This guide shares how to dig up and store elephant ear bulbs for winter.
How I dig up and store elephant ear bulbs in the fall
Elephant ear plants are one of my favorite plants to decorate our patio with. I sometimes plant them in the ground, too—and they can get quite large! Regardless of whether you plant them in the ground or in pots, you’ll likely need to dig up your elephant ear bulbs in the fall if don’t live somewhere tropical.
Because why buy another elephant ear plant next year if you can save this year’s bulbs and regrow them next year? Bulbs also multiply, meaning you can dig them up and split them to plant elsewhere or share. So let’s chat about some basics here.
An overview of digging up and storing bulbs
- Digging up elephant ear bulbs for winter storage allows you to regrow your plants each spring.
- Elephant ear plants grow from tubers, bulb-like structures that store energy and can regrow in the spring.
- Cut back foliage and dig up bulbs just before your region’s last frost date.
- Loosen the soil and trim off excess roots; clean the bulbs, separating them as necessary, and let them dry.
- Store dried bulbs in a cardboard box or paper bags in a cool, dry place like a garage or basement (45-55F or 7-13C).
- Using air-tight plastic bags can lead to rot from any lingering moisture.
How do bulbs and tubers work?
Let’s first talk about why you can save elephant ears for next year. Elephant ear plants grow from tubers, but many people call them bulbs. Bulbs and tubers are underground storage structures that some plants use to store nutrients and energy. These structures play a crucial role in the survival and growth of these plants.
There are some structural differences between bulbs and tubers, and the process of storing and using nutrients is different between the two. But the process of digging them up and storing them is the same. So for the purposes of this tutorial, I’ll use the more common term “bulb.”
As the plant grows, it uses the stored energy in the bulb or tuber to produce leaves, stems, and flowers. During colder conditions, the above-ground parts of the plant can die back, storing energy in the bulb or tuber to sustain the plant through dormancy.
The bulb or tuber can then use the energy it has stored to regenerate the plant’s growth in the spring. The problem is that, if it gets too cold where you are, the bulbs/tubers can die off underground. So it’s a good idea to dig them up and store them indoors.
Note that there are some types of plants that actually require a period of cold weather to regenerate the following spring. Tulips are one such plant, and it’s why you plant the bulbs in the ground and keep them there through the winter.
When to dig up elephant ear bulbs
I recommend digging up your elephant ear bulbs just before the first frost of the season. In my experience, you do not need to wait until frost kills off the foliage before digging your plants up. You can look up your average first and last frost dates here.
Wait as long as you can, though. You’ll likely notice some of your plant’s leaves beginning to yellow, droop, and die off. This is due to dropping temperatures at night and overall less favorable growing conditions.
Steps to dig up your bulbs
The supplies you’ll need to dig up your elephant ear bulbs are scissors or shears, shovels, and gardening gloves. A cardboard box or a few labeled bags are also helpful to have for storing and organizing your bulbs by type.
Step 1: Cut back foliage
The first step is actually to cut back the plant’s foliage. I like to cut the plant’s stems as close as I can to the soil line. This just makes it a lot easier to manage when you’re digging up your bulbs.
Step 2: Dig the bulbs up
Then I use a shovel to dig out around the base of the plant. Until you know how big your plant is under ground, start digging wider. Once you’ve found the bulbs, pull them out from the base of the plant.
It’s also best to dig wider than you need to. I have severed elephant ear bulbs while trying to dig them up because I didn’t realize just how big the tubers had grown and expanded. You want to avoid that for sure!
Step 3: Clean excess soil off
Once you’ve got your bulbs out, brush/gently shake the excess soil off. Don’t worry about getting them super clean. Then gently separate each bulb from whatever the main mass is. If there are very small bulbs attached to a much larger one, you can just leave those attached.
Once you have a better idea of what you’re working with, you can trim the roots. I used scissors to trim off all of the excess roots. Then I laid the bulbs on the ground and cleaned them off with the house. I wanted to be able to examine each bulb.
Step 4: Air dry and store
After I rinsed off the bulbs, I put them along my patio and let the dun dry them off. I let them sit for a few hours outside to ensure the excess moisture dissipated.
Then I put them in a cardboard box and stored in the garage. If you don’t have a garage, you can put them in a basement. Wherever you store them, just make sure it’s a cool, dry location. Suitable storage temperatures are typically between 45 to 55F (7 to 13C).
You can also store them in paper bags. Cardboard and paper-based storage vessels are great because they can help with moisture wicking. If you seal the bulbs in air-tight plastic baggies, any remaining moisture in the bulbs might lead to rot over the winter.
How to replant elephant ear bulbs in the spring
You can start your bulbs indoors in a container for about two months before they’ll go outside—just like you would with starting seeds. They will need sun and warmth while indoors. Use a rich soil and plant them about 1 inch below the surface.
If you want to plant them directly in the ground outdoors, wait until your last frost date has passed. I like to amend my native soil with a bit of leaf compost that I buy in bags at Lowe’s. It helps enrich the soil and provide the bulbs with the nutrients they need to grow big, strong plants.
The process of harvesting and storing elephant ear bulbs is practical and fulfilling. And I LOVE knowing that I have one fewer plant to buy in the spring! Questions about digging up and storing your bulbs? Let me know below!