Houseplants don't all take much during cold months
By Elizabeth Wilkerson - firstname.lastname@example.org
WOODSTOCK - Even in winter, houseplants are much easier to take care of than most people think.
Chris Schmidt, the assistant manager of Fort Valley Nursery's retail center in Woodstock, said plants are "cyclical," and indoors "you kind of have to fake" the conditions they would experience in their natural environment. It's about meeting the plants' needs, she said.
"Some plants, if you don't give them their requirements, are very unforgiving," Schmidt said.
If you're bringing plants in from outside for the winter, "you need to check them for insects," she said. Schmidt suggested doing a preventative check and spray; there are a variety of good, organic pesticides available, she said.
"Outside [the insects] have natural predators. Inside they don't, and they'll explode in population," she said.
When plants move indoors from hot and humid conditions, she said, the lack of humidity and lower temperature can cause plants to go into shock and drop their leaves. According to the National Gardening Association's Web site, it's best not to allow the temperature in the home to go below 60 degrees.
"Those are two things that are really important," Schmidt said. Most plants that owners worry are poisonous are not actually toxic, she said, though they can cause stomach irritation in animals.
"Cats are going to eat spider plants 'til the day they die," Schmidt said. "We'll never stop them."
Most plants have a natural rest or dormancy period that is triggered by reduced daylight, as the days shorten, and falling temperatures, she said, though "really, really tropical plants don't."
"So, most plants you do not want to fertilize during the winter months," she said. "They really tell you not to artificially encourage them to grow when they shouldn't be growing."
The only plants you do want to fertilize are those that naturally bloom during the winter, such as African violets or orchids.
Leave pruning, which encourages new growth, for the spring, she said. And, though it's tempting when bringing them in for the season, resist the urge to repot plants, as winter is actually the worst time to do it, she said.
"You don't want to repot them until they're actively growing in the spring again," Schmidt said.
The amount of water plants receive should be adjusted in winter based on their environment, she said. For example, Schmidt said, she keeps her home relatively cool, about 60 degrees, in the winter, but her parents turn their heat up to about 78 degrees.
The temperature is "really going to affect how often you have to water" the plants, she said.
Pebble trays -- trays lined with pebbles and filled with enough water to surround, but not cover, the stones -- are a good option for plants that require more water, such as ferns, Schmidt said. Plants sit on the stones and don't actually touch the water, which evaporates and adds moisture to the air, she said.
Unfortunately, the symptoms of over- and under-watering are the same, Schmidt said. If you water a plant too much and drown it, it wilts, she said, but it will also wilt if you don't water it enough. Of the two, over-watering is the more common problem, she said.
When you do water, use unsoftened water, she said, as softened water has more salt in it, which plants don't like. Town water is fine, but rainwater is "phenomenal," she said.
"The other thing you want to be careful of is where you place [plants]," she said. Don't put them next to heating vents or cold windows, or in areas where they'll catch a draft from doors, she said.
Also, remember to put the plant somewhere with light that is "conducive to what it needs," she said. If the plant needs bright sunlight, she said, south- and west-facing windows are the best options, as they will have the strongest light coming in.
Take time to pinch off dead or dying flowers and leaves, she said, as they waste the plant's energy.
If a plant has grown too big to come in for the winter, leaving it to perish in the cold or taking it to the landfill aren't the only options. Schmidt said the nursery recommends that people contact hospitals, nursing homes, businesses or even local restaurants, which may have space for and would be glad to take such plants.
And, "if you've got really, really big ones," there are some greenhouses that "you can pay to baby-sit your plants during the winter," she said.
Along with African violets, orchids and bromeliads are good winter bloomers, she said. Rex begonias and sansevarias like to dry out between waterings, she said, as do African violets.
"These guys [African violets] are troopers," she said. "They'll give you flowers. They're rewarding easily."