Light, water and a little love: How to nurture indoor plants in winter

Light, water and a little love: How to nurture indoor plants in winter
File photo

By Kim Davis

Indoor plants adorn our homes with nature’s beauty during winter, which is otherwise a dormant time for the natural world. They add color and life to our environment and some scientists believe they are natural air purifiers converting the carbon dioxide we exhale into fresh oxygen, removing toxins from the air we breathe through photosynthesis. Studies have also shown that plants can reduce stress by calming the sympathetic nervous system, often making people happier. In short, spending time around nature has a positive effect on our mood and energy levels and potentially our health.

So, how difficult is it to grow indoor plants? Let’s just say, it doesn’t require a degree in horticulture. Just think of them the way you might a pet: They require love and attention but are well worth the reward.

There are several ways to ensure the well-being of indoor plants according to The Spruce, a website that offers practical home and garden tips. Like us, plants need water, nourishment and light, but their needs are slightly different during the winter months.

We are all acutely aware of how short the days are during winter. The average winter day is nine hours and 45 minutes, versus 14 hours and 41 minutes in summer. Sun rays are also at a lower angle, creating less strength. It is best to place plants in the brightest space in your home, ideally a south or west facing window, to provide adequate supplemental light. It is also helpful to rotate pots when watering to ensure light exposure to all sides of the plant. If leaves are dusty, wipe them with a damp cloth to allow proper light absorption.

Most indoor plants require less water during winter months, as they experience a slower growth rate during colder months. Plant experts recommend watering indoor plants twice a month. Surface soil dries out quicker during this time but is not a good indicator that the plant needs water. Probing the soil an inch or two below the surface is a good way to determine if it is dry. If so, it is time to water. An important watering tip is to use water at room temperature to avoid shocking the roots. Tap water is typically too cold during winter, so it is advisable to allow cold tap water to come to room temperature or use warm water.

Most houseplants do not require fertilizer in winter. Fertilizing will interrupt their natural cycle, so cease feeding until early spring when signs of new growth appear. An exception to this rule is tropical plants, especially vining climbers or trailers, which grow actively throughout the winter.

Orchids have become a popular addition to home décor. These exotic and beautiful plants with long-lasting blooms can continue to adorn the home for years with the proper knowledge of care and attention. The American Orchid Society has a wealth of information about this topic, but a few simple tips will ensure orchids are not a one-time bloomer in your home.

The AOS recommends several methods to keep your orchid a part of your home. One technique allows the flowering stem to remain after the last flower fades. While it will rebloom, the stem may become ungainly and produce smaller flowers. Some orchid growers recommend cutting off the stem at the base of the leaves or cutting two nodes, the brown lines on stems, below spent flowers. One of these nodes will then initiate and generally produce flowers within eight to 12 weeks. Not all plants will rebloom, but I have had great success with reblooming Phalaenopsis, one of the more commonly available kinds of orchid.

Orchids love indirect sunlight, but if you provide too much, the leaves will burn. Give them too little, and they will fail to bloom. Leaf color indicates if the amount of light is adequate. A rich, dark green, grassy color means the plant is receiving sufficient light to bloom. Brown spots indicate too much direct sun. I place my orchids in a window that receives south-facing sun and they rebloom and flourish.

It is best not to overwater orchids as they will develop root rot. I assess my orchids every Sunday and find they typically need some water. To water, remove plastic liners from decorative pots and place the plant in a sink. Pour lukewarm tap water over the leaves and roots for about 15 seconds and allow to drain before placing it in a pot.

Orchids should also be fertilized regularly. There are specially formulated orchid fertilizers on the market and growers suggest using a balanced 20-20-20 multi-purpose formula that includes the necessary trace elements phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium. Do not exceed label recommendations. Many growers recommend the “weakly, weekly” approach, applying a one-quarter diluted solution rather than a full dose once a month. The AOS suggests it is best to fertilize orchids that have first been watered as the fertilizer can burn the dry roots.

Orchid experts recommend repotting plants only every year or two. Potting mix breaks down, often evidenced by dead roots or the plant outgrowing its container. In the first case, a larger pot may not be required. You can simply replace the growing medium. In the second, the plant may need to be divided or transferred into a larger pot. Orchids can be replanted in peat moss, fir bark, sphagnum moss, perlite, stones, lava rock or a blend of these. If an orchid develops curvy roots snaking out from the container, this is a healthy sign. They are called air roots and help plants attach to trees in the wild. Do not cut them as it will damage the plant.

Although winter may seem like a down time in the garden world, there is always plenty of work to be done.

The writer is a member of the Hunting Creek Garden Club and formerly served as both president and vice president of the club.