Tropical plants need winter shelter

Richard Bogren, Gill, Daniel J.  |  9/28/2009 8:58:55 PM

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For Release On Or After 10/30/09

By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist

As the weather cools down and nights get nippy over the next few weeks, gardeners need to decide what to do with their outdoor containerized tropical plants. These beautiful plants, grown for their attractive foliage or beautiful flowers, are commonly placed outside for the summer where they provide a valuable addition to decks, patios and porches. These plants will not withstand freezing temperatures, however, and must be brought back inside the house for the winter. Like children going back to school, they generally are not too happy about it, either.

One of the most difficult problems these plants must deal with when brought back inside is the sudden reduction in the amount of light they are accustomed to receiving. Plants use light as their source of energy to create the food they need to live and grow. When their light is suddenly and greatly reduced, it’s as if they were put on a starvation diet.

It’s a good idea to move your outdoor tropicals in containers to very shaded locations outside for a few weeks to prepare them for their move indoors. Acclimating them to lower light conditions helps them adjust to the reduced light available in most homes when they come inside. Do this now, and there should still be time for them to acclimate before the first freezes.

It’s a good idea to move your plants inside before you have to turn on heat constantly. They can adjust to indoor conditions better before the extra stress of warm, dry air is added to the situation. Expect many of the plants still to be unhappy about the move. The better you acclimate your plants and the more light you are able to provide for them indoors, the less leaf drop you should see.

Houseplants that spent the summer outside also should be groomed so they will look their best, and you will be less likely to bring pests inside with the plants. You can do this by:

– Cleaning the outside of containers using a brush and a mild solution of dishwashing liquid and water. Add a little bleach to the solution to kill algae growing on the pot sides, but don’t get this solution in the soil.

– Removing dust and debris from the foliage and where leaves join the stems. Hose down the plants and wipe the foliage clean with a soft, damp cloth.

– Removing all dead or yellow foliage, old flower stalks and dead or injured branches and stems. If a plant has grown too large for it to practically fit back indoors, feel free to prune it as needed to make its size more appropriate.

If some of your plants have become potbound and need repotting, you can generally put this off until next spring. It would be more convenient to move plants inside in smaller pots rather than in larger ones.

Once they are moved inside for the winter, houseplants will need to be watered less often. How much less is something you will have to determine over the first few weeks they are inside. Feel the soil regularly with your finger and water when the soil feels dry but before the plants wilt. In time, you will establish a schedule for watering the plants indoors. Remember, it is better to water less often than to water too often and cause root rot. Cactuses and succulents are particularly vulnerable to overwatering. Be especially careful about not watering them too often.

Ironically, plants that spend all of their time indoors may actually dry out faster in the winter because of the warm, dry air and lower humidity produced by heating systems. Monitor your plants carefully.

Most houseplants don’t need to be fertilized this time of year, including those brought in from outside. These plants will generally slow down or stop any new growth and enter a dormant or semi-dormant state. Indoor plants that show active, vigorous growth during the winter may be fertilized if you like.

You should do a good, thorough job of pest control before bringing houseplants inside. You’ll be glad you did. Thoroughly clean all snails and/or slugs from the bottom of pots and dispose of them. If plants are infested with aphids, spider mites, white flies or thrips, treat them with insecticidal soap or a pyrethrin insecticide before they’re brought inside. Control scale with ultra-fine oil.

Gardeners are sometimes surprised to find that ants have taken up residence in the soil of a container plant that’s been outside over the summer. Look pots over carefully – ant activity will be obvious. Kill them before bringing the plant inside by drenching the soil with a solution of pyrethrin mixed according to label directions.

Be on the lookout for critters such as frogs, toads and lizards that may try to hitch a ride inside with the plants. These beneficial animals should be carefully removed and released outside unharmed.

Rick Bogren

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