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In the Garden: Caladium Rescue

By Margie Densford

Do you go out each spring or summer and buy stunning, potted caladium plants? Believe me when I say there’s a less expensive way to fill your garden with these tropical favorites. With a little bit of determination these beauties can be recycled to grow and multiply year after year.

Caladiums are warm weather annuals, which means they will not return next year if left in the ground through the winter. You may not know it, but these plants are actually grown from tubers, which are often referred to as bulbs.

Last April I found the largest Caladium tubers at Dan West Nursery I’d ever seen. Some of their loose tubers were almost three inches across, and the prices were great. I also recommend ordering bulbs online from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs. I’ve met the delightful Brent Heath, a second generation Virginia grower, who has an amazing mail order business. Put these two businesses at the top of your buying list.

It’s very important to store the tubers correctly if you’re not able to plant them immediately. The mistake I made after buying mine was leaving them in the long plastic bags Dan West provided. When I got home I should have transferred them into a cardboard box or paper bags filled with peat moss. Still another option (I will do next time) was to immediately plant them into pots in the greenhouse for a jump-start on the growing season. Since I did none of the above, by the time I was ready to plant my tubers, many of then had molded and begun to rot. Although the nursery was kind enough to replace them, the bulbs that were left in the bins by then were significantly smaller. Live and learn!

Planting instructions for caladiums are pretty specific. Brent Heath assures his customers that caladium bulbs do not like to be planted in cool soil. He recommends waiting until the soil temperature (to a depth of four inches) is 65 to 70 degrees. Another suggestion he shares is potting the bulbs up indoors as soon as you get them. If you don’t have a ground thermometer, most charts show May 1st as the start date for planting caladiums in our zone 7b. Once the soil is warm enough, dig a hole in a partially shaded, well-drained area. Place the top of the bulb under two inches of soil. It doesn’t matter in which directions you plant the tuber, because the sprout will find its way to the top.

If the tuber has already sprouted, plant it so the sprout is directed upward. Your caladium will germinate quicker if it’s kept constantly moist but not soggy, so keep some water nearby.

Now for my next blooper, in order to keep the water coming you have to know where the bulb was planted…right? Next time, I’ll mark the planting spots with rocks or plastic forks, and I’ll bet they germinate a lot faster. Also, when it takes several weeks for the caladiums to break ground, and you don’t remember where you planted them, it’s very possible to place another plant right in front of the hidden gems, which I did on more than one occasion. Hindsight is 20/20!

Caring for caladiums is simple. Just keep the soil moist but not wet. The more sun the foliage gets the more moisture it will require. Every six weeks during the growing season add about a teaspoon of a 6-6-6 fertilizer. When seedpods appear I cut them off at ground level. Remember, if we leave these blooms, all the energy of the plant will go to producing seeds instead of leaves.

Finally, before the first frost in the fall dig the bulbs up. Use a pitchfork to get under the tubers and loosen the soil all around them. Try not to damage or skin the tubers and its roots or disease could enter and destroy the bulbs.  If time permits, let the foliage die back naturally or if not, cut it off down to the bulb without cutting the tuber.  Lay the soil and root masses out, and let them dry for about a week or more. Then remove all the loose dirt, stems, and roots. Now you’re ready to stow them away.

The last but vital step in saving your caladiums for next year is storing them properly.

For added protection dust them with a fungicide approved for protecting bulbs, a bulb dust. Put a few bulbs and some dust in a paper bag and shake them to cover the surface of the tuber. They should then be stored in a dry medium of peat moss, vermiculite or perlite without touching each other. Keep your specimens cool at about 55-65 degrees.

If you liked where your caladiums were planted this year or see an empty spot now where you would like to plant one next spring, place a marker in that spot now before the other plants die back.

I’m going to begin the digging up and storing process next week and hopefully keep filling my wallet with the savings. I will not know the true fruits of my labors until next summer. Join me in the adventure!

September garden chores:

Stop deadheading perennials and annuals if you want to collect seeds.

Divide and transplant daylilies, hostas and peonies.

Order bulbs promptly.

Repot houseplants before bringing them inside.

Plant new perennials and shrubs.

Garden opportunities:

Sept. 27-29-Memphis Botanic Garden Fall Garden Show and Plant Sale (Fri. 6 p.m. Sat.-Sun. 9 a.m.-5 p.m.)

Oct. 1-Mid-South Hydrangea Society Mtg.-Memphis Botanic Garden (Mon. 7 p.m.)

Oct. 2-TN Federation of Garden Clubs-Standard Flower Show-Dixon Gardens (Free and open to the public)(Tues. 1 p.m-4 p.m.)

Oct. 18-Mid-South Hosta Society Mtg.-Memphis Botanic Garden (Thurs. 7 p.m.)

Margie Densford is a Master Gardener Intern, a member of the Millington City Beautiful Commission, and a member of The Garden Club of Rosemark, a member of the National and Tennessee Federation of Garden Clubs.

Next month digging up caladiums. I think I had some come back from last year.

Now while you can see where the empty spots are put a plastic fort or knife in the ground to mark the spot where you might want to plant it next spring. I planted several that came up either behind or too close to perennials

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September 2012
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