October 20, 2011 in Washington Voices

New rules apply when plants come in

Pat Munts
 

We recently brought all our houseplants back into the house. Unfortunately one of those little bitty tree frogs hitchhiked in with the plants and is now croaking somewhere in the living room. The cat found the last one and we were able to rescue it before it became a snack. But it did bring to mind the issues of moving plants indoors after a long summer vacation on the deck and settling them for winter.

Once you bring your plants in, gradually cut back on the water. They will go dormant quickly in the lower light levels found indoors and will only need enough to keep them alive through the winter. Overwatering kills more houseplants with root rot than any other cause in the winter. To determine when a plant needs water, lift a pot to see how heavy it feels. If it seems light, it is probably ready for water. To check further, insert a finger into the dirt down to the first joint (to the second joint for large pots); if it is dry to that level, water. Plants with thick leaves will not need to be watered as often as plants with thin leaves. Add only enough water so it runs out the bottom of the pot.

Ideally houseplants should be placed close to south or west-facing windows. During the winter, sunlight levels are considerably lower than what they are in the summer so the plants can easily handle the southern exposure. Large, east facing windows will work too. Place the plants within a foot or two of the glass as the intensity of natural light drops quickly away from the window.

If you don’t have windows that face the right direction, suspend a grow light about a foot above the plants. The light can be an inexpensive 4-foot-long florescent shop light set on a timer for about 14 to 16 hours a day. Turn the plants a quarter-turn each week to expose the leaves to different light angles.

Check plants for bugs after they come in. Finding a small infestation now will save you grief later when other plants get attacked. Add a systemic insecticide to the soil or keep a bottle of insecticidal soap handy. The systemic will be picked up in the leaves and control sucking insects like scale and aphid continuously. Sprays will have to be applied regularly, if insects appear. Always read the label and use the appropriate chemical.

Place plants away from either warm or cold drafts. Warm air from furnaces can quickly dry out leaves and soil. Other plants are very sensitive to cold drafts and will turn yellow and drop leaves when exposed to them.

Resist feeding or repotting plants much between now and the middle of February. The plants won’t use the fertilizer while they are dormant. Once the light levels return, new growth begins to appear and you can repot them, feeding with a quality fertilizer.

Pat Muntscan be reached by email at pat@inlandnw gardening.com.


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