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Rethinking Houseplant Care

By Paul James

If you care for your houseplants during the fall and winter the same way you do in spring and summer, you’re asking for trouble. That’s because the needs of houseplants change as the seasons change. And while fall and winter present very real challenges, they’re not that hard to overcome if you follow these suggestions.

Cut Back on Watering

Without a doubt, the most common cause of houseplant failure is overwatering, and the most common season for failure is winter. Here’s why.

During most of the year, houseplants are actively growing and therefore need regular watering. But growth slows down considerably in winter, so you need to adjust your schedule, watering half as much as usual. In the case of most houseplants, it’s best to let the soil dry out almost completely before watering (exceptions would be ferns and citrus, which need steady moisture).

Cut Back on Fertilizer Too

Again, because plants grow very slowly in winter, they don’t need much (if any) fertilizer. And applying fertilizer at a time when plants don’t need it is more than just a waste of money – it can also lead to burning of the roots and a buildup of salts in the soil.

Increase Light Levels

Because of the sun’s lower angle in winter, light levels indoors can drop a whopping 50%, so plan on moving plants closer to windows or to an area that gets more light (such as a southern or western exposure). Just make sure plant leaves don’t touch the glass. Also, consider cleaning your windows to maximize light transmission, dusting plant leaves so they can absorb all the light available, and rotating plants a quarter turn each week for even light distribution.

If your plants need more light than is naturally available, add artificial light in the form of standard fluorescent tubes or lights made specifically for growing plants, such as high output LEDs. 

Increase Humidity

The majority of houseplants prefer humidity levels of around 50%, yet in most homes in winter humidity typically hovers around 10%. The most common sign of plant stress resulting from low humidity is browning on leaf margins. Spider mites might also rear their ugly heads.

The surest way to increase humidity is to mist plants often – at least once, maybe even twice a day. Placing plants on a tray filled with moist pebbles also works well. But the simplest and most effective solution is a small humidifier. Just run it once or twice a day for half an hour or so and your plants will love it. As a bonus, the higher the humidity, the less you’ll have to water.

Wait to Repot

Finally, and again because houseplants go partially dormant in winter, it’s best to hold off on repotting until spring, when active growth begins. That’s also when you should begin fertilizing again and watering more frequently.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

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10 responses to “Rethinking Houseplant Care”

  1. Larry Stout says:

    I’m bringing my herbs in for the winter. They will have much Southern (sun) light. They usually start petering out after a while. How can I keep them big and healthy until returning to the outdoors in the Spring?

  2. DeAnne says:

    What recommendations do you have for wintering sego palms? I don’t have room in the house and normally keep in the garage where it doesn’t get below freezing. I end up removing all the fronds the next spring and they do well but they never get larger.

  3. Pam Snodgrass says:

    Help me understand your recommendation for using a small humidifier. Is that the same a a cool mist humidifier you might use in a bedroom at night when someone is sick? I have plants in every room of my house, so do I need to move it from room to room and run it for 30 minutes in each?

    • Paul James says:

      Yes, that’s the type of humidifier as was referring to. You can move it around from room to room, or group the plants together and give them a misting treatment.

  4. Pam Snodgrass says:

    Sorry Paul, I just thought of another question. I have a large variegated ficus tree that spends summers outside on my covered patio and puts on lots of new leaves. It’s now indoors by a southern window and is losing leaves like crazy. What’s up?

  5. Rachel says:

    I have a Croton that just started drooping and dropping leaves like crazy. I feel like I’m consitent with my watering. Would misting help this problem?

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