Neil Sperry

These are the plants you should — and shouldn’t — save from the winter freeze

The night of the first freeze was always my least favorite time of the entire gardening year. It was the night I had to say “Goodbye” to friends I’d had gracing my gardens for the past 6 or 7 months. As the sun set they’d be beautiful and crisp and as the dawn came the next morning they’d be flattened and mushy. Coleus. Begonias. Impatiens. Lantanas. Pentas. All my stars of the warm-season garden. Gone until I planted them again the next year.

So at this point I have to make some decisions. Which of the plants out there on my patio, deck, entryway and poolside (if we had one) do I want to save for the winter? Which are deserving of the precious warm space I have to share with the most prized among them? Here are the ways I make my decisions.

Which plants are family heirlooms? I have a couple of plants that were in our son’s wedding. Those get prime spots in my house or greenhouse. I’m saving them for their children.

I have a small clump of a cactus still growing in the same 4-inch pots it’s been in for the past 40 years. A dear friend brought the plant to me from the Big Thompson Canyon in Colorado just a couple of days before the deadly flood of 1976. He shouldn’t have dug the plant out in the first place, but owing to the fact that it would have been lost in that flood anyway, I’ve nurtured it faithfully. It doesn’t need winter protection, but it stays in my greenhouse anyway.

My collection of rare peperomias will be coming off the tabletops and into our house and my greenhouse. Some I’ve had since I was a kid, and one was given to me by my dear friend Ralph Pinkus, founder of North Haven Gardens of Dallas. Ralph was one of the finest plant people I’ve ever known. He and Muriel have shed tears down this week as they saw the havoc the Dallas tornado played with their beloved nursery.

My 20-year-old crotons are going into the greenhouse. They’d be too big for any house. In fact, they’re almost too big for my greenhouse. But they’re too nice to leave out to freeze. If I were bringing smaller crotons into the house I’d put them into the very brightest south window in the house and I’d cut way back on the fertilizer I gave them. I’d keep them moist, but I wouldn’t encourage any new growth until spring.

Philodendrons, aglaonemas, pony tails and spathiphyllums (peace lilies)? Would I bring them inside? Absolutely, and I will. But what about rubber plants and ferns? Yes, I’ll bring them indoors, too, but they’ll have to have the very brightest light I can find. It’s surprising how much light ferns require to keep them from dropping their leaves.

So what plants do I not try to save from one year to the next? First of all, most flowering annuals like purslane and petunias. I do try to save a wax begonia or two, but again they need to be on a bright countertop or in a sunroom or greenhouse. But I don’t try to save coleus, pentas, lantanas or honestly, even tropical hibiscus. It’s just so much easier to replace them with fresh, vigorous plants in the spring.

However, I’ll go ahead and address tropical hibiscus and bougainvilleas at the same time since they tend to behave along similar lines. Both of these plants suffer “chill” injury. That means that temperatures don’t have to drop to freezing before they will go downhill — it can happen at 45 degrees, so you’ll want to get them into protection fairly soon if you decide to try to save them. But the garage is not an option. These plants, like most of the others, need really bright light to survive, and garages are polar (as in “chilly”) opposites. They’re dark, and they’re usually cold. Trim hibiscus and bougainvilleas just enough that you can bring them indoors or else plan on replacing them. Life will be a whole lot easier, both for you and for the plants.

Caladiums fall into somewhat the same category. Most of us try to save their tubers one time in our gardening careers, but usually we decide to buy new ones thereafter. But just in case you want to try, here are the steps. Once the tops have mostly turned brown (probably now) dig the tubers and lay them out on newspapers in the garage for a few days to dry. Do not wash them, but brush off most of the soil. Dust them with sulfur to lessen their chances of rotting. Place them into dry sawdust or perlite. Do so carefully so that they don’t touch one another.

Store the tubers in the house at 60 degrees until it starts to turn warm in mid-April or May when you can replant them into the garden. Hopefully they’ll survive without issue. Plant the tubers fairly close together because they’ll produce smaller leaves the second time around.

Wondering about your banana plants? You don’t need to bring them indoors. You can cover them to protect them and leave them in your garden soil. Let the first freeze kill them back to the ground. The second or third day, trim away all the dried foliage and cover the clumps with 12 to 15 inches of shredded tree leaves. Save a couple of bags of dried leaves to replenish the pile over the winter. In all but the coldest of winters that’s all that you’ll have to do to pull your banana plants through.

You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons 1-3 pm and on WBAP 820AM Sunday mornings 8-10 am. Join him at and follow him on Facebook.