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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Overwintering Tropical Plants

Tropical plants have grown in popularity for use in outdoor landscaping. Some have been a garden staple for years, like cannas, elephant ears, and dahlias. Others are less familiar, like banana, mandevilla, and bougainvillea.

Most will not survive the cold temperatures of an Illinois winter without being moved indoors. Even though the weather is still very summer-like, if you have any intention of saving some of your tropical plants for next year, it's time to start thinking about where they will spend the winter months. It's not an impossible task, but will require some planning and preparation.

Overwintering tropicals like cannas, elephant ears, and dahlias is best done by allowing the tops to turn brown after the first frost, and then dig the underground tubers or rhizomes. There are many different ways to store the tubers and rhizomes.

In order to successfully survive the winter, tubers and rhizomes need to be in a cool 40 to 50 degree area, with good air circulation. An unheated garage or shed is a good choice. Some sources recommend removing all of the soil, and packing the tubers and rhizomes in ventilated milk or bread crates loosely with sawdust, peat moss or vermiculite which will keep them from shriveling. Honestly, this recommended process scared me away from trying to save any of these plants from year to year for a long time. It just sounded like a lot more work than I have time to do!

Careful packaging of tubers and rhizomes may be the ideal, but the reality at our house is we knock or wash off most of the soil on the tubers and rhizomes, make sure they are thoroughly dry, and stack them in standard plastic storage totes with the lid cracked open for ventilation. The storage totes spend the winter in a part of our crawl space that remains cool but not freezing all winter. We use plastic mesh or burlap bags to keep different varieties of tubers or rhizomes separate. We have had great success overwintering cannas and elephant ears in this manner.

But what about plants that don't have a tuber or rhizome to dig? It's natural to want to save your tropical plants, as many of them are quite costly to purchase. But remember overwintering plants indoors requires space and time to care for them. Even if plants are brought indoors and allowed to go dormant, they still need to be checked on from time to time.

Many tropicals, including banana, hibiscus, mandevilla, bougainvillea, and angel's trumpet will go dormant if brought indoors and the soil is allowed to dry out. The leaves will turn yellow and drop, and banana trees should be cut down to the soil level, and the plant should then be moved to a location that is 40 to 45 degrees. Throughout the winter, keep the soil barely moist, watering sparingly when the soil is dry two to three inches deep in the pot.

If you have good light and space, you may want to attempt to keep your tropicals actively growing through the winter. I used to keep my tropical hibiscuses growing through the winter with supplemental lighting. The plants produced a good flush of flowers in the fall and again in the early spring. But they do tend to get leggy and spindly even under lights. When moving tropicals back outdoors in the spring, hibiscus in particular will benefit from a good pruning to encourage more bushy growth.

I successfully allowed my tropical hibiscuses to overwinter in a dormant state in my attached garage two years ago. But last winter was a different story. I will admit I didn't remember to water them as often as I should have, but the temperature in my garage was a lot colder than it had been in previous winters. During the coldest periods last winter, the temperature in my garage dropped into the 30's. I just didn't have the room indoors for the hibiscuses anymore, so I lost them last winter.

One major factor to consider in overwintering tropicals is involuntarily overwintering pests as well. Bringing containers of tropical indoors typically also brings along insects that may not be welcome in your home. Some pests don't show themselves until a few days or weeks after being brought indoors. If you are trying to keep your tropicals actively growing, and conditions aren't perfect (they rarely are indoors, even in a greenhouse) you will likely have problems with common houseplant pests such as mealybugs, scale, and spider mites.

All of these pests can be controlled indoors, but the question is whether you really have time to dedicate to controlling them. Left unchecked, these pests will spread to other plants and create quite an infestation.

If you have houseplants with a lot of sentimental value, you may want to be selective about tropicals you bring indoors. You need to honestly assess whether it's worth the risk to bring every tropical indoors, none of them, or a select few.

Another option to consider is taking cuttings of your favorite plants to start indoors so you have a small plant to start with next spring. This may be a way to overwinter more of your favorites in less space.

Overwintering tropicals can be a way to extend your gardening pleasure into the winter months. Many people look at it as a challenge and get great satisfaction when they are successful in producing plants from year to year. It can also be a way to stretch your gardening dollar since you are not replacing plants each year.

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