Wintering Over Tender Plants

Lemon verbena and geraniums in patio garden

Lemon verbena and geraniums to be wintered over.

Most of us have at least one or two tender perennials that we cannot bear to part with at the end of the summer. Some of us have practically a whole garden’s worth! Whichever it is, it’s good to know a simple, inexpensive way to get those plants through the winter, short of building a greenhouse.

A visit to a hardware store, like Ace, Home Depot, or Lowe’s, can supply you with all that you’ll need to set up a winter nursery in your basement or a corner of your living room or dining room. (Note that you can do a simple version of this if you have just 1 or 2 plants. Remember to place your plant on a very sunny windowsill or provide a small plant light for adequate light [plants get very unhappy with lack of light]. Also make sure you have adequate ventilation [some plants, like rosemary, are very unhappy and get sick if they don’t have enough air flow]).

What you’ll need:

  • A set of sturdy storage shelves
  • Shop light fixtures that plug in
  • Fluorescent plant lights, or fluorescent bulbs one warm, one cool, for each light fixture
  • Lightweight chain
  • “S” hooks
  • Plastic bags or sheeting
  • Outlet strip (optional)
  • Timer (optional)

After you have potted up any plants that are not already in pots, you will need someplace to set your plants.

Utility shelve
s are cheaper than specialty light benches, and are also available in a range of heights.

Make sure you get shelves that are designed for major poundage; I first got the cheap grey metal shop shelves, and they are definitely not up to the task of holding heavy plants.

You can also set up a table or bench, wooden skids on the basement floor, or (as one friend did) shelves attached to the wall above the kitchen sink or your toilet.

Just be sure there is access to an electrical outlet and somewhere to secure your light.

One of the advantages of using utility shelves that you put together yourself is that you can place the shelves at heights that work for your particular plants. I usually leave one shelf out to give me more space for taller plants.

If you have your plants on metal or composite shelves, or somewhere that will be affected by water seepage, line your shelves with plastic.

Also, you can find old plastic cafeteria trays or heavy-duty baking sheets to place under your plants.

You can fill spaces around plants with seashells, gravel/stones, or decorative marbles.


Shop lights usually come in 4-foot lengths, though you can find fixtures in other lengths as well. Plant bulbs (with the right light spectrum for plants) for fluorescent fixtures are available again in different lengths to fit your fixtures. They last a surprisingly long time. Mine have given me about three winters before needing to be replaced. One gardener I know suggests using 2 ordinary fluorescent bulbs, one warm and one cool, to give the same light spectrum and save on costs.

The simplest way to hang your lights is to use lightweight chain. Your light fixture will be hanging from the shelf above it, shining on the plants on the next shelf down.
Run a length of chain lengthwise over and along the shelf from which your light will hang (the chain will be covered by the plastic you put under your plants). Leave a tail of chain hanging down from each end of the shelf.

Use “S” hooks to attach your light to the chain, hanging it at whatever height you want. You can then easily adjust up or down, depending on your plants’ needs. The ends of your light fixture may extend beyond the ends of your shelves. This shouldn’t be a problem. If you have just one or two lights, it’s simple to plug them into an outlet or extension cord.
I find it easiest, however, especially with more light fixtures, to use an outlet strip.
I have attached my strip to the support leg of my shelves with duct tape.

Remembering to turn your lights on and off at regular intervals can be a challenge. If you’re like me, your plants can be subjected to a wildly lit night life and a very dark daytime. To give my plants a nice, steady light diet, I quickly started using a timer. I set it to run from 6:00 a.m. to 10 p.m., so my plants get about 16 hours of light a day. They seem to do well with this. I plug the outlet strip into the timer to regulate all the lights together.

What Plants Can You Winter Over?

There are many plants that will die in New England’s Zone 4 to 6 winter temperatures that can be cared for inside until the next warm season arrives. Here are a few of the plants that I have wintered over or seen being wintered over.

Geraniums/Pelargoniums–everyday geraniums and scented geraniums
Rosemary (the only way to get it through the winter in New England,     where winter temps will kill it otherwise)
African blue basil (this is a more sturdy basil, regular sweet basil isn’t         happy to come inside)
Lemon verbena
Bay tree
Myrtle (Myrtis communis)
Citrus trees

I used this method for many winters and found it to be simple and manageable. I hope you will, too.

Comment below and let me know how this worked for you, and if you had any problems or revelations. What will you be wintering over?


(This post was edited in September 2015.)