Three Ways to Overwinter Tropical Plants

The bright orange flower of the cannas plant is in full bloom
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When it comes to tropical garden plants, there's a lot to love—from the oversized leaves of elephant ear to the striking colors of cannas. Species like the trumpet-shaped mandevilla grow nicely in a container and can cover a fence in never-ending color, while banana trees make a bold statement in any garden.

Tropical plants are a great way to add a touch of the exotic to a non-tropical garden, providing a taste of warmer climates for the duration of summer. However, tropical plants can be expensive to purchase, and growing an impressive tropical specimen can often take years of proper care. Treating tropical plants as annual plants can seem like a waste of money, the time spent caring for the plants, and the plants themselves. The good news: it is possible to keep your tropical treasures for more than just a summer if you have somewhere safe to store them for the winter.

The proper spot for overwintering can vary from plant to plant—some will happily go dormant in a sheltered spot, grateful to have the winter off and a little downtime to regain their stamina. Others make excellent indoor plants if you have a room with enough sunlight and can control the heat and humidity levels.

It's not easy making an outdoor plant happy indoors, especially in the winter. Days are short, indoor air is dry, and there are no natural predators for houseplant insects. But it is possible to overwinter your tender tropical plants—here are three ways to do it and the plants that are best suited for each method.

Digging and Storing Tropical Bulbs and Tubers

Digging up bulbs and storing them indoors for the winter is arguably the easiest way to overwinter tropical plants, and the bulbs of tuberous plants such as cannas, caladiums, and even dahlia tubers are good candidates for overwintering indoors.

To do so, wait until the plant foliage has been killed by a light frost, then lift the plants from the ground and put them somewhere shaded and sheltered, allowing the bulbs to dry out for several days. Once dry, brush off as much remaining soil as you can, trim the leaves back to a couple of inches, and store them in a box filled with peat moss or sawdust (alternately, you can wrap each bulb in a sheet of newspaper and tuck them into the box). Store the box in a cool, dark place, checking periodically to see if any of the bulbs are starting to rot or shrivel—those that are should be disposed of immediately.

To get a head start on the next growing season, pot the bulbs indoors a month or two before the last frost (you can also plant them outdoors as soon as the ground warms and no frost threatens). This method takes up minimal space and most bulbs and tubers make it through the winter just fine. Because the bulbs will produce more offset bulbs, saving them year after year will also mean more bulbs each year to plant or give away.

Caladium plants growing near a gate.
Marie Iannotti

Bringing Tropical Plants Indoors

Not all tropical plants make good houseplants (very often you just don't have the growing conditions tropical plants need to continue thriving), but there are plenty that do. If you want to grow tropical plants indoors, start prepping them before you bring them inside. Carefully inspect each plant for any sign of pests or diseases and treat accordingly. You might also want to cut back larger plants by one-third to one-half to make them a more manageable size.

Once indoors, find the brightest window in your home and make space for your plants to settle in, ensuring they're away from cold drafts or excessive heat sources (like a radiator). Bringing your plants indoors while the windows are still open at night will give them the best chance of acclimating slowly and successfully. If your home doesn't have a sunny window, use artificial grow lights to mimic those necessary rays. Keep a spray bottle handy and mist your plants daily to increase humidity levels.

Some great tropical candidates for growing indoors in winter include angel's trumpet, banana tree, begonia, and mandevilla. Your plants probably won't bloom, but they should survive with minimal stress.

Fuchsia plant in bloom with about a dozen blooms.
Marie Iannotti

Letting Tropical Plants Go Dormant in Containers

The final method to overwinter tropical plants can be a bit more hit-and-miss than simply digging and storing their bulbs, but it's worth a try. To use this method, it helps if your plants are already in containers, but you can always lift them out of the ground and pot them at the end of summer.

To allow your plants to go dormant for the season, wait until after the first light frost. Cut the tops of the plants back to six to eight inches and only water when the soil looks bone dry. The plants will be going into dormancy and won't need water for a while.

Move the containers to a cool, dark spot that will remain above freezing but below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Inspect the plant's moisture periodically, but water only sparingly if dry. You can resume regular watering about the same time you begin to start seeds indoors. At that point, you'll see new growth starting, so move the containers into a sunny location (don't move the plants directly into bright light immediately to avoid burning tender, new leaves). When you see several more inches of new growth appear, apply a light dose of fertilizer. Begin to harden off the plants after the danger of frost has passed.

Plants that can handle this type of winter care well include angel's trumpet, banana plant, begonia, caladium, canna, mandevilla, and tender ornamental grasses.

Red Mandevilla flowers in bloom.
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