Saving and Storing Tropicals for Next Year

By Ray Novitske, Fairfax Master Gardener
blooming cannasUs cheap gardeners hate to spend a lot of money on plants and hate to throw any away. Like a well-worn pair of comfortable sneakers, I hold on to plants as long as possible, getting the most use out of them. This is especially true of summer tropicals — especially those that form bulbs that can be stored in the winter without any care on my part.

We can try to keep tropical plants growing indoors, but many don’t like the shorter days, low light levels and dry air. There’s also the insects hitchhiking on the plants when you bring them indoors. And, some naturally prefer a dormant stage. To enjoy the tropicals next year, we can spend time moving them indoors and nursing them along through the winter, or just dig up the underground parts, store them indoors for the winter and bring them back to life again in the spring.

Not all tropical plants produce the bulbs that can be stored. The term ‘bulbs’ used here is a generic term for the underground parts we can overwinter. Some of these parts are scientifically classified as bulbs, but others are actually corms, rhizomes or tubers.

Bulbs are storage organs but considered as fully complete plants; they contain cells for all parts of the plant — roots, leaves, stems, flowers. Rhizomes are actually underground stems that send out shoots and roots. Corms are underground stems but are also storage devices to keep nutrients for when the plant will need it. And finally, tubers are not stems but underground organs for storing energy and nutrients.

Here are some of the more common tropical plants that we can lift and take indoors:

gladiolus bulbs

Gladiolus corms

Gladiolus and tuberous begonias
Gladiolus can be left in the garden well after frost and removed as late as October or November. First, dig up the corms. After letting them dry out for a week or two, brush off the dried soil. Remove the older shriveled portions, leaving the new corms that formed during the summer. Place in a paper or mesh bag — I have used a cardboard box. Do not place in plastic bags, as moisture will build up and promote rot during the winter. Store in a cool, dry and dark place until ready for planting again in the spring when danger of frost has passed.

Dig up dahlia tubers jus