I did one of my least favorite preparing-the-garden-for-winter chores this week. I cut back my geraniums and put them in the dark for the next 6 months.
The whole process of putting gardens to bed in the fall makes me sad. All those beautiful annuals, which gave so much all summer, go to the compost pile. The perennials, some still doing their best to produce flowers, get cut way back.
I’m not going to tell you how I talk to the plants as I cut them back and consign them to compost. It’s a little embarrassing. But it does make me feel better, to reassure them that they were wonderful.
The geraniums, for me, are the most difficult. They still look so completely fabulous, in the traditional red and this crazy-pretty salmon color.
The only thing that makes me feel better is that, with a little luck, some of these plants will survive the winter and be back, better than ever, next summer.
Most people who really garden know that geraniums can be over-wintered. When we lived in a house with a proper basement, I could count on the geraniums every year. I would just cut them back, including getting all the blooms off, and put them in the basement. It was cool in the basement, but not cold, and they got a little light, but not much. I could throw water on them if I thought they were excessively dry but, mostly, I just said “Hi” when I went down to do laundry. When spring started to come around, I’d start watering and give them more light, and all would be groovy.
But now I live in a house with only a completely lightless crawlspace beneath. It stays pretty warm, it stays pretty damp-ish, and it’s 100% pitch black. We don’t really go down there at all, all winter. I sure wouldn’t want to spend 6 hours down there, let alone 6 months!
When we first moved here and I realized I had no place to properly over-winter the geraniums, I decided I’d just stick them in the crawlspace and see what happened. I figured they would die but they were going to die anyway, if I left them outside. I was sad, of course, especially about the salmon ones because I’d had them for a few years at that point; we were old friends.
When the plants came out of the crawlspace that first May, it was a kind of horrifying sight. They were alive but looked undead, kind of the albino-vampire-zombie version of geraniums.
The stems were completely white and spindly, very leggy, like they were desperately trying to find some light, any light. I couldn’t imagine these pale pretenders ever looking alive again.
But we’d come this far together so I cut off the dead stuff and the really spindly stuff, I watered them and I put them in a warm, sunny spot.
And, slowly, the most amazing thing happened. The stalks became hot pink and little green leaves sprouted.
Then, they became gorgeous again.
I guess it’s not really all that amazing. We probably all have a story about nature bouncing back against all odds. But these geraniums, and their will to flourish, sort of symbolize what spring is all about to me.
So, in the fall, as I put the geraniums into their lightless prison, I think about spring. And I think about my own winter, hunkered down in my warm, cozy house, with the geraniums sleeping beneath me. I think about how we’ll all keep a low profile for the winter and reappear come spring, very pale, craving the sun, but ready to thrive!