Six on Saturday: Frost Warning

This little Begonia began the season as a rooted cutting overwintered in a bottle of water. I brought it inside today, and will start another cutting from it.

It was nearly dark and too late to do anything by the time we heard there was a frost warning for our area Thursday night.  All day, the weather forecast indicated lows in the 40s, well above freezing.  All we could do was expect the forecast to prove correct and the warning to be simply prophylactic.

I’m not ashamed to admit checking the current temperature every time I woke up.  Each time, I was relieved to see the cushion our plants needed to survive hold as the night wore on. 

We are more than two weeks past our official ‘first frost date,’ and we didn’t see our first night in the 40s even until these past few days. I’ve felt no hurry to bring tender plants inside. This happens every autumn, and maybe I’ve grown too relaxed about it.

The colors grow more intense day be day. Safe for another few days…..

On Tuesday, I finished digging the last of the Caladiums and bringing them into the basement to dry.  That was a very long, involved process, with lots of remodeling of pots, dividing, transplanting, and dumping of old plants and soil. 

Last winter, I experimented with leaving the Caladiums in their pots and lugging those heavy pots into the basement to slowly dry out.  The approach gave very mixed results.  Some returned just fine, and others were never seen again.  I decided to dig and dry all of them this year; at least all that I remembered to seek out. 

This geranium overwintered here on the front porch last winter and bloomed once again by mid-spring. I expect to leave it outside again this year and hope for the best.

On Wednesday, we prepped the garage and house to begin bringing our tender Begonias, Alocasia and tropical ferns indoors.  I’ve been wandering around doing triage, cherry picking which plants to bring indoors first.  It is a balance between protecting them from the cold and depriving them of the beautiful autumn sunshine.  Most of our Begonias look better now than they have at any point this season.  They are vibrant, and full of flowers. 

So far, only a handful of pots come in each day.  As in previous years, we expect temperatures to rise again next week, and there still isn’t any frost in the long-range forecast.  I’ve been doing a bit of homework checking on the cold tolerance of favorite plants.  How low can they go and still thrive?  How long, once they come indoors, until their beauty begins to fade?  How willing will I still feel to take a chance, when staring at nights in the 30s later this month?  That calculus leaves me needing another cup of caffeine.


I learned this week to tell a bird’s nest fern from a hart’s tongue fern.  Both have upright, undivided fronds, and both belong to the genus Asplenium.  But one is very tender, preferring to live in a tropical forest.  The other grows in Europe and proves hardy to at least Zone 6.  And of course, neither was properly labeled when I bought them. 

For the record, tropical bird’s nest ferns grow in a vase shape around a central opening.  Their dying fronds remain attached at the base, hanging down like a skirt, and birds really do nest in the open interior of the fern.  Mine will have to come indoors to live through the winter.  The hart’s tongue fern wanders about on scaly rhizomes.  There is no central space to welcome nesting birds, and the fern doesn’t grow nearly so tall.  I can leave mine on the deck and expect them to thrive.

When we walk outside, the intensity and depth of color lifts us up.  Scarlet calls out to us now from maples and dogwoods, burning bush and ColeusCamellias bloom in shades of white, pink and red.  Mexican sage glows electric purple and blue, and vibrant green glows throughout the garden.  Our garden is filled with birds calling and swooping about and squirrels digging in inconvenient places as they call to one another and scold us for spying on them.

Ornamental pepper

I looked closely at the ornamental pepper we just planted in late September during the ‘fall make-over’ of some hanging baskets.  It continues to throw out new flowers and leaves beneath ripening peppers in shades of ruby and purple.  It clearly hasn’t a care for winter’s approach.  Even the sweet potato vine has newly unfolding leaves. Geraniums bloom just as brightly and consistently as they bloomed last May. 

It would be so easy to enjoy these golden November days and expect them to last.  But change is clearly blowing through the garden with every fresh gust of the Northeast wind.  The first frost of the season approaches.  Will we be ready for it when its icy crystals finally appear in the night?  It will be a busy week ahead.

Begonias and lady ferns will come indoors one day soon…
With appreciation to The Propagator, who hosts Six on Saturday each week


  1. One thing I don’t bother with is tender plants. My gardening season starts in Feb/March when we prune apple trees, and doesn’t wrap up until the end of November. You’d think it would be much shorter with our short summers- but there’s enough to do in preparing for the start and tucking in bare roots roses at the end, I don’t have any desire to add tender plants to my duty list! 😀
    Good for you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kate it sounds like you already have plenty to do! Our season is largely year-round, here. There are only a few weeks in January and early February for a bit of a rest, and there is always clean-up! I only work with the tender plants because I love their leaves so much, and you can’t rely on finding the same plants new year to year. Have a beautiful weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You know, . . . I am pleased that I need not contend with much frost. I find other climates fascinating, and would like to experience more of them, but would not want to work with them regularly. I have been growing my same pelargoniums (zonal geraniums) for most of my life, but probably would not do so if I needed to protect them. They get frosted here, but not so severely that they do not regenerate from the roots. I just cut them back prior to regeneration.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is fascinating, Tony. We consider zonal geraniums annuals here, and mostly buy them fresh each spring. They never get very large in one season, and you may or may not find the particular cultivar and color you favor during the few weeks they are available in the spring. How much nicer to keep the same beloved plants year to year. It is a challenge to garden where the growing season is short, but we also enjoy the pleasures of changing seasons.

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      • The formerly ‘common’ sorts are my favorites because they grow like weeds. I cut them back to the ground at the end of winter, and they regenerate very quickly. We have a few at work that started to develop new growth more than a month ago, so will be a bit more interesting to cut back at the end of winter. (I may need to cut back the old growth while retaining the new growth.) Fancier sorts are weaker, so I regularly grow new copies from pruning scraps. The new copies are ready to replace the originals if they ever do not regenerate after getting cut back. Otherwise, zonal geraniums are quite weedy. Rather than compost pruning scraps that are generated late every winter, I just dump the scraps into a moist spot outside of the landscapes. Some might grow into wild or feral zonal geraniums.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That is all fascinating, Tony. You certainly have a gift and deep understanding of how to grow plants. Your team must learn so much from working with you. When you’re starting cuttings from geraniums to intentionally start new plants, what do you plant the cuttings in? Potting soil? Sand? Which medium do you use? Mine on the porch are also showing lots of new growth along the stems and several have gotten very large. They should be cut back, but it is late to do that now. I just brought home two more geraniums that I planted for my mother in the spring, and she wants me to overwinter them for her. They are still blooming strong! It looks like we may dip down to 31 any time from Saturday night through Tuesday. A hard deadline….

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      • One of my favorite gardening tools is a tire iron from a 1977 Electra. When I cut the zonal geraniums back, I process some of the debris into cuttings. Since there is so much debris, I can be rather selective, and then dump most of the debris into the forest, perhaps where I would not mind more of the zonal geraniums growing from the debris if they are up to it. (They are not aggressively invasive to the ecosystem.) I simply prod the ground with the tire iron, and drop a cutting into the hole, directly where I want new plants. I do this prior to a storm, so that the rain can soak the cuttings in. The geraniums are so abundant that I can use them as a cover crop. It produces a lot of vegetation, but I do not mind. It excludes the weeds and loosens the soil. I do not put cuttings into pots or flats because they are not so easy to grow like that. They are very easy in the ground. Of course, that would not work where they would get killed by frost.
        When I process cuttings, I cut the top just above a node. Stubs rot, so big stubs can rot enough for the rot to spread into the top bud. Terminal cuttings are fine also. I cut the bottom of the cuttings just below an node. So, when cutting a long stem into a few cuttings, there will be a few small sections of internode to discard. I remove the leaves below the nodes, but leave any small leaves that might be developing from the axillary buds. More leaves can remain on terminal cuttings. I do not leave them out to callus, although cuttings of the less vigorous fancy hybrids may benefit from that process, since they are more susceptible to rot.

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      • Thanks very much, Tony- that is all extremely helpful information. If I’m understanding you correctly, you are rooting the cuttings into the Earth and not into potting mix in a container, and you didn’t mention using any hormone powder on the cuttings. You are just trimming them down and sticking them into the holes you’ve made with the tire iron, in the ground ahead of a storm? And they just take off and grow? I am going to try that here in the spring when I have pieces of geranium to work with. Maybe I’ve gone wrong in the past by trying to root geranium stems into pots where the soil is too moist for them to root before they rot….. Or maybe the tire iron from the Electra imparts some special something to the soil that the geraniums need to thrive….?

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      • Rooting hormone is not only unnecessary, but can promote rot with the fancier and less vigorous sorts. I rarely plug cuttings into cans. I only do so for neighbors who want a few copies. Such cuttings are not as happy as those that get plugged directly. I plugged a few into large and well insulated urns at work, and they grew adequately. The tire iron probably does not need to be from an Electra, but should probably be from a Buick, or at least an Oldsmobile. I mean, zonal geraniums might be weeds, but nonetheless, have discriminating standards.

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      • One man’s weed is another’s rose. One more question on plugging- how deep? How many nodes under ground? I’m wondering whether the tire iron works so well because you make make a deeper passage than may be possible with a finger, or a lesser tool. Now I need to add a suitable tire-iron to my list for tool shopping. 😉

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      • The tire iron really does make deep holes, and the cuttings are quite short. At work, I commonly use any convenient stick that is just about six inches long. I would not recommend actually purchasing a tool for such application. (I just enjoy bragging about the awesome tire iron.) The holes may need to be only three inched deep. If I am plugging cuttings six inches apart, I use the same stick to measure distance between the cuttings. (They can go farther apart, but I plug them densely as a cover crop.) I prefer cuttings to be about three of four inches long, but of course, the length depends on the internodes. If cuttings are too short, the bottom lower end of the cutting is not very deep, and therefore close to the surface of the soil, and susceptible to desiccation if the surface of the soil somehow gets dry. Cuttings that are too long are more susceptible to rot, and really do not need to be plugged so deeply anyway. Anyway, cuttings may have as few as two nodes, but should preferably have three or more. Only one node needs to be below the surface of the soil. I prefer to get two nodes below the surface, with only a single node above the surface. Two nodes above the surface are fine also, if there are two or more below the surface. Once plugged, the cuttings do not look like much.

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      • Great information, Tony. Thank you. I generally make the hole with a finger, and if the soil is to dry to go a few inches deep with my finger, my trusted hori-hori does the job. It let’s me make a V shaped opening for cuttings or plugs and has a measurement guide etched into the blade. Geraniums have been the plants I’ve had the most ‘lack of success’ in striking cuttings, and I knew it had to do with the cuttings rotting before they could root. I’ve tried rooting them in water and in potting soil, but haven’t tried just sticking them into the ground. That’s next. My mother sent home a couple of zonal geraniums I planted for her this spring, and I have them on the front patio near the palms, with high expectations that I can keep them alive out there all winter. Then I’ll use your instructions to cut them back hard and strike the cuttings in the spring. Fingers crossed…

        With woody cuttings I like to get three nodes in the ground, with one or two above ground. As they say, ‘Where opportunity meets preparation…’ I figure the more nodes the more chance for strong rooting, and the moister the end of the stem will remain, too.
        I seem to have the most success when I casually push a stem into a pot of something else, walk away and forget about it for a few months. Then I’m always delighted to discover new growth and signs that it is alive some weeks or months later. Plants are just endlessly fascinating, and so full of joy and life.

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      • It would probably be better to get three nodes below the ground than just one or two. I only get one or two because the internodes are so long that a section with three nodes would be quite long.
        If you have use for more cuttings, I can send some later, although most of what we have in the landscapes here are the fancy ‘well bred’ sorts that are not quite so vigorous and weedy.

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      • Tony, that is very sweet of you to offer. Thank you! I expect to be able to generate more cuttings than I can use when I cut back in the spring. But- I’ll circle back and ask for some in the spring if I can use them. I’m wondering what varieties you have in CA that just aren’t available here in VA…. I have been using more geraniums because deer leave them alone- and they are so pretty!

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      • The varieties and some of the cultivars are likely all the same. The varieties that we have here came from there. Some of the cultivars may have been developed here, but then went there. I really do not know what varieties are in my garden and landscapes. One is that large and weedy sort with the very green leaves (with almost no halo or ‘zone’) and bright pink flowers. Another has almost orangish red flowers and faint halos, and gets almost as big. A third, which I am none too keen on, has salmon pink flowers and scrawny tall growth. The cultivars are prettier, but not nearly as big and weedy. ‘Mrs. Pollock’ has halos to the extreme, and had been puny in my former garden, but does quite well here. Bloom is not profuse, and the salmon pink flowers are not impressive, the foliage is rather sharp.


      • I’ve grown ‘Mrs. Pollock,’ but the flowers are too orange for my taste and they clash with the rest of my flowering plants. I love the halos on her leaves, however. I would almost pick off the flower buds just to enjoy the foliage. I like white geraniums, and many shades of pink or salmon. My salmon flowering geraniums have been very scrawny this year, and I don’t know why. Maybe not enough direct sun. I rarely remember their names, and most are probably just labeled ‘Zonal’ anyway. The local nursery where I’ve found gorgeous geraniums in years past had a very slim selection these last 2 years, and sold out very quickly. I’ve had to be content with what I could find. Thus- my interest in starting more from cuttings! I don’t think of geraniums as ‘weedy.’ I would be interested to see what they do for you in your climate and conditions.
        I’m reading a fascinating book this week called The Biology of Bonsai by Brian Gershuny. It is a great refresher on cause and effect with various pruning strategies and explains the timing of caring for trees more clearly than any other source I’ve read. Have you seen it? I have a maple leaf begonia in a shallow pot that looks like a perfect little Bonsai tree. It grew from a cutting this summer despite my neglect. What a joy to see what it did on its own!

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      • I do not read much about what others have to say about pruning because I find that they either know less about it than I do, or what they know is slightly different from what applies to my specific region. The best arborists and horticulturists are not so proficient with writing. Many of those who are proficient with writing are not so proficient with arboriculture or horticulture, and if they are, they compromise a bit of the information for the purpose of entertaining writing style. I try to avoid writing about pollarding and coppicing because I get chastised by American arborists if I condone it, or chastised by English arborists if I condemn it. It is easier to avoid the topic than to compromise, although I must occasionally write about it. It would be nice if an English arborist wrote about it in a manner that American arborists could not argue with, rather than merely assuming that we all ‘accept’ it.
        Anyway, the weedy zonal geraniums get quite vigorous with less boom than the more compact garden varieties. Although very satisfying for their particular purposes, they are not as colorful as some expect them to be. I mean, those who know zonal geraniums might be pleased to know that the weedy sort get taller than six feet, but would be disappointed to see how much of that growth is just foliar. Where I lived in town, I grew none of the very colorful garden varieties, but grow quite a bit of two types of weedy sorts. The bigger one with bright pink flowers grew as a hedge, in a slot between a back fence and a paved laundry yard (which was literally about an inch and half wide). Individual plants were very evenly spaced about a foot apart. They got cut back to knuckles at the end of winter, and grew back voraciously, and got big enough to hang outwardly onto drying laundry. It was rad! The slightly smaller orangish red sort with slightly but slightly more pronounced halos, grew in planter boxed across the front of the two downstairs apartments. They also got cut back at the end of winter, but then got trimmed and groomed so that they did not clutter the windows too much. However, the #1 neighbor wanted them to get a bit taller for a few years, which looked rather shabby. At about the same time, the #2 neighbor had me remove them from his planter boxes, which looked . . . lame.


  3. My first visit to your blog and must say I truly enjoyed reading this post and am compelled to poke around and read some more. You have a lovely writing style which engages the senses with descriptions and subtly teaches the reader about the finer points of being a gardener.

    Have a beautiful week!
    ~ Cindie


  4. You bed out Begonias, the sorts that most people grow in pots, you have a pelargonium survive winter outside, unexpectedly, you’re waiting for/expecting your first frost; all apply here, so now I am asking myself why I don’t grow Caladiums, hardly know anything about them except I think I’d be looking in the house plant section for them. And you still call Coleus by its rightful name, and you grow Camellias. All is good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Jim ❤ ❤ ❤ Yes, Coleus has been moved back to its own genus. My Pelargoniums survive better outside on the patio than those that have come indoors in years passed. Can't quite figure that one out, except that they prefer the outdoors light. We are officially in 7b, but in reality our weather is more 8a. It is in the mid-70s here today and sunny. When you're ready to enjoy Caladiums, check out my favorite Caladium growers:
      The people there are just superb to work with. They are doing some wonderful work with new varieties, and making older varieties more disease and cold resistant. I buy them as tubers and plant them indoors in late March, to move outside in May. You'll find lots of information and instructions if you search on my older Forest Garden site for 'Caladiums.' It sounds like we're in very similar climates, Jim. I hope you get to enjoy some more fine weather before that first frost finds you. Best, -WG


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