Reluctantly, I’m giving up on overwintering tender perennials indoors

By September the sweet potato vines had spilled a foot or two down the sides of the railing planters on my balcony, creating a dense cascade of lime green leaves. 

The plants were flourishing too well to let die when cold arrived. Of course I had to bring them inside to overwinter. 

If you have space, you can simply bring the [sweet potato] plants indoors and grow them as houseplants until spring,” I’d read on a gardening website. 

On the indoor side of the balcony doors, just a few feet from where they were thriving, the sweet potato plants promptly died.

Last year the same thing happened with my beautiful coleus plants. As soon as they were brought indoors, they died.

I’d thought plants would be happier without wind and rain and temperature swings. 

Why did I do wrong?

I decided to ask expert gardeners at the Chicago Botanic Garden and on the National Gardening Association’s forum. 

On the latter’s site, “WillC” said that far from being happy indoors, my plants were doomed by the change in light and temperature between outdoors and in. 

It is possible but not easy to overwinter coleus, sweet potato vine, and other tender perennials indoors, the advisers commented, but why bother? 

“Plants that are inexpensive and readily available can easily be replaced each year,” said one of the University of Illinois Extension handouts that the Botanic Garden sent.

“I personally don't think it's worth the bother to try and overwinter these types of plants indoors,” “kniphofia” wrote on the National Garden Association’s site. 

What’s the bother? According to the Extension handouts, I should have repotted the plants earlier and left them outdoors for a while in a shadier spot so that they could have acclimated to different conditions. They should have been cut back and not crowded together in a pot. Once indoors, the plants should have been placed in a sunny location over a pan of gravel and water to increase humidity. 

When you live in a small condominium where the only light comes through patio doors and a single window, you don’t have the space to do it right. 

Several people suggested that if I want to save something, cuttings could be rooted, with the mother plant left to die. Both sweet potato vine and coleus cuttings root easily in water. “BigBill” said that cuttings taken in October should be ready for four-inch pots in December. The pots will need a sunny spot. “Purpleinopp” said she doesn’t even pot up cuttings; they survive in water all winter on a sunny windowsill. If I decide to try cuttings, it will have to be another year, since no plants are left to supply cuttings.

Or I could start over with new plants every spring — which is the most frequent recommendation. Considering that the only really bright spot in my condo is a single window ledge in the bedroom, that may be the best advice. 

As much as I dislike letting healthy plants wither and die, as much as frugal me likes the thought of not buying new plants every year, starting over annually has appeal.

Instead of using the same plants year after year, I could experiment with new ones, or new colors. I’ve never tried begonia, which is supposed to be a sure bet in a shady area like my balcony. Coleus comes in myriad colors. Purple sweet potato vines could contrast with green, which is what I had this year. 

I could also experiment with sowing seeds in the railing planters. In May of this year I sowed the seeds of four o’clock plants from a neighbor directly into floor pots on the balcony. The plants grew to a couple of feet and produced scores of flowers. There must be annuals suited to hanging planters that would grow as well from seed. My gardening fun over the winter could be researching possibilities. 

If few or none of the seeds germinate, then in late May or early June I can buy plants. 

As long as I am making it easier, I came to another decision: Never again will I try to keep perennials alive outdoors in pots. I’ve planted hostas, spiderwort, lamium, lady’s mantle, ajuga, lilies of the valley, daylilies, wild ginger, bergenia, and cranesbill in floor pots, wrapping the pots in bubble wrap for the winter. In past winters one or two plants survived, but nothing returned this year. The two perennials I have now, ferns and grasses, are coming inside for the winter. They should survive, being hardier than annuals. If they don’t, it will be the last time I have perennials.

Mistakes keep teaching me more about gardening in containers. Here’s the best lesson: Don’t make it too hard. Gardening should be fun.



My feelings toward Equifax have softened somewhat. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the frustration of trying to prove I’m me to the credit reporting bureau. One of the company’s customer service managers phoned to apologize after listening to tapes of my conversations with the Equifax security people. She said they would be using the tapes for training employees about what not to do.



“The idea that a group of poor people from Central America, most of whom are women and children, pose some kind of threat to the national security of the United States is ridiculous. It’s a misuse of active duty forces.”

— Retired Marine Col. David Lapan, who served in the Trump administration, about Trump’s ordering troops to the southwest border

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