Some tropical plants you bring inside for the fall and winter handle the transition pretty well, while others clearly yearn for the hot, humid, sun-drenched tropics. Here’s how to give both types what they need, so they’ll give you lush beauty all winter and happily return outside again in the spring.
Bold, exotic colors and shapes make tropical house plants a joy — and for many of us — an obsession. They bring an eye-catching elegance to porches, patios, and gardens. We want our favorites to survive the winter indoors, if possible without going completely dormant.
Here are some basic techniques for bringing in your tropical plants and keeping them healthy:
1. Give Your Plants a Full Checkup
Check each plant for signs of spiders, spider mites, mealy bugs, fungi or any other freeloaders. Wash each plant gently and thoroughly with a natural insecticide, such as Neem Oil, or a homemade insecticidal soap solution.
Also check the plant’s container for mold or moss, and the potting mix for pests and eggs. You can start by soaking the pot in lukewarm water for 10 or 15 minutes and see if any little beasts come up for air.
This is a good time to decide whether to repot the plant, especially if you’ve got the type of bugs that will lay eggs near the roots, as some types of ants do. Or you may notice that the roots have become too dense near the bottom of the container, so it’s time for a bigger container.
If you’re going to use the same pot indoors, wash it inside and out with a diluted bleach solution, and be sure to rinse that off thoroughly (or use the bleach solution only on the outside of the pot).
This check up is very important, not just for the individual plant, but because some pests will multiply like crazy inside your home. They’ll eventually colonize the rest of your indoor plants if you’re not vigilant. Don’t fight that winter-long battle — stop the pests upfront.
2. Allow Plants Time to Acclimate
If you’ve got a place that’s warm enough to protect the plants but doesn’t have the dry air of a forced-heat furnace — like an attached garage or a breezeway — give your plants a week or two in that place. The shock of switching to dry indoor heat all at once can overstress your plants.
Don’t fertilize the plants during this phase unless you replace the potting mixture, and water only when the top two inches of the potting mixture is dry.
Also, there’s no need to prune plants at this point, even if they’ve got some frost-damaged leaves. Wait until they’ve been inside for a few weeks — or even until spring, when new growth begins.
3. Choose Their Winter Home
Some plants will do fine in your home near a south-facing window. “Desert tropical” plants, such as cacti and trees from the Yucca family, have adapted to dry climates. They can usually handle the dry air typical in a home heated with forced air.
Some philodendrons and azaleas can also handle dry heat, up to a point.
However, some plant species, tropical or otherwise, will do best in a greenhouse. In general, tropical plants with big, broad leaves want more light and humidity than you can provide without a great deal of care, such as frequent misting, bagging the crown, etc.
An outdoor greenhouse may provide enough light for tropical plants throughout the winter. However, depending on where you live, you’ll probably have to add a heat source, especially at night, and a humidification system for overwintering tropical plants.
An indoor greenhouse in which you can carefully control the light, heat, and watering cycles, is ideal for tropical plants — or for any potted plants that for whatever reason aren’t thriving in your home.
For example, an indoor greenhouse unit with a cover that both keeps out ambient light and reflects interior grow lights back onto the plants can keep them from becoming lopsided as they try to reach toward, say, a living room window. So you won’t have to keep rotating the plants.
Look for an indoor greenhouse or grow tent that has automated lighting, watering, and ventilation systems. It’s easy to over-water tropical plants during the winter when you’re doing it by hand. And automated lights can allow you to light the plants overnight, when electricity may be cheaper.
4. Gradually Prepare for Going Back Outside in the Spring
A couple of weeks before you’re likely to take your tropical treasures back outside (when you can reliably expect nighttime lows of at least 55 degrees), start taking your plants to a shaded area outside for two or three hours per day.
If you’ve been using an indoor greenhouse or just a grow light or two above your plants, pull back on the amount of time they spend under those lights each day.
The key is not to radically change the amount of sunlight all at once.
After keeping them in shaded areas outside for a couple of weeks, begin to put them in direct sunlight for longer periods over the next two weeks, and they should be ready to assume their regular outdoor posts. And isn’t that a great day?
Keep that day in mind now, so as you prepare your plants for the winter, you know it will be worth the effort.
Are you ready to grow your garden year-round?