Press-Republican

February 4, 2013

Caring for houseplants in winter takes some effort

By JEFF MEYERS
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — Houseplants are often a popular holiday gift, but they bring with them the need for proper care during the winter months if they are to survive into spring.

It is not that difficult to successfully care for a houseplant, but it does take a conscious effort and consistent strategy to help that plant survive without a lot of sunlight in a typically dry North County winter home.

“There are a few basic things that make a huge difference as to whether a plant survives, thrives or is just ‘eeh,’” said Jolene Wallace, horticulture program assistant for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Clinton County.

PLACEMENT

“The amount of sunlight a plant receives depends on the house,” she said. “I have just one window facing south, so I don’t have a lot of bright light. Other people have a lot of south-facing windows and have more opportunity for proper amounts of sunlight.”

Since a lack of sunlight is a significant issue, it is a good idea to choose houseplants that do not require a lot of direct sunlight.

Picking the right window for your plant is also critical, said Dianne Rodgers, a master gardener for Cooperative Extension

“The sun is also not as strong in winter, so the light is weaker for photosynthesis,” Rodgers said. “Also, plants are always behind windows (during the winter), and that cuts down on the amount of light reaching them. It is very important to choose south windows rather than north windows.”

Houseplants that will do the best in northern zones typically require a lower amount of light, Rodgers noted. Most plants that are available for purchase locally during the holidays and through the winter months are species that do not require as much light, she added.

The amount of water a plant receives and the temperature of the environment the plant is in are also important factors in keeping the plant healthy, but a plant will not be as active in the winter as in summer, no matter how healthy it may be, Wallace said.

“People might be alarmed if the Christmas cactus they received looks withered or its flowers start falling off,” Wallace said. “Plants have a cycle where they will have a period of time that they’re not growing vigorously. Don’t give up on it.”

Plants should be placed in areas where there are not a lot of fluctuations in temperature, she added. If a plant is near a door and is blasted by cold air when the door is opened or is near a vent where it is hit by warm air, the plant will not respond well.

OVER-WATERING

Since plants are not actively growing during the winter, they do not need as much water. However, heated homes also pull down the humidity, so a plant does need to be watered, but that can also lead to another problem: over-watering a plant.

“If the roots get too wet, they will rot,” said Rodgers, who suggested placing a potted plant onto a dish filled with pebbles and then putting water into the dish rather than the pot. The plant’s roots will soak up the water it needs in about a half an hour, she said.

“The biggest downfall for houseplants is over-watering,” Wallace added. “All year long, it’s the No. 1 killer of houseplants.”

Plant owners can typically tell if a plant has enough water simply by picking up the pot. If it’s extremely light, it probably needs water, but if it is heavy, it may have too much water.

Another tip is to insert a finger into the soil, which should feel damp but not saturated about an inch down.

Plant owners should not water a plant based on whether its leaves are wilting.

“When a plant is dry, it wilts; when a plant is over-watered, it wilts,” Rodgers said.

REPOTTING

Owners should not repot plants at this time, Wallace said. They should be repotted in the spring, if necessary, but only in a pot that is one size larger than the current pot.

However, if a plant is suffering from being over-watered, the soil should be removed and replaced with a good potting mix to aid in the plant’s recovery.

Plants such as poinsettias and potted bulbs such as tulips may be good decorative plants for the holiday season, but owners should not expect much success in keeping those plants alive through the winter. Potted bulbs have been forced to blossom and are not following the natural process of receiving nutrients from the soil itself. Even when planted outside when the weather improves, those bulbs have little chance of regrowing, Wallace noted.

Email Jeff Meyers: jmeyers@pressrepublican.com