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Houseplants are perfect winter companions

Winter is coming, a time when the doldrums can set in and when plant lovers often find themselves in need of an indoor gardening project. I know just the “project”: adopt a houseplant!

Not only can houseplants help us get a winter gardening fix, they also provide many other benefits including improving indoor air quality and our immune systems, absorbing noise and enhancing our general sense of well-being and even our productivity.

Whether you already have adopted some houseplants or are considering becoming a first-time houseplant owner, now is a perfect time to get — or give — them, and here are a few hints to make them — and you — happier this winter.

Prune dead leaves from plants when you bring them in for the winter. Photo by Katie Jackson

Begin by making sure the plants, especially those that resided outside or in a plant nursery all summer, are free of any diseases or creatures, such as spiders, lizards, frogs and other critters that may have taken up residence in their leaves, stems or potting medium. Simply cleaning plant foliage with a damp sponge or cloth (using water or a dilute mixture of water and a gentle dish soap) helps remove problem pests and also dust and dirt that can reduce a plant’s ability to absorb light through its foliage.

If you find specific insect or disease problems on your plants, a mild pesticidal soap may be in order, though choose one that targets your particular pest problem. Removing dead leaves or stems from the plants or from the potting medium’s surface will also help reduce or eliminate pest problems.

Next, carefully select a location in your house or office where the plants will reside. Sun-loving plants usually need a spot with bright, though preferably indirect, light, such as a room with a south-facing window. Shade-preferring plants might do better in rooms with east- or west-facing windows. If you don’t have access to natural light, consider investing in a grow-light.

Be prepared to move plants around in a room or in the house throughout the season to take advantage of ever-changing angles of the winter sun, and try to turn the pots occasionally so each side of the plant gets access to whatever light source you’re using.

Proper temperature is also important for houseplants, which typically need an ambient temperature of 65-75 degrees F during the day and not lower than 50 degrees F at night. Keep plants away from direct hot or cold air sources, such as heating vents or cold windowpanes, too.

The biggest obstacle most of us face when trying to keep houseplants healthy is moisture — it’s a problem of both too much and too little. Typically, heat in our homes is dry, which can be tough on plants, especially those that crave humid conditions. Placing houseplants in rooms where you regularly create a bit of humidity, such as a bathroom, laundry area or kitchen, can help. You can also use a humidifier, place plants above (though not in) a tray of water or cluster plants together so they share the moisture that their leaves naturally produce and respire.

While they need moisture, most plants typically need less water during the winter when many species would naturally go dormant, plus too much moisture in a potting medium can kill plants by promoting diseases and root rot issues. While water needs vary among plant species, most should only be watered when the potting medium an inch or two below the surface, not on the surface, becomes dry.

Keep an eye on your plants throughout the growing season for signs of health issues or pests and snip off leggy or dying branches, stems, leaves and flowers as needed. However, don’t do extensive pruning, repotting or fertilizing during the winter. Save all of those chores for the spring when the plants begin to wake up from their long winter naps and are ready to put on new growth.

Finding houseplants that truly fit your lifestyle and indoor growing conditions may take some trial and error, and, yes, you may lose a few before you perfect your houseplant skills. But if you do a little research about plants before you bring them home, you’ll be able to keep your gardening soul and these gardening soulmates happy throughout the winter and for years to come.

Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at katielamarjackson@gmail.com.