Overwintering tender perennials – is it worth the bother?

mauve salvia
1laura
Laura

So you succumbed to temptation and bought a lovely salvia just starting to flower in late July and now it is still looking great but frosts are threatening and you are wondering what you should do.
Salvias are a bit of a task to keep going year on year, they mainly come from places like Mexico and Africa where winters are not as cold and wet as we get here, so a bit of forethought is needed.
Some of the hardier cultivars such as ‘Amistad’ and ‘Phyllis Fancy’ you may be able to leave in the ground with the safeguard of a good mulch – both cracking plants, you can have a look at both in my video this week  (try to overlook the music, Caroline is still at the ‘keen learner’ stage) . The smaller flowered jamensis  and greggii types need a very sheltered spot, perfect drainage and a dollop of good luck to see them safely through and there are the truly tender species such as leucantha (Louise’s Plant of the Month ) and discolor with which you have absolutely no hope at all.
So you need to set aside time to take cuttings, around August, which will root pretty easily in small pots that will take up minimal space on windowsill or frost free greenhouse, and can be planted out again next spring.
Some people, aka my sisters, think this is too much trouble and won’t bother. My view on it is that time is a finite commodity with many fixed and immutable demands upon it (working, shopping, watching Bake-off….) so in gardening, as in life, there are choices to be made on how you spend your time; what is important to you; what gives most back to your wellbeing and happiness. This may result in you having a neat and tidy garden, or a well stocked vegetable plot. For me it is a garden full of unusual plants from all over the world that enchant me.

2 Elaine
Elaine

You are so right, Laura, that I find a great deal more to do in the autumn than faffing around with precious little princesses.  No question – Laura’s exquisite rare salvias always blow me away when I see them in her garden in late summer, but then a line from Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress springs to mind ‘Had we but World enough, and time’……but I DON’T have World enough, or time, or a greenhouse, or inclination, to be fannying around with individual high-maintenance WAGS of the plant-world – moving them in, or tinkering about with cuttings, over-wintering them, growing them on, moving them out again – no, no, no, not for me.  If it’s not an annual and can’t get through the winter (and I know I am very fortunate in being able to grow a lot more outside than either of my sisters) without all the mollycoddle-stuff, you won’t find it in my garden.
Autumn is a time for moving and dividing, cutting down, taking a critical view.

Purple geranium
Geranium ‘Bankside’ – who wouldn’t want more of it?

A ‘Rozanne’ type geranium called ‘Bankside’ has delighted me this year and is still in charming flower.  I will divide it now while the soil is still warm and wet, and the divisons will grow away quite the thing next spring, no mollycoddling for them.  And you can do that with hundreds of plants – phlox, asters, persicarias, bergenias, achilleas, campanulas, lots and lots (but leave things that like dryer conditions and grasses and divide them in the spring).  More than enough to fill your time in autumn without resorting to the horticultural navel-gazing of tender perennials.  And if you’re still short of something to do, look around at the glowing jewels on Malus ‘Golden Hornet’, the flames of a maple, the astonishing purple berries of a callicarpa – stop and wonder.

Caroline
Caroline

Yes how irritating of Laura to advise us in, er, October that we should have been taking salvia cuttings in August. It’s reminiscent of the 1970s when she’d inform me that if I’d wanted to go on theschool trip I should have submitted the form three weeks earlier.
When I lived in the Highlands, and had only  a decaying cold frame in a dark and damp hole by way of protection, I was amazed at how effective it proved just to pot up plants and pull them in close to the house. Huddled against a south-facing wall I overwintered things like Chatham Island forget-me-knot and melianthus, but being inland this was very dependent on the type of winter it was. It could dip to something like -18 on a barometric whim, and if you live in a similar location this rather lightweight gardening tip should be applied with caution.

Chatham Island Forget me Not
Chatham Island Forget Me Not – survived a Highland winter but needed a cosy wall location

But I’m not sure Elaine’s division suggestion is much of a solution either. Many of us don’t have space for MORE of a plant – unlike her we aren’t bent on laying the Cherbourg peninsula under cultivation. I just want what I’ve got, to survive in my current Scottish coastal location where horticultural fleece is as effective as a bride’s veil on a roller coaster.

Mulch and luck have to be the answer.  Never mind the metaphysical poets, no one values their time more than me; at any one moment I know exactly how long it is until wine’o’clock, but even I can squeeze in a quick mulch-buying trip (or buy it online from Waitrose – it’s impregnated with anti-slug stuff too). I find it slightly challenging to identify exactly where my ‘tenders’ are in the herbaceous borders, particularly if they flowered a while back, and I worry that if I heave hundredweights of mulch everywhere my delicate little irises will struggle to get through in March, but by that time the sun has tipped over the yard arm; my fears and responsibilities start to ebb away and I’m well up for a bit of stopping and wondering.
Grow bags tip – If you didn’t take cuttings in August, try to get your fussier salvias and other tender plants in a frost-free place overwinter. If you can’t lift them, apply plenty of mulch. Be sure to mark where they are so that you can monitor for signs of life in the spring.
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