County Extension Agent
Up until this last week our fall has been relatively mild, with above normal temperatures. But then came this last cold front, and boy did it get cold fast, or at least the nights have. The cold temperatures often result in a migration of potted plants from patios to garages and dining rooms. Although this is often necessary to protect your tropical’s from cold weather, extended periods inside may result in other problems.
Lumping plants in a garage may solve the freezing problem in the short run, but being parked in those conditions for extend periods of time can produce other problems.
Plants in garages are often neglected with less water and low light levels. Think of your garage only as a storage site for a couple of days at a time, not as a cheap and convenient alternative to a winter greenhouse.
Unfortunately, we forget that plants are living creatures with specific needs. Too often we treat them like simple decorations, forgetting to take their needs into consideration. Unlike a picture or a coat rack, your plants need you to think carefully about where you place them. A coat rack could care less if you put it in a dark corner where you need something tall. However, your ficus tree will tell you about it right away its dislike by dropping leaves.
If you only bring them in for a day or two, then there’s not a real problem.
Extended stays should be planned visits. Find a bright window that doesn’t get direct sun beaming through, and place your plants near it in a group. They will grow better with the higher light levels while your recliner easily adjusts to its new home on the other side of the room away from the window.
Plants placed inside will also have lower humidity. Grouping plants together will help. Also, placing trays of gravel with water that can evaporate under plants is one way to increase the humidity. One of the reasons most potted tropical plants - notice that I didn’t say “houseplants” - thrive better on patios than inside is because the humidity outside is closer to their native climate in the tropics.
Temperature fluctuations and drafts are a big problem in the winter. Try to avoid putting plants directly under heater vents. The warm, dry air will cause them to dry out quickly. Also, placing plants in front of busy doorways will result in rapid temperature changes every time the door opens.
Overcrowding can also produce pest problems. One notorious plant pest is the Spider mite. You often find spider mites on plants left inside in crowded conditions. These critters seem to spontaneously appear from thin air. If they appear, you will have to take your plants outside and spray it with an approved miticide as soon as possible. Waiting a few days may result in severe damage and dieback.
Spider mites are not your only problem. Other common indoor pests you might see include the cottony white mealy bugs on ficus or African violets, and fungus gnats flying out of the pots and soil of almost anything. Again, early detection and treatment is critical.
Plants that are left on patios tend to not get these problems because they have better air circulation and a population of beneficial insects around to keep pests under control. Sometimes, simply putting a plant outside at the first signs of problems will solve them without using pesticides, but doing both is often a better option.
Next, don’t forget to water your plants. I’d recommend doing that a day before taking them inside, allowing them to be fully hydrated and drained before you move them. Unfortunately, that also makes them heavier. However, we often forget to water plants while they are in the garage or inside, and a dry plant will not handle the stress of movement and temperature fluctuations as well as its well-watered counterpart.
One last potential problem may be keeping animals away from your plants. Cats can be deterred by putting a little powdered cayenne pepper in the soil or by placing bark chips on the surface, making it harder for them to find soil. Dogs are a little harder to control, but perhaps a new squeaky toy or rawhide bone may distract them.
Whatever the situation, just take time to think about your plants’ needs this winter during their indoor stays. Your planning will result in a greener future for both you and your potted tropical plants.