* Note many plants are toxic to humans and/or pets. See Houseplants for the Classroom or Air Cleaning Plants for a complete discussion of toxic plants.
It’s January and it’s winter. The holiday decorations are gone, and things seem gray. Now is the perfect time to brighten your home and make the most of your houseplants. Winter is probably the easiest time of year to kill a houseplant. The interior air is dryer, the light is lower, and the temperatures are cool to blazing hot next to the fireplace. Let’s look at how you can give your plants a little extra TLC during winter months and how to avoid problems.
All healthy plants have specific needs for water, light, temperature and nutrients. Whether you have a houseful of potted plants or are just thinking about buying a few, know each plant’s needs to successfully grow it.
I. Light & Temperature
Some plants are delicate and require specific light and temperatures to flourish. I’m lucky to live in Florida with many bright days of sun. My windows provide lots of light for many types of plants including my tropical anthuriums.
I know many of you live in areas that have low light during the winter months. Move your plants to maximize the light received. In winter, the sun slips lower in the sky and light levels near windows drop up to 50%. Houseplants that grow near a sunny eastern or northern window in summer may need a southern or western exposure in winter. Likewise, plants near western or southern windows that need filtered light in summer may be able to withstand direct sun in winter.
Even if a plant cannot handle direct light in summer, it may be able to handle being closer to the window in winter. Do not let the flowers or leaves touch the window, but keep them several inches from exterior windows. The outside windows during winter can be extremely cold and damage your lovely plant.
Dust or wash the leaves (of most plants) to remove dust and maximize light penetration. To successfully grow plants requiring bright light, you may need to use artificial lights. Fluorescent bulbs provide adequate light and are cheaper than traditional grow lights and produce less heat. Position the light 4-12 inches away from plants for effective results. If a tropical plant requires bright indirect light, be sure not to place it too close to the light source to avoid burning it.
Understand your plants moisture requirements. Most houseplants (95%) like to dry out between watering while others like a constant moist soil. How can you tell if plants need water?
- Don’t just test the soil surface, but check the root zone by poking your finger in soil up to 2 inches. If the soil is dry, water.
- Lift the pot. Soil is lighter when it’s dry. Learn how wet soil feels by lifting pots immediately after watering.
- If you humidify winter rooms, plants won’t need water as often. Some homes offer only 5-10% relative humidity in winter. Most houseplants like 40-50%. Dry air means watering more often.
- There are exceptions to drying out between watering; always research plant moisture needs if you’re unsure.
- Never allow plants to sit in pooled water at the bottom of the container. I’ve killed more than one new plant by over watering. Too much can be just as bad as no watering for some species.
If you have an African violet, do not water from the top. A drop of water on the leaves will cause it to turn black. Place your violet in a saucer or dish of stones, and pour water in the dish. The plant will pull up the moisture and your leaves will remain healthy.
Review your plant’s needs and fertilize to suit the houseplant. Some low light green houseplants need little in the way of fertilizer while flowering species will require more. In mild climates, continue to fertilize plants through winter. In coldest climates where natural light levels are low, do not fertilize houseplants in winter. Resume fertilizing when outdoor plants wake up in spring.
In a discussion of saving water in irrigating your garden last year, I shared that I often saved water from cooking or steaming vegetables and when cooled, watered plants with it. Cooled vegetable cooking water is fine to add to houseplants, but do so in moderation. Reuse only unsalted cooking water with no added fat. Salty water could burn your plants. If you like to store carrot or celery sticks in a container of water in the fridge, you can also use that water on your houseplants.
I’ve seen several posts that suggest adding coffee grounds to potted plants. I do not recommend this. Coffee grounds and filter are great for the compost heap, but I would be wary about adding it to the soil around all plants. As the coffee grounds break down, they make the soil acidic. That’s great for an azalea but could be disastrous for another plant.
The right time to repot most houseplants is during periods of active growth – in spring and summer. For most plants, defer potting until spring.
VI. Choose The Right Plant
If your home in winter has low light and you do not wish to deal with artificial lamps, choose an easy care houseplant for year round pleasure. Some plants which are almost foolproof can tolerate shade and occasional neglect; they are some of the most popular plants in homes. If you have a winter home that has low light and is cool, check out the plants in Air Cleaning Plants and Houseplants for Your Classroom for ideas. If you can meet the light requirements and want flowers, consider tropical plants like Christmas cactus, anthuriums, or African violet.
A low light flowering plant is the popular Peace Lily. I love their beautiful blooms and their care is simple. They also help clean the air and bloom year round. Win-Win!
Cactus and succulents make great houseplants. Succulents survive dry indoor environments thanks to special adaptations – fleshy leaves, thick stems or enlarged roots. This allows the plants to hoard water. Most people are familiar with cacti, a type of succulent. Succulents also include a host of other plants grown primarily for eye-catching foliage. In general, succulents do best in bright but indirect sunlight. Different species can tolerate different amounts of light so do your research.
A popular winter flowering plant is the Cyclamen which offers 8 weeks of color. It comes in a variety of pinks, whites, reds, and maroon flowers with heart-shaped leaves. With this plant, more leaves means more buds and flowers. Cyclamen are actually a type of bulb or corm (a short, thickened vertical stem). Their native habitat is the Mediterranean and Southern Europe. In your home, Cyclamen like to be a little on the cooler side with temperatures around 61˚F and in direct light or bright indirect light.
Cyclamen is a tuberous perennial. In warmer climates (Zones 6-9), it may be planted in the ground and will reappear every year. If you live in a more northern growing zone, see Care of Cyclamen for a discussion of care as a houseplant during the dormant stage .
Wishing you a winter home filled with the beauty of living plants.
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