How to Dig and Store Tender Bulbs for Winter

Don’t let cold winter weather ruin your tropical dreams. Save bulbs of tropical plants over winter. We’ll show you how.

Variegated Canna Leaf

Tropicanna Canna Leaves With Sun

Tropicanna canna adds tropical punch to a garden. Leaves unfurl to reveal shades of pink, gold, green, red and yellow. Plants grow 4 to 6 feet tall. Hardy in Zones 7-11.

Photo by: Anthony Tesselaar Plants at Tesselaar.com

Anthony Tesselaar Plants at Tesselaar.com

Outsmart Old Man Winter by saving bulbs of frost-tender plants over winter and planting them again next spring. It’s not a tough job, and you don’t need any special knowledge or tools to succeed. Use this technique with plants that aren’t winter hardy in your zone. Good candidates include canna (shown), dahlia, elephant ears, gladiolus, calla lily and tuberous begonias. Learn how to dig — and store — tender bulbs over winter in six simple steps.

Frost Damage Tropical Plant

Canna Leaves With Frost Damage

Dig tender bulbs like canna after frost damages leaves.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

Step 1: Wait for Frost

Ideally, wait to dig roots until after the first frost. In warmer zones, dig after a hard frost blackens leaves. In coldest regions, start to dig bulbs as soon as you can, even after a light frost that just wilts leaves (shown above). Otherwise, if serious cold arrives early, this job becomes uncomfortably cold. Frost stops growing processes, which helps bulbs to dry quicker. But if your fall schedule is bursting at the seams, digging bulbs before frost is okay too. You'll likely have plenty of warmer days to help dry bulbs before storing.

Preparing To Dig Tubers In Fall

Cut Off Leaves Before Digging

Cut down tropical plants before digging tubers or rhizomes for winter storage. Use a sharp knife to cut through many plants quickly. Loppers or pruners work if you only have a few plants to cut.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

Step 2: Cut Down Plants

Cut the plants down, leaving six inches of stem. This makes the digging process easier as you maneuver between plants. If you have a whole bed of plants to dig, like this canna row, cutting plants down is quickest if you use a sharp knife. An old kitchen knife works fine. Toss all leaves and stems into the compost pile. For monster tropicals like canna or elephant ear, cut thick stems into small pieces to speed decomposition. For amazing compost, layer this green compost component (tropical stems and leaves) with dry, mowed (chopped) autumn leaves.

Digging Canna Rhizomes For Storage

Dig Rhizomes With Digging Fork

Grab a digging fork or shovel, and insert it into soil just outside the plant roots. Try not to dig too close to the central stem, or you risk cutting into the rhizome or tuber.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

Step 3: Dig Roots

Use a digging fork or shovel to pry the bulbs free from the soil. Start digging at the outer edges of plants to avoid spearing bulbs. Toss any nicked or damaged bulbs into the compost.

Canna Rhizome

Shake Soil Off Rhizomes

Remove rhizomes or bulbs from soil. Shake away any loose soil.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

Step 4: Shake Off Soil

Shake the soil off the bulbs. If possible, try to tackle digging at a time before fall rains have soaked the soil. If not, shaking the soil from bulbs may not be effective. You may need to use your gloved hands to knock largest soil clumps off bulbs. If the weather is warm enough, it’s okay to hose off bulbs to help remove soil. Handle bulbs carefully, though. You don’t want to remove any outer protective layers.

Trim Stems And Roots

Cut Stems Down To Stubs

Trim remaining stems to stubs, and shorten roots. Cut carefully to avoid slicing into the rhizome.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

Step 5: Trim Stems and Roots

Use hand pruners to shorten roots and stems. At most, leave a two-inch stem stub. Take care when cutting that you don’t nick bulbs.

Rhizome For Tropical Plant

Canna Rhizomes In Trays To Dry

Arrange rhizomes or tubers in tray to dry. Let bulbs air dry for several weeks before storing. This reduces the chance of rot in storage.

Photo by: Julie Martens Forney

Julie Martens Forney

Step 6: Dry Roots and Store

Before storing thick, moisture-laden bulbs like canna or elephant ears, it’s a good idea to dry the bulbs a bit. This helps to prevent rot during storage. Arrange them on screens or in mesh trays, and place them in a cool, dry place. Storing them in a shed or garage works well if temperatures aren’t hovering around freezing day and night. You can even arrange roots on a garden cart and wheel them outdoors on sunny days. After cut edges have sealed and the roots seem drier to the touch, pack them away for winter.

To store bulbs, pack in milled peat moss, perlite, shredded paper or sterilized dry (bagged) compost. Or store them in mesh bags, hung up or placed into boxes for winter. Add several sheets of paper between bulb layers to help absorb moisture and reduce chances of rot. For tender bulbs growing in pots, skip the digging and simply store bulbs as is—in soil, in pots. Cut off leaves and stems before storing.

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