Do you want to save your dahlias and other tender bulbs for the next growing season? Learn how to overwinter dahlia flowers and other tender plants with these simple tips.
If you grow tender plants like dahlia flowers, elephant ears, cannas, gladiolas, and caladiums and live in a climate where they won’t survive the winter, they’ll need to be dug up and stored indoors for the winter.
They are a bit more work in colder climates than your average perennials.
While not tender in all climates, if they are considered tender in your hardiness zone, they won’t survive winter if left in the ground.
Where bulbs and tubers are tender, gardeners have a decision to make: dig them up and overwinter indoors so they can be replanted in spring or treat them like annuals.
If you choose to store and save tender bulbs and tubers, it’s helpful to prepare ahead of time so you are ready to get them out of the ground.
Here’s how to do it.
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Overwintering Dahlias and Tender Bulbs: A Guide for Home Gardeners
As the chill of autumn approaches, many gardeners face the dilemma of what to do with their tender bulbs and tubers, such as dahlias, cannas, and gladiolus.
While these vibrant beauties add a burst of color to your garden throughout the growing season, they are not frost-resistant and will perish in the cold.
To preserve your beloved plants for another growing season, it’s essential to learn the art of overwintering.
It takes some doing and some bulbs overwinter better than others, but it is worth it if you want to keep gardening costs down in the long run.
What is a Tender Bulb?
But first things first, what even is a tender bulb?
A “tender bulb” is a term used to describe a type of plant that is a bulb or tuber in its natural habitat but is not hardy enough to withstand cold temperatures and frost in certain regions or climates.
In colder areas, tender bulbs and perennials are often treated as annuals or need special protection to survive the winter.
These plants typically thrive in warmer zones where winters are mild and frost is rare.
Types of Tender Bulbs
Here’s a list of popular tender bulbs and tubers that need protection during cold winters or otherwise treat as annuals.
- Dahlias (Dahlia spp.): Dahlias are known for their diverse flower shapes and vibrant colors. They require lifting and overwintering in colder climates.
- Cannas (Canna spp.): Cannas produce tropical-looking foliage and stunning, exotic-looking flowers. They need winter protection in cold regions.
- Gladiolus (Gladiolus spp.): Gladioli offers tall spikes of colorful, sword-shaped flowers and come in a variety of hues.
- Calla Lilies (Zantedeschia spp.): Calla lilies are prized for their elegant, trumpet-shaped flowers and are popular for cut flower arrangements.
- Tuberous Begonias (Begonia spp.): Tuberous begonias feature pendulous, rose-like flowers and lush foliage. They thrive in containers or shady garden spots.
- Elephant Ears (Colocasia and Alocasia spp.): These tropical-looking plants have large, heart-shaped leaves and need winter protection in cold climates.
- Caladiums (Caladium spp.): Caladiums brighten up shaded areas of the garden with their colorful and patterned foliage.
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Why Overwinter Tender Bulbs?
There are a few reasons you may decide to overwinter tender bulbs instead of treating them as annuals.
Here’s what you need to know.
Preserve Your Investment
Tender bulbs can be a significant investment in terms of both money and time. When you’ve carefully selected and nurtured these plants, it’s disheartening to see them succumb to frost. Overwintering ensures you get the most value from your garden.
Guaranteed Spring and Summer Blooms
Overwintering allows you to control the growing conditions, ensuring that your tender bulbs remain healthy and ready to burst forth with vibrant blooms in the spring. You won’t have to rely on purchasing new bulbs or tubers each year.
Experiment with Different Varieties
If you’re an avid gardener, you might want to experiment with different varieties of dahlias, cannas, or gladiolus. Overwintering allows you to expand your collection without the added cost of buying new bulbs.
There’s a certain satisfaction in nurturing your plants through the winter months and watching them thrive year after year. It’s a rewarding aspect of gardening that many enthusiasts cherish.
Rare and Hard-to-Find Varieties
If you grew rare or hard-to-find varieties they are worth saving!
Do Dahlia Flowers Come Back Every Year?
The answer is, that they can, but it depends on what hardiness zone you garden in.
In hardiness zones 8-10, they can grow back every year with some extra care. After the first hard frost, they will need to be cut back and covered with extra mulch (like 6 inches) to protect the tubers during winter.
But for the rest of us where they don’t return yearly, dahlia flowers need to be dug up and stored for the winter.
How Many Years Can Dahlias Live?
While dahlia flowers can’t survive cold winters, they can be dug up and overwintered successfully for many years.
Do Dahlias Multiply?
Yes, dahlias multiply and grow tubers while in the ground. Every year the parent tuber can produce anywhere from 5-20 new tubers.
So the tubers can be divided with care in the winter to get more dahlia flowers.
Do I Overwinter My Tender Bulbs?
For me, whether or not I overwinter them really depends on how busy I am in the fall. Some years I do – and other years I don’t.
When I have a little more time, I take the time to overwinter them properly. But sometimes, I get a little lazy and let them go with the rest of the annuals.
So don’t beat yourself up if you make those sorts of decisions too. I realize it can be difficult to treat them as annuals given their cost, but sometimes, it is just easier to do.
Last year, I left all of the dahlias in the ground. But I dug up my colocasia, divided the bulbs and tripled my stock this year.
The plants grew much larger than the last few years so I think they appreciated the time I put in digging them out!
How to Dig Up And Store Tender Bulbs for the Winter
With the cold winters here in New Jersey (Zone 6a) tender perennials, bulbs, and dahlias will never survive if I leave them outside.
If you live in a climate like I do and want to dig up your tender bulbs, here’s how to do it.
Supplies Needed to Overwinter Dahlias and Other Tender Plants
While digging up dahlia tubers and other tender bulbs is fairly simple, there are a few things you need to store them.
Dahlia tubers are a bit finicky when overwintering, so they must be treated with extra care if you want them to survive the winter.
Here’s what you need.
- Garden Fork
- Pruners or Loppers
- Plant tags
- Crates, cardboard boxes and/or brown paper bags
- Sphagnum Peat
- Garden Hose
- Garden Spray Nozzle
Directions to Overwinter Dahlia Flowers and Other Tender Plants
It’s pretty easy to dig up tender perennials and dahlia tubers for winter storage.
But as you do it, be careful not to nick the tubers or damage them in any way.
What to Do Before the First Frost
Before the first frost, tag and label plants.
This is particularly important for dahlias if you have several different varieties mixed together in a border.
Because I had so few varieties, I knew where I planted each so I skipped this step.
Dig Up After the First Frost
After the first frost has blackened the foliage, cut all but about 4-6 inches of top growth (will depend on plant size).
It will be easier to gently pull them out of the ground if you have some stem to grab onto.
Bulbs must be dug before the ground freezes. It is so important to carefully dig up the root structure without damaging tubers.
So give yourself room around each dahlia before digging to avoid damaging the tubers. It is best to use a garden fork like this one to help loosen the soil around it and gently dig it out.
Gently remove the excess soil and hose it off.
Look for signs of shriveling, dead or diseased tubers or areas that are soft. If there are signs of damage, it won’t survive winter.
The ground is so pliable in fall.
So it is pretty easy to dig in and get under the tubers.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to be careful when doing this so you don’t damage the tubers.
These dahlia tubers came out nice and easy.
I hosed them off to clean them up before storage.
Don’t they look so healthy?
Dry Tender Plants Before Storing
Allow tubers, rhizomes, or bulbs to dry in a container for a few days in a frost-free location, out of direct sunlight.
Do not layer too many on top of each other to avoid them damaging one another. I am drying mine in these crates in our mudroom.
Keep an eye on them. Mine dried within a few days.
Once dried, gently remove excess soil and cut the stem to about an inch or so. Check the inside of the stem to insure dryness. If it is dry, then it is ready to store.
Pack and Store for the Winter
Label your containers for each plant variety. I’ve gotten lazy with this step before and then sat there in spring scratching my head as to which variety plant it is.
Pack similar bulbs together in a container like a cardboard box or paper grocery bags. Use packing material around tubers and bulbs to keep them from damaging each other.
I use sphagnum peat, but you could also use Canadian peat, wood shavings, among other things.
Store the container in a cool, dry place where the temperature will remain between 45 and 55 degrees all winter and the container is not in sunlight.
I stored mine in an unfinished closet in our basement and that worked pretty well.
Check on Them While in Storage
Check tubers periodically through winter for rotting and drying out.
If tubers appear shriveled, mist them lightly with water. If any start to rot, trim the rotted portion of the clump so it won’t spread.
Use care when handling them because they are fragile.
Plant Dahlia Tubers and Other Tender Bulbs in Spring
When warm weather arrives, plant overwintered tubers and bulbs to start growing after all danger of frost has passed.
To get a jump start on the season, I plant my tender plants in containers indoors and keep in a sunny window in late February.
The First Time I Overwintered Dahlias
I’d always heard that overwintering dahlias could be a challenge because they can be pretty fussy while they are in storage.
But I have to say, it worked very well. I definitely lost a few but since that was the first time I’d ever done it, I had a few left.
To get a jump on the season, I started the dahlia tubers that survived in small pots on the deck but kept them free from moisture until I saw some greenery emerging.
Since I started them before the last frost date, I brought them indoors if it was a super cold day or there was a threat of frost.
But aside from that, they started nicely and grew well that year.
When we did, we changed things in the backyard to move my vegetable garden to these raised garden beds.
Plus we overhauled the garden shed and it looked amazing!!!
Since overwintering them that year, we have since moved. I did not dig my dahlia flowers up before moving in fall, so I had to buy more dahlia flowers last year.
We had a terrible growing season for them because New Jersey experienced a very hot and dry summer. So I did not bother digging them up to overwinter them.
But this year? They are doing amazing and I’ve got some gorgeous varieties, so I will dig them up this fall for sure!
More About Overwintering Dahlia Flowers and Other Tender Bulbs
Have you ever overwintered dahlias or other tender bulbs before? Or do you prefer to treat them as annuals? Do you live in a locality where you can leave them in the ground? I would love to know more in the comments below.
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Garden Supplies I Use
I’m often asked about the garden supplies and tools that I use most. From pruners to deer repellents, here are some of my favorites in no particular order.
- I like to use a good-quality, potting soil, garden soil, compost, and perlite when planting. While I make my own compost, you can easily buy it ready-made for use.
- I have used this deer repellent with great success. But now, I’m all about this deer repellent that is systemic instead of topical. This means the plant takes it in as opposed to it just smelling bad.
- Hands down this is my favorite hand-weeding tool. You can use it to get underneath roots and loosen soil, and it cuts down on the weeding time because you work much faster.
- But I also love this long, stand-up weeding tool to really get around roses from afar.
- I use THIS ORGANIC FERTILIZER for roses because the blooms are more prolific and it’s organic.
- And I use this organic fertilizer for my vegetables and herbs in the potager garden.
- You’ll need a sharp set of pruners when working with plants and flowers. I buy a few so I can stash them around.
- I use these garden snips to deadhead and cut flowers from my gardens.
- Where pest and disease problems are concerned, if I need to, I generally use this insecticidal soap or neem oil to help control infestations depending on the issue. When using, only apply when pollinators are less active.
- This is my favorite set-and-forget slow-release fertilizer for houseplants, annuals, and container gardens.
- Whenever I stake my peonies or other plants, I generally use these grow-through garden supports because they work really well and keep the blooms upright.
Looking for More Flower Garden Ideas?
If you love flowers and want to grow more in your garden, here are some posts that will get you on your way.
From tucking in flowering plants that are deer-resistant or ones that attract more butterflies and hummingbirds, to shade-loving flowers like the lenten rose, these posts will get you on your way to growing a garden that will bring joy for years to come.
Here are more cut flower and cottage garden growing tips, tricks, and design inspiration.
- 5 Quick Ways to Grow a Cottage Garden
- Easy-Care Cottage Garden Ideas
- Flower Garden Ideas for the Front Porch
- Why and How to Divide Perennials
- Perennials vs Annuals
- Flowers that Bloom in Midsummer
- How My Cottage Garden Grew in 2021
- Cut Flower Gardening for Beginners
- The Complete Guide to Roses Care
- The Basics of Hydrangea Care
- Everblooming Cottage Garden Design Ideas
- The Secret to Growing an Everblooming Cottage Garden
Want to Learn What to Plant for an Everblooming Colorful Garden?
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Be the plant parent you’ve always wanted to be with these tried and true flowers that will give you a beautiful garden that’s always in bloom.
More Fall Gardening Posts You May Enjoy
If you want to learn more about what to do in the fall garden this year, check out these posts.
- 9 Must-Do Garden Chores Checklist
- Fall Gardening – Where to Start?
- 5 Reasons You Should Grow Lenten Rose
- The Ultimate Guide to Having an Everblooming Colorful Garden
- How to Plant Bulbs in the Fall
- The Best Fall Garden Flowers
- Why Aren’t My Hydrangeas Blooming
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