I hear this all the time. A guest stands at the kitchen door, looking out over the array of container plants, some really big, and asks, sometimes gape jawed, "What do you do with all this in the winter?" They go outside and, taking a closer look, say with some surprise, "Hey, isn't this one a house plant?" House plants aren't supposed to be outside, you know.
First I explain to them, sometimes tactfully, that God didn't make no house plants. There were no houses in the Garden of Eden. All plants were originally outside plants, and all appreciate a summer outdoors, just as most people do. In fall, after a good cleaning, they go back to their now-native habitat, my living room.
Many of the potted plants are annuals, and they do what other annuals do. They die. No storage problems. The tops go in the compost, the good potting soil gets dumped in the pile out back. Next spring I'll add compost and bark mulch and fertilizer and start filling new pots.
Others are perennials that most people grow in the ground, where they are winter hardy. Not so, though, when they are in pots. As a rule of thumb, growing in a pot drops the hardiness zone by at least one, so a Zone 5 plant becomes a Zone 4 plant.
So hardy perennials grown in pots need some protection. Not much, but some. An attached, unheated garage is good. Some of the really rugged ones just go up against the foundation covered with leaves.
A lot of my potted plants are not hardy here. Near here, perhaps -- Virginia or South Carolina -- but not here. They want some cold weather, but not everything our Februarys can throw at them.
These plants go in the outside cellarway. The slanted upper doors keep in some of the heat that leaks through the energy inefficient lower cellar door. Perfect. This is also where I force spring bulbs.
A large proportion of my patio plants are tender summer bulbs, the dahlias and cannas and tuberous begonias and elephant ears and so on. These are the backbone of the container garden. Large and lush in summer, they shrink to a small brown lump after the first fall frost.
If you have only a few, the easiest way to keep them is to set the dry pots in a cool basement and forget them. But if you have a lot of them, you'll want to unpot them for more manageable storage.
Some are indestructible. Glads and purple shamrocks go in an onion bag naked and hang from the cellar rafters. Depending on your cellar conditions, that can also work for cannas.
Sometimes cannas need a little more protection, along with dahlias and tuberous begonias. The experts suggest packing them in peat moss. If you've ever tried that, you know why I have such disdain for the experts.
After trying several packing materials, I finally settled on kennel bedding, cheap wood shavings. Each fall I buy a big bag in the pet department of my local megamart, and it lives three lives.
First, I pack the touchy bulbs in plastic grocery bags nestled in the wood shavings and hang them from the basement rafters. Next spring when I unpack them, the used kennel bedding mulches the vegetable garden. Then in fall I dig it in to add organic material to the soil and go buy another bag.
With all those taken care of, that leaves only a few dozen pots to squeeze into the basement, if they are dormant, or somehow stuff onto the sunporch if they aren't. Nothing to it.
-Duane Campbell, a nationally known agricultural expert, can be reached at R6, Box 6092, Towanda, PA 18848 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org for questions or comments.