Frost brings an abrupt end to the growing season for tender bulbs—cannas, callas, caladiums, dahlias, tuberous begonias, gladioluses, and tuberoses, to name some of the most common. Some might survive a winter outdoors in Zone 7 or warmer, but in colder climates they perish if left in the ground. You might think that the cost of new bulbs is low enough that it's not worth the hassle of digging and storing the bulbs. The thrifty among us dig them, however, and keep the same bulbs from year to year. Here's how.
The spectacular leaves and flowers of cannas are always a favorite of visitors to the BH&G Test Garden. But once the temperature drops to 28 degrees F or so, the show ends and the leaves turn brown. At that point it is time to bring them in.
To start the job, dig around the plant, being careful not to slice into the bulbs as you dig. Lift the clump of roots from the ground and knock off as much soil as you can. Cut back the stalks to make storage easier. Put the clumps in a dry, cool spot (but not where they might be exposed to freezing) for a week or so. This cures the skin of the bulb for storage. When digging several varieties of bulbs, be sure to label each clump.
Once the clump has dried for a week, the remaining clods will crumble away easier. Don't worry if some dirt remains wedged among the roots. After the bulbs have cured, cut away the top rhizome growth and leave 1 to 2 inches of stem.
Place the roots in dry peat moss or vermiculite in a sturdy cardboard box. The peat moss will slow the loss of moisture from the roots and keep them from shriveling. Store the box at about 45 degrees F. (never below freezing) in a garage, crawl space, or basement. Warmer temperatures allow the roots to sprout in midwinter, and you don't want that to happen.
If you intend to divide the clumps, that's best left until you bring the roots out of storage in spring. Once spring temperatures remain above freezing, you can go ahead and replant your bulbs!