By Toni Reale
January is time of the year that South Carolina plant lovers often wonder whether they brought cold-sensitive houseplants in too late for the winter -- particularly if a collection looks a bit dry, has a few curled leaves and hasn’t had signs of new growth in weeks. So here’s a bit of relief: Your plants are just fine. They’ve just gone dormant and, with a little overwinter care, they will flourish once again come spring.
According to the University of Georgia Extension Service, our indoor plant friends, like most of us, feel like our best selves when temperatures average 65 degrees to 75 degrees during the day and above 50 degrees at night. Plants sense changes in the seasons, not only by temperature, but also by the amount and intensity of sunlight. In the winter, these changes signal to the plant that it’s time to enter its natural state of dormancy.
Winter signals survival mode
Plants’ yearly dormancy cycle is comparable to bears going into their light form of hibernation called torpor. During the winter when food is scarce and resources are limited, bears go into a light sleep state to conserve energy and avoid harsh conditions, according to an article published by the National Forest Foundation, Bears lose weight during this time and can go up to 100 days without food, water or passing waste.
Plant behavior during dormancy is also about surviving and resting during the winter to regrow in the spring. They conserve energy by dropping a few leaves and by taking up less water. Don’t be fooled, however, because the energy they save by not putting out new leaf growth is going into nurturing and growing roots.
Set your plants up for success
There are lots of things as a plant parent that you can do to support your indoor plants during dormancy. First and foremost, set them up for success with where you place them in your home. Avoid both drafty places where cold air can come in. Steer them away from air vents where the heat in your house might dry them out. Pick a sunny spot in your home by studying the light for a couple days and noticing what spot gets the most consistent sun all day. With less intense and shorter hours of sunlight, you may want to choose a south- or west-facing window as the experts at The Spruce suggest. Another tip: Turn your plants from time to time to ensure even growth.
Don’t over water in the winter
Although it may seem counterintuitive with drier conditions, your plants actually need less water during the winter. As I mentioned in an earlier article, watering your plants on a schedule doesn’t serve them well. Rather, stick a finger about 1-1.5 inches into the soil and water when that depth is dry. Or try bottom watering. If your pots are on a tray, add water to the tray and the roots will soak up what they need. Note it could take a day for the roots to soak up the water. Be careful not to overdo any watering because this could lead to root rot, which will surely kill your plant over winter.
Humidity is key
Indoor plants thrive with high humidity which is scarce in our indoor environments during the winter. At the very least, you can place your closer plants together so that they can perhaps create a more humid microclimate, said The Spruce. It also suggests using a bathroom for a great spot for plants, provided it has good light. If you really love your plants and want them to succeed, get a humidifier and place it near a cluster of plants. Misting also is a kind thing to do for your plants, but the benefits are short-lived compared to a humidifier.
Save the pot
If you received a pretty pot for the holidays, hold off on repotting your houseplants until the spring. And definitely do not fertilize your plants during this time. You can always leave your plants in its plastic nursery pot and place it inside your new pot, taking the plant in and out to water. Both repotting and fertilizing during this time will send the wrong message to your plants. In fact, fertilizing can do more harm than good during dormancy says the editor of House Beautiful.
A little bit of houseplant-keeping
Winter also is a great time to dust your leaves on your plants. With a damp cloth or soft paper towel, gently wipe any accumulated dirt or dust off of the top and bottom of the leaves. When indoor plants go into dormancy, they are more prone to pests such as spider mites and mealybugs. Wiping the leaves not only ensures your plants look beautiful, but also helps mitigate pest problems. On the cellular level, wiping plants clears the surfaces of the leaves which is better for them in conditions with lower amounts of humidity and sunlight.
Care but not too much
This is a hard one for plant lovers. The best advice for your plants’ success over the winter is to care, but not too much. Don’t fuss too much. Be sure that their minimal conditions are met and it will all pay off in the spring when you see lots of new leaf emerging.
Toni Reale is the owner of Roadside Blooms, a unique flower and plant shop in Park Circle in North Charleston. It specializes in weddings, events and everyday deliveries using nearly 100 percent American- and locally grown blooms. Online at www.roadsideblooms.com. 4610 Spruill Ave., Suite 102, North Charleston.