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Special Tips on Winter Houseplant Care

Food, No! Light, Yes!

Although the days are starting to get longer again, it's still a ways to go until we get the kind of sunlight that wakes houseplants up from their long winter's nap. Yes, houseplants deal with winter the way WE wish we could—they sleep right through it! That means they should not be fed until Spring arrives; it'd be like trying to force a bologna sandwich on someone who's sound asleep. Wait until your landscape wakes up outside to start feeding your 'inside' plants.

    In the meantime, if you want to do something nice for those hibernating houseplants, wash their windows—ON BOTH SIDES—on the next sunny day. Even if the glass looked clean, that "warshing" (sorry—but I'm from Philadelphia and surgeons have been unable to remove my accent) will let in LOTS more light.
    Or give some of the plants themselves a nice bath; the thick leaves of succulents like the common Snake Plant (aka "Mother in Law's tongue"), can collect a lot of dust, and a good cleaning allows them to better use the light they get. It's a great way to do a "bug check", too.

Indoor Plant Winter Watering: Less is More Watering houseplants at this time of year can be tricky. The most popular ones, like ficus and Norfolk pines, will drown if you water them anywhere near as often as you need to in summer. That's because they're dormant now, and simply not using much water. So if you've been "keeping their soil moist", stop now, while there's still a chance they can recover.  Most houseplants (a good 95%) detest wet soil in winter, and should be allowed to dry out completely between watering. That's right—completely!  These are plants, not Aquaman: They won't keel over and die if they go 24 hours without moisture!

    In fact, nice stretches of dryness are the best way to protect your plants from root rot.  In MOST cases, keeping a plant constantly wet will yield the same results as you wearing damp socks for a month—you'll both get a bad case of athlete's foot. (Except for the BIG EXCEPTION noted below.)
    Of course, your specific indoor humidity has a lot to do with the water needs of your plants. If your air is humidified, almost all your plants should be able to go at least two weeks—may be a month—between watering.
    However, if your home is bone dry (or, like me, your plants live near a toasty radiator) you can safely water them more frequently. Weight is the best way to judge. Pick up your pots. If they feel very light, place them in a few inches of water in a sink of tub and allow them to soak it up through their drain holes until the pot feels heavy. Then let them drain in the dish rack, put them back in place and don't water again until the plant feels light once more.
    VERY IMPORTANT: Never water just because the surface of the soil is dry; only water when that soil is dry all the way down to the roots.
    BIG EXCEPTION:  lemon, orange, grapefruit, other potted citrus (and a few other plants commonly kept indoors) REQUIRE a moist soil. Do not let these few types dry out. If in doubt about a plant's water needs, do a quick online check. If you come up empty, send us an email.   

"Lucky" Bamboo? Not if it's sitting in tap water!

    Did you get some "Lucky Bamboo" over the holidays?  Although these pretty plants do look like it, they're not a bamboo of any kind. They're a tropical plant called Dracaena that breaks all the houseplant rules. Most plants need lots of light; but direct sun will kill Lucky Bamboo. The ambient light in the average room is all it needs.
    And while most plants would rot if their roots sat in water all the time, Lucky Bamboo requires that amount of constant moisture. But it is finicky about the water itself. The chlorine and fluoride in city tap water will turn the leaves yellow at first and then eventually kill the plant. Use spring water or distilled or purified water instead. Think of the bad karma if you killed your Lucky Bamboo!

You Bet Your Garden   ©2004 Mike McGrath


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