Bulbs Gardening

Bringing Frost-Tender Bulbs Indoors for the Winter

When frost kills the foliage of your bulbs (here, dahlias), it’s time to bring them back indoors for the winter. Source: canoecorner.blogspot.com

Most summer-flowering bulbs other than lilies, and that includes dahlias, gladiolus, cannas, callas, colocasias, acidantheras and tuberous begonias, are considered “tender bulbs,” that is, they are not hardy enough to survive the winter in cold climates. Many of these bulbs may be able to overwinter outdoors in USDA zones 7–8, especially if well mulched (indeed, some gladiolus thrive in zone 6!) and certainly in zones 9 and above, but most gardeners living in colder zones can only keep them alive from year to year by bringing them indoors in the fall.

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Gladiolus corms freshly dug up. Source: natureworksct.blogspot.com

Usually the signal to bring them indoors is when the first frost damages their foliage. If there is no frost before mid-November, though, bring them in any way: you don’t want them to be still in the ground when it freezes solid!

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Let the bulbs (here, dahlia tubers) dry out for a week or so, then clean them up roughly before storing them. Source: thepropagatorblog.wordpress.com

To do this, dig up the root ball and shake it to knock off excess soil, then let the bulbs dry on newspaper or cloth for a week or so in a frost-free spot (a garage or shed, for example). Now clean them roughly with a brush to remove most of the dirt. Don’t rinse them, though: they must stay dry.

On some bulbs, stems and foliage will fall off all on their own at this stage. If not, cut them off about 2 inches (5 cm) from the bulb. Also cut off any lingering roots and remove any bulbils (baby bulbs). (You can save the bulbils if you want, but be forewarned that they are usually 3 to 5 years from blooming!) You can also sprinkle garden sulfur on the bulbs: this will help prevent rot over the winter.

Make sure you properly identify your bulbs at this point. There is nothing more confusing than looking at a pile of gladiolus corms or dahlia tubers in the spring and trying to remember which were the red ones and which were the yellow ones! Either write the name on their storage container or add a label. Some people write the name on dahlia tubers with a felt pen!

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You can layer bulbs one on top of the other as long as you cover the previous layer with vermiculite, peat moss, wood shavings, or shredded paper. Here, the first layer of dahlia tubers was covered in peat moss. Source: www.thatbloomingarden.com

If possible, store the bulbs in a cardboard box or a plastic container (the latter should be have holes so there’ll be a bit of air circulation), covering them with vermiculite, peat moss, wood shavings, or shredded paper. Some gardeners like to store them in a mesh bag.

The ideal location for winter storage is a cool but not cold spot that remains between 40 and 55? F (5–12° C) for much of the winter. That means that a fridge or a cold room may be too chilly for some tender bulbs, but a basement or lightly heated garage should work well.

You have nowhere cool to store them? Don’t worry: they can be kept at room temperature if necessary, but if so, the bulbs will tend to dry out over the winter, so check them monthly, giving them a spritz of water if they start to shrivel.

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If you grow your bulbs in containers, you can simply pile the up in a cool, dry spot. Source: thebikinggardener.com

One final note: if you grow your tender bulbs in containers, overwintering is even simpler. Just bring the pots indoors, cut off the foliage, let the soil dry out, then pile the pots up in cool, dry spot until spring.

2 comments on “Bringing Frost-Tender Bulbs Indoors for the Winter

  1. edith_piaf's_bureau_drawer

    Perhaps you can help me with a question — what sort of fertilization/watering regimen encourages the most robust bulbs, corms, etc.?

    Many of my frost-tender favorites, particularly dahlias and caladiums, grow happily all summer long, pumping out beautiful flowers and lush foliage, only to come out of the ground at the end of the season with such sad tiny roots/corms/bulbs that they don’t make it through winter storage, at least not with any viability, it seems.

    I wait until the foliage is frost-nipped but not totally dead and brown before lifting them for storage.

    This year I am experimenting with applications of alfalfa “tea,” to see if the triacontanol has the desired effect, but I’m sure there’s a more widely-utilized method — I just can’t seem to find it!

    I would appreciate any advice or insight you might have.

    • Sun and plenty of just about any fertilizer will help. I like to think of bulbs as being greedy plants, given to storing a lot of starches and sugars, and that requires a lot of minerals. The shortening days of the fall, too, are essential for a lot of them (dahlias). That’s the reason we’re supposed to leave them until frost. The frost has nothing to do with it; it’s the extra time under short days that gives bigger “bulbs”. Remember, too, that some naturally produce big bulbs and others, small ones, even within the same species (dahlias, for example).

      I’ve never heard of triacontanol being used for stimulating bulb growth, so your experiment might well give interesting results… in one way or the other. (Hormones, you just never know what they’ll do!)

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