Caring for House Plants During the Winter

Try these simple tips to help houseplants thrive.

by Toby Day
MSU Extension Horticulture Specialist

As we end the gardening season, our perennial beds have been cut back and the produce has been stored, canned, or eaten. The leaves are raked, the lawn fertilized, the mower is winterized and put away and the irrigation system has been blown out. The compost pile is cooking, the fruiting canes of the raspberries have been cut back and the garden is tilled. Flower pots are put away and the garden hoses are drained. All is done until next year. Or so you thought…

Despite having put the yard and garden to bed, there are always house plants that need attention, especially going into winter. Light is significantly reduced during the winter months, the air is drier, and there are drafts from windows and doors that can really affect houseplant health. Try these simple tips to help houseplants thrive, not just survive, during the winter months.

Houseplants don’t transpire or photosynthesize as much in the winter, therefore they need much less water than in the summer months. Overwatering of houseplants, especially in the winter months, is the number one reason for houseplant death. Water sparingly, but don’t let them dry out completely. Each plant has different watering needs, but I find that I water about half as much during winter. The best way to test for water is to lift the pot. If it is light, it is too dry. If heavy, wait to water. If it pooled in the saucer, dump it out so the plant isn’t sitting in water.

Fertilization of houseplants is rarely recommended in winter months. If you have to fertilize, only use one-half the recommended amount. Remember, these plants aren’t real active in winter, so they don’t need much fertilizer. Once there is new growth in the spring, you can start fertilizing again.

Most plants do not need much light, but in winter the amount of light in a home is reduced due to less daylight. You may want to add additional lighting, however, most just may need to be moved closer to the window. Another winter project is to remove all the dust that has accumulated on the leaves, reducing ability to photosynthesize. I usually run my plants under the shower for a minute to wash off the summer dust, or you can wipe them with a sponge. A plus of doing this is the plant looks healthier too!

Temperature and Humidity
Even though the thermostat in a house is set for relatively the same temperatures, approximately 50 to 80°F, there can be incredible drafts during winter. An open door or a leaky window can drop the temperature  significantly. Registers and radiators can have the opposite effect by raising the temperature too high around plants. With that in mind, place houseplants away from leaky windows and especially away from outside doors, and try to keep them away from vents, registers, heating stoves or radiators. Don’t let the foliage touch the glass of a window, it is way too cold for a houseplant. Finally, the air inside a house is often very dry in winter months. You may want to invest in a humidifier for areas where most of the houseplants reside.

The number one reason many people do not have houseplants is they believe they don’t have a green thumb. I often hear, “all I have to do is look at a plant and it will die.” Following is a list of my top ten recommendations for easy-to-grow houseplants.

  1. SNAKE PLANT, OR MOTHER-IN-LAWS TONGUE (Sansevieria): can withstand significant abuse. There was
    one in an office at a mechanic shop I worked at that was badly neglected; I think it lived on coffee that was dumped in the pot. It is still alive 25 years later.
  2. SPIDER PLANT (Chlorophytum comosum): only needs some light, is forgiving to colder winter temperatures and warm summers, and can withstand periods of drought.
  3. CHINESE EVERGREEN (Aglaonema): can be placed in an area of little to no light and withstand extended periods of time without watering. It is a perfect beginner houseplant.
  4. POTHOS (Epipremnum aureum): can withstand low light and irregular watering. The biggest issue with this one is that the vines sometimes overtake the space. Vines can be cut back as needed.
  5. ALOE VERA (Aloe Barbadensis Miller): does well in dry conditions, but does need indirect light. A kitchen windowsill is a suitable place for this plant.
  6. DRACAENA (Dracaena): loves warm temperatures, infrequent waterings, and indirect light. Place near a window and water sparingly.
  7. CAST IRON PLANT (Aspidistra elatior): survives in low-light, poor soils, a wide range of temperatures and can go lengthy periods of time without water.
  8. CHRISTMAS CACTUS (Schlumbergera): may never be as pretty as when you bought it last holiday season, but with little water and some light, it will live forever. I’ve seen Christmas cacti that are over 100 years old.
  9. PHILODENDRON (Philodendron): nearly impossible to kill, unless you over-water it. It likes low light and there are literally hundreds of species to choose from.
  10. ZZ PLANT (Zamioculcas): grows in almost all conditions and, due to its bulbous stem that retains water, can go weeks without water.

Finally, for those that forget to water their plants (although the #1 killer of houseplants is over-watering), there are several apps available for smart phones. Whether Apple or Android, a quick download may help remind you when to water.