Cool temperatures, short days, low light and scarce humidity call for cold comfort for struggling plants.
IT’S EASY TO BE seduced by the charms of tropical houseplants. Every one of them has special attributes, from amazing textural foliage to fascinating flowers. The only problem is that nurseries and indoor plant shops carry so many spectacular and unusual specimens, it’s impossible to choose only a few. You know you’re overdoing it (and likely to suffer a major houseplant purge) when the living room starts to look like the set of a Tarzan movie, requiring malaria pills to enter.
Caring for houseplants is generally easier in summer. The plants are actively growing; there’s plenty of light; humidity is high; and, when they’re looking a bit peaked, you can move them outdoors to more optimal conditions. Winter, on the other hand, brings many challenges: Cool temperatures, short days, low light and scarce humidity slow growth to almost a standstill, making recovery difficult. Fortunately, by making a few changes regarding plant care during the cold season, you can keep your plants looking great, even in winter.
The first step is to stop feeding your plants. Unless you’re keeping plants actively growing under grow lights, most tropical houseplants go into a semi-dormant state and can’t make use of added nutrients. Generally, it’s best to hold off feeding your plants from the end of September until early March, when growth becomes active again. Fertilizing during the winter months can result in a buildup of salts that can be harmful to roots.
It’s usually a good idea to cut back on watering in winter, as well. Houseplants are not nearly as thirsty when they aren’t actively growing. It can be tricky knowing how much to water. Every plant has different water needs, and the size of the plant container also makes a difference. Succulents such as cactuses and jade plants usually require watering only if the leaves begin drying up, or the plant appears to be shriveling. Your tropical plants will let you know when they need the occasional drink by wilting slightly.
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With the shorter days and diminished light levels that occur in winter, it’s generally a good idea to move plants closer to the window. Avoid locating shade-lovers right in a south-facing window, but even plants that don’t like direct sunlight will do much better if they receive a bit of morning sun, and bright indirect light for the rest of the day. When it comes to light, the clarity of the windows can make a big difference. Simply cleaning a dusty window can increase light intensity by 10 percent. Who knows what a difference removing all your pooch’s nose-prints might make!
Finally, most tropical houseplants resent the dry air typical in homes during winter. Symptoms include brown-tipped leaves and/or bud drop. When humidity is low, your plants are more likely to experience stippled leaves and possible defoliation from a spider-mite infestation.
Unfortunately, research has found that many of the methods recommended to raise humidity have not proven effective. For instance, placing a plant on a tray of wet pebbles doesn’t raise humidity enough to make any difference. Misting plants with a fine spray of water raises the humidity for only a very short period, and some plants, such as African Violets, could experience disease from wet leaves.
A humidifier will solve the problem, but they can be expensive and need to be properly maintained. A simpler solution is to group houseplants together to create pockets of higher humidity. You can increase the effect by placing an indoor fountain among the plants. Indoor fountains come in all sorts of attractive styles and sizes, and provide the soothing sound of moving water inside your home. Buy one at a local nursery, so you can check to make sure there isn’t any over-spray that could end up ruining valuable furniture. If that happens, get ready to undergo a major-league houseplant purge!