ITELL EVERYONE I LIVE ALONE, but true confession: I’m shacked up here with a big hunk of a Farfugium (and yes, even though he told me his name was Ligularia when we first met years ago, I still love him). And I think I’ve finally learned how to make him happy, even though he’d prefer to live a couple of zones farther south in winter than we do.
My original piece of Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’ (then known as Ligularia tussilaginea ‘Gigantea’) came many years ago, from a friend at a New York City public garden. Summers, it was lusty and bold, growing mightily in a pot and showing off like crazy. But I could never make the plant completely happy in the offseason, or so I thought, and after torturing it in my house one winter and in my basement (trying to force dormancy) the next, I gave the exhausted creature to a friend with a greenhouse.
I kept his likeness here with me, and I guess I pined for him: A mid-century tray I’d bought at at antiques store bore an image of Farfugium, though not to scale. The plant bears ultra-shiny leaves that get to about 15 inches across.
When I saw its shining face not long ago in the Plant Delights catalog, which credited the same person I’d gotten my original division from as its donor, I longed for it again and ordered another piece.
Why was I confident I could make this Zone 8 creature happy this time around? In the years since, I’ve been experimenting with more and more Zone 8-ish plants and some even more tender than that, from Zone 9 and even 10: things I love to have in pots in summer but couldn’t stomach tossing each fall.
I tuck the almost-hardy things like Japanese maples in the unheated barn, just to give them wind protection and keep the ice off them, but Zone 8 or more tender things won’t stand for that.
I knew the house proper was no place for many of these plants in winter: so dry, and often overheated for their tastes during the low-light season. The dark side of the basement (at mid-40s or maybe 50) is good for things that will go to sleep, like cannas, and the one area of the cellar near a little window seems fine for those willing to suffer a sort of suspended animation, including (surprise!) phormiums.
Farfugium didn’t want to stop growing, so I offered him another accommodation altogether: the back mudroom off the house—very bright, but probably 55 degrees maximum. And I water regularly; not sodden, but never dry, either.
Some of my overwintering tactics were suggested to me by the plants, not by some stroke of genius. If they grew weak and spindly, I tried less watering and/or less light or a cooler spot, to slow them down more. And I kept noticing that surprising things resurrected themselves: Scented geraniums I’d cut back but not uprooted from large pots of something else stashed in the basement grew back right from their roots the next spring, and the same with the golden sweet potato vine. It’s astonishing how many of what we in cold zones use as annuals tolerate total deprivation of light and water all winter long.
I’ve got three big Euphorbia cotinifolia (above) in the suspended-animation side of the basement, hoping to unlock the secret of multi-year success with these beauties, fingers crossed. I used to keep them in the house and let them defoliate, the prune them in spring, but it wasn’t pretty.
Do you experiment, too, with tender things, to get your money’s worth from them year to year? Any secrets you care to share?