houseplant tuneup: late-winter care regimen

washing the houseplantsHOW WOULD YOU FEEL (and look!) if you hadn’t showered since October? Well, my houseplants have been cursing me lately because like patients confined to a hospital bed—which is how the heated house must feel to them in winter—they want out, or at least some rain. Everyone lined up yesterday for a turn in the shower, some grooming, a proper meal and yes, even a haircut. Late-winter houseplant care time!

Days are longer, and the houseplants signal it gradually from late January on. Now they’re telling me that they are really awake, and I need to pay attention.

Most of my charges get groomed and have a quick shower first, in my Victorian clawfoot tub. I put a bit of screen over the drain to catch particles from washing down.

To rehydrate and lightly feed, I then use a plastic dishpan maybe one-quarter filled with water and seaweed-fish emulsion concentrate diluted to label directions. Each plant stands in there to “bottom-water” itself, percolating up moisture and hydrating better than it can when watered from up top.

Once the bubbling stops and the pot feels “full,” I set it to drain in a second dishpan, then back onto their saucer it goes, one after another until everyone is happy. Some details:


Bromeliads like the one up top (on its way into the tub) couldn’t be easier, and make great outdoor plants in summer, too. Yesterday I trimmed off dead foliage, and gave them all a good shower. The basics of bromeliad care.


I have many fancy-leaf begonias, both cane types and rhizomatous ones (such as ‘Black Magic,’ looking all pitiful and straggly, below, before some rehab). The poor dear and his cousins are spindly from low light, but there are energetic-looking masses of small leaves suddenly emerging at the base, from the rhizomes, so I picked out dead stuff and trimmed off all the pendulous leaves and fed him, and all is well (if a bit more compact temporarily).

rhizomatous begonia before trimmingHow I grow begonias, indoors and out (including great resources on their care, and places to shop for them).  Soon ‘Black Magic’ will be full and happy again, more like this:

begonia and gourds


I’ve been watering my clivias again since January sometime, after two and a half of three months of withholding water (true!). Their lustrous strappy leaves (below) are a magnet for dust, so the shower was most welcome in this case.  I expect to see some flower stalks start pushing up soon. How I care for Clivia. (I’ve had some of my giant plants for more than 20 years, by the way.)

potbound clivia miniata

more details

I won’t repot things until next month, when I can lay a tarp down outdoors, only because of the mess. If you have the right indoor spot for potting, or you weather’s fairer than mine, the time is right for those in need of bigger quarters.

All my houseplant adventures are here, in the archive.

March 7, 2013


  1. Heidi says

    So when you talk about giving a plant a shower, what exactly do you mean? I understand that you put the plant in the shower. What is the purpose? Is it just a rinse of the dust and other stuff that accumulates on them? I would be concerned about the soil getting too wet. How long do you keep them under water? Do you just rinse the foliage and not the soil? Sorry, this subject is probably more simple than I’m making it, but I am very curious about how you do it!

  2. Pat says

    You are so right. I looked around today and all of them said please a Luke warm shower and a bit of fresh earth

  3. says

    I love to shower my plants too — especially my Hibiscus that I overwinter. However, it is now 5′ tall and very challenging to get in the shower! I try to wash the leaves individually but it’s not nearly as effective. Any advice on how to shower a very tall houseplant inside? Thanks!

  4. Kat Fischer says

    I want to do some planting at our new weekend place in northern Arkansas (thinking mainly grasses. ground covers, herbs). We won’t be there to water often or regularly. We go every other weekend on average, may go more often in the summer. Do you have any hints for long-distance gardening. I know from reading your first book, that you must have done some of that. Thanks.
    PS I used to live in Castleton, VT. Your blog reminds me of that part of the country that I loved.

    • says

      Hi, Kat. I tried to plant early in the season (or again in fall) when temps are generally less stressful (less heat) and there is more rain to help them adjust. I also tried to plant at the start of a time when I’d be there for awhile, not just a weekend, so I could water well and repeat watering before being gone. And as you allude, the choice of plants is critical

  5. Bette says

    Margaret, Would you have any idea as to what would cause my P.othose to all die last Fall? We did run the air conditoner most of the time, this last summer, due to the impossible heat here in Michigan. The plants were all healthy at the start of the extremely hot weather. Thanks for any information . Love your site.

    • says

      Hi, Bette. Penn State lists and describes three diseases that affect them and the symptoms here. (I don’t recommend the chemical remedies — just wanted you to see if any of the symptoms were familiar.) You can also see photos of one issue, Phytophthora, here. Any of it look/sound like what happened?

  6. Linda Pastorino says

    Dear Margaret,,
    I did just that and for the last two days I have been washing and cutting back house plants. Re potting also and washing out old pots.. It feels good. I can say I have never had luck with Fancy Rex Begonias. I try and keep trying.. I don’t feed them enough by what you are indicating,, they need a lot of feed. Does that mean once a week ? Every time you water? I think they are not getting enough air circulation also as I have no fan in the conservatory.. no breeze. It is closed in.. Might be some of my issues. What is your preferred feed for them? I have fish emulsions that I use outside only and oddly enough I never thought to use it inside. I use plant food diluted but go through tons of it.. My fish bottles are huge and maybe should use that instead.. Do you dilute it or use it straight.. I use Neptune’s Harvest. I would love to get the hang of begonias as I agree with you the foliage is fantastic and they mix well outside.

  7. Lorie says

    Okay!!! Who’s officially in charge of getting Spring here!?!?!? Do “dates” on the calendar not count for anything? We had finally seen earth; hope was in the air; this was not even predicted; there are SO many birds looking for food and getting to the feeders to re-fill is nearly impossible. Whine, moan, despair!!!!

  8. Carole Clarin says

    In the past few years I have added many fancy leaf begonias to my plant collection, encouraged by the incredible ones you have. It was my understanding that they were not to be over-watered, so I’m surprised they should sit in a tub and be allowed to soak up water. Should this be done when they are quite dry?

  9. Patricia in Glens Falls says

    I received a clivia as a “would you take this plant I have too many” gift about 5 years ago. It is very hardy but it has not flowered. Not sure what to do….the greenery is lovely…but….looking for a blossom. Perplexed. Also…can you do an article on orchids as so many are available everywhere right now….thank you. pt in gf

  10. Jo says

    Any ideas why my clivia, about the same size as yours pictured here, Margaret, gets brown at the end of the long strappy leaves? I see your leaves are perfect…

  11. says

    This is great. I have a couple begonias that I put outside in the summer. They are doing okay but also somewhat scraggy. I appreciate the advice. I am trending towards houseplants that I can transfer back and forth from the garden in the summer to the indoor winter. Love the idea of bromeliads and will be on the search.

  12. Mary Withrow says

    I put mine in the kitchen sink and use the spray hose, water and rinse them well. I do this about every 3 weeks. I am so happy spring is almost here!

  13. says

    Thanks for this timely advice! We are currently providing a full service plant spa here at my house, and the begonias are lined up patiently waiting their turn. These “just got a haircut” looks will hopefully pass quickly!

leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *