Welcome to Bad at Plants, a new column in which plant expert Maryah Greene, of Greene Piece consulting, answers your questions about plants so we may all become at least slightly better at keeping them alive.
As the weather grows colder, I get happier, but my plants don’t seem to agree. In past years, I’ve struggled to keep plants alive during the winter, but I don’t want to lose the ones I’ve spent all summer taking care of. Is there anything I can do to prepare them for the colder weather to come? What should I expect?
I think over the past four to six weeks, this question has been at the center of most of my consults. We’re in that awkward time when it still feels like summer some days, but on others it’s colder and that obviously affects the plants.
The biggest and most important thing you can do is adjust your watering schedule. The main reason people kill their plants is because they’re over-watering them. When we go into fall and winter, the days get shorter, so there’s less sunlight and that affects the rate at which water evaporates from our plants. When it’s warm, water evaporates more quickly, but when we have less light, it takes longer and you might want to spread out your watering a bit more. As we get into actual cold weather, toward the end of this month and into November, it’s really going to make a difference.
It’s also important to think about how your environment might change as it gets colder. If you’re warm-blooded and never run the heat and you have a ton of windows, your place is going to get cold. Any plants you keep on the windowsill might not fare as well going into fall and winter as it gets draftier. If you go to your window and look at your plants, and the side closest to the window is starting to turn yellow or brown, it’s likely the draft is affecting them, so consider moving them away from the draft while still giving them some light.
The same rule goes for heaters. For people with central heating, think about where you can place your plants so they’re not affected by that blast of heat. In my new apartment, heated baseboards run along the entire perimeter, so for my floor plants, I have to figure something out so they’re not overheating. I have a new tree in a 14-inch planter, so it’s not like I can hang that. My normal watering schedule might be once every two weeks, but I run my apartment warm, so I might have to move that up to once every 10 days. You might also want to water your plants with lukewarm water rather than cold, too. Last winter, I saw one of my plants freeze after I watered it. I straight-up killed it.
If you have a humidifier, that can help here too, especially with tropicals or ferns. What we’re always trying to do is mimic a plant’s natural environment. If you’re blasting your heat, that’s going to dry out the air, so you can counteract some of that with a humidifier. There are some that are heated, too, which is even better if you’ve got drafts.
Another thing people ask me about is leaves falling off. We think, Oh, leaves fall outside, but in my house, they should be fine. No, it’s still nature. Don’t freak out if leaves start falling off. If you see them turning brown or yellow, pluck or cut them off as usual. The plant will grow back healthier. You just have to be patient. Last winter, my plants weren’t growing, and I got frustrated with them so I bought fertilizer thinking I’d give them a boost. I didn’t realize then that indoor plants go dormant during the colder months, just as they would outside. I overdid it and fried the roots. When you go into these colder months and your plants stop growing, don’t think it’s you. It’s the same way we flee to Miami when it gets cold — our plants are just taking a little vacation.
Also: Be wary of fall-winter plant sales! I started to monitor this trend over the past few years, and I couldn’t figure out why I could get all these really nice, shoppable plants in December for half off. Then I’d take them home and kill them. It was partly that I didn’t know what I was doing, but plant shops are also businesses, and at the end of the day, they want to sell their products. These are plants that might not make it through the winter. Just be careful before purchasing plants on sale midwinter. Ask the nursery staff questions about the growing period. They’ll probably catch on that you’ve done your research.
Do you have questions for Maryah? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll try to get you an answer.