how to store tender plants, with dennis schrader

Rex begonia vine, or Cissus discolor
I GET ASKED TWO QUESTIONS a lot when people visit my garden: “Where did you get that plant?” and, “Where do you put all those big pots of tender things in winter?” (such as the giant Rex begonia vine, above). The answers to both questions lead back to one old friend in particular, Dennis Schrader, whose wholesale nursery on Long Island is where many of the favorite “investment plants” I try to carry over year to year put down their first roots, and whose expert overwintering advice I got on the latest edition of my radio show. Plus: Win Dennis’s classic book, “Hot Plants for Cool Climates.”

I called Dennis in late September, as my Zone 5B weather threatened to frost, because he has more experience with carrying over stock of tropicals and sub-tropicals than anyone else I know, after operating Landcraft Environments, a specialist in unusual tender things, since 1992. (Our conversation was the Sept. 23, 2013 edition of my public-radio show and podcast, and is summed up below with all his advice.)

The to-the-trade business, located on the North Fork of Long Island in Mattituck, resulted from what Dennis calls, “a hobby that went wild,” a love of houseplants that led him to school for landscape design and nursery/greenhouse management, and eventually to start a design business and then the wholesale operation with his partner, Dennis Smith. Bold, colorful foliage is a signature of the Landcraft online catalog (which you can use as an inspirational encyclopedia of plants worth lusting over, even if you can’t shop there directly).

“We’re kind of foliage-driven,” says Dennis, “and if I am going to do flowers, I don’t like fussy ones–so more dahlias” than something with less impact.

Just fine with me!

Begonia and bromeliad, back indoors for winter.

overwintering: the basics from dennis schrader

I HAVE BEEN EXPERIMENTING for years with stashing tender things into the cellar, garage, house, mud room…read: wherever I can…to try to carry them over from one year to the next.  There are several tactics to consider, says Dennis, depending on the plant, and your available protected indoor spots:

  • Bring it in as a houseplant (meaning you need a window or light source). If you do this, such as I just did with a bromeliad and begonia in the photo above, be sure to stage the shorter plants nearer to the window than the taller ones–sort of the opposite of what looks good decor-wise–so they don’t get shaded.
  • Alternatively, collect seeds (or cuttings) from your favorite plants.
  • Or, dig the tubers, if the plant is bulb-like, and store above freezing, such as in a garage or cellar.
  • And then, of course, there are greenhouses, of which Dennis has more than an acre at Landcraft, whose amazing gardens are open occasionally for Garden Conservancy Open Days. (That’s one border at Landcraft in the photo below, courtesy of Dennis.) No greenhouse? That’s where other spaces like those garages, sunrooms and such come in.

Border at Landcraft in August 2012 (photo from Dennis Schrader).It’s a bit of an adventure, Dennis agrees, but as you have a success with one plant, apply the tactics learned to other things. “If you’ve succeeded with cannas, try dahlias, or gladiolas, or elephant ears—Alocasia or Colocasia.” His basic guidance:

“Think about the origins of the plant,” says Dennis, “and if it came from a Zone 8 or 9—or even warmer than that—they probably experienced a seasonal dry period there. So sometimes you’re simply mimicking a rest period, a dormancy.”

Aha! So go ahead: Snap up some tender beauty at the fall sales at your local garden center right now, and give it a try. You might turn a bargain into an investment plant.

Bromeliads, clivia and elephant ear in my mudroom for winter.

hot plants to collect, and store

SOME OF THE PLANTS Dennis Schrader and I talked about storing, on this week’s radio show (the link if you want to listen in):

Succulents: Succulents such as sedums, agaves, Echeveria, and even aloes are used to tough, dry conditions, and may prove willing to cooperate with being overwintered indoors. “Stick them by a sunny window,” says Dennis, “especially cool and bright if you have it.” Don’t overwater!

Bromeliads: These beauties are easily carried over as houseplants (I have had some for a decade; the young ones in the bowl in the photo above are tucked into my back mudroom with an elephant ear and a big old Clivia). Give bromeliads bright light. Like the succulents, Dennis says, you don’t have to keep the soil wet–in fact they don’t want “wet feet,” but rather to just fill the “cup” formed by their leaves with water.  Even the so-called “earth stars,” he says, or Cryptanthus, do well as indoor-outdoor subjects.

“One thing,” he adds: “Once a bromeliad blooms, the mother plant will start to die—so cut it off at the base and let the pups develop.”

Canna 'Musafolia' or 'Grande,' the so-called "banana canna"Cannas:  Easiest of all plants to overwinter, simply dig the tubers (cutting back the frost-blackened foliage) and stash them in the cellar or a garage that’s frost-free; unpotted is fine. (That’s ‘Musafolia’ or ‘Grande,’ above.)

Amorphophallus, or voodoo lily, grow from a tuber, and though most species are not hardy north of Zone 8ish, they are easy in pots. Simply let them dry off all winter, such as in your basement. I don’t even unpot mine, but you can. Bring out and water again signs of life begin, or around May for me.

Eucomis, the pineapple lilies, aren’t reliably hardy in my Zone 5 garden, so I grow them in pots, which I simply haul into the basement as with the voodoo lilies. Dennis grows a range of Eucomis in the ground in his Zone 7ish garden, and lately Landcraft is offering them for sale.

Bananas: Dennis tells a story of a friend with a banana, Ensete maurelii, specifically the big red Abyssinian banana, which gets to about 15 feet tall.

The friend didn’t know where to store it, “so he bare-rooted it–made it look like a leek by cutting off all the leaves and trimming its roots and then let it sit under his dining-room table all winter.”  (I’ve dragged them, pot and all, onto the cellar floor–as I have Brugmansia. Not pretty, but it works. Again: remember you’re sort of simulating the seasonal dry period of their native land. Don’t feel cruel!)

Acalypha, or copperleaf plant:Acalypha tend to get a little leggy,” says Dennis, “so it’s best to keep them in a bright location and as humid as possible, and then cut them back in the early spring and get a flush of new growth. They are prone to spider mites, so be on the lookout.”

Phormium, coleus and Alternanthera in big bowl on my terraceColeus:Coleus can do just fine inside as a house plant as long as they are not too big. Best thing is to take cuttings, and root them over the winter.” (That’s a fine-textured coleus from Landcraft called ‘India Frills,’ above, in a giant bowl on my patio, with a spike of gold Phormium and purple-leaved Alternanthera spilling over the edge.)

Alternanthera:Alternanthera is also known as Christmas clover,” says Dennis, “and will bloom with small white clover-like blooms if brought in over the winter. It will get a bit scraggly so cut back after blooms fade in January-February. (That’s Alternanthera dentata ‘Rubiginosa’ spilling over the pot edge, above.)

Phormium:, or New Zealand flax, and Cordyline are dramatic, linear plants–but I have never made my Phormium investments (like the yellow spike in the pot above) happy for more than a year or two by resting them in my too-dark cellar, I confessed to Dennis.

“They can take it very cold—like into Zone 7,” says Dennis, though they are evergreen and always in active growth, even if very slow. If they can’t make it with heavy mulch in your garden, he recommends, try them very cold and very dry, with some light. I’m going to try some in a bright mudroom this year, and others inside my very well-insulated but not heated garage, by a window. Why not?

Cissus discolor, or Rex begonia vine: This lusty vine, a grape relative, grows to a dozen feet or more in a season (as in the photo)–far too big to lug indoors.

“Try it as a houseplant in winter,” says Dennis, “but thin it back and cut it back pretty severely,” reducing the number of leaves, he says, to let in light and air. Yes, it seems brutal, but no worry. It will push new growth in later winter.

finding landcraft plants

WHAT? Your local nursery doesn’t sell “hot plants for cool climates” from Landcraft Environments? Here’s how to find out if they do (list of retailers)…and if not perhaps they might in the future, so go ahead: nudge them! Again, have a look first at the Landcraft plant list to whet your appetite.

how to win ‘hot plants for cool climates’

I’VE BOUGHT TWO COPIES of Dennis Schrader’s and Susan A. Roth’s “Hot Plants for Cool Climates” (Amazon affiliate link) to share with you. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in comments below (UPDATE: the giveaway is complete):

Hot Plants for Cool Climates book coverWhat’s plant (or plants) do you feel like you know how stash successfully, even though it’s technically not hardy in your garden zone?

Feeling shy, or have no answer? That’s fine; just say “Count me in” or some such, and I will.

I’ll draw two winners at random after entries close at midnight on Monday, September 30, 2013. Good luck to all!

  1. Julie says:

    I bring in a pot of rosemary, it does well in my office, which is bright and cool all winter. I also overwintered a calla lily as a potted plant, but it took up too much space. This year I think I’ll dig up the tuber and store it in the cellar.

  2. Dottie MacKeen says:

    I have had good luck for several years with Brugmansia. I cut it back to about 6 inches of stalk and put it in the basement where it gets very little light and a cool temperature. About March (or as soon as the snow leaves the ground and the ground stops being a mud bath), I drag it on a dolly up to the sunroom and put it under the southern exposure skylights. It generally gets about 6-7 feet tall during the summer growing season and I have at least three rounds of blooms.

  3. Cheryl says:

    Thanks to a lot of good tips from you, I’ve been able to overwinter several things for myself and my clients: cannas & dahlias, brugmansia, alocasia, escheveria, mangave, senecio, sedums, fancy leafed begonias and a solanum rantonnetii. Not so good with colocasia or papyrus, but I will try one more time. Would love to have a copy of this book – to help me with this ever growing collection of warm blooded plants!

  4. Janis says:

    The number of plants that I over-winter in an unheated garage grows yearly! It is good that I live in a rainy -not snowy- climate for the truck gets turfed to the driveway. Plants are more important! Would love this book.

  5. Bob says:

    I picked up a vriesea bromeliad a few years back inspired by one at one of your garden open days. It just gets better and better year after year. It turns out the Boston nursery I picked it up at is a customer of Landcraft, so it could very well have started with Dennis. Would love to win the book!

  6. Daria says:

    I haven’t had any luck with cannas or elephant ear here in Wisconsin (4b) It is really hard to find a place that is cool enough without freezing. It can drop to 20-30 below during the winter!

  7. Susan Scheuch says:

    Please count me in. I have many houseplants that I put out in the spring and bring back indoors in the fall. My challange right now is a fig tree… I now have a cutting growing in a pot, so I’m going to try to winter it over in the garage and see what happens in the spring.

  8. Cathy says:

    have been trying to overwinter rosemary unsuccessfully for several years – also lemon verbena, which I know goes dormant and should come back, but mine never does

  9. vanessa says:

    I like to over winter things that root well in water. That way I take all the sprigs hardy looking in fall and put them in glasses of water (usually something pretty you want to look at all winter like a champagne glass) and let them root. By end of January they are full of roots and I up pot into good potting soil and clay pots. By end of March or April here in Maine, they can start to be hardened off and go outside. I love to do plectranthus this way, geraniums, willows and any others that are willing. So easy..no watering..can go away for a week or two and they are fine!

  10. Mary Sue says:

    Count me in! I grow white angel-wing begonias on my front porch each summer, they are gorgeous by fall, and it saddens me every year to pitch them. I am going to bring them in this year, cut way back on the watering, hope it does not loose all of its leaves and will have great roots to begin next summer. I have only a north facing window which is the reverse side of its summer home so this will be an interesting experiment.

  11. Nancy Rench says:

    Every year I try to overwinter my rosemary and by January it is dead. This spring, my favorite garden center had a large plan for sale. It is now probably 2′ tall and I hate to see it go the way of its predecessors. I do have good luck overwintering Angel Wing Begonias. Yeah!

    1. Vicki Erickson says:

      Hi Bonnie – Thanks for the response. Some of the leaves will start looking a little stressed as it adjusts to the air inside your home. I found as new leaves began to grow they did just fine. I did have to figure out where the plant was “happy”. My plant didn’t like being too close to the windows; it did much better across the room from the windows with indirect light. Also I found that if I let the soil dry out a little and make sure it had good drainage it began to really grow so be careful not to over water it. Once I got this stuff right it grew like a weed. So much so I had to trim it so I created new plants that I rooted in a Ball jar with water. I am sure you will be able to over winter it just fine. Good Luck!!! Vicki

  12. Karin Goosey says:

    Would love to win the book. Have had success with Asparagus ferns, cannas,and sweet potato vines. I hate to leave the pots of still lovely annuals outside to freeze.The coleous I try to root in water always rot away.

  13. Kim Hawkins says:

    I read this avidly, as I am anticipating a move from the mild Pacific Northwest to the cold winters of Wisconsin. Would make excellent use of this book. I think, however, I will beg my hubby for a sunroom or greenhouse wherever we land!

  14. margaret says:

    And the winners are: Marge, and Daniela (who have been notified by email).

    Comments are always welcome — but the drawing is done. Thanks to all for sharing your overwintering issues/successes.

  15. Sarah Mead says:

    We bring a lot of plants inside: lime, lemon, caladium orange, olive (we use a big pot-lugger, but it’s pretty hard on these aging backs!). Dig and pot up begonia, caladium, alternanthera and keep them in a northeast window. Crinum and calla-lilies stay in their pots in a basically dark basement. Dahlias dug and stored in woodchips in the basement. Cannas have been houseplants in a few inches of water. Papyrus in big pots of water. All the geraniums (cut way back, often re-potted) in the south bay window. Other pond plants either sunk or buried deep in the vegetable garden under straw mulch. Most everything comes through, though rosemary often succumbs to that fluffy white mold. We’ve just built an unheated greenhouse, so will be trying some new experiments in overwintering this year.

    NOTE: I’m in Zone 5b. I’d love it if the comments always included the zone – it would be a big help.

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