Winter is here, and with it, the cold - as I write this, our weather in the Chicago area is a balmy 31 degrees, with lows of 9 forecast in the next few days. I brought my houseplants in for the winter months ago, when temperatures began to steadily stay below 50, but it's never too late to cover some basic winter plant care!
Unless you're lucky enough to live in an area where it's warm year-round, the following steps may help get your plants through the long, dark, cold winter months. For many plant lovers, this is the toughest time of the year, and the time when houseplant enthusiasts suffer the most causalties. The sun is weaker in the winter, the days are shorter, our home air can be dry from running the heat - and of course, we're apt to love our plants to death by overwatering. Since we can't go play in the outdoor gardens, we spend more time on our houseplants!
"String of" plants can be easily loved to death, if you're not careful about watering!
There are many factors that can affect your houseplants, both negatively and positively, and it's important to learn each plant's specific needs to provide proper care. Some prefer dry air; some prefer high humidity. Some will do just fine in any location in your house; other plants need the sunniest window you have, plus supplemental lighting from grow lights, to even think about surviving the winter. Some can go for the entire winter without water (looking at you, sansevieria I forgot about in a mostly unused room, from October until the following May, that not only survived but produced babies in that time-those are TOUGH plants!); others need much more regular watering. It's all about finding the perfect balance for each plant, which is usually much easier than it seems. Most plants have a strong will to live, and do just fine with minimal interference from us. This guide isn't written to address specific plant needs, so be sure to research your plants if you need more information! The more you know, the more you grow!
The photos in this article are all of plants in my personal collection, in it's 2020/2021 winter setup. It's not my whole collection (I have plants spread out all over the house, as one does), but it's a large portion of what keeps me happy during the long, dark winter months. It's taken several years to "perfect" my setup, and honestly, I don't think I'll ever stop tweaking it, but I'm pretty happy with my plant corner. If only the LED strip lights I want weren't so expensive!!!!! For now, the floor lamps provide decent supplemental lighting to my east/south window exposure. The plants seem happy, anyway!
My favorite wall in the whole house; the first photo in the article shows another view of the same wall.
(In no particular order)
1-If necessary, cover your windows with clear plastic to keep out drafts. While many houseplants and succulents can handle some cold temperatures, it doesn't help them grow, and may damage some tender plants. Your wallet will thank you, as well!
2-Your windows block quite a bit of the sunlight that's shining through, no matter how sunny they are, so plan accordingly. Unless you're in a southern state with a hot winter, your best bet is a south or west exposure for most succulents and tropicals. You can move your plants away from the window if it's too sunny, but you can't give them more light if it's just not there. Some plants can handle "low" light, but keep in mind that low light indoors is usually far lower than what they'd get if they were living in the rainforest understory. (Houseplant tags that say "low light" are a pet peeve of mine, and a discussion for another post, perhaps.) There are some that do well in fluorescent lighting, such as pothos or zz plants, but all plants need some source of light to create energy. If you're looking for a plant that will survive in your bathroom that has no windows, you'll want to either find a pretty artificial plant, add some grow lights to your bathroom, or resign yourself to plant murder.
3-You will probably want to add a grow light to your set up-even a desk lamp with a plant light bulb is better than nothing. The closer your plant lights are to the plants, the more benefit they receive, but some lights get hot and can burn. Since this is a general care post, I won't go into specifics about lights, but do know that not all grow lights are created equally. There are many affordable options on the market, and it's not necessary to spend thousands of dollars to bring the sun into your home. (But I still want those LED strip lights!)
4-Turn your plants every week or so, so all sides are getting sun. The side facing the room is basically in shade, so you'll want to rotate the plants occasionally so they grow evenly. This is another benefit to grow lights-light is more evenly distributed to all sides of the plants.
5-If you can trick your plants into thinking it's summer in Florida all year long, they'll do really well :)
6-(But should be #1-it's that important) Most plants can handle UNDER watering far better than they can OVER watering (which is NOT a one time thing. It's an accumulative process.) Err on the side of too little water to start. Learn the weight of your pots, wet and dry, to help determine when to water.
Many succulents will show signs of thirst with shriveled leaves, which recover quickly when given a drink.
With tropicals, as a general rule of thumb, if you have leaves that are developing yellow tips, or black spots surrounded by yellow (a sign of a bacterial or fungal infection), or suddenly fully yellow new leaves, it's usually a sign of sustained overwatering (i.e. not allowing the soil to dry properly between watering, which allows fungus and bacteria to attack the roots of the plant). If you're experiencing suddenly yellow older leaves, that's generally underwatering, and is easily solved by watering slightly more often than you currently are. This isn't always true, but yellow leaves are almost always a sign of a watering issue.
7-Never be afraid to ask for help! There are many wonderful Facebook groups dedicated to houseplant and succulent care, and you are always welcome to reach out to our team! We will do our best to answer any questions you might have.
8-Watch for pests-in the summer, outside, it's not as big of a deal, since there are beneficial insects to help combat pests. Inside, at any time of the year, pests can spread extremely quickly and damage your plants if you're not vigilant about inspecting them. Systemic insecticides are your friend in the winter. There aren't any bees to worry about, so TREAT YOUR PLANTS. Personally, when it's time to bring the jungle back inside for the winter, I spray the plants with the hose to remove any larger insects or spiders, then treat EVERY. SINGLE. PLANT. with Bonide systemic granules applied to the soil. I treat again in late January, and by the time it's warm enough to take the jungle back outside for the summer, the systemic has worn off and the plants are safe for pollinators.
9-Try to keep your humidity somewhat high, or at least try not to keep your house desert dry-run a humidifier, put bowls of water on your heat vents or radiator, boil water on the stove (make tea!), anything to up the moisture in the air. Furnaces dry out the air, which makes it tough for tropical plants. If you're using a humidifier, make sure it's not too close to the plants-that can be just as harmful as exposure to cold air!
10-Run a fan on low occasionally, to mimic wind. It helps make strong stems, and helps deter pests. It also helps dry out the soil between watering, and helps avoid fungal and bacterial issues.
11-I've seen quite a few people asking in groups how to set up plants in front of windows that have vents under them (an extremely common feature in most heating setups). I have found that by using the bottom shelf of my plant shelf (the one closest to the vents) to hold jugs of water, or placing metal cans of water on the vents without totally blocking them, it allows heat to still circulate, but provides a barrier between the hot air and the plants. It also creates a slight increase in humidity, which is a nice bonus! I still put only plants that can handle hot, dry air on the shelves or in the areas closest to the vents, to avoid damage to tender plants like begonias. Overall, the hot air is less of a concern than cold drafts from the windows, or exposure to A/C in the summer. Use those windows to their fullest!
Floor lamps with plant light bulbs provide plenty of light to help my jungle through the dark winter months.
I think I covered the most basic things to help get your plants through the winter as healthy and happy as they can, but if you've got other questions, or if you have any additional information you'd like to see included, please feel free to send me a message! What works for one hobbyist may not work for another, so experiment with lighting, placement, and watering schedules until you're comfortable with your plants' needs.
I hope this helps you, and your plants! Stay warm, and as always, happy planting!
The transformation from summer to winter for my plant corner is intense. This corner feels so empty and barren when the plants are outside! The shelves all come down from the windows for the summer, and new plastic film is applied each fall before they go back up.