An annual philosophy

Some of my elephant ear stands alone; some is planted in dense container groupings.

Certain plants exude a message of “Don’t worry, be happy.” Others continually whine, “Maintain me!” In my garden, the easiest plants I grow are the tropical or semitropicals. They require virtually nothing, much like their brethren in my office. Once in a while, I’ll cut down a dead leaf from one of the colocasia or alocasia, but other than that, given the same watering schedule as the rest of the garden, my tropical plants (mainly elephant ear, but some bananas and others) provide wow-factor from the time I plant them/bring them outdoors to the time I compost them/bring them indoors.

Given their long seasons (all year if they’re happy inside), I’m amazed that more gardeners don’t use these plants. During the GWA conference a few days ago, reps from a Florida-based tropical plant nursery (sorry, names are escaping me) told me their conference presentation would largely focus on using tropical as annuals if necessary, in order to enjoy their long seasons of interest even if the means to store them over the winter were not available.

I couldn’t agree with this advice more. In the north, we hear a lot of talk about banana plants that will overwinter, but I’ve never tried it. I just drag the pot inside where it does fine until the following May, with minimal watering. I have a big alocasia that I bring into the same room, where it continues growing, albeit more slowly. But I also compost a lot of my tropicals at the end of the season. Given what they provide, the cost of replacement is reasonable. Nonetheless, the question I am most asked about these during Garden Walk is “Do you bring this in?” In fact, that’s a question I get about many annuals, including coleus and strobilanthes (Persian Shield). Do I cut off branches and root them over the winter. Uh, no. These plants are pretty cheap and I’d rather just buy new ones in the spring than fuss about with windowsill rooting. Is this wasteful? I suppose it is, though if the plants go into the compost, they’re still contributing. But I’m also supporting my local nurseries and the mail order houses I order from, many of which are modest, family-run businesses. I feel fine about it.

What is this urge to save everything? I guess gardeners just can’t bear to see a plant die or be discarded. I get that. But I’ve learned to see every loss as an opportunity.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. My sister in Minnesota says that hibiscus do wonderfully there in the summer. They sell lots as annuals. In central CA, people wasn’t to know how to protect them in our mild winters. I’m tempted to say “compost them”

  2. After realizing last year that I had spent well over $250 on my terrace pots (big terrace), I decided to try carrying things over. Most came out of their pots. Begonia tubers were dried off and stored cool; every last one survived. So did a yellow sweet potato vine — one big tuber supplied four plants this year. I shook soil from geraniums, dried them a day or two, and wintered them in paper bags in a cold closet. They looked very sad come spring, but once back in pots, they perked up pretty fast. A few I kept in pots in a cool sunny window and (to my surprise) had blooms all winter. I yanked a fuchsia out of a big pot and put it in something manageable; it ticked over in a cool room almost leafless until March. The cost of all this was a real delay in getting a big show going; in fact I’d given up on the sweet potato vine until almost July, when it exploded into life. But I saved better than $200. That felt worth the effort.

    • I could definite overwinter more, but I value my downtime (I work fulltime) at $100 per hour. So it’s cheaper to buy new ones.

  3. Hmmmmm…interesting to consider the different perspectives… this coming from a habitual plant “saver”… I do like the ideas of a fresh start and supporting small family run nurseries…

  4. Yes to all of this! I can’t even tell you how much I spend on annuals and tropicals every year that go bye-bye with the frost and I never regret a cent of what I spend.

  5. If I didn’t save many of these plants I simply couldn’t afford them next year – the volume that I use is too great. So, each year I add to my ‘library’ with a few new varieties, and work mostly with those that can be overwintered in a dormant state in the garage or basement, using 4×8 cold frames to give me a jump on summer in early spring. I also use many tropical-esque perennials such as the hardy banana (I’m zone 6b), some species canna, and tetrapanax (a thug but wow what a plant) to flesh things out without work on my part. I have a big ‘tropical bed-time’ weekend in late October where everything goes in.

    As Keri said in the talk at GWA – gardeners are CHEAP, and it’s hard to throw away something that you know can make it. Without the hope at least that you could overwinter some of the more expensive tropicals, I think that many gardeners without a lot of funds wouldn’t invest in the first place.

    BTW the speakers were Jennifer Nelis, Sylvia Gordon, Teresa Watkins and Keri Byrum. A terrific talk. Thanks for the post!

    • Yes, a couple of them visited my garden, though I did not actually attend the conference. They urged me to post something like this when I told them my philosophy on overwintering. Thanks for the names; I’ll update the post when I get to my laptop.

  6. I cannot wait to try to bring in my elephants ears, canna lilies and other new tropicals that have been gorgeous all summer. For the last few years I have taken cuttings from every variety of coleus I have grown, brought them inside and propagated them all winter. They propagate very easily and I am lucky enough to have a big supply of LED lights from a son in the business for basement growing. I like to support the growers but I also like a low cost way to perpetuate these plants now that I am on a fixed income.

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