Help! My elephant ears are cold

My, what big ears you have. They’ll take some over sized earmuffs to keep warm. Better yet, bring them inside. Of course, these aren’t grandma’s ears, but rather elephant ears, cannas, and bananas, big leafed tropicals that are too tender to survive outdoors through a Virginia winter.

The nighttime temperatures are getting a bit chilly, not frosty yet, but tonight will be in the low forties again, so frost will be along soon. Scattered on the deck and patios in my garden are twenty, maybe thirty large pots of tropicals, not house plants, but outdoor plants that aren’t cold hardy, that must be brought indoors for the winter. I wouldn’t call them house plants because they’re not happy indoors, nor well suited to the low light and low humidity, so the tropicals are outdoor plants that must overwinter indoors, like it or not.

The time is running short when the large containers must be moved indoors, preferably to face a sunny window through the winter. If frost or freezing temperatures catch the potted tropicals outdoors, the foliage will blacken and die, and the chances for surviving the winter are slim. So, I’ll keep a close eye on the nighttime low temperatures, and on the day that it will drop below forty degrees I’ll scramble in the evening to carry the pots indoors, most into the basement, and the few that hold up better will stay for the winter next to the windows in the kitchen, dining, and family rooms.

The process would be accomplished in a more organized fashion if it were undertaken on the weekend, a week earlier than the onset of frost, and perhaps I’ll find the energy to do this, but it’s not happened that way in the past. You can read books on the subject, and I’ve looked at the photos, of an orderly process as recommended to drench or submerge the pot so that any bugs are chased out, and not brought into the house. You must then examine the foliage and stems, and remove any suspicious looking characters prior to moving the large pots with a furniture dolly, taking care to protect the wood floors and door frames.

This is not how it’s done on an evening in late October in my garden when a freeze is expected. Usually the wind is howling, it’s dark, and temperatures are dropping in a hurry. “Scramble” is too polite a word to describe the adventure of grabbing the containers, many over a hundred pounds, getting them to a warm spot in a hurry, and I’ll sort out who goes where later while trying not to break too many leaves in the rush. If there are critters along for the ride, well, I’ll probably discover them in a few days or weeks when they’re swarming over the kitchen counters.

Once they are sorted, snug and warm in their winter home, the tropicals that line the windows in the living areas are watered sparingly, and are not fertilized since I am not looking for the plants to grow, only to survive. When the soil is bone dry, and some begin to wilt, that’s the time to water. I don’t worry about raising the humidity, though the plants would appreciate it, I’ve found great difficulty in arranging containers of water or humidifiers that will make enough difference to bother with.

The tropicals that are sent to the basement are given one task, survive. Don’t be concerned with appearance, just stay alive until May. They will be watered less than sparingly, only when the soil has turned to dust, then a week later. In their native habitat these plants survive monsoons and drought, and go dormant when the rains stop. The foliage withers, not quite dead, but not so that you’d like them at the front door to greet quests.

Wood floors will be scuffed, my wife will yell at the water spots that trickle from the elephant ears, and a dent or two in door frames and walls will need to be smoothed out, but the tropicals will be ready to go outdoors after the threat of frost is past in May.

Other tropicals are planted in the ground for the summer and the roots will be dug and stored in the cold garage for the winter. There is no hurry on these, I don’t worry if the foliage is injured by frost since the tops will be cut off, and only the roots stored. This is an entirely different adventure, a story to be told another day.

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