By Janice Llanes Fabry

A chill in the air means it’s time to start bringing plants indoors before nighttime temperatures start dipping below 40 degrees. The transfer takes more than simply shuffling pots around and is not always clear-cut. We asked the experts in town to plant their seeds of knowledge before the frost sets in, so our green houseguests can fill our homes with color, texture, and oxygen.

Greene Willow owner Michael Falkowski, who grew up with a green thumb on a farm in Long Island long before he opened his shop 14 years ago, suggests transferring garden plants to potting soil to avoid bringing in pesky insects. He also advises pruning, which helps dormant plants in the winter produce new, healthy growth in the spring. Hibiscus, geraniums, and begonias, for instance, will do well with deadheading, or pinching off old blooms.

It is with dahlias, above all, that Falkowski’s magic touch blossoms. These plants with beautiful abundant florets and such varietal names as “Midnight Dancer,” “All That Jazz,” and “Foxy Lady,” grow from tubers and are native to Mexico, so they need to steer clear of the cold at all costs.

“Upon the first frost, typically late October, their foliage freezes and turns black,” he explained. “Let them sit in the ground for two weeks, so the tubers harden or they will rot over the winter. Then dig up the tubers, which look like fingerling potatoes, wash the dirt off and allow them to dry for a day or two.”

His storage technique includes soaking the tubers in vermiculite, keeping them in a plastic bag with holes poked through it, then layering them in a box between newspapers. They spend the winter in his garage, where the temperature does not drop below 40 degrees. Come spring, he gingerly divides them and plants them in the ground. “Their most prolific season is the end of August, but they can start blooming in July,” he said.

Claudia Gasparini, Falkowski’s right-hand helper for over a decade, confirmed that, “Michael’s dahlias are incredible. Their colors, size, and longevity are far superior to any wholesaler’s.”

Rocco Lagana opened <<Rockridge Deli and Florist>> as a plant, fruit, and vegetable stand with his wife Gemma 44 years ago. Today, their daughter Brigit and son Lorenzo work closely with them. Although the latter has taken over the nursery, like us, he still asks his father for advice.

The seasoned Lagana patriarch advised, “Make sure garden plants do not have insects before ever bringing them in. They can spread very easily.” And the last thing one needs is a full-on invasion of aphids, mealybugs, fungus gnats, and spider mites that make your home their home.

Another important factor is the pot. It should be large enough to accommodate the size of the roots and should have holes to ensure adequate drainage. Roots cannot tolerate sitting in stagnate water. Cultivating healthier roots will give plants a much higher survival rate over the winter. Also, use good quality potting soil instead of garden soil, which is too dense for pots. Every couple of weeks, add an all-purpose fertilizer, as in Miracle-Gro plant food.

Lagana added, “Most garden plants love sunlight. Geraniums, hibiscus, and ficus plants will thrive in rooms with a lot of sun, but houseplants often prefer shade.” Houseplants that thrive on the patio during the summer — peace lilies, succulents, schefflera, pothos, and corn plants — fare better in rooms with indirect sunlight.

If yards and porches start feeling a little bare once the plants have been brought in, select a couple of Rockridge’s hardy chrysanthemums and ornamental cabbage before they are replaced with a crop of pumpkins. As Brigit noted, “Unlike other plants, they like the cold and can last outside till Halloween.”

CAPTIONS:

#2447 Green Willow owner Michael Falkowski’s homegrown dahlias

# 2410 Chrysanthemums and cabbage plants galore at Rockridge

#2420 A colorful mix at Rockridge