Winter Houseplant Basics

1-22 Prown Snake_plant

Snake Plant

By Pete Prown

Houseplants remain one of the best ways to survive the cold days of winter, a little green comfort against the chill. Surprisingly, our home environments are more akin to a desert landscape during colder months, thanks to torrents of dry, forced-air or radiant heat. That creates minor challenges, but it’s still relatively easy to be successful. Here are a few simple tips to help some widely available plants thrive in this season.

Bright Light. Most houseplants will enjoy as much light as you can give them in winter, especially as interior temperatures can drop at night. If you have copious amounts of sun in a bright southern window or sunroom, you can grow relatively easy floral favorites like geraniums (Pelargonium), many types of begonias, Oxalis, Streptocarpus, and crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii) with relative ease. Begonias and orchids often like some extra humidity — put the pots on pebbles in a tray of shallow water to create ambient moisture. Another trick is to keep them in an old fish tank with the same pebble treatment.

You can also encourage popular Phalaenopis orchids to re-bloom each year in sunny indoor conditions, especially if you use an orchid fertilizer. Many gardeners have had success overwintering impatiens, coleus, and other garden annuals in bright indirect light (too much sun can make them dry out quickly). Lastly, many cacti and succulents will do wonders in a bright room — again, it’s essentially an indoor desert, so it’s perfect. Just don’t overwater them.

Low Light. If you have less light, you can still enjoy houseplants, but you likely won’t have the same floral fireworks — it’s more about the foliage. Some nearly indestructible leafy plants are rubber plant, dwarf umbrella tree (Schefflera arboricola), spider plant, jade plant, mother-in-law’s tongue, and philodendron. If you need more color, enjoy the dappled leaves of Croton. You can also Google more low-light houseplants suggestions.

If want more of a challenge, try Cyclamen, which likes indirect light during the day and cooler temps (especially at night), so you might have to move it around your home to keep it away from heat. Lastly, you can buy electric grow lights for forcing certain plants into bloom or starting seeds in your basement. Move them on your kitchen table while they’re in bloom; then rotate them back under the grow lights.

Water. When it comes to watering, more houseplants succumb to too much love than not enough. If you water more than once a week, you risk drowning the roots or causing rot and fungus, which will doom the plant. Better to dry the soil out thoroughly and give it a good soaking, with a little liquid fertilizer added in. Also, if you have a specimen in a direct southern or western sunlight, keep a close eye on it for stress. If the leaves look dry or wrinkly, move the plant further away from this direct heat. Best to remember the old gardening adage, “Right plant, right place.”

Garden writer Pete Prown of Rose Valley is communications editor at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia (

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