Six on Saturday: Camping Out Indoors

This is one of our favorite Alocasias, often called African Mask. It spends winter in the living room and summer in a shady part of the garden.

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We love big and colorful leaves in our summer garden, and we end up growing a pretty good collection of tropical plants each year that can’t make it through our coldest winter nights outdoors.  By the end of October, we are deciding which plants will get to camp out inside for the winter, and where (and how) they will overwinter.

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This Alocasia, originally from Trader Joe’s, wasn’t labeled. It reminds me of A. ‘Regal Shields,’ but grows a bit larger.  It died back to its tuber in the basement last winter.  This winter it is still in growth in our sunny garage.

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Some plants get to grow on in their pots in our sunny living spaces.  They will stay comfortably warm from November through April or May.  Aside from living with a little less light than they’d like, they have a good winter of continued growth and minimal disruption.  I continue to fertilize many of these plants to encourage winter blooms.

Others come into the garage.  It is a good deal chillier, and they get even less light.  But they remain active, with very little new growth, and most manage to survive the winter.  I water these only as needed to keep their soil barely moist, and don’t apply any fertilizer until the weeks before they move back outdoors.

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Begonias live in our garage and living room through the winter.  Some may lose their leaves, but often return from their rhizomes in the spring.  this one is growing well this winter and is still producing new leaves.

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A few sturdier plants, Alocasias, Zantedeschias and Colocasias, are re-potted into much smaller quarters and overwinter in the basement near a window.  Most of those that get this treatment have a dormant period built into their annual life cycle and are at least marginally hardy here in Zone 7.

I spare them a real period of freezing temperatures and make sure that they stay barely moist through winter.  They lose most, or all of their leaves and may survive as a tuber with a few active roots.  The Zantedeschias we are overwintering this way have continued to throw out sturdy new leaves, reaching for the feeble winter light from our basement windows.

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Begonias with Caladium ‘Moonlight’. Cane Begonias can be overwintered in vases of water as cuttings. Once the stem has roots, it can be potted up in a much smaller pot, indoors, until time to plant it outside in late April.  Cuttings of this Begonia rest on my kitchen counter, waiting for spring.

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Finally, most of the Caladiums and some Zantedeschias go fully dormant in November, with all leaves and roots dying back.  Once their tubers have dried out, I pack them away in rice hulls, in bags, and put them in an out of the way spot indoors for the winter.

They slumber through winter without any moisture or light, and must be re-awakened each spring by planting them in moist soil.  They send out all new growth each spring and are ready to back out doors in May or June.

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Caladium ‘Burning Heart’ was a newcomer to our garden this summer.  Its tubers are resting, waiting for me to wake them up next month.

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The alternative to going to all of this trouble would be to treat our beautiful summer tropical plants like annuals, allowing the frost to kill them each fall and starting over with new plants each spring.  Some gardeners may go this route, especially if you don’t have the space indoors to let the plants camp out in comfort for a few months.

It would be an outrageous expense for us, and there isn’t a guarantee that you will even find the plants in spring to replace those lost.  We lost our Alocasia ‘Stingray’ last winter, and then didn’t find it in any catalogs for spring.  We were delighted to find A. ‘Stingray’ in Brent and Becky Heath’s spring catalog, and have several on order.

So every fall we bring as many as we can indoors, care for them through the winter, and then begin moving them all back outside again in April.  They may look a bit worse for the winter in doors, but all soon grow new foliage and perk up in the sunshine to enjoy another summer of beauty and growth.

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Zantedeschia, calla lily, blooming last June.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

Many thanks to The Propagator for hosting Six on Saturday each week.

 

 

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Rescuing Our Caladiums

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As the season changes, our Caladiums have grown a little droopy and woebegone.

Tropical, heat loving Caladiums don’t care much for cold winds and autumn’s chill at night.  It is time to rescue them from their pots, and help them grow dormant for the coming winter.

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Caladium ‘White Delight’ still looked pretty good on October 3.   I rescued this one on Friday, and its tuber is in the garage preparing for winter storage.

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Many gardeners treat their Caladiums like annuals, letting them freeze alongside the petunias and impatiens.    There is no harm in that, so long as you have deep pockets to buy all the Caladiums you want come spring.  But if you are a thrifty gardener, or have just grown attached to your Caladiums and would like to enjoy them for another year, saving them takes very little effort.

As Caladiums prepare to go dormant, their leaves first droop, and then just sort of fade away.  I was disappointed to discover that process well underway with some of my potted Caladiums, making it nearly impossible to find their buried tubers without vigorous digging through the entire pot.

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I’ll bring this basket of Begonia, tender lady fern and Caladium into the garage before our first freeze.

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If you have Caladiums planted alongside ferns or other plants you want to save, that vigorous digging might not be possible without doing a lot of damage.  In that case, you can simply bring the pot indoors for the winter, with the Caladium tubers left in the soil.  Water sparingly, and try to keep the pot at 50F or above and the Caladiums will survive and begin sending out new leaves next spring.

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These Caladium tubers can be dug up for storage. I’ll fill their space in this basket with some Violas.

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My brilliant gardening friend has even overwintered her Caladiums (accidentally she says) under several inches of fallen leaves left on their bed as mulch.  Some of the newer varieties have been bred to be more cold tolerant, and how do you argue with success?

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A flat filled with Caladiums I have already rescued for storage

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The most reliable way to save your favorite Caladium tubers for next season is to simply dig them, dry them, and store them indoors.   Dig several inches to the side of where the remaining leaves emerge from the soil, and work your way around to loosen the tuber.

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Most Caladiums have extensive roots by now, and you will need to work gently to avoid cutting or breaking the tubers, which may have grown much larger than what you planted last spring.   Sometimes, the tubers calve over summer, and you may be digging up a clump of little tubers growing together.

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Once you lift the Caladium and shake off as much dirt as possible, simply lay the whole plant, leaves and roots and all, into a flat or box where it can dry in a sheltered place.  Remember to gently dig or comb through the soil with your fingers in search of any little stray bits of  tuber. Even bits as small as a dime may be saved, and will grow next spring.

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I’ve been planting a tuber of Arum itallicum in many of the spots where I’m lifting Caladiums this month.   The evergreen Arum will look great growing over winter, keeping pots and beds green through the cold season.  Pair Arum with spring flowering bulbs, Violas, Heucheras, Hellebores, hardy ferns, ivy, snapdragons, Saxifraga, or even just with a mulch of living moss  to fill pots or beds with winter interest.

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These Arum italicum, already a few years old, are emerging now for the cold months ahead.  They are similar enough to Caladiums to make a good winter substitute, and grow near where I lifted some Caladiums from the bed last week.

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Once you’ve dug all of your Caladiums, spread the plants out in a single layer in an empty flat or box, in a protected shady area where they may dry over the next few weeks.  During this time the leaves and roots will wither, the remaining soil around the root will dry, and any nicks to the tubers from digging should heal.  I allow ours to dry in our garage where they are out of the weather, and protected from freezing as nights grow colder.

After several weeks, you should be able to shake away any remaining soil and easily pull of the withered stems and roots.  Any damaged tubers may be dusted or dipped into a fungicide for extra protection.  Otherwise, simply pack them loosely into mesh bags with some wood shavings, rice hulls, sawdust, or dry peat moss.

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We can begin to move newly sprouted Caladiums outside by late May.

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I normally save the rice hulls my Caladiums arrive in from the grower each spring, and reuse them for storage over winter.  Individual bags of Caladiums may be kept together in a larger box or paper grocery bag until time to plant next spring.  Store them in a closet or other out of the way spot in a heated room.

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Caladium tubers, ready for spring planting

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I start our stored Caladium in late March each year, usually several weeks earlier than the grower will ship new Caladium tubers to Virginia.  We have fresh Caladiums ready to plant out in pots and beds again as soon as it grows warm enough for them to take off for the new season ahead. Since the tubers grow a little bit each year, saved tubers may be larger and more lush than the new ones you buy.

All in all, a good deal for those of us who truly love our Caladiums.

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This is the Caladium I rooted from a leaf over the summer. It finally produced a second leaf, seen here, before the rooted leaf faded away. I plan to bring this pot indoors before frost, and hope the tiny new tuber will keep over winter to continue growing next year.

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Woodland Gnome 2017

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Caladiums Year to Year

Caladium ‘Florida Sweetheart’ grown from a single bulb we dug last fall and overwintered.

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Caladiums are tender perennials, growing bigger and better each year in warm climates where they may be left undisturbed.  The catch is that they are tropical by nature, and want to stay warm, even when dormant.

The general rule of thumb tells us to store them at 60F or warmer, even when the tuber is dormant.  Certainly, one would want to bring them indoors in any climate where the soil temperature dips below 60F, right?  Not necessarily…

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Admiring my friend’s Caladium bed last week, she told me that they had overwintered in place.  She’d never gotten around to digging them, and just piled some leaves on their bed at the base of a small tree.  Voila!  They emerged this spring, bigger and better than they had been in 2016.

Now, understand that my friend is a gifted gardener.  She always amazes me with what she grows and how she does it so artfully.  She is the friend who inspired me with a rooted Caladium leaf sprouting new leaves while growing in a glass of water on her kitchen windowsill.

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Inspired by my friend, I successfully rooted this Caladium leaf last month.  I pulled it accidentally when weeding a bed at my parents’ home, and placed it in water right away.  If the Caladium’s petiole has a bit of the tuber attached, then it has the potential to root, regrow a new tuber, and produce additional leaves.  Once the roots were several inches long, I planted this rooted leaf in moist peat and sand.

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This same friend showed me Caladiums growing in a half whiskey barrel last summer, which she explained had overwintered in place.  She had thrown some mulch in the barrel in fall. The Caladiums surprised her when they emerged the following May.  This encourages me to re-think the art of keeping Caladiums going year to year.

My friend and I both garden in a suburb of Williasmburg, Virginia, on the cusp between USDA Zone 7b and 8.  We generally get at least a week or two of very cold weather, with night time temperatures in the teens, or lower.  We get quite a few nights in the 20s over a period of at least four months.

Our climate allows frost from mid-October through until late April.  We definitely get winter, and we are by no means tropical here; though I would argue that we have tropical heat and humidity for several months in the summer.

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Caladium ‘White Christmas’ and C. ‘Florida Sweetheart’ share the pot. 

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Most gardeners in our area grow Caladiums as annuals.  We don’t really expect to keep them year to year.  This is good business for the growers and garden centers who sell us gorgeous Caladiums in 6″ pots each summer.  But it also causes some to shy away from investing in these sometimes pricey foliage plants.  They would rather buy annual packs each spring, or invest in hardy perennials.

Yet Caladiums are surprisingly easy to keep from year to year.  The benefit is not only the savings, but also the superior tubers developed by an older plant.  You see, the underground tuber, from which the individual leaves grow, gets a bit bigger and beefier each year.  More eyes develop, allowing more points of growth for leaves to emerge.  This beautiful Caladium ‘Florida Sweetheart’ grew from a single tuber dug last autumn, kept overwinter, and re-planted in April.

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When you order Caladium tubers, the grower often offers anything from a tiny dime sized ‘starter’ tuber, up to a ‘jumbo’ or even ‘colossal’ tuber.  Once the tubers sprout, you’ll see the difference in how many leaves each tuber can produce.

Each leaf’s height is determined largely by the characteristics of the variety.  But the number of leaves produced, and the density of the plant, is determined by the size of the tuber.

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Caladium tubers as they arrive from the grower, ready to plant.  An eye has already sprouted on the tuber on the right.  This is the point from which new leaves will grow.

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This is why growing a tuber for several years allows it to grow larger, and more spectacular, with each year’s additional growth.  You can order a ‘jumbo’ tuber from the grower, or you can eventually grow it yourself from a small starter.

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Expect each Caladium leaf to last for many months. New leaves continue to emerge when the plant is well watered and well fed.  A perennial Begonia shares the  pot with this Caladium.

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There are several tricks to growing beautiful Caladiums.  They prefer consistently moist soil, they appreciate a steady supply of nutrition, and they want space to expand.  I often grow them in mixed planters, but a Caladium develops more of its potential if it isn’t competing too much with other plants.

Older Caladium varieties wanted shade.  The newer cultivars are bred to grow in brighter light, with some even tolerating full sun.  The leaves develop with slightly different coloration depending on the light, and the ready availability of water and minerals in the soil.  Caladiums grown in bright light will remain a little more compact.  Grown in shade, the leaves will grow a bit taller and lankier.

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Most Caladiums perform well in hanging baskets.  This is C. ‘Postman Joyner.’  Postman F. M. Joyner bred many varieties of Caladiums in the late 1930s and early 40s.  He lived and worked in Tampa, Florida, and named this one for himself.

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When the nights grow cool in autumn, it is time to plan for each Caladium’s winter vacation.  You might have success with simply mulching the bed, as did my friend.  But if you want to save a special Caladium, try the grower’s approach:

  1.  Dig each Caladium tuber, being careful not to damage it.  Rinse the soil off the tuber and roots, and remove the remaining leaves.  ( I often put the best leaves in a vase of water indoors.)  Sort the tubers by variety if that matters to you.
  2. Allow the tubers to air dry for several weeks in a fairly warm spot.  I lay them in paper lined flats in our garage.  Turn them occasionally so that all surfaces dry.
  3. Growers often dust the tubers with an anti-fungal powder, especially if there are broken or exposed places on the tuber.
  4. Remove any remaining bits of root or stem, and pack the dried tubers loosely into a mesh bag or cardboard box with rice hulls, wood shavings, or dry peat.  I pile my mesh bags of tubers into a paper grocery bag, and store the bag in a closet.  Indoors, the tubers stay above 65F all winter.

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I moved this cluster of Caladiums from a very shallow pot to this basket in mid-August. C. ‘White Delight’ is bred for full sun, which it receives in this location.  Notice that in bright light the plant has stayed very compact.  Leaves vary from soft green in deep shade to bright white in sun.  The tubers were tiny in April,  just dime-sized bits that had fallen off larger tubers in transit.

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I’ve also had good success bringing potted Caladiums indoors.  Although they may lose their leaves over winter, the tubers sprout the following spring and grow on.  They perform best kept in our living room, near large windows, where they may sprout new leaves in late January or February.

But I also have fair luck with potted Caladiums kept overwinter in our frost-free attached garage.  I keep potted Colocasia and Alocasia tubers overwinter in the basement, and believe I could do the same with potted Caladiums.

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C. “Carolyn Wharton” grew from a tuber we overwintered for my parents, and replanted this spring.  This variety can grow exceptionally large leaves on long stems.  This variety is old enough that it isn’t patented, and so new plants may be produced from leaf cuttings or division.

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I’ve learned that Caladiums perform better if given fresh, enriched soil each spring.  Although they will keep growing in soil left from the previous season, their growth is less spectacular.

I mix some Espoma organic fertilizer with the fresh potting soil, pot up the sprouted tubers, and then top dress with time release Osmocote.  I’ll also add some fish emulsion, or other water soluble fertilizer, once a month or so when I water them.  Caladiums are heavy feeders and produce more leaves when well-fed.

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If you enjoy growing an abundance of Caladiums, as we do, it certainly pays to make the small efforts required to keep them going year to year.   These are very versatile plants which may be used for hanging baskets, pots, bedding, mass displays, and mixed planters.  Shorter varieties are good ‘socks and shoes’ ground cover for larger plants.  They come in a wide range of colors and leaf patterns, and are one of the few plants to grow reliably in the shade.

Preserve your favorites from season to season, even as you sample a few new varieties each year.  You will be so happy to see your tubers grow and increase with each passing year.

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‘Florida Moonlight’ Caladiums grow with perennial Begonia in this pot devoted, during the winter, to Hellebores.  The Hellebore is peeking out, along with a Columbine. Dormant daffodil and Muscari bulbs rest in the soil.

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Woodland Gnome 2017
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