DALY: House plants need special care during winter months

Plants are commonly used in our homes and offices. Their presence helps keep us in touch with nature and, in a sense, “brings the outside indoor,” to enhance the aesthetics of indoor environments.

During the winter months, house plants that have been growing outdoors should be brought inside. Most are not cold hardy and are unable to tolerate temperatures below 50 degrees. Keeping house plants healthy and attractive during the winter months is a challenge due to the lower temperatures, humidity and light levels common to indoor environments.

Different species of plants have differing requirements. Some plants, especially succulent plants like aloes and cacti, require significantly less water than peace lilies and African violets. Ferns prefer lower light levels, but wax begonias need higher amounts of light. Knowing the necessary cultural requirements for specific house plants will help keep them attractive and healthy.

Fertilization levels should be reduced by one half since the growth of the plants slows down as a result of the cooler temperatures and lower light levels. They should be placed where they will receive adequate light, preferably in south and west facing windows.

A sign the plants are not receiving adequate light is the development of spindly new growth with the stems stretching for nearby light sources and leaves spaced far apart. Using artificial plant lights will help, but usually does not provide the necessary amount of light required for optimal growth by most plants. Use these lights only to supplement sunlight and place them as close to plants as possible.

House plants generally require more water during the winter months due to indoor heating systems that reduce humidity and cause the plants to dry out. To determine if the plants should be watered, stick your finger in the soil to a depth of at least one inch. If it is dry, then apply water until it trickles out of the bottom of the pot. Group the plants together in the same area. Place the pots in shallow trays filled with gravel and water to help maintain the humidity. Water temperature should be between 65 and 75 degrees.

Periodically inspect the leaves for dust accumulations which can dull their appearance and reduce their attractiveness. Use a damp cloth to wipe both the upper and lower surfaces of the leaves. Occasional cleaning improves the plants appearance, growth and helps control pests. In the following spring, examine the plants to see if they need to be repotted. Remove the dead parts and the excessive growth, water thoroughly, and place them outside after all danger of frost has passed.

Timothy Daly is Agricultural and Natural Resource Agent with the Gwinnett County Extension Service.