How would you like to step out into the garden and enjoy the exotic blooms of bromeliads and orchids or the luxuriant bold leaves of elephant ears? You might not be surprised to hear that you can grow tropical plants in your garden, especially if you've ever planted tropical flowers like begonias in your flower beds. But they're only the tip of the iceberg. With enough care, almost any plant you see in the most exotic of island resorts can be grown in your own garden if they're brought indoors over winter. Bromeliads, gingers, hibiscus, elephant ears, orchids and more can all be wintered over as bulbs, cuttings or in containers.
I personally live in north Florida, but our frosty winters still make it necessary for me to take my most tropical plants indoors. Luckily there are so many ways to do it successfully, even where winters are longer. Why do I bother? Because with the dramatic leaves and tantalizing blooms of tropical plants, I can set the stage and create the illusion of a warmer and more exotic locale. It certainly turns some heads!
Most so-called bulbs are technically called rhizomes, corms or tubers; but regardless of their name, growing and storing tropical plants this way is incredibly easy. Once the soil has warmed up, plant them near the surface in moist soil where they get some shade from the afternoon sun. Before the first frost, dig them up, let them dry and store them in a bag of dry sawdust or shredded newspaper - keeping them in a dark place until spring. Some great tropicals to start from the roots include elephant ears, gingers, caladiums and cannas. For areas with longer winters, start bulbs in a warm window or sunroom by planting them in containers. The biggest "bulb" you can grow is a banana. That's right - you can actually dig up a banana plant in fall and store the big stem in a dark basement or garage until late spring.
A more unusual - and nonetheless effective - way to grow unusual tropicals outside is to cut their stems in fall and let them form roots over winter. You can grow lots of plants this way, but some of the easiest include ti plants, reed stem orchids, succulents, plumeria and coleus. To take cuttings of these plants, make a cut several inches down from the tip of a stem, right above a leaf node. For the fastest growth, dip the cut end in a bit of rooting hormone (available at the garden center) before tucking it into potting mix and covering it with plastic until the roots form. This keeps the plant from drying out. Keep it well watered through winter and you'll be able to plant them out in the garden in spring. Some woody perennials and shrubs take a bit longer to establish, but they can be grown in containers until they're large enough to plant in the garden.
Dig them up
When all else fails, just dig up the plants and keep them indoors over winter. The easiest plants to dig up are those with limited root systems like bromeliads, but just about anything can be dug out of the ground with a sharp spade and potted up with fresh potting mix for the winter. This method is especially useful for palms and big architectural plants like Heliconias and bird of paradise plants. When wintering over plants, keep them in similar light to what they became accustomed outdoors and reduce watering to help them slow down for winter. Many prefer some humidity, but that's easily provided with a humidifier, a spray mister or simply by grouping your plants together so that they form a moist microclimate. Not all plants will look good indoors through winter, but provided you remove pests and don't let the soil dry out entirely, they'll bounce right back when brought outdoors in spring.
There are no hard and fast rules to what you can grow indoors through winter, but you'll have plenty of options. The reed stem Epidendrum orchids pictured have been wintered over by taking cuttings or digging them up in fall. The most tender of my bromeliads are yanked out of the ground and brought indoors whenever it gets cold, or I need a temporary houseplant. Tropical plants are more resilient than you realize and they're well worth trying in your own garden. Have fun!