Keeping houseplants alive through winter

Keep houseplants alive in winterWhen I first started studying horticulture, one of my tutors said something about houseplants that kind of blew my brain. “No plant wants to live inside your house, they all want to be outside…” And I suddenly realised: it’s not me, it’s them!

I’ve learnt so much about plants in the six years since then and the plants in my home have a much lower mortality rate these days, but I still think often of what that tutor said and occasionally feel slightly sorry for all my plants that would much rather be outside…

Of course, this is even truer in winter. Houses are difficult places for plants once winter arrives: there is less sunlight to feebly break its way into the rooms and towards their leaves and, even worse, the central heating means hugely fluctuating temperatures and incredibly dry air.

A friend was asking for some advice on how to keep her plants going through the winter months, so I’ve put together a few tips that should help keep them, if not fully happy, at least happier

Water

watering

Most plant labels suggest that you reduce watering once the growing season is over (eg, in winter) but I personally find that the central heating in my house dries out my plant pots super quickly at this time of year. I actually need to check them more often in winter than summer, to make sure that the pots haven’t gone bone dry and the plants have enough water to stay alive.

Yes, their water uptake is definitely less when they’re not in active growth, so you probably don’t need to put as much water in when you do water them, but keep checking on your pots frequently to make sure the compost hasn’t dried out.

Light:

As light levels get lower in the winter, and the sun hits your windows at different angles, you’ll get less light in the house. Take a look at the plants and rearrange them as needed. What is a burning hot window in the summer, suitable only for cacti, might be perfect in the winter for a plant that needs less direct light. (Though, I’ve got to say, where are you going to put your cacti?!) But generally, in the winter, you’ll probably want to move all your plants closer to a window.

Also make sure your plants are as far away as possible from a radiator. (Which can be difficult in old houses where radiators are often directly under windows. Last winter, I had the radiators in our bedroom turned off the whole time because I had a whole table of plants right in front of it so they were pressed up to the window. The plants were happy, but, boy, was I cold all the time…)

Humidity:

Processed with VSCO with a2 preset

This is the biggest problems for plants. Central heating massively dries out the air, which is bad for plants (and bad for us…) Here are some ways to overcome this:

  • Put a bowl of water by the radiator, which evaporates into the air and keeps humidity higher.
  • Mist plants more frequently, I tend to go up to twice a week in winter. (In the summer, I’ll mist about once a week or less often…) Not all plants like to be misted, however, so do make sure to check before you start spraying everything with a wild abandon. As a general rule, ferns like a good misting, and most plants that comes from rainforests like it (monsteras, sansevierias, tillandsias and so on). Don’t ever mist a plant with hairy, velvety or fuzzy leaves as these tend to be prone to leaf rot, and having water sitting on the leaves will cause this. (Never mist begonias, for example). Also, don’t mist plants that prefer arid conditions, typically those that come from deserts, such as cacti or succulents. This isn’t an exhaustive list, so, basically, do check first!
  • Instead of misting, you could also put plants in the bathroom, which usually has high humidity from the shower. (Again, stick to ferns, jungle dwellers and so on, see above…)
  • Group plants together. As they respire, they keep the air in between them more humid.
  • Gravel trays are always recommended. Put the plants onto a tray of gravel (ideally, a few of them close together again) and keep the gravel moist, but without the water sitting in the bottom of the plant pots. As it evaporates, it keeps the air more humid. (I don’t have one of these, so can’t show you a picture, but you could literally just put some gravel on any old tray you had. Or you can buy much more professional versions…)
  • The most problematic plant I have for humidity is my amazing Begonia rex ‘Escargot’ — as I don’t have a gravel tray, I have a rather DIY solution to keeping this adequately humid. (Begonias can’t tolerate water on their leaves but also don’t like very dry conditions, when their leaves will go brown and crisp…) I have mine sitting in a normal plastic pot, which is wrapped in an old sock, and this sits inside a decorative external pot (without drainage holes). I keep the reservoir between the two pots topped up with water, and the old sock sucks it up to stay moist. The roots and leaves aren’t sitting in any water, but as it evaporates away from the sock, it keeps the air around the begonia more humid. If this sounds complicated, head to my instagram (@wolvesinlondon) and check out my houseplants Stories highlight, where you can see some videos of it in action!

Processed with VSCO with a2 preset

And finally, perhaps most importantly, don’t worry if your plants are starting to look a bit miserable around now. Some plants – like this Monstera adansonii above – just really don’t like winter and they’ll start to die back, or drop some older leaves, which often turn yellow first. It doesn’t actually mean there is anything wrong with them, and it’s nothing to be alarmed about. They’ll perk up again in the Spring.

Have you got any other tips for keeping houseplants going through the winter? Do drop me a comment below and let me know!

Meet the houseplant: maidenhair fern

Adiantum raddianum ‘Fragrantissimum’

I say this with the complete awareness that’s it going to make me sound like a full on #crazyplantlady, but when I first saw a Maidenhair fern in the flesh (in the leaf?), I gasped out loud in wonder at its beauty.

The delicate light green leaves, that dance around the plant, appear to float in space, so delicate are its stems. On closer inspection, the fine thin stems are a jet black, arching gracefully upwards and away from the base.

This, indeed, is the queen of houseplants, but, boy is it a bitch to keep it happy.

The first one I owned, I placed in my spare bedroom. Big mistake. This plant needs to be checked on daily (twice daily in the summer), to make sure it’s damp enough, that the soil hasn’t dried out, that the leaves aren’t crisping up with lack of humidity… I left my first plant for three days on its own and it was fully dead by the time I looked at it again.

This plant in the photos, the second one I’ve had in my life, lives in my bedroom and, by contrast, is incredibly happy. I water it almost daily, I mist it about once a fortnight, and I check the healthiness of its leaves morning and night. Any signs of curling or crisping and I water straight away and move it a bit further from the window. It lives about a metre from a West-facing window, so has good indirect light for most of the day and some late evening sunshine. It’s an absolute beauty and is growing bigger by the day.

Light:

This plant needs more light than you would expect for a fern. It thrives in bright, indirect light. Its leaves will scorch, however, in too much direct sun.

Watering:

Water frequently and don’t allow the soil to dry out. It also enjoys humidity, so mist it frequently, or place it on a gravel tray, ideally surrounded by other plants.

Perfect for:

High humidity places, such as a (not too dark) bathroom or the kitchen (but keep away from the kettle or the oven, it won’t enjoy suddenly getting extremely hot!) Also happy in less humid areas such as bedrooms (where mine lives) or sitting rooms, as long as you take care to mist it regularly and check up on its happiness.