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Overwintering Tropicals

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Where we live, it seems like the first sign of spring and summer’s arrival is all of the gigantic hanging baskets appearing on front porches. Being a pretty old city, many neighborhoods feature at least a few big beautiful Victorians and old farm houses with long spacious front porches—perfect for displaying lush hanging ferns, cascading ivy, waving petunias and New Guinea impatiens, and, what seems to be one of the most popular hanging flowers around here, big pink and purple fuchsias. Everyone makes sure to include some hanging fuchsias on the porch, and it’s easy to understand why. Fuchsias are incredibly unique in their shape and colors, with dangling teardrop or trumpet buds opening up to reveal popping shades of hot pink, royal purple, crisp white, and fire engine red. Hummingbirds seem to see them from miles away, and bees and butterflies really appreciate a fuchsia exploding with buds. Best of all, you and your garden residents can appreciate all of this color even in the shade, which is why it is such a great option for porch areas that may have limited light exposure. It’s really no wonder that so many people favor the fuchsia when it comes to decorating outdoor living spaces.

In our area, like many others, fuchsias are annuals, since there is absolutely no way this tropical plant can survive our winters. Come fall, you see a lot of scraggly fuchsia baskets being hucked out into the trash, and it’s sad to think if we lived just a bit farther south, we’d be able to hang on to our fuchsias, and they’d just keep getting bigger and better with time—not to mention, we wouldn’t have to keep shelling out $20 to $30 for our baskets of fuchsia year after year after year. But, that’s a thing about fuchsias and several other “annuals” that people in cooler climates forget: in another zone, these plants would be perennial, and that means that with some work, you may be able to overwinter them.

Hibiscus, bougainvillea, jasmine, banana, caladium, calla, canna, New Guinea impatiens, passionflower, angels’ trumpets, and fuchsia, among others, are all tender perennials that you can bring inside to overwinter. And you should, if you have them this year. Tropicals are certainly not the most inexpensive of plants, and from year to year, the variety that you purchased and love may not be available at your nursery as the popularity of exotic plants can wax and wane. Also, why wouldn’t you want to give your plants the opportunity to get bigger and more impressive than the standard sizes you see in stores? Overwintering will save you from spending in the spring, and if you’re successful, will give you a much cooler plant than you might have otherwise purchased.

Overwintering may sound like pretty serious business, but it’s actually easier than you might think. If you have houseplants now, like crotons and dieffenbachia, then you’re already pretty experienced at overwintering. The houseplants you have now are also tropical perennials, and since several of the most common houseplants don’t really require long hours of direct sunlight and high humid temperatures, they make excellent plants to display around the home. But, depending on what plant you are trying to overwinter, you may need to do a little bit more than just sit it by the window. Here are the ways you can keep your heat-loving tropicals safe during the winter:

Keep ‘Em Growing

Some tender perennials just need to be brought inside and maintained as you would your houseplants—this means you’ll bring them inside, put them in a well-lit sunny place, and continue to water and prune them. These plants include hibiscus and bougainvillea, both of which can be kept rockin’ indoors under the right conditions. A few pointers, though. It is a good idea to bring these plants indoors well before temperatures begin a serious descent; most of these tropicals don’t deal well with temperatures below 40-50 degrees, and you’re going to need some time to adjust your plants to life indoors. Before the temperatures drop, begin hardening off your tropicals to your home just like you would if you were bringing tomatoes outside. Expect this adjustment to life indoors to show on your plants—the lower light, lower humidity, and difference in air quality will assuredly cause some leaf drop or browning. But, don’t let this tempt you to love them to death with fertilizers and too much water. Water them as the soil dries out, but don’t saturate them, and be sure to protect them from any cold drafts that might be coming from windows or doors where they may be getting sun. When it comes to light, unless your window or sun room gets all day indirect sunlight, your plants will probably benefit from a supplemental grow light. You can add humidity to the area by placing a little humidifier in the room where you are overwintering, or placing the pots of your plants on a dish that has been filled with gravel and has had water added to it. Lastly, monitor your overwintering plants for signs of pest activity. White flies and spider mites are your enemies, and you will need to treat your plants with insecticidal soap to keep them bug-free.

Put Them to Sleep

Keeping tender perennials in an active state of growth is not a suitable method for some plants you might want to keep, either because they just won’t get what they need or don’t typically do well in active growth or they require a dormancy period to recharge. Luckily, this isn’t difficult at all. You’ll just need a cool dark place that stays about 40-50 degrees, like a root cellar, basement, garage, or outdoor storage area.

Cannas, callas, and other tropical plants that grow from a bulb, corm, or tuber, should be left out briefly as temperatures are dropping. If these plants experience a light frost or chill, they will respond accordingly and begin the process of dying back for a good long nap. You can either dig them up and keep them in a pot for the winter, or you can cut them back, remove the bulb, tuber, or corm from the soil, and store it in a bag of moistened peat for the winter if you don’t have the space for a bunch of pots. However you decide to store them, be sure that the area in which you store them stays in that 40-50 degree range. Mist them occasionally to keep the peat or soil lightly damp.

Some other plants that enjoy a good break include jasmine, angels’ trumpet, banana, and our beloved fuchsia, but you won’t be digging up and storing a bulb. It’s the same idea, but don’t let these sit out for any cold weather. Little by little, bring them in before temperatures drop, and place them in a room that is 40-50 degrees, and very, very dark. The lack of light and cooler temperature will trigger the same dormancy processes, and the leaves will drop. Like with the bulbs, make sure that your storage space stays in that temperature range throughout winter, and mist the soil every so often to keep it from drying out completely. For hanging basket plants, like fuchsia, you can store the entire basket in a cardboard box filled with balled up newspaper.

When it is spring again, you will gradually reintroduce your bulbs and potted plants back into the sun and warmth, but be careful how quickly you do this. Make sure you take your time with the transition to avoid exhausting and stressing your plants. Try transitioning them to the indirect sunlight and warmth of the living areas in your home before moving them outside. At the same time, you can begin increasing the amount of water you are giving them, and give them a nice dose of fertilizer to encourage new growth.

Experiment with the conditions for each of your plants to find out what is most successful. You might also find that you can overwinter a particular plant both ways with successful results. As no two indoor environments are really the same, what works for you may not be what works for someone else. Try overwintering them in different containers, in different areas, and keep track of how long you are hardening off, how much water you are giving them, and the process by which you resurrect them for the spring. Keeping detailed notes about your overwintering procedures may help you ensure the health of your tropicals in the future.