By: Heather Rhoades
Many houseplant owners move their houseplants outside in the summer so they can enjoy the sun and air outdoors, but because most houseplants are actually tropical plants, they must be brought back inside once the weather turns cold.
Bringing plants inside for winter isn’t as easy as simply moving their pots from one place to another; there are a few precautions you need to take when acclimating plants from outdoors to indoors to prevent sending your plant into shock. Let’s look at how to acclimate plants indoors for winter.
One of the most common issues houseplants have when coming back indoors is bringing unwanted pests with them. Check your houseplants thoroughly for small insects like aphids, mealybugs, and spider mites, and remove them. These pests can hitchhike on the plants you bring in for the winter and infest all of your houseplants. You may even want to use the hose to wash off your houseplants before bringing them in. This will help knock off any pests that you may have missed. Treating the plants with neem oil can help as well.
Second, if the plant has grown over the summer, you may want to consider either pruning or repotting the houseplant. If you are pruning it back, don’t prune back more than one-third of the plant. Also, make sure to root prune an equal amount off the roots as you do off the foliage.
If you will be repotting, repot to a container that is at least 2 inches (5 cm.) larger than the current container.
Once the temperatures outside reach 50 F. (10 C.) or less at night, your houseplant must begin the process to come back into the house. Most houseplants cannot stand temps below 45 F. (7 C.). It is very important to acclimate your houseplant to the environmental changes from outside to inside. The steps for how to acclimate plants indoors for winter are easy, but without them your plant may experience shock, wilting, and leaf loss.
The light and humidity changes from outside to inside are dramatically different. When acclimating your houseplant, start by bringing the houseplant in at night. For the first few days, bring the container inside in the evening and move it back outside in the morning. Gradually, over the course of two weeks, increase the amount of time the plant spends indoors until it is indoors full time.
Remember, plants that are indoors will not need as much water as plants that are outdoors, so only water when the soil is dry to the touch. Consider cleaning your windows to help maximize the amount of sunlight your plants get through the windows.
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Read more about General Houseplant Care
If your houseplants have spent the summer outdoors, now is the time to end their vacation and move them back inside. Bringing tender tropical and subtropical houseplants back indoors once outside nighttime temperatures dip below 50 degrees Fahrenheit protects them from chilling injury and death, and allows you to enjoy them throughout the fall and winter months.
Follow these five steps to successfully transition your houseplants indoors this fall:
When frost threatens, it’s time to move many of your outside plants indoors. Many tender bulbs, annuals, herbs, and tropical plants will only survive the winter inside. Here’s advice on which plants to bring indoors this fall and how to winterize plants and pots.
True annuals and plants that we grow as annuals (considered tender perennials in southern regions) cannot survive cold winter temperatures. But there’s no need to say farewell to these plants forever! Many “annuals” can be brought inside, even tender plants that need a winter dormancy period. These should ideally come indoors before nighttime temperatures dip below 45°F (7°C). As fall approaches and night temperatures reach about 50°F (10°C), start bringing the plants inside for the winter.
Most tropical plants will suffer damage at temperatures below 40°F (4°C), a few even below 50°. You will need to act well in advance of any actual frost or freeze to acclimate them.
Even though we have a greenhouse attached to the house that gets plenty of sun and the temperature in there doesn’t usually drop below 45°F, I still have a hard time finding room for everything. Luckily for me, many of these plants would undergo a dry period in their native lands and don’t mind being shoved under a bench to rest.
The greenhouse fills up fast, especially when the pots are big.
If you don’t have a greenhouse and have a lot of plants that need high humidity, think about creating a shelf or area to group these plants together. Some folks mist their indoor plants and—while this does help—it only lasts for a short period. A better long-term solution is the use of a pebble tray under your plants. Line the trays with waterproof material, add a layer of gravel, and place the pots on top. Keep the gravel moist. If you have hanging plants, perhaps you want to install some ceiling hooks. It’s also a good idea to clean your windows—both inside and out—to ensure that plants will get adequate light this winter.
You may need to make some choices about what’s worth keeping and bringing indoors. Which plants are your keepsakes? Which are the most expensive to replace? Also, keep only the healthy plants and not plants with disease or pest problems. Your indoor lighting will be important, too. In winter, even a west or south facing glassed area has only the winter light intensity of a shady area in the summer.
Plants which can be brought inside fall into two groups:
This canna will get a winter rest when it is cut back and dried out.
Plants Requiring Winter Dormancy
Some tender bulbs require a “dormant” time in a cool place where the temperature is still well above freezing. Many of these bulbs are expensive and worth over wintering. Examples of tender bulbs are:
For tender bulbs in pots, just stop watering them, cut off the dying foliage, and tuck them away in a dark, cool, spot. Check the soil moisture periodically.
For tender bulbs in the ground, dig them up and cut the foliage back. Brush off as much soil from the bulb as possible by hand. Place them in a warm, dry area for 7 to 14 days to dry. This removes excess moisture. Pack them loosely in a cardboard box or open container, separated by shredded newspaper or dry peat moss. Tuck away in a cold, dark place. Pot them up in the spring about a month before you want to put them outside for a jump on the season.
This Bolivian begonia will keep blossoming for a few weeks indoors before it drops its leaves for the winter. We have kept the tubers going, in the same pot, for several years.
Plants That Keep Growing in Winter
Many of my annuals, herbs, and tropical plants will keep growing through the winter and some will even reward me with a bloom or two. These will need a prime spot in the sun, but they don’t seem to mind the cool temperatures.
It’s best to acclimate the plant to a lower lighting level for a few days before moving them fully indoors. For example, move a plant that’s in full sun outdoors to a shadier area outside. If your plants have been used to bright light, try to put them in similar light indoors, like a south window or under plant lights on a timer for 16 hours a day. Do not be too worried about leaf drop as the plants adjust to interior conditions they will recover.
Also, if your plant needs some pruning to temporarily reduce its size, prune it before bringing it inside.
This hibiscus will sulk and drop its leaves eventually, but perks right back up in spring.
The fuchsia are a bit of a bug magnet, so I cut off their leaves and water the roots just enough to keep them living. In spring they will start up again with fresh new growth and be in bud when it is time to go back outside.
The cymbidium produces its first flower stalk as soon as we bring it in and will bloom for much of the winter.
We keep the geraniums blooming all winter as well, but if you lack a sunny place for them you can let them go dormant by cutting back by about half, putting a bag over the top and watering only if they begin to shrivel. Some people even remove them from their pot and hang the bare-root plants upside-down in a dark, cool place, spraying with water occasionally to keep them from shriveling up. Soak the bare roots in the spring for several hours to rehydrate them and then repot.
If a combination worked well and you want to repeat it again next year, take some cuttings.
To make sure I’m not bringing in any unwanted visitors, I rinse all the leaves down with a vigorous spray of water and check the pots all over, especially under the rim, for bugs, slugs, cocoons, and egg masses.
As soon as they are observed, treat an infestation with an insecticidal soap or other insecticide labeled for these pests. I try to spray all the leaves down with a soapy spray made from 1 tsp. of non-detergent soap (I use Dr. Bronner’s liquid lavender mostly because it smells so good) mixed with water in a 1 qt. spray bottle. Spider mites have a 7 to 10 day life cycle so weekly spraying usually halts their growth. If I notice whiteflies, I’ll put up some yellow sticky cards to catch them. Don’t forget to spray under the lip of the container as well as the bottom of the container where insects can hide.
Don’t over-water! This is the most common cause of death for indoor plants, which really don’t need much water in wintertime. Let the top 1/2 inch of the soil get dry to the touch before watering again. If in doubt, don’t water. Water succulents even less often, when the soil has been dry for several days. Don’t water in cloudy or rainy weather, as plants won’t get sufficient light indoors to dry out.
Plants require little, if any, fertilizer during the winter months due to lower light intensity levels. Fertilize in the spring, just before new growth begins.
You can save yourself a bundle by overwintering some of your expensive tropical plants. If you have more plants than window space allows, offer them to a gardening friend!
This pink mandevilla was given to me because it was too large for my friend to fit on a windowsill and she could not bear to throw it out.
Just to be on the safe side, I also take cuttings of some of my favorites—like the iresine, begonias, geraniums, impatiens, and coleus. All will root easily in water and make attractive houseplants.
If you lack space to store pots over the winter, cuttings are a wonderful and inexpensive way to create more plants.
To take a cutting:
Insert the cutting in a moisted rooting medium—such as coarse sand, vermiculite, or sterile potting mix (which typically contains both peat and perlite). Also, insert at least one leaf node below the medium surface. Tip: It is optional, but consider dipping the cutting in a rooting hormone prior to planting. It may help the odds of success.
Place the cutting in bright, indirect light. Maintain an even moisture level. Covering the container with a plastic hood or clear bag will reduce overall moisture loss.
Rooting typically takes one to three weeks, depending on the plant. Once the roots are well developed, you can transplant to a larger container.
In spring, your plants will start to send up new growth and you can drag those pots back into the sunlight and resume watering them. If needed, I will give them a new pot with fresh soil.
To be on the safe side, wait until after the last frost to move them back outside.
Here is more advice on preparing your garden for winter—from the vegetable beds to rose bushes to trees and shrubs!
Growing your palm in a container and moving it indoors for winter will protect it from cold weather. Take it indoors before the first freeze, and don't move it back outdoors until all danger of frost passes. Give the palm an indoor spot with bright, indirect light. Palms suitable to grow in containers include needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix), which reaches roughly 6 feet tall and is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 8 through 10, and windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei), which grows 8 to 10 feet tall and is hardy in USDA zones 7 through 10.
When it comes to bringing ferns indoors successfully through the winter months, a few simple tips go a long way.
And if they become too large, you can simply divide to have even more beautiful, lush, green, shade-loving plants for your patio, porch and more.
Here are the basics for overwintering ferns:
The first key is to bring plants in before the first hard frost or freeze. Ferns can be tolerant of cool temperatures, but once they freeze out, they are gone for good.
Like these tender garden plants, ferns cannot handle a hard frost or freeze.
If an unexpected early season frost or freeze is on the horizon, move ferns into a semi-protected place such as a barn or garage to keep from being damaged.
This can buy a bit of extra time until you can truly prepare them for indoor life.
Warm, arid summer temps can cause massive growth for ferns. Before bringing indoors, take time to shear back some of the excessive growth.
There is no need for heavy pruning. Simply cut back long stragglers that might make it difficult to place indoors.
This is a must-do to keep insects from entering the house!
Before bringing indoors, use a garden hose to thoroughly spray the entire fern. Be sure to hit the underside of the leaves as well to remove any hidden pest hitch-hikers.
Spray with a steady stream of water to remove insects before bringing ferns indoors.
Let the plant thoroughly dry out before doing one final inspection for pests.
When any potted plant becomes overloaded with roots, it can make watering a touch chore. Ferns are no different.
Inspect the pots of your ferns to see if the roots have filled the entire space. If so, now is the time to re-pot to a larger vessel.
Resist the temptation to give ferns too much new space. Left in too much soil, the ferns can become over-saturated as soil will retain too much moisture.
When ferns become root bound, they need to be transplanted or divided.
A good rule of thumb is plant to a new pot one-quarter to one-third larger than the previous container. Use a high-quality, light potting soil when re-potting.
There is no need to fertilize at all. Ferns do not require much to perform well. In fact, too many nutrients can cause more issues to ferns than not enough.
Ferns do not need full sun or maximum lighting to survive through the winter months. In fact, too much sun can actually cause a fern more damage than good.
Keep ferns away from southern facing windows. The sun’s heat and rays coming through the glass can actually burn foliage.
Boston ferns can survive indoors with little care.
Ferns will perform best in moderate, indirect lighting conditions. This can be in a cool basement with indirect lighting from a basement well-widow, or in the corner of a room that receives natural light from a nearby window.
Water only when the soil completely dries out. Ferns suffer more from over-watering than under-watering.
As spring comes back around, take plants out when the threat of frost has passed.
Sometimes, ferns simply become too large to re-pot. When this happens, it is time to split the fern into new plants.
This is best done in the spring, so the fern can have a full growing season to re-establish roots.
When splitting a fern, take a sharp knife or cutting tool and divide into sections to create new plants. For most over-sized ferns, quartering the plant works beautifully to create 4 new plants.
One of the best tools to accomplish this and nearly any transplanting task is a Hori-hori. (See: My favorite garden tool – the Hori Hori.)
Ferns can be grown easily indoors with minimal lighting.
Fern roots are extremely hard and tolerant of this process. As long as the plants are re-planted into a good quality, light potting mix, most will take hold to their new surroundings quickly.
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If cold temperatures turn your palm tree's fronds brown, then wait until after the possibility of additional cold weather passes before you remove those fronds because they still have some insulation value. When you take off the brown fronds, use a pruning saw cleaned with rubbing alcohol to prevent spreading plant diseases. If no green is at a leaf stalk's base, then the palm probably won't recover. Soaking the soil from the palm's trunk to 6 feet outward with a mixture developed by landscape architect Howard Garrett may help. Combine 1 gallon of water with 1 cup of compost tea or liquid humate, and 1 ounce each of liquid seaweed, apple cider vinegar and molasses. If your palm doesn't survive winter, then consider replacing it with a more cold-hardy kind of palm.
Carolyn Csanyi began writing in 1973, specializing in topics related to plants, insects and southwestern ecology. Her work has appeared in the "American Midland Naturalist" and Greenwood Press. Csanyi holds a Doctor of Philosophy in biology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.