red-geraniums-in-a-window-boxThe first of three posts about geraniums — that most iconic midcentury flower — from Marybeth, a writer and avid gardener:

Hurry! Do you still have potted summer geraniums? If you have not had a heavy frost in your area, you can bring these half-hardy perennials inside to overwinter.  That is what our Mid Century Modest forebears would have done.  Overwintering geraniums is easy.  You have two options: (1) dormant style, in which your sleeping beauties are set out to be kissed into bloom next summer; and (2) houseplant style, with some winter bloom depending on your light conditions but always, the fat, padded, escalloped leaves to enjoy.  In either case, you will have plants for next year’s white window box or terra cotta porch pot.

We begin the same way for both options.  You need:

  1. clean scissors or garden shears
  2. balanced fertilizer (20-20-20) like Shultz or Miracle Gro (liquid is easier to deal with)For the houseplant option, you will also need:
  3. strong dishwashing soap like Dawn
  4. mister/spritzer atomizer/spray bottle

For both options: TRIM TO ONE THIRD.  Yes, even if you wince and the plant protests.  We are signalling to the plant that now is the time to return to roots and concentrate plant energy near the cuts.  Think of this also:  under the famine times of winter, the plant cannot support full growth anymore.

For the dormant option:

  1. After trimming to one third, take the root ball out of the pot.
  2. Gently, shake the soil free, reserving the soil.
  3. Return the soil to the pot, mixing carefully.  You want to make sure the soil has a uniform texture.
  4. Re-pot the plant in this “remixed” soil.
  5. Water lightly to remove all air pockets.
  6. Place the pot in a dark, cool spot; Between 60 and 45 is good, which means that you may want a cool basement, enclosed porch, or garage, depending on your climate zone.  Too cold, and the plant freezes.  Too warm? You may want to try the house plant option.

For the house plant option:

  1. Soak the plant with a good dose of water, letting the roots and soil soak.
  2. Lightly fertilize the plant as directed.
  3. Spritz the plant and soil surface with a misting of one part detergent to four parts water. Geraniums are prone to mites.  This soap treatment will help with this problem.
  4. Place the pots in a sunny window BUT NOT with direct southern, afternoon sun. Geraniums need light to bloom but not so much as to be sun stroked.  Think about your sun habits:  enough to enjoy and not enough to burn.
  5. Geraniums can be happy with periodic trying out of the soil.  I water moderately once a week, fertilizing once a month.
  6. If you get blooms, then toast the cheery lipstick-hued flowers by buying and wearing a matching hue!  If you do not have blooms, your light conditions are likely not right.  However, the leaves are lovely. And, you can delight in your thriftiness.  In the spring, you will be geranium-ready, without spending money.

Getting ready for spring:  in February or March, depending on your spring time, the houseplant geraniums will appreciate your continued care.  Put outside, as weather permits, during warm days, but bring inside at night.  If you do this for a week, then your plants will adjust to the harsher conditions of outside.  For the sleeping beauty plants, bring to a window in February and March and break dormancy by watering (weekly) and fertilizing (monthly).

Thank you, Marybeth! I didn’t put out any geraniums this summer, but I think that next year I will — so that I can overwinter them!

  1. Chrissie says:

    I decided to winter my “clearance sale rescue” geranium two years ago in my kitchen . Not only did it do amazingly well , its now two feet tall and fills my bay window with bursts of cheery color in my kitshy kitchen . My success with my first one led to many more being kept year long with blooms on my kitchen .

    1. MbS says:

      C, good for you. Any tips on your interior conditions? Northern window? What is your water/fertilization schedule? Do you repot before summer?

  2. Gavin Hastings says:

    A question, Pam-
    With Dormant Option:
    Does one just walk away after placing it in the cool dark basement or should the plant get occasional water?

    1. MbS says:

      G., I am in the no water camp. Water is a trigger for the plant to break dormancy. I did water when I first started this practice, but I found that the roots and stems went moist, to moldy, and in some cases, to “jelly” slime textured dead. I live in zone 7, in the Mid Atlantic. Humid in summer and sometimes in winter…so, my basement is also likely rather full of mold spores or fungi sports just waiting for a reason to assert themselves.

      Do others have thoughts on watering, if say, the winter is very long? Or in extremely dry conditions?

  3. kate mckinnon says:

    Are you saying that dormant plants don’t get watered all winter?
    I can’t imagine how they could last, dormant or not, totally dry.

    1. MbS says:

      K, see what I said to G. However, are you extremely dry or long-wintered? Check with a nursery or your local extension agent.

      1. kate mckinnon says:

        Well, I live in Arizona, so I never bring my geraniums in, but yes, I would think that in a dry climate a person would need to water them from time to time.

  4. Tracy says:

    Thank you for this! i was just looking at my deck geraniums this morning wondering if I could bring them in. I wish I had a bay window or greenhouse window but I don’t really have anywhere to put them where they’ll get enough sun as houseplants so I guess I’ll do the dormant option. I’m wondering about the continued watering of them too though.

    1. MbS says:

      Hi T., One reason to be encouraged about trying is this: the alternative is to toss them, as we do with many seasonal plants. I have only had one geranium not overwinter in dormancy well…this is due to the fact that I waited too long. One very light frost and geraniums really look shriveled and weakened.

  5. Elaine says:

    I brought in my geraniums yesterday. Oh, my, must I really cut them off? Can I try rooting the cuttings? There are some flowers, can I wait til they are done?

    1. MbS says:

      Hi E, I wince too at cutting my plants. Here is this tradeoff; without trimming, your geranium will get tall and leggy and woody at the base. This can look ok for a year, but within two or three years you have a lot of relatively gnarly plant and only a few blooms and leaves. The trim action on the plant cause the plant to renew itself close to the roots and soil. This is a GOOD THING. But, I hear you. I also suspect that geraniums trimmed will live well for three to five seasons….even longer, depending on climate, luck, and plant hardiness, as well as your care plan.

      About cuttings and rootings: in my humid climate, I now longer try this. Keeping the little darlings moist without inviting mold and other damp-demons is not easy. However, check with your local nursery and ag extension in your county. They will have advice for you. I think that the optimal time to do this may be past. But, I am often cheerfully wrong. Let us know what you decide.

      Finally, wait until the blooms stop: does that ease your pain? 🙂

      1. Elaine says:

        Yes, that does make me feel better. 🙂 Thanks! I will do as you suggest. I have wintered them for a season or two without cutting, and they do look leggy.

  6. Jen8 says:

    My Dad used to put his in paper bags in the basement for winter.

    I bring mine in as houseplants in a very cool but bright sunporch. I lost one last spring because grubs ate the roots all winter. Even more gross than slugs. This year I am going to pull them out of the pots and make sure there are no grubs in the soil. I have had same plants for years.

    1. MbS says:

      J, what was his watering plan, if any? I think paper bags are a great way to keep them in the dark without inviting the dank demons of mold, etc. Perhaps way to use the left-over lunch bags, that, sadly, are no longer needed as my children fly away.

      1. Jen8 says:

        He would keep them in the bags in basement and give the roots a drink 2 or 3 times. I think its just as easy to keep them in their pots. And keep them upstairs.

  7. Marsha says:

    Excellent post.
    I have been overwintering for a number of years and geraniums are pretty hardy. I don’t water, fertilize, nor do I store in a dark area. I store mine at work, in our warehouse, as I don’t have room in my basement.

  8. Renee says:

    I am new to your website, but stumbled onto this post and just wanted to add my “overwintering geranium tips”.
    I bring my plants in and keep them as houseplants, sort of. I don’t bring them in expecting blooms all winter long, I just want to keep them alive so that I can set them out in the spring. (All plants have a natural rest period anyway.)
    First I pull them out of their pots to check for bugs, then after setting them back into their pots, I put them all in my bathtub and give them a good soaking with my handheld shower. (I do this to all of my houseplants 2x a year to wash out accumulated salts) After this, if they are in full bloom, I leave the flowers until they start to fade simply because I can’t bring myself to trim them off. I don’t cut my plants back right away, I feel the move indoors and a drastic trim at the same time are a lot for the plant to handle. When the plants start to drop a lot of leaves and look yellow, because of the lower light conditions, I then go ahead and trim them back 1/3 to 1/2. I don’t fertilize because I am not trying to encourage growth, I just want the plant to stay healthy and stress free and trying to encourage growth in the indoor drier and low light conditions can be stressful for the plant. (Just keep them watered lightly.)
    Finally, as spring begins to approach I start to fertilize and pinch back any growth that may have occurred. When all danger of frost has almost past I start to introduce the plants to the outdoors for a few hours each day in indirect sun. Right before they go outdoors for the season I once again pinch back growth to encourage branching.
    This method has worked well for me, I live in South Western Pennsylvania.

  9. Rufus Valentine says:

    I’ve had pretty good luck overwintering my geraniums using the dormant option. I fertilize them well through the growing season, and right around the time of the first frost, I cut them back a bit and bring them into the basement. I have a southwest corner with ample diffused light, where it’s never above 65 degrees. I don’t water them but one time in January. As soon as the daytime temps average in the mid-fifties, I bring them outdoors onto the south-facing deck, repot them in new, richer soil, hit them with a time-release fertilizer, water them thoroughly and regularly, and let them restart. Sometimes I have to prune them back a bit once the new growth begins. It’s nice to see something not go to waste.

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