In most parts of the country, Fall is almost over and old man Winter has started taking his icy grip. Here in Charleston, we have had some frost on the vehicles, but have not had that real killer frost yet. So around here, there is still time to bring in your houseplants. You know, that Spider Plant that has been hanging on the back porch all Summer. The Snake Plant that is sitting in the corner over there by your BBQ grill. There are a few things you probably should do before you bring them back into the comfort of your home, unless you like creepy, crawly visitors.
To start off with, almost all houseplants are considered Tropical or at least Sub-Tropical, which means areas adjacent to Tropical areas.....Think of it as the tropical suburbs.
Ideally, the plants will want to be moved when the inside and outside temperatures are about the same. That means 70's during the day and mid 60's or so at night. I don't know about you, but that seems like a very short window of opportunity to me. I usually wait until the night time temperatures are forecast to be in the upper 30's. Now to be fair, I have a greenhouse and it is easier to move them in there on the spur of the moment than it would be to bring them into the house. So, you can decide for yourself when would be a good time to get started.
First off, it is important to get rid of pests on the plant or in the soil. This is especially important for those plants that have been sitting on the ground. You first want to look all around the leaves, on top, underneath, and in the leaf crevices. Pay special attention to where the leaf or stem is attached to the trunk. Then, if at all possible, take them out of their pots to see if anything has crawled in through the drainage holes. You would be amazed at what you might find down there. I am not trying to scare you, but, I did see a plant taken out of a three gallon pot to be planted and in the bottom was a baby snake. Probably would have been a bad thing if he/she made it indoors.
If there are any insects on the leaves, you can do one of a couple of things. Spray the plant with the hose and knock the little guys off, being careful not to remove too much of the soil or knocking the leaves off themselves. The other possibility is to use an insecticidal soap, it is safe for pets and humans. Some plants tend to hold the soap solution on their leaf surfaces. This may cause burning. Before using any insecticide, check the label to see if the plant is listed. If not, test a small area on your plant for sensitivity. It may take anywhere from seven to ten days for symptoms to appear.
Okay, you have the critters taken care of. You noticed when you took the pot out of its container, it was a tad rootbound. Again, there are a couple of options here. First, you could just leave it until Spring. The plant is not going to grow much during the Winter months indoors. The problem with this is, the plant, if it is too terribly rootbound, will not be able to take up any water. The roots will basically repel it and there is not enough soil to absorb any water for later use. There is also the possibility that it will grow some during the Winter and just make matters worse. So, as long as it is already out of the pot, why not repot now?
You will want to use a good potting mix. What is a good potting mix? Well, it will have these basic elements: Dense enough to support the plant, Good nutrient-holding capacity, Allows water and air to pass through readily, yet retains adequate moisture, Free of insects, diseases and weed seeds. I will start with the last item because I seem to get the question "Why can't I just use dirt from my yard?"
Garden soils contain too many bacteria and are generally not recommended for plants grown in containers. Unlike artificial mixes, which can be used right from the bag, native soil mixes must first be sterilized to kill disease organisms, insects and weed seeds. An artificial mix which includes commercially prepared mixes are "soilless" or "artificial," which means they contain no soil. Most contain a combination of organic matter, such as peat moss or ground pine bark, and an inorganic material, such as washed sand, perlite or vermiculite. Yes, you can make your own artificial potting mix, no you can not use sand from the beach....it will contain too much salt. Any decent combination of the above ingredients will make a good potting mix, the best one out there is in your imagination. Experiment and find one that works for you. Just remember the above basic elements that I mentioned which are required and you will be fine. I should also mention that many commercial potting mixes contain a slow release fertilizer. Most of the time during the Winter, the plants go into a resting or dormant phase and will not need the food. You do not have to go out of your way to find one with a certain amount of food in it. The rules change come Spring, so with it in there you will have somewhat of a head start to an early feeding should you forget.
Okay,I am going to assume you have the plant out of its pot. Gently disturb the root system so that roots are not in a tight rootball or as we like to say "Tickle the roots a little". If the roots are too tight to loosen, slice through the rootball slightly with a knife to loosen them. The next item I am going to mention has been discussed to great lengths by many gardeners. I have actually been in some of these "discussions". The general rule of thumb is: Select a pot that is 1 or 2 inches larger in diameter than the current pot. For a houseplant this is fine, because many times there is not room for anything much larger. I am under the belief that what ever size pot you can manage and will fit in the space is fine. Of course, this can also be taken with a grain of salt. I am not expecting to put a four inch plant into a 30 gallon container, there are some things that common sense should be applied to. I AM suggesting that if you take a plant out of a six inch pot and you have room for a ten inch pot, go for it! You will not, or should not, have to repot anytime soon.
You can put some wire mesh or broken shards of clay pot in the bottom to help retard soil from coming out of the drainage holes. You will want to plant the plant in the pot at the same level or even slightly higher than the original pot. This will help prevent foot rot.
The main cause of death of potted indoor plants is over-watering. Roots need both water and oxygen, and when surrounded by water, they cannot take up any oxygen. These roots will rot and eventually the whole plant may die. The symptoms of over watering and under watering are very similar. The plant will appear wilted.
When I am doing my Citrus lectures, I get asked a question that is relevant to this topic: "How often should I water my plant?" While there are a couple of minor differences, basically the answer will be the same...When it needs it! Okay, after the laughter dies down, I usually go into the variables that apply to this question.
What kind of plant is it? A cactus is not going to need as much as a philodendron.
What kind of soil are you using? One with lots of sand will need more than one that has lots of peat in it.
What kind of pot is it in? A clay pot will dry out much faster than a plastic pot.
How much sun is it getting/how close to a heat vent is it? This one is kind of self explanatory.
The best rule of thumb is, stick your finger in the soil. If it is dry to the first knuckle, water.....unless it is a Cactus. Then all bets are off and unless you only water it every six months or so, I doubt you will be able to under water any kind of Cactus. You will eventually get the feel for when your plants need a drink. Another good way to tell is by the weight of the pot, if it is very light, it probably needs a drink. I mentioned earlier that over and under watering have the same symptoms. If you have been watering every other day and it is wilted, stop! If you haven't watered in three weeks and it is wilted, water! See, simple as that. Remember to have some kind of dish under the plant to catch runoff and empty it when it is done draning to prevent root rot.
The amount of light inside can be a difficult hurdle to cross. If you have the time, over a period of about a week, gradually reduce light levels by moving plants from sun to light shade to heavy shade, and finally indoors. Once indoors, the plant may develop leaf yellowing or drop as it adjusts to lower light. Most of the time this is not a major problem, unless you just HATE leaf litter on your new carpet. Here again, I will give you a couple of options. You can put the plant in a different window. The ideal side is a southern exposure, followed by East then West. North just absolutely is the worst, unless of course you are reading this in Australia, then reverse the whole North/South thing. Another option is grow lights. They are relatively inexpensive and can be placed on a timer. Do some research on how much light the particular plant you are growing requires and set the timer for that amount. There are many plants that require less Winter light than they do in the Summer for their dormant stage, again, research will tell you if your plant falls under this category.
Most people prefer a tidy house and think their plants should be also. Indoor plants may collect dust or greasy films that dull their appearance, making them less attractive. Clean leaves are also favorable for healthy growth. There are products on the market to clean and shine leaves, they are generally not recommended because the waxy coating residue may interfere with air exchange. Basically, they prohibit your plant from breathing. Never, NEVER use these products on plants that have hairy leaves, such as African Violets, you are really asking for problems here. The best way to clean leaves that are not hairy is to dampen a soft cloth with water and wipe the lower and upper surfaces of each leaf. An alternative is to place the entire plant in the shower to rinse it off. Plants with hairy leaves should not be dusted with a wet cloth but with a soft cosmetic brush. I remember either my mother or grandmother using mayonnaise to clean the plants leaves, I don't recommend this either because it too can clog the plants breathing.
I didn't mention types of containers because they are a personal choice. Many types of containers can be used for growing plants. Most pots with bottom drainage holes are made of plastic, ceramic or clay. Decorative containers without drainage holes can be made of clay, ceramic, plastic, wood, copper, brass and various other materials and should only be used as the outside vessel of a pot in a pot system. This way you can drain the water out and not remove the soil.
Well, I hope that helps you in bringing your beloved plant friends indoors. I read an interesting saying about indoor plants once, it goes something like this: They (plants) help us stay in touch with nature and, in a sense, "bring the outside indoors." I like that, Spring is way too far away right now.