Overwintering tender plants: lifting or mulching

Tender plants can be cut back, lifted and stored in a dormant state, or protected with a covering of organic matter (known as mulch). The decision on whether to lift and store or leave them outside under mulch depends both upon the plant and the local climate.

Lifting dahlias tubers. Image: ©www.gardenworldimages.com

Quick facts

Suitable for Tender and borderline hardy herbaceous perennials
Timing At the first sign of frost
Difficulty Easy

Suitable for...

Tender herbaceous perennials that can be lifted and stored include dahlias, cannas, tuberous begonias and gladioli. All these plants have fleshy tubers, rhizomes (underground stems) or corms that can survive in a dormant state when lifted and stored.

In milder areas of the UK and in sheltered, well-drained, parts of the garden, it may be possible to cut back the tops of tender plants, leave them in the ground and cover them with a thick mulch to protect them over winter. In very cold or exposed areas, even hardy perennials may need the protection of mulch over winter.

When to protect tender plants

Tender plants need protection at the first warning of frost, usually between September and November.

Specific cultivation practices are also used to protect plants from winter damage, and these are started from mid-summer onwards. See our advice on preventing winter damage for further detail.

How to protect tender plants

Cannas, dahlias and pelargoniums (commonly known as geraniums) can be lifted and stored in a semi-dormant state over winter. Where lifting and storing are not necessary, then thick, dry mulch over the crown of non-woody plants may be all that is needed for winter protection.

See our advice on pelargoniums for information on overwintering these popular garden plants.

Lifting plants

Cannas are lifted after the foliage has been blackened by frost:

  • Cut back the stems 5cm (2in) from the base. These stems can be composted
  • Use a fork to prise the plants out of the soil, taking care not to damage the roots or fleshy rhizomes
  • Remove debris and loose soil
  • Store them in trays of sand, coir or vermiculite, with the crown of the plant (where the stems join the roots) just showing
  • Keep them just moist in a cold, frost-free greenhouse or conservatory
  • Container-grown plants can be stored in their pots after cutting back

Dahlias are also lifted once the foliage has been blackened by the first frost:

  • Cut off the old flowering stems 5cm (2in) from the base and trim away any thin roots. These stems can be composted
  • Use a fork to prise the plants out of the soil, taking care not to damage, cut or bruise the tubers, as this can lead to rots developing in storage
  • Remove the soil from the tubers by hand. Position them upside down in a cool place for a few weeks to dry off
  • Label cultivars and bury in trays or wooden boxes filled with dry sand, soil or compost, leaving only the old flower stalks exposed
  • Place the trays in a cool but frost free place, such as a garage attached to a house or a shed

Begonia tubers are lifted and stored in the same way as dahlias. Gladiolus corms can be lifted and stored like bulbs. See our bulbs page for further information on lifting and storing bulbs.

Protecting plants with mulch

Where lifting and storing are not necessary, a thick, dry mulch can be used for protection. In mild areas, cannas and dahlias can be overwintered like this, as can deciduous Agapanthus (those that lose their leaves in winter) and globe artichokes. The young shoots of lilies can be mulched to protect them from late spring frosts. The tender shrub Melianthus major can be cut back to ground level and then mulched for winter protection.

Suitable mulching materials include straw, garden compost, chipped bark or well-rotted manure. See our advice on mulches and mulching for further ideas.

Tender plants that can not be lifted and stored

These need to be wrapped and protected in situ. See our advice on overwintering tender plants under wraps for further information.

Wrapping bananas

    Saw off the top growth, leaving only stumps. Make sure to remove leaf debris from around the stumps, as it could rot under the protective cover, and spread disease to the crown of the plant.Drive bamboo canes or stakes into the ground in a circle around the stumps, and stretch chicken wire is around the canes to make a frame. Tie the canes to the chicken wire with string or tying wire.Pile straw into the chicken wire frame, pressing it down between the stumps with a small rake. Do this until the stumps are completely packed with straw.Cover the top of the structure with thick polythene sheeting, and tie to secure the corners. This should keep your plants secure for the cold, ready to be unpacked and brought back into active growth in spring.

    Problems

    Rots can develop in stored tubers, corms and rhizomes. Keeping them dry and well ventilated is important.

    Plants protected under mulch may come into growth and flower a little later than those lifted, stored and replanted in spring.

     

    Image: © GWI/John Swithinbank. Available in high resolution at www.gardenworldimages.com

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