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Tips for care of houseplants during winter       Send a link to a friend

[DEC. 30, 2004]  URBANA -- Many people use houseplants to create a spring and summer atmosphere indoors as winter winds and snow swirl outside. These plants, however, need care, cautions a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"Houseplants have become a staple in many homes," said Sharon Yiesla. "Since the home often provides a less-than-ideal environment for these plants, it is important to select houseplants carefully. Select those plants that will grow in the environment provided."

Yiesla said there are important steps to follow in watering, fertilizing, light, humidity and temperature in caring for houseplants.

"There is no magic formula or timetable for watering houseplants," she said. "Since temperatures, light and humidity tend to change, it is not practical to water houseplants on a set schedule. The best way to tell if a plant needs water is to feel the soil and see how dry it is. When the top inch of soil is dry, it is time to water."

Top watering and bottom watering are both acceptable methods, she noted. With bottom watering, salts may accumulate in the soil and need to be flushed out from the top periodically. When watering from the top, apply water until it comes out the drainage hole. Let the plant sit in the water in the saucer about 15 minutes, then drain off the excess water.

"If all the water is applied in one spot, a 'pipeline' might develop and water will flow through without wetting the soil," Yiesla said.

Several types of fertilizer are specially formulated for houseplants. These may be liquids, powders intended to be dissolved in water, or slow-release products like beads and sticks to be placed in the soil.

"Most houseplants do not need much fertilizer," she said. "The best time to fertilize is when the plant is actively growing. During the winter, houseplants are not growing much and should not be fertilized. As the days grow longer, growth resumes and fertilizer may be applied. Usually fertilizing ever four to six weeks is adequate. Be sure to follow the directions on the fertilizer package.

"Two cautions on fertilizing: Fertilizer will not compensate for poor growing conditions, and fertilizer should not be applied to a wilted or dry plant -- it needs water, not fertilizer."

Light is often a limiting factor in growing houseplants. Most houseplants grow best in bright, indirect light, but many plants can adapt to various light levels.

"The amount of light in a house varies from room to room," Yiesla noted, "depending upon the number of windows in each room and the direction in which they face. North-facing windows tend to provide the least amount of light. Plants that are tolerant of low-light conditions may be able to grow in north-facing windows, but they should be placed within one foot of the sill. The light level may be slightly higher in summer when the sun rises from the northeast.

"East-facing windows provide indirect light through most of the day and cooler temperatures. Flowering houseplants, which need cooler temperatures, often do well in east-facing windows. South-facing windows provide the greatest amount of light, especially in winter, when the sun is lower in the southern sky. Plants that need direct light or high levels of light do well in southern exposures."

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While the light is intense in a south-facing window, so is the temperature, she added. If a plant cannot tolerate high temperatures, it can be placed to the side of the window, where it can receive bright, indirect light. Sheer curtains or mini-blinds can also be used to regulate the amount of light received by plants in a southern exposure.

"West-facing windows provide indirect light in the morning and early afternoon, but strong direct light and higher temperatures in mid- to late afternoon," she said. "Plants that need either direct light or bright, indirect light would do well in front of or near a west-facing window."

Yiesla said there are signs to look for that indicate a plant is receiving too much light or too little.

"Plants that are receiving too little light may have stretched or leggy growth, abnormally small leaves, or a yellowish-green color," she said. "Flowering plants may not flower when light levels are too low. Plants with variegated leaves may revert back to all green leaves under low-light conditions.

"Plants that are receiving too much light may have leaves that appear bleached or scorched. The leaves may also take on a pale yellow green color."

In terms of humidity, most houseplants prefer humidity levels between 40 percent and 60 percent. Heating the home in the winter can lead to lower levels of humidity.

"There are ways to increase humidity around plants," she said. "A room humidifier would provide increased humidity for the entire room, making it more comfortable for plants and people alike. Grouping plants together will help raise humidity in the vicinity of the plants. Plants give off moisture through their leaves. Grouping the plants together allows the plants to benefit from this evaporation.

"To increase humidity even more, place the grouping of plants on a pebble tray. A pebble tray is a shallow tray filled with pebbles or gravel. The pebbles are moistened, and as water evaporates, the humidity is raised. The level of water on the tray should be below the houseplant's pot, so that the plant is not receiving excess water. Misting by hand is not recommended as the amount of humidity produced is very small and short-lived."

Most houseplants are tropical or subtropical in nature and thus must have temperatures above 55 degrees F. Temperatures below 55 degrees may cause houseplant leaves to droop.

"As a rule of thumb, foliage plants prefer temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees F,” she said. “Flowering houseplants prefer 65-75 degrees F during the day and 55-60 degrees F at night. Very high temperatures can be detrimental to all houseplants."

[University of Illinois news release]

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