I don’t have a green thumb. Maybe it’s because I’ve got bad season allergies, maybe it’s because I’m allergic to bees, or maybe it’s just because I’m allergic to getting dirt under my fingernails, but tooling around in the garden isn’t exactly my idea of a good time.

That all changed, though, when we put our house on the market last spring. Knowing that curb appeal would be a key factor in getting our house sold (it never did sell, but that’s a different story), my husband and I tried our best to spruce up our yard. Ultimately, that meant buying plenty of potted plants – including a few gorgeous hanging baskets – to put on our front porch.

Now that the weather’s turning colder, though, I’m at a loss. Does the onset of colder temperatures and winter precipitation (more likely sleet or freezing rain than snow in my neck of the woods) necessarily mean I’ll have to toss those potted plants and rebuy them fresh in the spring? It seems like an awful waste – I spent more than $100 bucks on those suckers – so I set off on a mission to find a way to save my potted plants, without turning the inside of our house into a florist’s shop.

Identifying the Weakest Link

I always thought it was easier to take care of potted plants than those you had to plant in the ground. After all, I could bring my potted plants into the garage on a really chilly spring morning, or take the hanging baskets off their hook during a windy thunderstorm. But according to HGTV.com’s Susan Morgan, potted plants are actually more vulnerable to the onslaught of winter. Why? As Morgan explains, “Although the top part of a plant has the ability to go dormant, the roots don’t.” It makes sense – below ground the temperature, while cold, is more stable. Bringing the roots above ground makes them more susceptible to ambient temperatures. And if preparing your plants for winter starts with protecting those roots, having them in pots complicates matters.

Operation: Plant Protection

So what can you do to protect those roots as the weather changes? Here’s what I learned through my research:

  • Plant early. The longer you give your plant’s roots time to mature, the better chance they’ll stand to survive the winter.
  • Look for an oversized pot. The larger the pot, the less likely the roots it contains will be vulnerable to dramatic temperature swings.
  • Place your plant on an organic surface instead of a surface like concrete or asphalt. The latter warm up more easily during the day, and lose that heat more easily at night, which can damage young roots.
  • Transfer your plants to the right kind of baskets. Hanging baskets dry out more quickly, so if possible, switch those plants to non-porous containers that better withstand the winter elements.
  • Water at the right time. Watering plants at night can make it more likely the water will freeze, damaging the root system. Instead, try to water in the morning, so the roots have time to absorb the water while the temperatures are at their highest.
  • Location matters in more than just real estate. Preparing your plants for winter may mean finding a new location for them. And while you’d think south-facing locations would be best for maximizing warmth and sunlight, it also places potted plants in danger for dramatic temperature changes. Instead, go with a north or east-facing exposure, so they can get as much of the morning sun as possible.
  • Pick the right plants. Potted plants have the best chance of surviving if they are rated at least two hardiness zones lower than the zone in which you live. (You can check out hardiness zones, rated by the USDA, by clicking here.) I live in zone 7b, meaning my sweet potato vines – with a USDA hardiness zone rating of 8-10 – likely don’t stand a chance.

After looking up the hardiness zones for all my plants, I recognized my folly – I hadn’t bought the right types of plants for surviving the winter in my area. I’m going to do my best to save them all, but I’m also stating to realize that I’ll likely be making another trip to the nursery in the spring to buy new plants.

Reader, have you ever tried to save potted plants in the winter, without taking them inside your house? What tips do you have for me?

Libby Balke

Libby Balke