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houseplant tuneup: 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, and yes, even a haircut in some cases. Winter houseplant care time!

As days very gradually grow longer from mid- or late January on, the houseplants signal it little by little, with hints of new growth or at least perkiness. By March sometime, they tell me that they are really awake, and I need to pay even stricter attention, adding a proper meal to the winter tuneup regimen of shower-and-shave. I resume fertilizing March onward, but skip November through February, while there just isn’t enough light to support active growth.

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

To rehydrate and/or lightly feed, I use a plastic dishpan. I fill it part of the way 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,” which can take some time and a refill of the reservoir with biggest pots, I set it to drain in a second dishpan. Then it goes back onto its saucer, one after another until everyone is happy. Some details:

bromeliads

BROMELIADS like the one up top (on its way into the tub) couldn’t be easier, and make great outdoor plants in summer, too. At shower time, I also trim off dead foliage, and give them all a good shower. This is one group of plants whose pots I don’t submerge in the dishpan, rather making sure to refill the “cups” formed by their foliage when I’m done showering them. The basics of bromeliad care.

begonias

I HAVE many fancy-leaf begonias, both cane types and rhizomatous ones, including  ‘Autumn Ember,’ above, from Logee’s. Below, ‘Black Magic’ is looking all pitiful and straggly, before some rehab. The poor dear and his cousins become spindly from low light and low humidity in the offseason. But by March there will be energetic-looking masses of small leaves suddenly emerging at the base, from the rhizomes, so at that time I pick out dead stuff and trim off all the pendulous leaves and feed him, and all is well again (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).  This interview with expert Tovah Martin goes into depth about begonia-growing, too. Soon after its late-winter haircut, ‘Black Magic’ will be full and happy again, more like this:

begonia and gourds

clivia

I’VE BEEN watering my clivias again since early January, after two and a half or so months of withholding water (true!), while also making sure they’re resting in a cool spot. At least 40 days of “chilling requirement” (temperatures below 50 but above 35) are needed to trigger the flower-production process; I probably overdo it. 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. Learn how the experts who compete at the North American Clivia Society annual show care for Clivia at this link. (I’ve had some of my giant plants for more than 25 years, by the way.)

potbound clivia miniata

more details

I WON’T repot things until around April here, when I can lay a tarp down outdoors, to minimize the mess. Sometimes I do it in fall, when plants are on their way indoors. If you have the right indoor spot for potting, or your weather’s fairer than mine in the Northeast, those in need of bigger quarters can be moved up sooner, around the time you start to see signs of new growth begin.

  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. Tricia 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!

  3. 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.

    1. margaret 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

  4. 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.

    1. margaret 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?

  5. 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.

  6. 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!!!!

  7. 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?

  8. 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

  9. 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…

  10. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern 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.

  11. 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!

  12. Diana Pappas 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!

  13. gina salden says:

    Margaret I always spot your little table (with glass top) ! is it oriental also in design ? so cute! and a great idea to put glass on tops where plants will be … will be doing that soon too many spots on my wood from displaying my houseplants..

  14. Julia says:

    I have a few houseplants (not many, due to the lack of sun in my apartment) but I have never repotted any of them. Do you have to do this every year? What are the signs that they’re due?

    I like the idea of a mid-winter TLC, especially by having the water percolate up from a pan. I bet the roots love that. Will be trying that soon.

  15. Pat says:

    How do you humidify your house in winter, Margaret? Isn’t that a hot-water baseboard along the wall behind your very cool tub? I also have that kind of heating system in my house, and there’s no way to add humidification as I would do if I had a forced-air heating system. My houseplants suffer terribly in winter, and the pets hate the static electricity. I’ve tried boiling pots of water on the stove, using portable room humidifiers, setting the plants on trays of gravel half filled with water, misting with a spray bottle, etc., all with little effect. I’ve given up on all houseplants except three potted citrus trees, which will go back outside as soon the weather warms enough. Do you have any favorite gizmos or other secrets for humidifying the air in your house?

  16. Susanne says:

    I have some large plants, actually they come inside for the winter – oleander, hibiscus, orange tree and more – they shower is upstairs and no way can I shlep my big guys up the stairs – so what do you suggest in this case? would spritzing them be enough? I now have a central humidifier that helps quite a bit.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Susanne. Misting is better than nothing, yes. With the big ones in the downstairs, I have some old towels I place on the floor nearby to catch drips and wipe/mist/etc. as you suggest.

  17. Mary B. Hayes says:

    Hmmm, it’s a pretty easy thing to propagate rhizomatous begonias. Ttake those trimmed begonia leaves, cut off the stem leaving about 1/2″ of stem attached, and put that in a Ziploc baggie with the stem inserted into slightly moistened African Violet soil mix. Put the baggie where it will get light but not necessarily direct sun. Typically you will see new leaves and a new plantlet at the base of the stem in about two months. That can be potted when it’s big enough. Very fun, easy thing to do, make more begonias! Brad (Thompson’s) Begonia World website is a GREAT resource.

    For fertilizing begonias, the rule of thumb is to “fertilize weakly weekly,” during the growing season. Better to be consistent with low levels of fertilizer than to shock the plant with heavy doses once in a while. Rex begonias are notoriously fickle and it’s hard to keep Rexes them going in the winter even for the experts!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Mary. I have been known to torture the Rex types, too. : ) I mostly avoid them — just can’t make them happy here. I love Brad’s Begonia World.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Linda. Yes, topiaries in general are more vulnerable, and evergreen topiaries especially. Rosemary in any form is a tough one for me here. I try it like this.

  18. Linda says:

    Margaret: any tips on fiddle leaf fig indoor plants? I have a beauty about 3 -4 ft. I lug it to the kitchen sink to give it a good soaking, but let it pretty much dry out between waterings. It put out new leaves all summer, but I’d love to force it to branch. Any thoughts?

  19. dana says:

    I fertilized some houseplants yrs ago w diluted fish emulsion. My husband came home from work and was determined to find the cause of the smell. It was the fish emulsion.

    1. margaret says:

      The smell is horrible, I agree. Some brands are worse than others. And if I use it in outdoors pots, sometimes the raccoons and skunks come to investigate overnight — and dig everything up!

  20. DIane says:

    I have a beautiful potted Aloe plant that gets small raised brown spots on the leaves. I rub them off with my fingers, but they do come back. I also notice some sticky substance on the table top not sure if this is related to the brown dots. IS this scale or something like it? I want it GONE. I have tried to wash it in mild soapy water, but it’s not that easy on a large, full Aloe. Any suggestions would be appreciated!!

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