Friday, April 27, 2012

The Great Outdoors

Spring and summer are your plant’s favourite time of the year. This is when growing conditions are at their best with longer days, higher light levels, elevated humidity and abundant fresh air breezing through open windows and circulating around the home. Plants wake up from their winter slumber when all those beneficial elements of the warmest months of the year kick in, and experience the highest growth during that period.

As temperatures warm up in early or late spring – depending on where you live- many indoor gardeners choose to place some, sometimes all, of their houseplants outside to enhance the value of those benefits. For many plants that have struggled through a long, hard winter with negligible humidity, shorter days and the harmful effects of heating systems, a sheltered spot in the open air may be just what the plant doctor ordered. With appropriate handling during the transfer from home to garden, and suitable care throughout their outdoor stay, most indoor plants will flourish with a summer vacation. Breathing the constantly flowing air, soaking up the rain that quenches their thirst and washes their leaves, absorbing the increased humidity and loading up on that superior level of light are just a few of the pleasures of the great outdoors that your plants can enjoy.

There’s no doubt that your houseplants will experience all of those wonderful outdoor delights, and then some – but only if they are transferred outside the right way. And the right way is by following the necessary steps that will ensure that the transition between the indoor and outdoor environment, which are poles apart in many ways, is as smooth as possible. The risk of immediate (and possibly permanent) damage just from the overdose incurred by the massive increase of light alone is a clear reminder to respect the methodical transition.

What does that transition involve? Let’s take a look at it below.

Easy Does It With That Sunshine

Patience is a virtue, they say, and something you will need to practice as you work towards transferring your indoor greenery outside. Do not consider the transition until temperatures are reasonably warm. Reasonably warm to houseplants, which mostly originate from tropical areas and cannot withstand any amount of cold, means that nighttime temperatures begin to approximate those indoors (at least 15°C / 60°F) and daytime temperatures are even warmer. There are many plants that can survive even lower levels of 10°C / 50°F, but the more sensitive plants will sustain cold damage if not kept warm enough. But before you reach the point where you can leave your leafy broods on the patio permanently, you must first acclimatize them to their new home.

After all danger of frost in your region has passed and the temperature is just right, it’s safe to begin moving your plants outdoors. Gradually introduce them to the new environment by allowing them to spend time outside daily – but only for a few hours. Extend the length of the outdoor stay slowly until your plants are spending their entire days and nights outside. If some of the nights are too cool for your liking, bring them back indoors in the late evening and take them back outside the next day.

There is a tremendous difference between the indoor and outdoor environment, and although you might not be able to make a considerable distinction between the two, your plants can. For example, the brightest spot in your home is equivalent to a shady location outside. Therefore, moving your sun-loving indoor plant to a sunny location on your patio from day one is not a good idea. If you do, your vulnerable plant will sunburn faster than it can say “smells like something’s burning!”

Because of the vast differences between the intensity of indoor and outdoor lighting, move your houseplants slowly into the higher light outside. Keep shade-loving greenery out of the sun throughout the season, especially midday. Place them on screened porches, under trees or any location that does not get hit by the scorching heat of summer rays. For plants that appreciate higher levels of light, and may learn to tolerate full sun outside, gradually acclimatize them to the sunshine over a two-week period. Remember that many plants that bask in the sun indoors might not endure being exposed to direct sun outside, which is much more intense. A little morning sunshine is usually sufficient enough to satisfy the majority of sun worshippers. But no matter what type of outdoor light you expose your plants to, keep an eye on them for signs of sunburn, which consists mainly of bleached or whitened leaves but can also include leaf spots, leaf blotches and red or maroon coloured leaves.

Despite your best effort to help your plants acclimatize to their new surroundings, don’t be alarmed if a few of your potted beauties decide to discard perfectly healthy leaves. Indoor plants often form leaves that are not able to tolerate exposure to the outdoor sun because they don’t need to. And while some plants won’t be very dramatic during this process, others will shed their indoor ‘shade’ leaves and grow new ‘sun’ foliage that has the ability to withstand direct sunlight.

Elements Of The Outdoor World

Air - Although the consistent air movement of the outdoors is extremely beneficial to houseplants (helping to minimize pest and fungal problems), it can be quite detrimental when a light breeze turns into strong winds. Leaves can be damaged or broken, pots can be tipped over and the soil can dry out very quickly. Secure your plants so they can be safe all summer. Use heavier pots to keep them in place, check on them regularly to quench their thirst, stake their leaves when necessary and place them in areas that offer some protection against the powerful forces of the wind.

Rain - Together with that light breeze, your houseplants – especially the more sensitive ones - will also enjoy the purity of rainwater that is free of chemicals added to tap water (unless you live in an extremely polluted area). But like anything else, too much of a good thing can do more harm than good. Since your plants are confined to a container, make sure the soil is well-draining to avoid it from being flooded by heavy rain, which can take days to dry out. If the rain continues to come down hard for extended periods, move your plants to a sheltered area to avoid any damage to them.

Heat – The dog days of summer are just as exhausting to plants as they are to humans. Just like you can become dehydrated quickly during those dry spells, so can your plants, especially when outdoors. During these stressful periods when the heat wave is in full swing, be sure to check on your potted greenery every day, preferably twice a day, to avoid severe dehydration that can cause irreversible damage to the root system. Keep your plants well-watered during this period and consider changing their location to provide additional shelter if the heat wave is going to stick around for awhile.

Pests – Let’s face it, there’s really no way to avoid pesky critters from trying to turn your houseplants into a meal. The good news is that you have friends in the great outdoors, beneficial insects that prey upon pests that invade your houseplants. These predatory bugs are the greatest form of natural pest control and your best buddies during the summer. If you have a backyard, consider learning about what to plant in your garden to attract beneficial insects. There are many flowering plants designed to attract these ‘good bugs’ and convince them to stick around. As your garden insectary matures, you’ll have your own army of beneficial insects, powerful allies in the battle against harmful insects. In addition to the natural help you hope to receive from the good bugs, give your plants a shower now and then. When you’re out watering the lawn, hose down your houseplants to knock off unwanted guests and accumulated grime. If you have a garden full of beneficial insects, you might want to avoid this step, for obvious reasons, until your plants are ready to come back inside in the fall.

A Few Things To Bear In Mind

There are risks involved when taking your plants outside. If you prefer not to take any chances with your leafy gang, don’t move them outdoors.

- Keep an eye on plants you’ve placed outdoors; not all of them will appreciate their new environment. If one of your plants is having a great deal of trouble adjusting or it’s plagued with too many problems, move it to another location, even back indoors if necessary.

- Outdoor plant growth is usually more rapid than indoors so make sure you adjust the frequency of feeding and watering accordingly.

- Summer heat, increased light and vigorous growth will leave your plant parched more often. Check daily, twice daily in heat waves, to ensure that your plants are not ‘dying of thirst’.

- Insects are not the only threat to the health of your plants. Squirrels, cats, dogs, rodents, birds and a multitude of other potential ‘plant abusers’ can strike any plant at any time. If problematic critters are damaging your plants, find ways to secure their health and safety. Or bring them back indoors if it’s the only way to put an end to the aggression.

- If you have a houseplant that is growing very happily inside your home, a plant that is cherished, a plant that is an heirloom or a plant that is growing inside a valuable container, you might want to seriously consider leaving it right where it is – in its indoor haven.

- Although I have no interest in placing any of my hydroculture plants outside, you might want to. In that case, I strongly recommend that you only transfer plants that are growing in containers that can be modified to function well outside (glass containers are not a good idea). If you are using an alterable container, perhaps a standard hydroculture setup, drill a hole in the side of the pot (the outer pot) about an inch up from the bottom to allow excess water to drain out, particularly after a heavy rain fall. When you’re ready to bring your plant back indoors in the fall, plug the hole with silicone.

- If you live in areas where the fall season can become quite cold, start listening to weather forecasts as soon as the month of September kicks in (or at least midway through). Once you hear that night temperatures are plummeting to levels of 10°C / 50°F, start the process of moving your potted plants back indoors, out of the cold.

And finally...

Moving houseplants outside is a matter of choice. I don’t agree with some websites that I’ve run across that insist it’s a very bad idea, nor do I agree with others that maintain it’s absolutely necessary for your plant’s health. While I do think it’s a real ‘breath of fresh air’ for your greenery, if your plants are used to growing happily indoors all year round, they’ll never know the difference. In other words, they aren’t missing anything, nor are they somehow deprived. And if you don’t mind the effort involved in transferring them outside properly, as well as the risks involved once they’re there, your plants will flourish once they adjust to their new surroundings.

So don’t be intimidated by all the information you pick up from experts and non-experts alike. Whether you choose to take advantage of the great outdoors or are satisfied with the status quo of the secure indoors, as long as your plants are happy and thriving, it’s the right choice.

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