Time to dig up those tender bulbs!

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Several plants that are sold as annuals have tubers or bulbs that can be grown year after year. With a little bit of dirty work, and a small amount of storage space, you can easily overwinter them. You will be able to keep plants that you love without worrying about having a sunny window to put them in, or pest infestations during the winter. It’s a huge money saver too!

Here is a list of some examples of plants that have tubers or bulbs:

  • Canna lily
  • Spider lily
  • Voodoo lily
  • Dahlias
  • Elephant ear
  • Crinum lily
  • Tuberous Begonias (not all begonias are tuberous)
  • Gladiolas
  • Caladium

Here are some steps to help you be successful in keeping your tender bulbs/tubers from year to year:

Frost damaged canna lily foliage

You can dig tender bulbs up any time that is convenient to you, but you must do it before the ground freezes. 

Plus it’s a much more pleasant job on a sunny mid-October afternoon than it is later when it gets colder.

I like to wait until a few hard frosts have killed the foliage before I dig up the bulbs/tubers.

You can cut the foliage down to the ground before digging up the bulbs, or you can wait until after you’ve dug up and cleaned the bulbs.

Cut down foliage on canna lily bulbs

I prefer to cut most of the foliage off before I dig the bulbs, leaving enough of the stalk to use as a handle if possible.

As you dig up the clumps of bulbs/tubers, make sure that you keep track of what is what (unless you like surprises).

large clump of canna lily bulbs

After digging up the entire root ball, knock off as much of the dirt as you can back into the garden. 

You can rinse the bulbs with the hose to help remove the dirt, but this is not necessary. 

You don’t need to worry about getting the bulbs totally clean, just get the big chunks of dirt off.

Carefully loosen up the root ball and continue removing as much dirt as possible. Cutting off tight clumps of roots will help with this process. You don’t need to cut off all the roots. The goal is to loosen up the root ball, remove the bulk of the dirt, and separate the bulbs as much as you can. 

For bulbs, it’s best to separate them into individual bulbs. As for tubers, you don’t need to separate each tuber individually from a clump.

mostly rotted canna lily bulb

As you do this, check each bulb for signs of rot. 

If you find rot, you can cut the rotting portion off the bulb/tuber. 

If the majority of it is rotten, you should discard the bulb/tuber. 

 Healthy bulbs are white and firm, similar to a potato.

Cut down any remaining foliage on each bulb/tuber clump to as close to the bulb/tuber as you can. 

single canna lily bulb

Allow the bulbs/tubers to cure (dry out). To do this, I lay newspaper down on the garage floor and then spread the bulbs/tubers out on the newspaper.

pile-o-bulbs and tubers

The larger the bulb/tuber, the longer it should cure. 

1-2 days for small bulbs/tubers, 3-5 days for large bulbs/tuber clumps. 

This step is critical in order to reduce the chance of the bulbs/tubers molding or rotting while they are in storage. 

Once they have cured, it’s time to pack them up. I use cardboard boxes so they are easy to stack in a corner in the basement, but you could use paper bags too. I would not recommend using any type of plastic container, unless it is well ventilated.

You can either wrap the bulbs/tubers in newspaper, or you can pack them in peat moss or saw dust. In the past, I have wrapped mine in newspaper. However, I’ve found that the smaller bulbs/tubers seem to dry up with this method. 

I am going to pack mine in peat moss this year. Whatever medium you choose to use to pack your bulbs/tubers in, make sure it is fairly dry before packing.

packing canna lily bulbs in peat moss

Try to pack them so that the bulbs/tubers aren’t touching each other. Continue to pack the bulbs/tubers between layers of packing medium until the box is full.

Canna lily bulbs ready to store for winter

Store the boxes in a cool (above freezing) and dark location. 

You can check them periodically during the winter to make sure there are no signs of mold or rot.

If you were growing the plant in a pot, you could store the bulb/tuber right in the pot. 

Cut down the foliage and don’t water it until spring. (It may need to be repotted in the spring.) I do this with my tuberous begonias and some elephant ear bulbs.



  1. says

    After I wrote this post, I decided to do some experimenting with the types of containers I used for storing my bulbs. I wrote a follow up blog post about what I did and the results. Check it out… Tender bulbs unpacked

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