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Basement Bounty


For opulence and tropical splendor there’s nothing like angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia). Tall, elegant, with draping fragrant bells of bloom, it can dominate a patio, balcony or an entry way like little else.

But here’s the rub. It’s not hardy in Chicagoland. So this raises the sticky issue of overwintering. Should you just toss the plant when winter comes? Some do. Others would like to save it for another year. But how?

Some gardeners bring the entire plant into the house and try to treat it as a houseplant. This may work if you have the muscle to tote a 5-foot plant indoors as well as really good bright light, but you’re likely to have a lot of leaf drop once the plant is indoors.

Others have success by first cutting back the plant and then taking it into a protected, but cool place, between 40 and 50 F for the duration. A garage or unheated basement will do. Then water once a month or so and hope for the best. By spring all of the plant’s leaves will have fallen off and it will look dead, and sometimes it is.

Richard Tilley, longtime Wicker Park resident and expert gardener, has another solution, one that has served him well over the years. Each fall he takes cuttings from his four “mother plants,” roots them and grows them under lights until May, at which point he trots them over to the Wicker Park Garden Club’s annual plant sale in Wicker Park. This year he donated 15 plants. “They flew off the shelves,” he notes approvingly.

Tilley’s plants are the yellow ‘Inca Sun’ and an unknown pink. The pink plant, with its more vertical habit, has flowers that start white and gradually turn a rosy pink. The ‘Inca Sun’ is more horizontal. They are equally fragrant. “On a hot summer night with no wind,” he says, “the scent is almost overpowering.”

How To Do It

1. Tilley takes 6-inch cuttings from his mother plants in the fall, usually in October. “I like to leave it as long as I can,” he says. Take cuttings from the stems, making sure you’re cutting “green” wood — that is, this year’s growth. “I usually get five or six cuttings per plant, depending on how much the mother plant has grown during the summer,” he explains. Each cutting should have two to three leaf nodes.

2. Root the cuttings in water. You can also put them in a pot with soil, but then it’s difficult to see if they’re going to grow or not. If they “take,” they will do so in three to four weeks. If they haven’t started to form roots in five to six weeks, toss them out. Tilley reports a 90 percent success rate.

3. Plant each rooted cutting in a 6-inch pot. Make sure that one leaf node is below the soil. Any good potting soil is fine, but Tilley likes to use Bacto® Light™.

4. Place the potted cuttings under fluorescent lights and let them remain there to grow throughout the winter and until you’re ready to move them into the garden, sometime in May. Transplant them to a larger pot before you move them outdoors.

5. Water regularly and feed weekly with a high-phosphate fertilizer (the middle number listed on the bag). Tilley uses one with a 10-55-10 formulation, following the package directions.

6. Once the each new plant starts to bloom, it will continue flowering until frost. Expect it to reach 3½ to 4 feet by season’s end.

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questions

I have a dampish area with poor grass and moss that I would like to change to ground cover, but if I have only one plant, won’t it be boring? Can I get rid of the grass in winter or early spring?

What is rose rosette disease? I lost two antique roses and removed a hedge of multiflora roses that were supposed to be undesirable. How bad is it?

When is the best time to cut back hydrangeas? How far do I cut them back?

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