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GardenSMART :: Give Your Houseplants a Spa Day

Give Your Houseplants a Spa Day

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

If you moved your houseplants outdoors in the summer, it's likely done them good. They should be noticeably bigger – perhaps you even repotted a few into larger containers – and have grown lush and full, with vibrantly colored foliage. Most houseplants benefit from a warm weather vacation.

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But after a season of wind, dust, drought, storms, and insect and animal visitors, they might look a bit tattered, or suffer from a pest infestation. Before you bring them back inside, inspect them for problems, and give the foliage and the containers a good sprucing up. A thorough once-over will forestall problems and ease the stressful transition from outdoors to indoors.

Houseplants should make the trip back inside before outdoor temperatures go below 50 degrees. The optimal time to move them is when the outdoor and indoor temperatures are within a few degrees of each other.

Before You Bring Them In, Clean Them Up

First, look into the pot and remove any detritus on the soil surface: weeds, blown-in leaves, twigs, or nutshells from meddling squirrels. Look for any soil-dwelling insect pests, such as fungus gnats, slugs, or earwigs.

Next, trim off any dead, dying, diseased, chewed or torn leaves or stems.

Rinse or wipe dirt, dust, spider webs, etc., off the surface and undersides of leaves. Dirty leaves don't transpire well.

As you do this, carefully check the leaves and stems of the plants for insects such as scale, spider mites, aphids, and mealy bugs. Look for webs, cottony masses, chewed or skeletonized leaves, or hard, flat disks on stems. The underside of leaves is where most insect pests hide and lay their eggs.

Wash or wipe down pots and saucers. Top off potting mix if necessary.

Once inside, remember that your plants are going from the active growing season to the shorter, darker, days of winter, a time when houseplants slow or stop growth entirely. This means that once indoors, they need more light and less water.

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If You Find Pests

Wipe pests off leaves with a damp cloth or paper towel. For pests like aphids, sometimes that's all you need to do.

If there are only a few pests, dab them with a cotton ball soaked in alcohol. Try not to get any on the plant.

Spray leaves with soapy water (1 to 1 ½ teaspoons of mild dish soap to 4 cups of water) or store-bought insecticidal soap. Or use neem oil. Horticultural oil will smother hard-bodied insects like scale.

If you see fungus gnats, stake a yellow sticky trap (looks similar to flypaper) in the soil.  

Diatomaceous earth sprinkled on the soil surface can kill soft-bodied insects.

Do not use vinegar on houseplants; it can harm them.

Quarantine any plant that looks like it's in trouble to avoid spreading the pest to unaffected plants. Treat for at least two to three weeks to be sure all pests are dead before putting an infested plant near uninfested ones. And keep plants you are spraying with soap or oil out of direct sun for the time being.

Do's and Don'ts

Do put them in the sunniest spot possible in your home. Even direct sun through a window isn't as strong as outdoor light. Wash dirty windows. Consider grow lights if they are feasible.

Don't let foliage touch cold window glass.

Do supply humidity if your indoor air is dry: keep them in a bright bathroom, run a humidifier, set pots over trays filled with pebbles and water.

Don't overwater. Plants aren't growing as much, so don't need as much water.

Do keep plants away from drafts and heating vents.

Don't fertilize now, plants don't need it.


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