Winter is for Houseplants

philodendron_home_lah_2724-1Are you missing succulent green foliage, fragrant flowers, and that humus-y smell of living soil? It may be too cold to garden outside, but it’s a great time to focus on houseplants.

My indoor plants tend to be a bit neglected over the summer. Wintertime is a different matter. I fuss over them, washing the leaves, moving root bound plants into bigger pots, refreshing compacted potting mix, and just generally tidying up. This is the time of year I notice which plants have thrived, which survived, and which really need to go to that great compost pile in the sky.

Not all houseplants are created equal. Just as Colorado has unique growing conditions outdoors, we also have to contend with specific limitations indoors. Unless you are willing to reliably pamper your plants, not all varieties will be happy here.

succulent_dbg_lah_2165If asked to describe the winter climate in my house, the first thing I’d say is “dry!” We actually have a whole-house humidifier, but if we turn it up too far, the extra moisture condenses on the cold windows, causing mildew and other problems. Besides, our utility bill would skyrocket. So, we make do with an indoor humidity level of around 22%. Compared to the tropics (where most houseplants are from), that’s a desert.

(Along with this, I have a bad habit of forgetting to water my houseplants. While most people kill their plants from overwatering, mine die of thirst.)

The next consideration is light levels. Yes, the daylight hours are shorter, and the sun is lower. But that lowered angle means that direct sunlight penetrates further into the south side of our house, which is mostly windows (for passive solar heating). I have to move my plants back from the windows in winter to avoid burning their shade-loving foliage.

jade-plant_home_lah_2725The cold weather outside can also affect temperatures inside. Even energy-efficient windows can be cold enough to upset some finicky species. It’s essential that foliage not touch the glass. Plus, open doors admit drafts that can shock or even kill a sensitive tropical specimen. Even heating vents need to be avoided… constantly warm, dry air dries out leaves and encourages spider mites.

Taking all these factors into consideration, which plants do best in my house?

aloe-vera-bf-2008aug01-lah-0571As a group, the cacti, succulents, and similar plants head the list. They’re used to dry conditions. I have one cactus that I bought about 15 years ago in a two-inch pot. It’s now taller than I am! One small aloe vera plant (left) bought years ago now occupies three large pots, not counting the offshoots I’ve given away. I’ve had my jade plant (above, right) for 38 years. While I would prefer my plants to be unarmed, cacti perform so well here that I’m willing to put up with the spines.

Christmas cactus (aka Thanksgiving cactus, Easter cactus, and Schlumbergera) are another group of plants that seem to love my home. I wrote about them two years ago. While they are actually jungle plants, they manage to cope with erratic watering and dry air, putting on a very impressive bloom around the holidays.

begonia_home_lah_2726Other plants that seem to like living here include spider plants, pathos, crown of thorns, many kinds of begonias (right), hoyas, rubber plants and philodendrons (at top). I notice a trend—spider plants have water-storing roots, and the rest of the plants I mentioned have a waxy coating on their leaves that reduces water loss.

Other plants may not grow to gigantic proportions, but they seem to hold their own pretty well. Phalaenopsis (moth) orchids, bromeliads, snake plant and dracaena are some examples.

Then there are the plants I just can’t seem to grow, no matter what I do. Palms top that list. I can’t begin to count how many lovely palms I’ve managed to murder. My wandering Jew didn’t far much better… and I haven’t even tried to keep ferns here.

codiaeum-variegatum-var-pictum_croton_dbg_lah_6552I admit, I sometimes succumb to a gorgeous flower or amazing foliage (like this croton at right), and bring home a new victim specimen for my home. Usually, these impulse acquisitions die, but once in a while they thrive, and I add another plant to my list of Colorado recommendations. Thankfully, houseplants are relative inexpensive, at least in the smaller-sized pots.

(This goes to prove that Master Gardeners aren’t necessarily better at keeping plants alive, we just are more likely to know why they died!)

You can grow all sorts of plants in your home if you are willing to alter the indoor environment to suit them. My philosophy is that our house is for people. While I love plants of all sorts, I’m not going to go to extremes to grow a particular species when there are so many others who don’t mind sharing space with us.

2 thoughts on “Winter is for Houseplants

  1. I am so bad with houseplants that it is embarrassing! But I do okay with Schlumbergera (or they do okay with me). They started blooming at Halloween this year! Still, you’ve inspired me to take another look at those succulents for sale in two inch pots.

  2. My Christmas cactus is going to bloom for the first time this year! YAY! I also have a jade plant, but it seems that no matter what I do, it’s just not happy. Advice?

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