In this article I will detail several of my tried and true methods to get your Elephant Ears through the winter to the next year. With a little guidance, and a few really simple and easy tips, any gardener with any level of experience, in any garden, can be blessed with the bold statements these plants make during warmer months. At the end of the season, when they are not looking so hot, they can be neatly stored away for the next season!
I like to plant my tropicals in the ground. They get much bigger for me that way. Unfortunately, some won't come back reliably. The ones that do come back often emerge late, and they don't attain the size I require. I dig and dry-store most of these.
For this method, it's best to prepare your container first. You are going to need a box big enough to hold your bulbs, and some extra space for packing material. I use peat moss, the finely shredded kind, for my packing. It is cheap and readily available. The peat moss has to be dry when you put it in the box. You'll know if it's wet because it'll be so heavy you can't move the bale. Take a bit of the peat and line the bottom of the box.
Once the cool weather arrives, your Elephant Ears will slow down, and the lower leaves will yellow and give out quickly. It is now time to start popping them out of the ground. I like to use a digging fork, but shovels work fine too!
You want to start about 3-4 inches out from the plant, or a bit more if it's truly massive. Dig down about 10 inches in a circle all around the plant, prying up just a bit each time. This loosens the soil, making the final pry easier. Once you've made it around, pry up hard! If you have a helper, have the helper gently pull up on the plant at the base while you pry upward. If the plant doesn't pop right out, go back to the opposite side, dig in, and pry upward again. It's perfectly fine if you hear some popping sounds -- those are the roots, but they won't be needed anymore. Do leave as many intact as you can.
Now that you have the plant out, get it away from the hole, and careful sift around, hunting for babies that snapped off, because they also can be packed away.
It's time to wash the plants off. This is very important, as extra soil will breed fungus and hold water, which causes rot. Take the plant to a spot that slopes downhill to drain the water off, and start blasting it with the hose. Take care not to blast too hard. This can peel the bulb, and that's not good! Get as much soil free as you can, preferably all of it!
At this point you're basically done. Lay your plant in the shade for a few days, not in the grass if you can help it, and wait for the plant to draw the good out of the roots and remaining leaves. You will know it's ready when the roots are dry and the leaves are yellow. Remove what remains of the leaves, but be careful and don't cut too deep! The bulbs are very pointed and extend up into the base of the leaves. Cut the leaves back one by one, bending each back so you only cut the leaf. Leave the last stem a few inches long to ensure that the bulb is not cut. Trim the roots down to an inch or so long, and it's time to pack it up!
Take your nice clean and dry bulbs and place them in the bottom of the box, one layer deep. Nest each one a few inches or less from its neighbor. In the case of very tiny bulbs, tuck them up right next to other bulbs so they don't dry out.
When you get the bottom layer full, fluff in about 2 or 3 inches of dry peat on top and repeat until you're finished.
It wouldn't hurt to dust the dry bulbs with a fungicide powder of your choice. Copper works well. This isn't essential, but in the event of an outbreak of pests, everything will be safer.
If you are like me, you might have more plants than you can keep straight. It's perfectly fine to pack all of one variety in a smaller box within the main box. Other options are onion sacks, citrus sacks, or even pantyhose to sort out the different varieties. Don't count on your memory to keep track of dozens of types of practically identical bulbs, unless it just doesn't matter. Make sure you label everything well.
Inspecting your collection carefully every month or so is important. You know the saying: "One bad apple spoils the whole bunch." That very much applies here! If you have bulbs that are at least fist sized, they can often just be stored loose on a shelf or in a drawer. This makes inspection easier. Any rotten bulb should be discarded, and all of its neighbors should be given a thorough examination. If any rotten portions appear on a firm bulb, promptly remove them with a clean sharp knife, immediately dust the bulb with fungicide, and leave it out a few days to dry. If it scabs over and the bulb remains firm, pack it back up.
It's also possible that, in some environments, some bulbs may become too dry and begin to shrivel up. This is really only a problem if it's early in their dormancy, or if it's very advanced. A certain amount of drying is expected. Some bulbs may lose 40% of their weight. If this is happening, the only thing I've found to work well is misting with water around the drying bulbs. Don't get them too wet, but do mist them once a month, maybe more if things are really dry. Winters here are damp, so I don't experience this issue very often.
The other method I frequently use is "in-pot storage." It's even easier, and when done properly there's even less chance that you will lose a bulb! This method works best on well established, rootbound plants that have fully colonized and depleted their soil. Freshly potted or repotted plants will often remain too wet for this method, unless they are thoroughly dried out before being packed away. The hardest part of using this method is that you must withhold water for a few weeks prior to uprooting them. This can be difficult in areas with a large amount of rainfall.
Follow the directions above for digging out your EEs. Then cut off the remains of the leaves, place the plants in large pots or buckets with holes drilled, and stash the pots somewhere cool, dark, and dry! Poke a finger into the soil periodically and make sure the bulb feels solid. As long as things stay dry, everything will be just fine. Don't be tempted to stack the pots. You can get away with it sometimes, but it can damage the bulbs very easily, as they tend to form on top of the soil. It can also trap moisture, and you don't want that!
When the warm weather comes back, pot your bulbs up! If you want big plants early, and monsters by the season's end, do what I do: Pot the bulbs up a month or so early and increase the heat to at least around 75 degrees. Some bulbs will show up early, and some, such as alocasias, are just painfully slow to wake up. If you are going to force them, do be careful with the water until they have a decent leaf up, or even better, roots hanging out of the bottom of the pot. When they are actively growing, as long as the temps don't dip too low (below 60), they will be off and away.
You can use the first method to store quite a few types of tender bulb-producing plants, as well as cannas.
The second method can be used to store many different types of plants that produce some sort of bulb: begonias, ferns, almost any bulb-producing aroids, cannas, bananas, ginger, asparagus, sweet potato, oxalis, and many others.
Some require slightly different care, but most just need a little water and sun to keep the plant from totally drying up. Some won't quite go dormant and will need some sun, and not all of the species of the plants listed will go dormant and reawake.
Have fun growing these plants year after year!
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