Friday, November 4, 2011

An Ounce Of Prevention

My husband and I do a lot of walking during the warmer months of the year. But like anything else in these northern woods, the impending arrival of winter will put an end to it. As the days grow colder, we’ll begin spending more and more time in the warmth and safety of our brick-lined and insulated homes. We’ll close windows to keep the cold out, and turn on heating systems to keep the warmth in. Day length will shorten, cloudy days will reign, humidity will plummet and – if it’s not circulated - air will become stale. And just like our own health can suffer with all these unfavorable elements, so can the health of our plants.

Winter is an especially stressful period for indoor greenery. Dry air, low light, improper watering, unnecessary feeding and stagnant air are just a few of the cold season’s elements that can leave the hardiest of plants looking ragged. Moreover, when plants are weakened they are highly susceptible to other problems such as insect attacks and diseases.

But it doesn’t need to be that way. By practicing some of the preventive measures listed below – all year long – your plants will have no trouble at all getting through every season, even winter.

Preventive Measures To Keep Plants Healthy

Inspect New Plants

The worst thing you can do to your existing collection of houseplants is to bring home a new member plagued with something evil like scale, spider mites or mealybug that will spread from one plant to another like wildfire. Before you head to the cash, examine new purchases carefully. Never leave a store without a full inspection, especially to rule out pest infestations.

Educate Yourself

Most houseplants die within a year or two of being bought (or received) because growers lack the necessary skills to help their greenery thrive. Don’t rely on an ambiguous, generalized tag attached to the plant at the greenhouse to point you in the right direction; one size does not fit all in the world of plant care. Educate yourself for maximum success.

- Start by asking for the name of the plant and the type of care it requires while you’re in the greenhouse; reputable stores should have knowledgeable staff.

- Visit your local library, borrow reading material from friends or family or treat yourself to a new houseplant book at your local shop. Don’t just flip through the pretty plant pictures, read the text!

- If you are reading this, then you have internet access. What better way to learn about plants and their care than by researching about them on the World Wide Web?

- Make friends with established green thumbs. They’ll share valuable information, tips, tricks, secrets to their success - and maybe even plants!

- Join internet garden forums or local organizations where you can ask questions, share information and make new friends.

Along with learning about how to care for your plants, you’ll also learn to troubleshoot problems that appear. Getting the essential information for proper care is a smart move all around.

Use A Quality, Sterile Medium Designed For Indoor Plants

Houseplants cannot be placed in ‘any old dirt’; they need to be grown in specialized soils. Never use weathered - or leftover - garden soil, black earth and top soil to pot up your indoor plants. Outdoor soils are not sterilized and may contain insects, mites, diseases and other detrimental elements that can weaken and kill your plants. A variety of good quality, sterile commercial potting mixes are readily-available and reasonably-priced so there’s really no reason why your houseplants can’t be grown in a preferred, uncontaminated medium important to their health. You can also choose to make your own potting mixes with simple and inexpensive ingredients available at your local garden center.

Ensure Good Drainage

A plant’s roots require water and air - two essential elements - to stay healthy. Therefore, houseplants should be grown in a potting medium that is able to retain proper amounts of moisture, allow sufficient drainage of excess water and be air permeable. Purchase an airy, porous medium (or mix up your own) to ensure that water and air are reaching the roots to keep them in good shape while lessening the chances of over watering.

Along with a good potting medium, a container with drainage holes is highly recommended. While it is possible to use pots without drainage holes, they are much more difficult to manage, and much more likely to cause over watering, which is a plant’s death sentence.

Keep Them Groomed

When leaves are clogged by dust and grime they can’t absorb as much light or breathe as well. This causes a plant stress. And a stressed-out plant is susceptible to pest infestations and diseases. Dust on outdoor plants is washed away by the rain and insects are kept in check by being blown away by the wind. Since those beneficial elements of Mother Nature are not available indoors, it’s up to us to meet those needs for our houseplants.

There are a number of ways to clean your indoor plants:

- hose them down outdoors (weather permitting)
- shower them in the bathtub
- rinse them under running water at the sink
- wipe their leaves with a sponge or cloth
- dunk their foliage in a bucket of water and swish it back and forth
- sweep the dirt away with a soft brush (ideal for fuzzy-leaved plants such as African Violets)

If you make it a habit of cleaning your plants regularly, they’ll grow better and look great. Make sure to always shower and clean your plants early in the day so they’ll have a chance to dry before nightfall. Leaving a plant wet at night can encourage fungi and disease.

Tidy Up Around The Plants

The area around your plants should be kept clean to discourage pests and prevent disease. Wipe down pots and containers with a damp cloth to remove dust and grime. Get rid of dead or dying leaves promptly; your plant will look better and concentrate on healthy growth. Pluck away spent flowers to encourage further blooming. Remove leaves, flowers and debris that have fallen on the surface of the soil to eliminate potential hiding places used by pests.

This maintenance step may sound like a lot of work but you’ll find that it requires very little effort, especially if you make it a habit of tidying up while you water your plants.

Circulate The Air

In the great outdoors there is always some type of air movement - from a light breeze to strong winds - even on those days when there seems to be absolutely no evidence of it, no rustling of leaves. This constant air movement, which helps to minimize pest and fungal problems, is very beneficial to plants.

Indoors the story is quite different. In poorly-ventilated, tightly-sealed, centrally-heated (and air conditioned) homes, the air becomes very stale - very quickly - creating a haven for insects and diseases. It’s important to solve this problem by taking appropriate action.

Keep the air in constant movement by running ceiling fans, floor fans, opening windows and keeping doors open for cross ventilation. Don’t overcrowd your plants; give them enough room to breathe. Good spacing, combined with adequate ventilation, discourages stagnant air, which helps deter fungal diseases such as botrytis and powdery mildew.

Get A Grip On That Watering Can

Most of the problems encountered with houseplants occur from poor watering habits. One of the biggest mistakes houseplant owners make is to water their plants on a fixed schedule. There are a number of elements that affect when your plants need watering – plant, pot, environment, season - therefore it is utterly impossible to place any plants on an inflexible thirst-quenching program. Scheduled watering routines are a dangerous habit to develop; stay clear of that compulsion. Focus instead on a more positive practice: observation; your best guide to handling watering matters.

While I do agree that watering is one of the most difficult things to master, it is also one of the most important. Learning to manage water requirements carefully – especially during the winter - through education (books, research) and a hands-on approach pays off in the long run with healthy, actively-growing plants.

Provide Sufficient Humidity

During the winter, when the heating system is running, humidity can plummet down to less than 20%. A plant growing in such a terribly dry environment will lose moisture rapidly and develop stress-related symptoms if exposure is prolonged. Some warning signs that humidity levels are much too low include: brown leaf tips and margins, premature bud loss, lack of blooms, defoliation and curling of leaves. To top it all off, dry air is an invitation to pests (especially spider mites).

There is no need for your houseplants to suffer. There are many ways that you can increase the humidity in dry areas. A few suggestions include: misting, pebble trays, double-potting, grouping, humidifiers, terrariums and strategic positioning (placing humidity lovers in rooms where humidity is generally higher such as kitchens and bathrooms).

All The Extras

Along with everything that’s been mentioned so far, you should also keep plants out of the direct path of drafts, heaters & air conditioners, provide ideal temperatures, adjust light levels accordingly (intensity/quality changes with seasons), avoid temperature fluctuations, wash your hands after treating infested plants to avoid spreading pests, quarantine infested plants and fertilize only when (and if) it’s necessary.

Above are some of the preventive measures you can carry out to preserve the health of your plants all year round, especially during the dismal months of winter. But the most important cultural practice to carry out regularly is observation. Plants give clear signs if something is ailing them – by means of symptoms – so peek in on them from time to time to check on their progress. This will reveal the emergence of problems in their early stages, way before they spiral out of control, giving you the opportunity to nip them in the bud and restore your plant’s health quickly and efficiently. And plants are just as quick to give signs of contentment when their needs are properly met by showering you with an abundance of blooms and new, healthy growth.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Even in the plant kingdom.


  1. Poor plants - I had no idea most die within the first year lol. Great post, this is very informative Martha :)

  2. Very informative post, Martha. I think I've said this before, I agree that you shouldn't automatically water the plants once a week, but I do think getting in the habit of checking on the plants once a week is really helpful for most people. Otherwise, they forget to look.

  3. They sure do, Jane. A lot of people don't know how to properly care for them.


    That's true, Liza. Inspecting regulary without smothering is a good habit.