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Gardening: Keep dormant houseplants healthy in winter

Yesterday was National Houseplant Day. Given the sloppy, icy, rainy and overall gray conditions outdoors, we could use a celebration of green in our lives right now. Research shows that having a few green plants around can go a long way to reducing depression and moodiness during the winter months.

Houseplants are easy to keep if you pay attention to their key requirements during the winter. Right now, most of the plants are dormant because of the lower winter light levels, shorter days and cooler temperatures. Because of this, they don’t require as much water and can’t utilize any fertilizer you might be tempted to put on them.

One of the best ways to determine when it is time to water a plant is to stick your index finger into the soil down to the first joint; if the soil feels dry at this depth, it is time to water. This may mean you are only watering every two weeks or so. Succulents that have thick, fleshy leaves like cacti and jade plants can go even longer between waterings. I water mine about once a month. Keep in mind that leaves on an overwatered plant will droop just like they do when a plant is dry and in need of watering.

As we get close to the spring equinox, you can slowly begin increasing the amount of water to the plants. The plants also begin growing so that it is the best time to fertilize and repot plants. Use a good houseplant fertilizer with around a 10-10-10 formulation and follow the label directions. Some experts recommend applying fertilizers at half strength the first couple of times you apply them to avoid shocking the plants.

If it is hard to get your finger deep into the soil to check for moisture, or the plants seem to dry out quickly, it’s time to repot them. Use a good-quality potting soil and a new pot that is no more than 2 inches wider than the original. Moisten the new soil prior to replanting. Soak the root ball by submerging the plant, pot and all, in a sink or bucket for approximately 30 minutes so the roots are easy to work with. Unpot the plant and gently shave off about an inch of the root ball to roughen it up and expose some of the root ends. Place the plant in its new port and backfill with new soil to within an inch of the top of the pot. Water the plant well to settle the soil. Wait a couple of weeks before fertilizing to allow the plant to get over the transplant shock.

Some of my favorite minimum-care houseplants include jade plants, Christmas cactus, mother-in-law’s tongue, African violets and spider plants. The first three are all succulents that don’t take much water. The mother-in-law’s tongue does well in low light. African violets and Christmas cacti will bloom if they are in bright enough light, while spider plants are just nice big, green plants.

Pat Munts has gardened in the Spokane Valley for over 35 years. She is co-author of “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook” with Susan Mulvihill. She can be reached at pat@inlandnwgardening.com.


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