I’m not opposed to a great Summer Romance. Temperate gardeners who have acted upon one of the many blatant hints I have dropped this season and picked up a copy of my new book Tropical Plants and How to Love Them, know that I downright encourage them.
After all, if a $5.99 one-quart dipladenia purchased in early May (yes, I paid that paltry sum this year) turns into a pot-of-gorgeous for June, July, August, September, and at least part of October, even the most frugal among us can admit we got our money’s worth. Especially if profligates are apparently dropping $549.99 on a 4-inch ‘Albo Variegata’ monstera, and celebrating that incredible bargain with a $5.99 organic nitro cold brew with sweet cream cold foam for the ride home.
Saying a fond goodbye to the dipladenia in October may be tough, but hey, five months is five months baby.
Which is why I get so annoyed when I see frost-tender crotons show up en masse at garden centers in September for the autumn season. Particularly at the BigBox garden centers.
A Summer Romance is one thing. A one-night stand is altogether different.
Here are a couple things to know about crotons besides – “Hey, they’re orange. What a great decorating opportunity.”
Crotons are extremely frost sensitive. They’re not excited about drafts, and cold nights mean dropped leaves. Frost means blackened leaves. And then dropped leaves. Naked stems. Ugly plants. Disgust and despair. Contempt from your gardening friends. Compost piles.
Here are a couple things to know about autumn besides – “Hey, it’s time to decorate. What a great croton opportunity.”
Nights are getting colder. Days may be warm but bonfires officially light up cool evenings. Fleeces are being dug out from under cargo shorts. If you’re in cooler climates like Wisconsin or Nova Scotia (Erin Schanen, Niki Jabbour I feel your pain), you could be 24 short hours away from “Holy hell I forgot to bring the houseplants in.”
Autumnal Decorating with Plants 101
Buying a seasonal mum or a flat of pansies or an ornamental kale is one thing. Boring – particularly displayed on their own – but perfectly valid. They’re frost tolerant and will give you a decent display for weeks – months even. Years, if you’re a mum martyr.
But a CROTON? You’ll literally get two weeks if you’re lucky. It’s like buying a bouquet of lilies for the front porch.
Aaaaaaaaand, having spent a decent sum late in the game on a plant that is actually worth that money due to the growing time it takes to put on those tough stems and surprisingly fragile, waxy, multicolored leaves, once the inevitable inevitably occurs, you are more than likely to want to take the blackened, frost-injured sticks with four pathetic leaves into the house to overwinter.
Call me a cynic, but this will 100% end badly for all involved and possibly put you off of tropical plants forever. Which would just. Be. Wrong.
Give a Crotons a Chance
What a missed opportunity for garden centers! Instead, why not celebrate the incredible versatility of this incredible genera (Codiaeum) from the moment the growing season begins? There are well over 150 landscape varieties (mostly hybrids of C. variegatum), and choices go WAY beyond the ubiquitous ‘Petra.’
I keep a shoestring-leafed ‘Zanzibar’ alive, along with a ‘Mammy’ and a ‘Sunny Star,’ just got a cutting of an oak leaf hybrid, and am always on the lookout for ‘Dreadlocks’ whose long corkscrew leaves are so freaking cool I hardly have words to describe them.
In late spring, they all emerge from the torture chamber that is my dry house looking like they need a stiff drink and a ticket to Florida, but within a month they are perked up and adding incredible color and texture to plants like autumn fern and bog-standard begonias (which can go meh if you’re not careful). Crotons appreciate dappled shade, lots of moisture in well-draining soil, and a sheltered position from wind if you’ve got it.
At the end of a long, lovely and lusciously colorful season, you can bid this Summer Romance goodbye, knowing that you got your money’s worth; or cave to base desires, and share your winter life with a High Maintenance Partner that demands humidity, bright light, and moisture.
Damn I do it every year.
This Fall, Don’t Fall For Cheap Tricks
There’s only one gardener who has any business matching containers of crotons with mini-pumpkins, #Harvest signs, and sprays of faux berries – a gardener who moved to the tropics and can’t reconcile himself to the fact that he doesn’t live in New York anymore.
For the rest of us – resist the autumn temptation. If you succumbed during a trip to [ostensibly] replace your thermostat, I get it. But for Heaven’s sake bring the poor thing inside at once and treat it like it’s a celebrity on an extended spa vacation.
A celebrity you like. There are so few these days. – MW
One last blatant hint: There’s still time to let Tropical Plants and How To Love Them help you navigate the panic and/or process of the fall plant migration season. Or to simply offer absolution if you’ve had one too many wicked Summer Romances. Available at your favorite booksellers, and the other one.