Updated: Feb 3, 2022
Who's ready for winter to be over already?! Not so fast, you can use this downtime with your plants as an opportunity to set yourself up for success for the springtime! In this article we're going to talk about:
Winter Plant Care
Cleaning & Resetting for Spring
Winter is a time to rest, recharge and conserve our energy. This can also be the case with our houseplants. Depending on the plants’ species and their environment, they may go into a winter dormancy and lose leaves or just not put out that much new growth.
When a plant goes dormant, it won’t need to be watered as much nor will the plant need to be fertilized or trimmed. With there being fewer tasks to tend to during the colder months, it’s easy to neglect our houseplants' needs.
I know that may sound confusing. We just said they may have fewer needs over winter but that doesn’t mean they will have zero needs. Plants are living things that will still require some amount of maintenance and every plant and its environment is different.
First, let’s talk about dormancy so we can clear up what that means. Dormancy is when your plant stops growing or slows its growing process, typically brought on by seasonal changes. Some plants will lose all of their leaves while others just won’t put out that much new growth. Does this mean that all indoor plants will go into dormancy? Nope. Plants usually go dormant when conditions aren’t ideal for growth. They will conserve their energy in their roots/bulbs/rhizomes/trunks or focus their energy on stabilizing their existing foliage for when conditions become favorable for new growth.
So how does an indoor plant know it’s winter? Great question! Sometimes they don’t. It mainly comes down to environment. Those that keep their homes around the same temperature and supplement with extra humidity and grow lights likely won’t see much change with their plants. It’s mainly changes in light and humidity that can cause most plants to take notice.
Where we are located in NE Ohio, there is a significant drop in the amount of light we receive during the winter. During the cooler months (November-April), the average number of daylight we receive is about 10.78 hours, compared to the warmer months receiving about 13.6 hours of daylight. Now combine that with the amount of cloudier days we see during cooler months at 61% vs 41% in the warmer months and you see just how much our natural light is reduced.
Humidity has a large role in forcing dormancy in plants as well. Most indoor plants stay comfortable with humidity above 50% but when humidity drops to around 30% this can cause plants to conserve their energy and focus on keeping themselves hydrated by going into dormancy. Humidity levels outside in NE Ohio are highest during the months of May- September. Indoor plants that live in homes with open windows can benefit from the increase in humidity during this time. During the winter however, the heating in our homes can cause the air to become very dry. If your skin is dry, think about how your humidity-loving plants feel!
An important note to mention is that dormancy can occur at different times for different plants. Some plants can actually go dormant in the spring or summer months. Remember, dormancy occurs when conditions aren’t ideal for that plant’s growth. Not all plants have the same ideal growing conditions.
Now that we have a better understanding about dormancy, we can either change the plant’s environment and supplement with extra light/humidity or we can just allow it to do its thing and go dormant. Just wait to freak out about your plant’s health until after the spring and give it time to wake up and come back to an active state of growing. Just because your plant looses all of its leaves doesn’t mean it’s dead!
Now that we covered all of that we can get into how to take care of our dormant plants! Just because they are taking a nap doesn’t mean you can sleep on taking care of them.
Caring for Dormant Plants
Watering should decrease during this time due to less intake from the plant but be mindful of heating sources. These can really dry out the soil which can put your plant under further stress. Keep an eye on it. Some plants will need to be watered when the top inch or two dries out, some want to stay lightly moist, and others want to dry out completely. Don’t treat all of your plants the same. When in doubt, err on the side of using less water than you would during the growing season. Plants that remain active shouldn’t require too much change to their watering needs (unless being dried out from heating sources).
Most plants that go dormant don’t require a lot of change in the light they receive. One of the reasons it went dormant was due to low light so just allow it to do its thing. Some plants such as Hyacinth like a period of darkness and cold temperatures. Check your plant for what it requires during dormancy and find a location that is more suitable to those needs.
Most plants will benefit from a monthly fertilization routine when actively growing. That being said, if your plant is dormant, do not fertilize. Some folks think that if they give their dormant plant fertilizer it will help them bounce back. The opposite can actually be true for your plants. When a plant is stressed for any reason you should be focused on fixing the problem and easing it out of that stress (when actively growing) instead of fertilizing. Fertilizing a plant under stress can cause further damage or even death so be cautious. If you see it putting out new growth on a regular basis, go ahead and fertilize it.
A side note on fertilizer: if your soil has small colored (typically white or green) balls that aren't deflated then don't fertilize! These are slow-release fertilizer pellets and fertilizing on top of what your plant is already getting can cause it to burn.
The maintenance section of this article will apply to all plants, whether they are dormant or actively growing. Since there should be less that you need to do during winter, it becomes a great time to give the plant and it’s environment a little extra care.
Cleaning should ideally be done on the regular. Depending on how many plants you have, that may mean a different frequency than with others. I would recommend at least monthly. Below are tasks that are recommended during a good cleaning.
Dusting/wiping leaves: carefully wipe down leaves with either a clean sanitized sponge or cloth. This will help a plant to be able to photosynthesize. Dust can also attract pests and soil splashed on leaves can spread disease. This is also a great opportunity to spot any issues that your plant might have such as pests or diseases. Look for fine webbing from spider mites, small spots, brown/black patches, white fuzzies or crawling things.
Cleaning saucers, cache (decorative) pots, trays and shelves: it’s easy when watering to allow water to collect in the saucer or cache pot and then forget about it. Allowing the pot to sit in water can easily spell death for the plant via root rot or disease. It can also lead to a bad case of fungus gnats. Saucers/cache pots need to be emptied after every watering but if you forget or just don’t know any better, this will certainly be an area that needs to be cleaned well. Water sitting out over time can also smell so be cautious when emptying it and try not to spill it on the carpet or other surfaces that will absorb it. Saucers, cache pots, trays and shelves should also be sanitized before using again. If using a tray for multiple plants, be aware that trays can spread pests and diseases to the plants that are grouped within it. If one plant in a tray has a problem, look closely at your other plants around it as well. Always keep trays clean and free from plant debris, soil and water.
Trim and inspect for plant debris. Plants that lose leaves during dormancy can drop their leaves/flowers everywhere. It’s a good idea to also trim away leaves that are yellow or brown as you see them. Keep the floor and shelves around your plants free from fallen leaves as well. Look for leaf debris in the soil of the pots and remove anything that you see. Decaying plant material can attract pests and spread disease if water splashes from the decaying matter to the leaves on the plant.
Vacuum or sweep floors. Plant material, soil and dust can easily collect under/around shelves and plant stands. Keeping these areas clean will not only help your plants but the humans and animals that may have allergies as well.
Check for plants that might need repotting when late spring arrives. Winter is not a good time to repot indoor plants. It’s best to wait until the plant resumes actively growing so it can recover easier from the shock of repotting. During your maintenance, make a note of which plants you think might need to be repotted so you can plan and gather enough supplies for when the time comes. Remember, you’ll want the soil to root ratio to have more roots than soil before repotting. Despite what you may think, plants don’t need to be repotted every year.
Clean/sanitize tools and nursery pots. Tools should ideally be sanitized after every use in order not to spread disease/fungal issues. If you haven’t been doing that, try to get in the habit. Anything that has touched the plant or soil should be cleaned and sanitized. This includes pruners, any nursery pots intended for reuse, cache or decorative pots, shovels, empty bins, garden gloves, plant mats, etc.
Personally, winter has been a time when I've lost plants simply from neglect. Because I knew they needed less attention, I would forget about them completely. Remember, don't do as I have done, they still need to be watered and looked after. Keep them where you can see them or set reminders for yourself to look in on them. Take this time to refresh your plants and their environment and you’ll thank yourself come spring and summer!
Want to get your hands dirty with us and know more about repotting plants? We’ll be holding a spring repotting workshop for anyone interested in learning all about soil mixes, pot type/size, when to repot, etc. Bring in a plant from home or buy a new plant form us and pot it up using our special soil mixes and help! Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram so you don’t miss out on the event!
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