Bulbs Gardening

How to Lift and Store Tender Bulbs for the Winter

Freshly dug up dahlia tubers.

By Larry Hodgson

Even if you’re a beginning gardener, you probably have some notion that some summer bulbs, such as cannas, dahlias, gladioli and tuberous begonias, aren’t hardy and need to be stored indoors for the winter. But maybe you’re not sure how to do this. Fortunately, it’s really very easy.

Let’s take a quick look at how to successfully overwinter tender bulbs in the fall. 

Tender or Hardy?

The term tender bulb is applied to bulbs that can’t support cold winters, but that may not be a factor if you live in a mild climate. Many “tender” bulbs are hardy in USDA hardiness zones 7 to 9 and certainly in zone 10 and above and can be left in the ground all year there, although a good mulch may be needed in zone 7. Gladioli are even hardier: often to zone 6 or even 5. Tuberous begonias are among the least cold hardy and usually need to be stored indoors in all but tropical climates (zones 10 to 12).


Bringing Bulbs In

Dried and cleaned canna rhizomes in cardboard boxes.
Canna bulbs (rhizomes) dried, cleaned and ready for storage. Photo: uniqum-gallery.com

When the foliage of the bulbs is damaged by frost, or the frost threatens seriously, usually sometime from October to December, depending on the local climate, it’s time to start bringing tender bulbs in. 

“Lift” the bulbs (pull or dig them up) using a garden fork or shovel and shake some of the soil off. Let the bulbs dry out on newspaper or cloth for about 10 days in a frost-free spot (in a garage or a garden shed, for example, temperatures will still be above freezing even as the first frosts hit outdoors). Next, clean them with a soft brush to roughly knock off the dried soil. (Don’t wash them – you’ll want them to remain dry.) No need to be thorough: just remove most of the soil.

In the case of many bulbs, the foliage will fall off on its own at this stage. Otherwise, prune it back to about 2 inches (5 cm) from the bulb. You can also cut off drying roots.

You can also sprinkle the bulbs with garden sulfur, as it can help prevent rot.

Helpful Hint: If you grew tender bulbs in pots over the summer, care is even easier. Just bring the pot in without digging up the bulbs, cut back the foliage, and keep the container dry over the winter … and cool too, if possible!


Storing Bulbs

A layer of dahlia tubers in the bottom a storage box.
A first layer of dahlia tubers in the bottom a box. They’ll be covered with peat moss and other layers will be added above. Photo: Dahlia Barn

Store the bulbs in a wooden or cardboard box or in a paper bag, covering the bulbs with vermiculite, peat, sawdust or shredded newspaper to reduce evaporation. Or wrap them in newspaper or other recycled paper and place them in their container. Don’t completely seal the container: there should be a least a little air circulation.

Hands preparing bulb labels.
Photo: Columbia River Dahlias

Helpful Hint: Remember to label your bulbs before storing them!

In the good old days, every gardener had access to a cool to cold but frost-free basement, root cellar or storage shed where bulbs could be stored. And indeed, a cool, dry spot between 45 and 55 °F (8 and 12 °C) would be ideal. But today, your only cool spot may well be your refrigerator, which is too cold for many of these bulbs… and besides, you need the fridge to feed your family! Fortunately, cool conditions are not absolutely vital. If you don’t have a cold storage area, just keep your bulbs at room temperature and check them for dehydration a bit more often.

Quick Check

During the winter, you should check your bulbs anyway at least monthly, especially looking for any bulbs that start to rot, as rot can spread from damaged bulbs to healthy ones. Also, if the bulbs start to shrivel (again, especially a problem when they’re stored at room temperature), just spray them lightly with water before putting the container away again. That will plump them up.

A New Season Begins

By March or April, most bulbs will be starting to show signs of sprouting. Some you may need to start indoors a few weeks early (cannas, tuberous begonias, etc.), so you can pot them up, but you can simply plant the others outdoors once spring is well underway. 


Yes, storing tender bulbs over the winter really is as simply as that!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

12 comments on “How to Lift and Store Tender Bulbs for the Winter

  1. Joanne Toft

    Can you talk a bit more about begonias? I lifted mine but I seem to have a climb of soil and no real tuber. Not sure how much soil to remove. They are drying now so will see in a few days what I have. These begonias are about 4 or 5 years old.

    • There could still be a tuber there, but… there are many, many kinds of begonias, but only a few have tubers. Normally, the type you’d save that way would be the appropriately named tuberous begonia (Begonia x tuberhybrida). So, my first thought is that you’ve got the wrong kind. However, if they’re 4 or 5 years old, how did you keep them alive in the past? The other types have to be kept alive by bringing them indoors (or bringing in cuttings) and keeping them warm and well watered. The tuberous ones have to go dormant and be kept dry for the winter.

  2. Russ Clark

    Hi,
    We live in the Mtl suburb of Lachine. In the lawn of our back yard there is a small plant which ressembles a tiny strawberry plant. It produces small yellow flowers which eventually by the end of summer become tiny red ‘fruits’ about the size of the end of my little finger but have absolutely no taste.
    Could this plant be a sort of precursor to modern strawberry plants?

    • That would be false strawberry (Duchesnea indica), now more correctly Potentilla indica). It’s a very close relative of the strawberry, but not a precursor. The fruits are edible, but insipid. It comes from Asia, but is grown as a ground cover and occasionally escapes to become a minor lawn weed.

  3. There are not many that are tender here. We only dig dahlias to divide and move them. They can get crowded. I pull up some of the cannas because they migrate where they are not wanted. Incidentally, I realized that I ‘should’ have stored some that needed to be dug at the wrong time (to get them out of the way of another project), and planted them later. (It is another long story.)

  4. Thanks for this information. I don’t have much experience with dahlias – is each oval tuber hanging from the stalk a new plant? If I replanted each oval tuber separately would I get more plants or do I just replant the entire clump next year? Thanks for your help!

  5. Pingback: When to Divide Dahlias: Fall or Spring? – Laidback Gardener

  6. CHERI CONLEY

    Can I just take the begonia (fuzzy leaves) out of the flower box, pot it up and bring it in for the winter?

    • If your begonia has fuzzy leaves, it’s not a tuberous begonia. It can be all sorts of things (there are over 2,000 species of begonias and uncountable hybrids), but is most likely a tropical begonia that grows all year, so yes, pot it up and bring it inside.

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