For today’s post I wanted to share some tips for caring for your houseplants over winter. Here at HPH HQ, we are in the midst of winter (I’m based in the UK) and some of the annual occurrences have begun; the death of my parlour palm in my bathroom in the space of two weeks because my radiator frazzles it from one angle, whilst my draughty window blasts cold air at it from another. My maidenhair fern is looking like a crispy mess that I will spare you the photo of for now… and the other ritualistic event is the leaf drop of my alocasia amazonica (above). I wanted to share some advice at this juncture to offer some reassurance that there are some steps you can follow to make the winter months with your plants a little less intimidating.
With the drop in temperatures and lower light levels, some plants take this as their cue for a rest period, or dormancy. I like to think of my plants going into hibernation in their own way; preserving their energy until Spring, where they will bounce back with vigour. When dormancy occurs, the main action you need to take is to reduce watering, generally by about 50% to ensure that your plants don’t awake with root root come Spring!
In general, the plants that go most noticeably dormant for winter in my collection are my oxalis triangularis (you can read a specific dormancy care guide here) and my ficus gang – I have a ficus lyrata bambino, a ficus benghalensis audrey and six ficus elastica of varying types. I counted them for writing this and it seems I hoard this type of plant, they are dotted all over my apartment! The tell tale signs of dormancy are that all growth slows down, almost to a standstill. This is quite commonly triggered by if there has been a cold snap; a sudden drop in temperature, or a first frost.
Different plants behave in different ways at this time, and whilst my ficus plants just go quiet in the corner, some are more demonstrative, like my alocasia. This time of year, the plant drops a few of it’s leaves (usually the oldest leaves) in a public display of it’s fatigue. This is completely normal and part of the plants natural cycle, so don’t be alarmed if this happens to yours! In terms of watering here, I water mine from a plate (more on this below) about once a month.
It’s worth nothing that not all plants go dormant, and sometimes the seasonal change will just slow things down a bit – slow growth, leaves finding it difficult to unfurl, smaller leaves and less fenestrations. Plants that fall into this category for me are my philodendrons, pothos and monstera.
Over winter, once feeding has ceased (I don’t feed between October and March), my watering routine also changes to accommodate the different environmental conditions facing my houseplants. Overwatering in winter is the main reason for plant collapse, so step away from your watering cans and go make yourself a cup of tea instead! Generally, I only water my houseplants when the top 1-2 inches of the soil are dry. Have a good poke around in the soil and see what’s normal for your plants this time of year, I can’t give a set timing schedule as every home and plant is different. Spend this time getting to know what makes your plants happy, take is as a time to connect with them and they will thank you for it.
It’s especially important this time of year to aerate your potting medium so that when you water, the root ball doesn’t become compacted and hard to get adequate moisture into, it can be left sitting as an ‘island’ surrounded by compost. This can cause plants to fail if they are left this way for prolonged periods.
At this time of year, I am a keen advocate of watering my plants from below using watering plates, as you can see in the photo below. Yes, it does take more work but I have found it has helped prevent that layer of mildew that can appear as a ‘film’ across compost from the excess moisture and cooler temperatures. This can also create a breeding ground for fungus gnats (fruit flies) which is best avoided!
The way I water over winter for most of my plants is as follows: For my larger plants, I remove them from their cache pots onto a plate. Using chopsticks, I aerate the soil and place the watering can nozzle into the holes I have created, and pour through until water comes out onto the drip tray. I then fill the tray with tepid water and allow the plants to sit like this for 20-30 minutes. Tepid water is extremely important here, as well as improving absorption, it stops the roots going into shock. Some plants also get straw coloured patches on their leaves if water temperatures are too cold. If the water is absorbed quickly, I add some more and wait 10 more minutes. Shake off then return to cache pot. Never water directly into the cache pot and don’t let the plant sit in water… this can lead to root rot. For my smaller pots and succulents when aeration is too awkward, I sit groups of smaller pots in trays of water, as detailed above.
It’s no secret that plants don’t like central heating, which at this time of year is pretty hard to avoid. So there are a few ways you can help, if you have the option of using a humidifier then your plants will definitely thank you for it! They have become a lot more affordable in recent years, but it’s worth noting that they aren’t suitable for all homes. With humidity averaging in my apartment around 50-60% in winter, and 60-70% in Summer, this is not a major issue for me. You should be mindful about the age of your property, if damp is an issue and subsequently anything that could suffer adversely from increased moisture. I collect vintage furniture and getting mildew on the wood (especially teak) is an issue if the air is too damp.
Misting is an easy option and despite perhaps not being as ‘deeply nourishing’ as a humidifier, it does the trick for me. Don’t use very cold water (tepid is perfect) and mist in the morning are the two things I’d recommend doing. Browning edges of your plant is a sign that it’s not getting enough humidity, and when a plant becomes weakened in this way, they can be more susceptible to pests such as spider mites and mealy bugs.
Succulents are quite low maintenance this time of year and are generally less hassle than foliage plants with humidity requirements. The main issue that you will encounter is stretched out growth, or etiolation, due the the plants literally reaching out for more light. This might not look the prettiest, but keeping the plants in a cool spot with indirect light can help make the stretching extreme. Be light with your watering too, and I always water from below on a plate with my succulents.
5. A note on pileas…
A specific mention to the pilea peperomioides (chinese money plant) which is another one of these rather unglamorous plants in winter. You might notice some leaf yellowing and dropping, particularly in the lower leaves. If some of the more mature stems fall off, it’s nothing to worry about, but make sure to not forget about watering these lightly over winter, as I have found that ‘drooping’ is more likely if the soil is extremely dry. I also mist them weekly. which seems to help the leaves remain relatively flat and not ‘domed’ in shape.
6. Cut and propagate!
Alongside succulent etiolation, foliage plants also suffer the same fate over winter time, and can begin to look a little leggy. One of the easiest ways to resolve this issue is to cut and propagate! I do this often with my tradescantia zebrina (below) to keep my plant looking full. You can see the stems post-trim in water and even at this time of year, they root extremely easily in a week or so. For succulent propagation I have written a guide which you can find here
I hope you have found these tips helpful, and if you have any questions, I’d be happy to help.
Thanks for reading!