack Shahan" will stay alive outside if the winter is moderate to mild without deep freezes. They do need mulch, however, for protection. Often these plants will adapt to garden life and become hardy plants.

If there is any concern about hardiness, provide more protection. Many growers simply cut back the plants, plunge them in the ground and protect them with a mulch of sawdust or leaves over the whole plant. If drainage is good, the plants should survive well. The fuchsia doesn't need light when it's not in active growth.

To keep them indoors, for especially tender varieties, store in a cool basement or shed (the same conditions as for the geraniums). I grow the lovely orange "Gartenmeister Bonstedt," which is extremely sensitive to cold and needs to winter indoors.

Cut them back before storing. You want to have a small, upright plant with only about 8 inches of bare branches (they will lose all their leaves). Keep the plants watered, because they will die if they dry out.

In early spring, bring the plants into light and begin watering and fertilizing. Repot if desired. The plants will grow more slowly than those found in nurseries, because light and temperature conditions are not ideal. They may not make a full, flowering basket until late July.

Taking care of tender plants like this is one way to develop a real appreciation for the skill and efforts of nurseries and greenhouses that raise plants.

Q: Is this a good time of year to move a large rhododendron?

A: Rhododendrons can be moved relatively easily, and this is a good time of year for transplanting nearly any sort of garden shrub.

Prepare the planting area before digging the shrub. Pick a well-drained place. Rhododendrons grow best with a high proportion of organic matter such as compost, aged sawdust, composted leaves or peat moss in the planting area. Don't just add compost to the planting hole; amend a wider area so that the plant isn't sitting in a "bathtub" of soggy ground. The roots require oxygen and will not thrive in heavy clay soils. Partial shade is best.

Water the plant well two or three days before digging it. Fall rains may have accomplished this for you, but check to be sure the roots are moist all the way down before attacking with a shovel. Rhododendrons have quite compact roots that are close to the surface and can generally be lifted in a solid mass. Take as much of the root ball as possible.

Plant the shrub at the same level it was in the previous location. Laying a shovel handle across the hole to check the level of the root ball will help. Cover the planting area and the root ball lightly with two to three inches of organic mulch.

After planting, water it in well. Don't let the plant dry out after it has been moved. It may even require water during cold, clear, rainless winter spells. Pay special attention to watering for the next two to three years.

Gardening runs Friday in Scene and Sunday in Home/Real Estate. It is prepared by Mary Robson, area horticulture agent, Washington State University/King County Cooperative Extension.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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