When The Wisconsin Weather Gets Too Rough For Garden Plants, Move Them Inside

If you’re a gardener, fall is the time to start thinking about putting gardens to bed.

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Geraniums are a popular plant to bring inside for winter. This is a Dynamo Hot Pink Zonal Geranium from Ball Horticulture.
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Elephant ears are among the plants that can be brought inside for winter. Master Gardener Carolyn Dressler says she cuts them back to about two leaves.
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Brugmansia is among the plants that master gardener Carolyn Dressler overwinters inside. She keeps them fairly dry to discourage growth in winter.
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Carolyn Dressler says she takes cuttings from Purple Lady Iresine (the dark groundcover around the impatiens) to take inside for the winter.
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Carolyn Dressler keeps canna lilies through winter as rhizomes, after drying them for a couple days. This is Canna Cannova yellow lily.
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Carolyn Dressler takes cuttings of basils inside for winter. She puts them in rooting hormone and potting soil. This is Everleaf Genovese basil.
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Some gardeners dig up and dry tuberous begonias in winter, but they can also be kept indoors as houseplants. This is an On Top Sun Glow Tuberous Begonia.
8/12 SLIDES © Courtesy of Carolyn Dressler
Dahlia can be brought in and kept through winter as tubers. Keep in a cool place, not too moist or too dry.
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These Glitterati Red Star Pentas are from Ball Horticulture. Pentas can come inside in winter.
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Coleus is beautiful in summer, and in winter it can come inside. Master Gardener Carolyn Dressler cuts it back in winter, giving it less foliage to maintain.
11/12 SLIDES © Courtesy of Wauwatosa Historical Society
The Kneeland-Walker House, run by the Wauwatosa Historical Society, features beautiful gardens. To save the nonprofit money, many of the plants are moved inside to survive the winter.
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The Kneeland-Walker House, run by the Wauwatosa Historical Society, features beautiful gardens. To save the nonprofit money, many of the plants are moved inside to survive the winter.
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Before you tuck them in, bring some of your favorite plants inside to enjoy next year. Many plants that are grown as annuals in Wisconsin can be held in pots over the winter, while others can be propagated from cuttings. And, of course, bulbs, tubers and rhizomes can be stored in the basement.

Coleus is beautiful in summer, and in winter it can come inside. Master Gardener Carolyn Dressler cuts it back in winter, giving it less foliage to maintain. © Courtesy of Carolyn Dressler Coleus is beautiful in summer, and in winter it can come inside. Master Gardener Carolyn Dressler cuts it back in winter, giving it less foliage to maintain.

Gardeners who overwinter plants say it’s easy and a great way to save money. It’s also a way to make sure you have some favorite plants again next year. And there are lots of ways to do it.

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Carolyn Dressler said she overwinters about three dozen plants and three dozen tubers and rhizomes in her Wauwatosa home, because as chairwoman of the Wauwatosa Historical Society's gardens at the Kneeland-Walker House for the past 27 years, she helps plan and design the 1½-acre gardens.

“We want to overwinter these plants as we are a nonprofit and we don’t have a big budget. It makes sense to save as much as you can because plants are expensive. … When I overwinter plants, I tend to concentrate on those plants that are a little more expensive to buy.

“Another advantage is that you can keep things that are hard to find. … And when you have plants indoors, it can lift your spirits in winter, too,” she said.

Chuck Congo, a Master Gardener volunteer who lives in the Town of Delafield, said he has been overwintering plants from his 3-acre gardens for 25 to 30 years, with mixed results.

“There are some things that worked, and some that didn’t. I always figure, if you try it and it works, you come out ahead. If it doesn’t, you haven’t lost anything. It’s easy to do, you just have to have time and space,” he said.

Congo said he overwinters plants in part because some plants hold special memories.

“I have canna lilies and calla lilies. I got them from my mother-in-law, who went into a nursing home in the early '90s, so they are special to us.

“I also got dahlias from a friend of mine. They were in his mother’s garden. He gave them to me, and I’ve had them going since the late '90s. At one point, his died out, and I was able to give him some back,” he said.

Heat, light and careful tending

Dressler suggested a few guidelines for overwintering plants in pots or as cuttings: 

  • Don’t overwater them.
  • Don’t let them get too cold.
  • Give them as much light as you can.
  • Don’t fertilize them.
  • When it’s time to put them back outside, do it gradually.

“If you are putting a plant on a windowsill when it’s below zero, that windowsill is really chilly. … Don’t let them get too cold. Around 60 is great," she said.

Turn the plants regularly when they are inside as they will move toward the light source, and grow cuttings in a soilless potting mix rather than water, she said.

“Research has shown the way roots develop in water is different than those in soil,” she said.

Dressler, a Master Gardener volunteer, said she brings in potted plants, digs some plants out of the ground to pot them to bring inside, takes cuttings to start new plants and stores bulbs.

“I have a sunroom, so I bring in some of the plants that need a warmer location, and I have grow lights in the basement for other plants. I’m also lucky to have a cupboard along the outside wall of my house that is much cooler where I can store bulbs,” she said.

Pricier plants that she pots and brings inside include two types of elephant ears and brugmansia.

“I dig them out and then put them in a pot of soilless mix. I put about four elephant ears in one pot. I cut them back to about two leaves.

Elephant ears are among the plants that can be brought inside for winter. Master Gardener Carolyn Dressler says she cuts them back to about two leaves. © Courtesy of Carolyn Dressler Elephant ears are among the plants that can be brought inside for winter. Master Gardener Carolyn Dressler says she cuts them back to about two leaves.

“I overwinter the brugmansia the same way, but if they are still blooming I don’t cut them back right away. I wait until they stop blooming.

“I keep them fairly dry inside because you don’t want to keep them growing as much as you would do outside. You just want to keep them alive,” she said.

She also brings in pots of begonias, dracaena, coleus and pentas. She cuts them all back except the dracaena and provides the same light and water as she does for the elephant ears.

“Cutting them back makes less foliage for the plants to maintain,” she said.

Congo also brings in dracaena, commonly called spikes, but only for a few years.

“Spikes get huge. The times I’ve done it, the first year I put them in a window, and they’re fine. The second year they are OK, too. The third winter they get too big” to try to overwinter, he said.

Spike dracaena is among the plants that come inside for winter at Carolyn Dressler's home. She does not cut them back. © Courtesy of Carolyn Dressler Spike dracaena is among the plants that come inside for winter at Carolyn Dressler's home. She does not cut them back.

He also digs up and pots rosemary plants.

“I put them under a grow light because I don’t have enough sunlight in my home. You have to experiment and see what works for you because every house is different,” he said.

Geraniums are common carryovers

Congo also overwinters potted geraniums, a plant many gardeners overwinter. He cuts off about a third of each stem, then sets the pots near a sunny window or under a desk lamp.

“You don’t want too much of the plant growing. … There is one geranium I particularly like, so I put it under a desk light. They don’t need a whole lot of water. I water them lightly, at most once a week,” he said.

In spring, he propagates them. “I take cuttings and stick them back in the pot, and more often than not, they will do OK,” he said.

More: How a whole community helped Green Bay Botanical Garden put down roots 25 years ago and grow into a 'world-class public garden'

More: Home and garden calendar: Milwaukee-area events in fall 2021

More: When a Master Gardener and horticulturist are mother and son, the yard is special

Another Master Gardener volunteer who overwinters geraniums, Tom Hickey, takes some extra steps.

“I started with the geraniums because they are so expensive to buy, and I experimented. The biggest problem is making sure you don’t bring any bugs inside that are on the plant or in the soil,” said Hickey, who lives on Milwaukee's east side.

To get rid of insects, he digs the plants out of the ground or removes them from pots and washes most of the dirt off their foliage and roots with a garden hose. Then he puts a few squirts of Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap (an organic soap), into a 5-gallon bucket of water.

“You want to use something that will kill the bugs, but you don’t want to kill the plant. After about 10 to 15 minutes I take the plants out, rinse them off with the garden hose, and repot them in clean pots with new sterilized potting soil. Then I trim them back to a few inches and take all the blossoms off,” he said.

He puts them under grow lights on a timer for eight to 12 hours a day in his basement and waters them sparingly. Using this method, Hickey is able to not only overwinter his plants but also enjoy their blooms in winter.

“They will flower under a grow light in winter. It’s nice because I can bring them upstairs and put them in the sunroom for a couple of days to enjoy,” he said.

He said it’s worth the effort and fairly easy to do. “I get really good geranium plants, and once you get them, you can keep them for a long time. I think I’ve had these for about eight years now,” he said.

Cuttings can take root

Plants can also be saved for next year by taking cuttings. Dressler said she takes cuttings from Purple Lady iresine, a low-growing ground cover that is not always readily available; sweet potato vines; fuchsias; basils; begonias; and hibiscus. She also takes cuttings from coleus and brings in pots of them, too.

“I find the sweet potato vines don’t like my basement because it’s too cool. They do better upstairs. I take cuttings of the vine and put them in the big pots of elephant ears along the edges. I try to take cuttings that aren’t too big, maybe 4 inches from the tip,” she said.

To root the cuttings, she moistens the cut ends, applies rooting hormone and then puts them in potting soil.

“I usually keep (the soil) really moist at the beginning. They may wilt down a little at first, but stay with it, and they will come back,” she said.

As with potted plants, give them good light, water sparingly and keep them warm, she said.

“It’s important not to let them get cold. Cold soil doesn’t help root development.”

For cuttings, she added, a heating pad can be beneficial. And should the cuttings start to flower, pinch blooms off so the energy goes into the plant and not into flowering, she said.

Tubers, bulbs and rhizomes

Not just leafy plants can be overwintered. Roger Stevens, a dahlia grower since the early '60s, is a member of the Dahlia Society of Wisconsin, the Central States Dahlia Society and the Badger State Dahlia Society.

He loves dahlias for the hundreds of varieties: They can range from 1 inch in diameter to 8 or 10 inches, and they come in every color and color combination except blue and in a wide variety of formations.

Dahlia can be brought in and kept through winter as tubers. Keep in a cool place, not too moist or too dry. © Courtesy of Carolyn Dressler Dahlia can be brought in and kept through winter as tubers. Keep in a cool place, not too moist or too dry.

To overwinter the 25 varieties or so he grows at his home in Green Lake, he waits until the first light frost kills the plants' foliage, then cuts around the base of each plant in about a 10-inch circle with a spade.

“You want to cut off the tips of the roots. Then you put your shovel on an angle and carefully lift it up all the way around. Try to scrape off the dirt, using your fingers. Don’t put any weight on it when you lift it up so you don’t break or crack the main part of the plant,” he said.

Next, he puts the tubers on the lawn, washes off remaining dirt with a garden hose and lets them dry. He cuts the stalks down to about 1 inch once dry. He trims off any tubers that are small — about the size “of your pinky finger.”

“You want to have four to five good-size tubers. You don’t need any that are even the size of your thumb. … The smaller the tubers, the less chance they have of pulling through,” he said.

Next, he dusts any cut ends with a fungicide dust to make sure the tubers don’t get a fungus.

“If you have more than one variety, write down the name of it when you store it and put it in the coldest spot in your basement. For most people, shredded peat moss is the best thing to store them in. But you can use other drying materials, like dry dirt. … You want to keep the moisture in, but you don’t want them to be too damp,” he said.

He suggests putting the tubers in a cardboard box and layering the peat or other material between the tubers so they don’t touch.

“Everybody has a different way of doing it. Some varieties are hard to overwinter, some are easy,” he said.

Congo, for example, stores his tubers and rhizomes in an old cedar chest in a cooler part of his house.

Different bulbs, tubers or rhizomes need different lengths of time to dry out before they are put away, Dressler said. She lets dahlias dry several hours, and the canna and calla lilies a day or two. They can be wrapped in newspaper.

“The cannas I store in peat moss, because I have that for my dahlias, but you can also wrap them in newspaper,” she said.

Some gardeners dig up and dry tuberous begonias for winter, but she keeps hers in pots.

Check stored bulbs between Christmas and New Year's Day to make sure they are doing well, she said.

“Dahlias can be tricky. They can dry out, or if they are too wet, they can rot,” Dressler said.

Congo said he stores his rhizomes and tubers in an old cedar chest in a cooler area of his home.

What to do in spring

Congo is ready to plant. He starts his canna lilies and dahlias indoors in pots in the warmest room of his house, but he puts his calla lilies directly into the garden.

When temperatures warm, Congo puts the plants he stored indoors outside for a few hours each day and takes them in at night.

Dressler moves her potted plants and cuttings outside gradually, too. The method can differ, but it's the gradual acclimation that's important.

“I have a two-car garage, and I put the plants in the garage, then open the door gradually over a week or two to give them more sun every day,” she said.

*****

More information on overwintering plants

Here are some resources that give different ways to overwinter plants.  

  • UW Extension article on storing tender bulbs for winter: hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/storing-tender-bulbs-for-winter.

  • American Dahlia Society, How to dig, divide and store dahlias: dahlia.org/docsinfo/articles/digging-dividing-and-storing-tubers/.

  • Melinda Myers, Winter storage for dahlia tubers: melindamyers.com/articles/winter-storage-of-dahlia-tubers.

  • The Spruce, How to overwinter geraniums: thespruce.com/overwintering-geraniums-1403592.

  • Farmers' Almanac, How to overwinter annuals: farmersalmanac.com/winter-annual-plants-indoors-69474.

  • Proven Winners, Overwintering plants. provenwinners.com/learn/can-i-keep-it.

  • Illinois Extension, Overwintering annuals. extension.illinois.edu/news-releases/overwintering-annuals-possible-these-tips.

  • Gardening Know How, Overwintering tuberous begonias:. gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/flowers/begonia/wintering-begonias-overwintering-a-begonia-in-cold-climates.htm.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: When the Wisconsin weather gets too rough for garden plants, move them inside

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