After a summer vacation on your porch or deck, it’s time to prepare your house plants for the trip back to their winter home. For their survival and your enjoyment, they need to be prepared for the lower levels of light, temperature and humidity of the house. It’s really just a reversal of the process of hardening off plants or seedlings in the spring. When night temperatures cool to the 50s, the fall ritual can begin. These tips should help with the process:
Move the plants to a shadier location. If they’ve enjoyed full sun all summer, get them used to lower light levels by moving them to your porch or a shadier side of the house. Gradually move them to shadier and shadier spots over a few days.
Check for bugs. As you move the plants, check each plant for insects both on the plant, in the soil and on the pot. Hand pick any insects you see, or spray (on both sides of the leaves) with a mild solution of vinegar or Listerine (20%), dish soap (1%) and water (79%). For bugs in the soil, prepare a bucket of lukewarm water, and submerge the plant up to the top of the soil level for about 15 minutes. Anything living in the soil should rise to the surface. Scoop the creatures away. If the soil is heavily infested, it’s better to re-pot the plant, discarding the old soil. Clean the pot on the top and bottom, and don’t forget the dish underneath.
Check for disease and tidy up the plant. Snip off any dead or diseased-looking leaves or stems. If the plant looks unhealthy, it’s kinder to compost it. Each plant will suffer some shock as it gets used to indoor conditions, and an already-stressed plant will have a harder time surviving. If the plant is root bound, repot it with new potting soil.
Quarantine. If you have other indoor plants, keep them separate from the travelers for a few days just to make sure that you haven’t brought any bugs inside.
Choose the right indoor location. Keep the plants away from drafts created by doors opening and closing, heating and cooling vents and the like. Plants that need full sun should be in a south facing window. Plants that need partial sun can be in windows facing east or west. If your house isn’t sunny, grow lights can be used.
Change your watering habits. In the summer, the heat can dry out a potted plant very quickly. Plants won’t need as much water inside because temperatures inside are usually lower. Plants also grow more slowly under lower light conditions. Water only when the soil is dry to the touch, and don’t let standing water sit in the bottom of the tray. This can foster root rot in the plant. If you can, group the plants close together. You can also place them together on a tray filled with pebbles. A little water in this tray will help boost humidity. Again, don’t let the pots sit in standing water. Remember, no wet feet!
Know your plants. Some plants have an easier time transitioning than others. Herbs are particularly difficult because they generally like full strong sun and warm conditions. If your potted basil is tall, cut it back to where there are multiple branches so that it will be smaller and bushier. Don’t let the stems become woody. Place it where it gets at least six hours of sun a day. It needs to be in a pot where it quickly drains after watering. Water only when the top inch or so of soil feels dry, every seven to 10 days. Rosemary is difficult, and some varieties are easier to overwinter than others. It likes full sun, cooler temperatures than basil or other herbs, and should be kept evenly moist. Keep it in a sunny window in the coldest room of your house. Its growth will be spindly and slow in January and February, so pinch it back in March so that more sprigs will be created and they will have shoots which are sturdier. Succulents need lots of light, not very much water, and no fertilizer. Keeping them in a cool spot will keep them in a semi-dormant state all winter, which is ideal. Christmas cactus likes indirect sun both outside and in. It likes to be on the dry side, but the soil should never completely dry out. This can cause the flower buds to drop. Overwatering has the same effect. I have a plant that descends from a Christmas cactus dating back to the 1960s. My mother would bring the plant inside in early October and keep it in the attic, which had one east facing window, watering it once every 10 days or so. She brought it downstairs in early November, and it always bloomed at Christmastime. I don’t expose mine to that prolonged period of darkness, so mine is either a Halloween or a Thanksgiving cactus!
[Anne Hart is proprietor of Domesticities & The Cutting Garden in Youngsville, NY. www.thecuttinggarden.org]