Easy Overwintering

Save treasured tropicals for next season’s garden. They’ll be bigger and better!
panache canna

Panache canna

I used to save quite a few plants through the winter. I had dreams of plants that would be more grand and beautiful with each passing year. Well, overwintering isn’t always as easy as it looks. In some cases, there are pests to contend with. My Meyer lemon tree was constantly plagued by scale insects. Bulbs and tubers can be tricky, especially if they are finicky about moisture levels.

These days, I save fewer plants, choosing the ones that can wait out the winter with little help from me. Here are my winners:

overwintering banana

The Abyssinian banana (Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’) is happy to spend the winter in our musty basement.

Cannas: I have a couple of special ones that I save every year. I’m especially fond of a variety called Panache, which has peachy, orchid-like flowers. Overwintering is super-simple. Once the foliage has been blackened by a few frosts, I cut the stems to about six inches and dig the clumps, dumping the whole thing—soil and all—into a large nursery pot. I move the pot into my cool basement, where the clump sits in the dark for the winter. I water the pot a few times during the winter, keeping it barely moist. In March, I repot divisions from the original the clump.

Bananas: These are easy, too. They get the same treatment as the cannas. The exception is that I leave the stems (or trunks) pretty long, just cutting away the frost-killed leaves.

overwintering hydrangea

Potted Hydrangea macrophylla and H. serrata in the basement.

Hydrangeas: In general, the mophead and lacecap varieties are not hardy up here in zone 5. The plants may survive, but the buds get killed off. So, long before the days of Endless Summer, the reliable blue hydrangea for the north, I collected a half-dozen Hydrangea macrophylla and H. serrata. Varieties include Blue Billow, Sister Theresa, Pink Beauty and Nikko Blue. I grow them in large, self-watering pots and move them to the dark basement for the winter. The pots are heavy, but the beautiful blooms make it worth the effort.

A few years ago, I added a crape myrtle to the collection. It has grown well, and the bark started exfoliating this year. The fall color is marvelous. Still, it’s never bloomed.


The lotus in bloom

Lotus: Even if it only blooms once a summer, this flower is a stunner. The foliage is striking, too. The tuber and roots are planted in a plastic tub that sits in a glazed ceramic pot. Once the water starts freezing in the fall, I lift the tub and move it to the basement. There it remains until spring. As long as the soil is covered with a couple inches of water, the plant is fine.

Last winter, I overwintered a couple new tender varieties: pitcher plant (Sarracenia) and Mystic Blue Spires salvia (Salvia ‘Mystic Blue Spires’). Both came through fine. This year, I’m going to attempt overwintering some kalanchoe that have spent the summer in my rock garden.

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5 Responses to Easy Overwintering

  1. Gardens by T says:

    I’m a overwinterer also on a pretty large scale..I bring about 70 pots into my unheated basement..it’s a big undertaking and as the years pass I’m becoming less enthusiastic.

  2. I found myself feeling the same lack of enthusiasm this fall. So this afternoon I hired a local 22-year old neighbor to help me out. It was the best $50 I’ve ever spent. In 3 hours he dug up and bagged all my cannas and dahlias, emptied all my big pots into the garden and stored the pots under the deck, and then moved the tender potted bamboos and mandevillas and cordylines into the basement for me. While he worked, I managed to get the whole cutting garden cleaned out. He was psyched to have the cash and I don’t need to go to the chiropractor tomorrow!

  3. sniparts says:

    It’s definitely worth hiring a strong, young fellow to help you out in the fall. They are always happy to make some money, and it will save you hours of time to do other things you enjoy more. As the years pass that time becomes more valuable, so why spend it on anything you don’t thoroughly enjoy? If you “rent” him for the day, be sure to provide lots of water or sports drinks, and a nice hearty lunch to keep his energy level up. As long as you’re there to supervise, you can do the less physical tasks and give direction if he has questions. It’s amazing how much our young helper can accomplish, and he’s learning valuable lessons to become a future gardener and lover of the Earth!

  4. gz says:

    I also have increased my overwintering and do it in my newly enclosed front porch that is somewhat heated. Last year I had a lot of problems with pests – aphids, mealies and a small black flying pest. Any suggestions for prevention. Safer Soap didn’t work too well.

  5. tomato101 says:

    this is my first year of over-wintering attempts. I put the calla lily in perlite as per internet instructions and then I tossed the dahlia in, too. Maybe this last was a bad idea? This is the first time I've ever grown dahlias. I live in Delaware, zone 7. thanks.

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