- Cullman, Alabama


October 20, 2013

SOUTHERN STYLE: Overwintering plants

That first hint of fall took me by surprise this week. It reminded me that it’s time to start preparing indoor plants for the winter. I usually like to take my time with this chore, so by re-potting or inspecting one or two at a time to bring in, it’s not such an ordeal as waiting until the first night that frost is predicted before hauling them all in at once.

By shopping the clearance aisles at discount stores you can find some good deals on pots right about now. Think about what type of plant you will be putting in each one. Glazed ceramic pots work well for plants that like to be kept moist, while terra cotta and resin work wonderfully for succulents and other species that like to be kept a little more on the dry side.

There are lots of creative containers available if you just think outside the box. I even found a bromeliad planted in half a coconut shell, and it’s as happy as a clam, it’s roots held in place with sphagnum moss. Hanging baskets can be kept neater by using this trick — plant the whole plastic container in a moss covered basket. That way, the bulk of the water will stay in the plastic, without so much dripping mess which can really turn into a chore over the winter. Just push your moss in around the plastic so that it doesn’t show, and be sure to water directly into the center of the plant so that you are hitting the plastic, not the moss, with the stream of water. The roots might come out of the plastic pot, but they will integrate themselves into the moss and continue to thrive there.

Whatever you do, make sure that the container you choose has drainage holes in the bottom. Plant roots have to be able to breathe just like any living organism, drowning them in water prevents that critical element. If you place the pot with holes down into a decorative pot without holes, check after each watering to make sure that the plant isn’t standing in water.

By re-potting root-bound plants before bringing them in for the winter, you solve several potential problems. One, you have given the plant room to continue to grow by placing it in a pot just a little larger than the one it’s been in. This also gives it more nutrients from the new soil. Primarily, though, re-potting just before bringing your plants in for the winter will rid you of any unwanted houseguests in the form of spiders and insects that have made their home among the leaves and in the soil over the summer months.

Using a good quality potting soil will insure that your plants have the best chance to overwinter in an indoor atmosphere where there is little humidity and not much air circulation. Using ceiling fans will help correct the air movement, but you might have to mist some plants, such as ferns, to give them the required humidity.

Succulents, rubber plants, bird of paradise, cactus, schefflera, and some exotic plants make better houseplants that ferns and other varieties that shed continuously over the winter months. These plants like being kept just a little on the dry side, reducing your workload, as well as being happy in less humid conditions. If you have trouble with scheffleras and peace lilies, you are probably over-watering them.

Once you get your plants inside, choose a spot for them near a sunny window, but not directly over a vent, which will force hot dry air on them. Unfortunately, most builders place these vents near windows. Deflectors, which can be purchased at home supply stores, can help with this problem, somewhat, but if you can get them away from the vent and still have enough light, you should do so.

About that light…when is there too much of it? Direct sun coming through a west or south facing window can be too harsh on some plants, burning the leaves and drying the soil out. Try to place sensitive plants, such as ferns, in east or north facing windows. Use your succulents in the brighter, warmer locations.

One rule of thumb about watering plants: the plants with thinner leaves or fronds, like ferns, dry out faster. Remember, ferns grown naturally on the forest floor, so they can take less light, but they would be at home in nature in damp, moist, humid conditions.

Others, like a jade plant, which has thick, fleshy leaves, can go longer without watering because they have been engineered by nature to store water in those thick leaves for use in times of drought. The large hump-like stump of the ponytail plant also holds water, as does the “cup” of a bromeliad.

You can find more detailed advice for specific plants online or at your local library. You can also inquire at your local extension agency or your favorite plant nursery, where experts can also identify any insects or diseases that might attack your plants over the winter.

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