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The Plant Doctor: How to keep your winter houseplants happy

Ah yes…the comfort we experience as we sit comfortably in our homes viewing the snow-covered landscape, wind, cold temperatures and other nastiness winter throws our way. And why not — you and your houseplants have been safely removed from the hazards of winter and moved into the relative comfort of your home.

So why do your plants look as though they would prefer being in a different setting? Leaves are falling off stems, soil is either too wet or becomes very dry quickly. Plants set on windowsills to take advantage of the brief winter sunlight maintain a sickly appearance.

Let’s return to some of the basics to better understand what may be happening to your houseplants. For the most part, houseplants are not native bred. They are sub-tropical and tropical plants. In their indigenous environment they enjoy plenty of sunlight, moderate temperature and moist rich soil.

During the spring and summer months they do fine in your outdoor garden. But taking them indoors requires some special care which is often ignored by many well-intended gardeners.

Let’s start off with the window sill syndrome. Yes, it is a good location for providing sunlight, but windows often are either drafty, or even when adequately insulated, the windows are cold. The cold outside air can easily transfer between the window glass and the plants. In addition, the direct sunlight that you feel the plants cherish often burns the leaves. Recall that these plants are adapted to a low-light environment — often light that is filtered through the canopy of a forest. Heat vents and drafty doors are yet another hazard that makes it difficult for the plants to survive or remain healthy.

Many house gardeners locate their plants on specially built shelving. The shelves often have fluorescent lighting in close proximity to the plants. The lights are placed on a timer providing 12 to 16 hours of illumination each day.

Our winter homes usually contain a moisture level that is so low that a walk in the desert would be refreshing. Indoor heating robs plants of the humidity they need. The solution is quite simple: place plants on a shallow tray filled with pebbles. Add water to the tray, refilling it as it evaporates. You would be surprised how often you have to refill the container. Misting is also very useful.

Cut back on fertilizing or feeding plants. They are having enough difficulty attempting to survive and adding fertilizer stresses the plants as it attempts to support new growth. A dosage in the fall and one in December is adequate until the spring.

House plants attract dust at an incredibly fast pace. Even a thin layer of dust will reduce the scant light the plant receives during the winter. Keep the plants as dust-free as possible. Large leaved plants can be wiped with a dampened towel; smaller leaves can have the dust moved around by simply misting the plants.

Remove dead leaves and trim flora that appear to be diseased. Sometime during the winter months your plants will acclimate, albeit with some reservation.

The leaves will stop falling as the plants become resolved to deal with their temporary residence.

Questions on gardening or plant care? Contact the Plant Doctor at

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