DALY: House plants need special care during winter

Indoor plants are popular in homes and offices. They help keep us in touch with nature and, in a sense, "bring the outside indoors" to enhance the aesthetics of indoor environments. During the winter months, house plants that have been growing outdoors have been brought inside since most are not cold hardy and cannot tolerate temperatures below 40 degrees.

The main goal in overwintering them is to maintain the overall health and vigor of the plants. Keeping house plants healthy and attractive during the winter months can be difficult if the humidity and light levels of the plant are not met.

Knowing the necessary cultural requirements for the specific house plants in your home or office will help keep them attractive and healthy until warm weather returns. Some plants, especially succulent plants such as 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.

Plants that develop spindly new growth and leaves that are spaced far apart are not receiving adequate light. Using artificial plant lights will help, but may not provide the necessary amount of light needed for optimal growth. Use these lights only to supplement sunlight and place them as close to the plants as possible.

In winter, fertilization levels should be reduced by one half since the growth of the plants slows as a result of the cooler temperatures and lower light levels. Most plants should thrive in south or west facing windows.

The house plants generally require more water during the winter months due to indoor heating systems that reduce humidity and dry out the plants. To determine if the plants should be watered, stick your finger in the soil to a depth of at least one inch and, if dry, then it needs water. Apply water until it trickles out of the bottom of the pot. Be sure to drain the water from the saucer under the pot. Group the plants together in the same area, and place the pots in shallow trays filled with gravel and water to help maintain the humidity. Avoid using water that is either too hot or too cold. The temperature of the water 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 re-potted. 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 Cooperative Extension. He can be reached at 678-377-4010 or timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.