Wintertime houseplant health

I’m not under 4 feet of snow at the moment, but that doesn’t mean I want to spend a lot of time in the garden right now. Nor should I: It’s terribly damp, and I will compact the soil where I walk and damage its structure where I dig. So to scratch the gardening itch, I turn to my houseplants.

houseplant-collection-copyI am a terrible houseplant gardener. I never do anything as regularly as I should: I don’t water, I don’t turn my plants. I hope mainly to keep them on life support for a few months until it’s safe to take them outside again.

Extension agencies from Universities of Nebraska, and Maryland recommend the following tips to ensure your houseplants thrive in the winter months:

1. Increase the humidity…

That dry, centrally heated air that dries out your skin, hair, and eyes parches your houseplants, too. The air inside your home may have as low as 10% humidity, but plants (and humans) desire humidity of around 40%. Use a humidifier, or set plants on trays of pebbles filled with water (make sure the pots aren’t sitting in water). If you can, keep your plants with high humidity needs in the bathroom, where they can benefit from your steamy shower.

 2. But don’t overwater.

Ferns like evenly moist soil, and succulents like it very dry. For most all other plants, wait to water until the soil is dry to the touch, down to the depth of your first knuckle. Don’t assume that your plant needs watering once a week. Most indoor gardeners overwater rather than underwater their plants. Letting the soil dry out between waterings cuts down on the prevalence of fungus gnats.

When you do water, allow the water to saturate the soil and run through the bottom of the pot. Better yet, set the pot in a shallow pan of water for a short time. The dry soil will wick water up until the plant has what it needs. You’ll know it’s time to take the pot out of the water when the top of the soil looks moist, or when the container stops emitting air bubbles. Never let the pot sit in water longer than necessary.

3. Skip the fertilizer.

Most plants need a period of rest or dormancy in the winter months, when they’re not actively growing. Feeding encourages growth and robs your plants of a chance to recharge and get ready for the growing season ahead. Save the fertilizer until spring.

4. Avoid temperature extremes.

Wide swings in temperature, such as a blast of cold air from an open door or a perpetually heated breeze from a vent, stress plants. Don’t forget that window glass can be quite cold. As you edge your plants to the window to grasp what light they can, be sure to keep the foliage from touching the glass.

5. Spin me right round.

An additional tip from garden blogger and houseplant guru Lisa Steinkopf,  is to give your plants a quarter-turn every time you water. You’ve observed plants growing towards their light source. Rotating the plant keeps it growing straight.



Garden project for a wet winter day: Desktop moss garden

I’ve always loved moss. Nothing else has such lush texture and color yet requires so little in the way of care. And since February’s damp gray misery persists, I decided to bring some nature indoors.

moss garden materials assembled

I assembled my materials:

  • an old bread loaf pan that has seen better days
  • a drill to make a drainage hole in the pan
  • soil
  • moss (some tufts harvested from my garden, and some which grew in place of my spinach).
  • a plant misting bottle.

drilling a hole in the panWhile mosses require a damp environment to grow, I’m hesitant to try growing it in a container without a drainage hole. I want moss, not mold. So I began by drilling a hole in the pan. Most regular wood bits will also drill metal and plastic. I can’t tell the size of the bit; the marking has worn off.

Incidentally, if you let go of the pan as you drill, you immediately acquire an unwieldy metal propeller. It’s better to do this when no one is around to be injured.

spinning panThe hole is drilled, but it’s a bit rough. I took it out to the shed to find a file to smooth it down.

hole in loaf panI had planned to use potting soil, similar to what had grown the moss in the first place. But on my walk to the shed, I observed more moss growing on my shady, damp clay ground. And I thought, why not give it what it likes?

wet acid clayThis is my naturally-existing backyard soil substrate. Its pH typically ranges somewhere around 4.5 to 4.8, so I don’t expect to need to “improve” the soil here with yogurt, buttermilk, or any other acidic additive typically recommended for starting moss.  The clay is quite dense, and when smoothed out, it might be mistaken (from a certain distance) for peanut butter gelato.

not gelatoI want the final product to look a bit like a loaf of moss, so this isn’t enough soil. I mixed in some discarded potting soil to build up the level.

small loaf of dirt

It was already adequately wet, so I simply mounded it into a hilled loaf shape and compressed it well.

accidental mossThis is the moss that grew where my dead spinach seeds did not. After 3 months, it is well established and peels off in a thin sheet.

thin sheet of mossWhat does it take to plant moss? Simply pat it firmly into place, and mist.

moss garden planted

Mosses are ancient, nonvascular plants. They photosynthesize and take in water and nutrients through their leaves, but reproduce by spores. Rhizoids, not roots, anchor mosses to their growing substrate.

There are three kinds of moss planted here, two of which I harvested from my garden. I don’t know the identities of any of them, but I’ll try to find out. I will keep the moss moist with a daily misting. Normally I’d consider a daily task like misting a tedious chore, but I’ll keep the pan and the mister on my desk and will give it a simple spray each morning as I begin work. Over the next 3 months, it should establish itself and begin to spread. I’ll share photos as it comes along.

Christmas for Mother’s Day: Growing Amaryllis in the Garden

What to do with those leftover Amaryllis bulbs you forced over the winter?

By Dwight Sipler from Stow, MA, USA (Amaryllis  Uploaded by Jacopo Werther) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Dwight Sipler from Stow, MA, USA (Amaryllis Uploaded by Jacopo Werther) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

If you live in USDA Hardiness Zones 7 or warmer, plant them outside in your garden.

I love Amaryllis and my neighbor usually gives me one every year as a holiday gift. I have never been able to manage bringing them back into bloom in containers–I always forget to tend them–but I thought I’d start planting them out and seeing how they fared.

I have three ‘Red Lion’ bulbs planted in the hot border (so called because it is planted in hot colors: red, orange, yellow, etc.), and one more is ready to go in. Although the first year or two they produced heavy foliage, they didn’t bloom.

Last fall, I scratched in a bit of bulb fertilizer. This spring, I fed the garden with blood meal per my soil test report. And last week:

I think, if you live in Zones 5 or 6, it might be worth a try growing them outside. Make sure the drainage is good, and add a thick layer of mulch in the fall. If you know of a microclimate in your garden where plants bloom early, consider siting it there.

Above all, have patience. While providing proper soil pH and fertility directed by my soil test probably had some positive impact, the reason my amaryllis flowered this year is because they were finally ready. Amaryllis, like the crinums to which they are related, need time to get comfortable in their new surroundings. But once they are settled, they thrive with minimal care.