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Indoor Gardening 101: How to Overwinter Plants Inside

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Indoor Gardening 101: How to Overwinter Plants Inside

October 20, 2022

As temperatures trend cooler, your warm weather plants’ outdoor vacation comes to an end. Time to bring them inside for the winter. This will not be an easy transition for them (or for you if you’re a summer person). Here’s how to make everything easier for everyone. This applies to both traditional house plants as well as garden plants you’d like to save.

Below, five things you should do to transition your plants from outside to inside for the winter.

1. Debug them.

Above: Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home, sprays a mix of Castile soap and water on her plants to repel pests. Photograph from DIY: The Best Garden Insecticide (and No Harmful Chemicals).

You want the plants inside, but not the bugs. To prevent uninvited guests, you need to treat your plants. Good news, you don’t need harsh chemicals. For the soil, since some insects will hibernate in your plants’ soil, you will soak the pots, up to the soil line, in a very mild soap and water solution. For garden plants you’d like to overwinter, like peppers, you can transplant them into fresh potting soil. But since bugs can still be hiding, it’s a good idea to soak as well.

Do not use dish soap. It contains additives that will not make your plants happy. Use a very mild soap, such as pure castile liquid soap. The ratio is one gallon of water to about three tablespoons of soap. Soak the plants for 15 minutes. You can spray the leaves with the same solution. Make sure you get the undersides too. Once done, rinse everything off with clean water and water the plants well. Let drain and dry, and bring inside.

2.  Acclimate them.

Bring your potted plants indoors about a couple weeks before your first frost date. Photograph by Mimi Giboin for Gardenista, from How to Garden Like a Frenchwoman: \10 Ideas to Steal from a Paris Balcony.
Above: Bring your potted plants indoors about a couple weeks before your first frost date. Photograph by Mimi Giboin for Gardenista, from How to Garden Like a Frenchwoman: 10 Ideas to Steal from a Paris Balcony.

Moving them indoors will be a bit of a shock, so don’t wait too long. A good time to bring your plants inside is two weeks before your frost date. This is the sweet spot for most plants and where inside temps and outside temps are close enough. That said, your climate, microclimate, and type of plant all come into play, so it’s important to research your specific plants if you’re concerned. If this is not possible or impractical, do the best you can. Bring them in immediately if a frost warning is issued.

3. Light them.

Above: Lemon trees are notoriously hard to grow in climates with hard winters. Bringing them indoors during the cold months is a must. Photograph by Marie Viljoen, from 14 Things Nobody Tells You About Indoor Citrus Trees.

While we’d like to think our homes are bright and cheery, they actually have far less light than we think. Plants need sunlight to make food. If your plants are used to being in full sun and you bring them inside for the winter, they may show their unhappiness by dropping leaves. The fussy weeping fig, Ficus benjamini, is notorious for doing this. (Rumor has it that it will drop leaves if it’s looked at funny.) If at all possible, shift outdoor plants into progressively shadier spots over the course of a two weeks before bringing them inside. Place full sun plants near windows for direct light. Shade tolerant plants can be moved to indirect light. Some leaf drop is to be expected.

4. Moisturize them.

Above: Staghorn ferns prefer humid environments. A bathroom is a perfect wintering spot for them. Photograph by Katie Newburn for Gardenista, from 7 Favorites: Houseplants for the Bath.

Your plants are used to being in a higher humidity environment when they are outside. Indoor humidity, which is much lower, can be a problem. Place susceptible plants on a tray full of pebbles filled with water. This will create a humid microclimate. However, this does not mean you should water the soil more. You should actually water it less. Yes, this is slightly confusing. With the lack of light, your plants will be growing far more slowly and because of this, need less water at their roots. And lastly, keep plants away from home heating sources. It will dry them out faster.

5. Let them hibernate.

Like most plants, succulents don&#8\2\17;t need fertilizer in the fall or winter. Photograph by Roe Ann White and Bill Dewey, from Landscape Revival: A Secluded, Historic \19\20s Estate in Santa Barbara (Rose Garden Included).
Above: Like most plants, succulents don’t need fertilizer in the fall or winter. Photograph by Roe Ann White and Bill Dewey, from Landscape Revival: A Secluded, Historic 1920s Estate in Santa Barbara (Rose Garden Included).

All plants have a dormant period. Most are during winter( even if their normal winter isn’t cold). One of the ways plants know when to go dormant is the decrease in sunlight. When you move outdoor plants indoors, the decrease in light is dramatic, even if you were able to shift them into the shade over the course of two weeks. Do NOT fertilize them. They do not need it. They are in the resting phase. There are always exceptions, such as orchids. However if you’re in doubt, research your plant’s needs.

With these five tips, you will increase the success of your outdoor plants surviving inside for their winter break without too much drama (still looking at you, ficus).

For more on caring for indoor plants, see:

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