How to save plants from your containers over the winter

Container plants come in for the winter

I’ve been checking the weather forecast several times a day lately as I’m on the lookout for frost. I have my old sheets and burlap ready to cover some plants if frost is threatened, but I know this is only a temporary measure to postpone the inevitable.


This weekend I started taking apart some of my container plantings so that I could bring a few of the plants inside. It’s hard to bring myself to mess with my containers while they’re still looking good, but I’d rather do it now than be trying to hustle them inside in a hurry in the middle of the week, in the dark after getting home from work.


Planter with Oxalis, Coleus ‘Fishnet Stockings’, rosemary, and salvia in early summer (on the left) and fall (on the right.


I don’t try to save common plants like petunias, or large plants (no room!), but I’ve pulled in a nice burgundy oxalis (this will be its second winter indoors), a small orange flowered begonia (the kind that has roots, not tubers), and I still have to dig up a particularly nice variegated ivy. These are all plants that I liked enough to want to grow again next year (I used that oxalis, for instance, in several different planters and it worked great in combination with lots of other plants) but suspect could be challenging to find. It’s also more cost effective to just keep these plants than buy replacements next year.


To get at the plants I tipped the planter over and then used a trowel and my fingers to pry the plants loose. By this time of year I find that most of my planters have a very dense root system, so it can take some work to separate out individual plants.


Once freed from the large planter, I trimmed back the stems to quite a compact size, and popped the plants into some small pots filled with potting soil. I watered them well and they’ll spend the winter under grow lights in the basement. They will probably get quite leggy over the course of the winter (and undoubtedly I will forget to water them at some point and there’ll be a bit of die back), so I’ll have to do some maintenance on them next spring, trimming and possibly repotting and/or dividing them as I prepare them for next year’s pots.


These plants may not be the most beautiful specimens now, but they’ll get through the winter under these grow lights and look gorgeous in next year’s containers.


I’ve also taken cuttings from the special coleus plants I grew this year. I’ve written here about how do that.


I usually wait until we’ve had frost to lift and store my begonia, canna and dahlia tubers (instructions here). However, last year we didn’t get just a nice light frost to end the season, we had a sudden and substantial drop to subzero (Celsius) temperatures. The soil in my planters was quite wet from a lot of fall rain, so when the temperature plunged they froze solid and I lost all of my begonia and canna tubers. The dahlias were in the ground, not in planters, so they were ok. I was quite sad to lose some really great begonias I’d been overwintering for several years, but the sudden freeze (not just frost) caught me off guard.


That’s one of the reason I’m keeping a very close eye on the weather this year. I could lift my tubers (the ones I bought this past spring) now, but the begonias are blooming their heads off and I hate to end that when we could quite possibly have nice weather into November.


When it does come time to lift those tubers, and clear out the rest of the annuals from my pots, I will be emptying those pots of soil. I explained in another post why you should empty your pots for the winter, and it is advice I follow myself.

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