Houseplants that summered outdoors don't harbor
I have some questions about bringing plants in for the
winter. What about pests in the soil? What about pests on the
plants I may not be able to see? What can I do to help them survive
the transition? Should I fertilize them or hold off? - Louise
Remember those real life horror films when a science channel
introduced prime time TV viewers to the microscopic mites that live
at the base of the human eyelash? Do you stil feel itchy when you
recall that? If so, you may not find it easy to accept this advice,
which is to stop worrying about pests if the plants look healthy
and were growing vigorously when you brought them in.
Every plant has bugs. Live plants involved in experiments on the
space shuttle might be exceptions but all the rest are certainly
hosting at least a few insects or microscopic troublemakers. Plants
can't escape their parasites any more than people can. We're
free-ranging, living things so we can't be sterilized.
We and our plants thrive if given a healthy environment. Our
systems are able to wage war against pests, keeping them in check
by loading cells with antagonistic chemicals, populating blood or
sap with defensive microbes, keeping some at bay with thick
coatings until they can be rinsed off, and just plain outgrowing
some, shedding them with old tissue. We are almost always dealing
with some greeblies but most of the time there are too few to do
more than psychological damage.
Given charge of a person, we look them over, decide if they seem
clean and healthy, then proceed normally to keep them that way. We
don't give antibiotics or other drugs "just in case" because we
know that dosing a well person with those can make them less
effective if sickness actually comes. The same tatics apply to your
Shower 'em with clear water
Rinse them off well, if only to get a true measure of their
healthy color but also to make up for any lack of cleansing rains.
Rinse off the pot, too. Don't think about what's in the soil or too
small to be seen -- if the plant is growing well, it's got any such
hitchhikers in check. Those pests are not using the plant as a
Trojan horse to invade your home. They are living with the plant
because they can, and it's very unlikely they will be able to
populate any other niches in your house.
In fact, your home environment may be the death of them, as it
can be for plants. Focus your efforts there, at the transition you
Cool, bright and no fertilizer
Keep your plants in the brightest possible light, suplementing
if necessary with grow lights or afternoons out on a shaded porch
when the temperature's above 55. Be very careful with water as
potting soil may at first dry out in the parched indoor air but
then need water far less often than when the plant was oudoors
photosynthesizing more rapidly.
As days shorten and the plant's growth slows, stop fertilizing
-- the general rule is to withhold fertilizer from November through
March unless the plant is under supplemental light and actively
Look your plants over well every time you water them turn them
to the light or rinse light-blocking dust off their leaves. If you
see color changes or other signs of reduced vigor, change the light
or water before the plant goes downhill and loses control of its
Read between the
lines of clever pansy marketing...
...Any pansy can overwinter and be there to add spark among the
spring-blooming bulbs next spring. "People have definitely heard
the ads for the 'Icicle' series pansies," says Erma Rhadigan,
retail manager at Ray Wiegand's Nursery in Macomb Township. "But
they're wrong to think that's the only pansy they can plant in
fall, or that it's significantly hardier. I've planted pansies of
all kinds in fall for twenty years at my home in Macomb Township,
and when I grew perennials professionally for many of the garden
centers in the area. Unless it's a really terrible winter, they all
make it through. Sometimes they bloom during January and February
So don't be picky -- if a good looking pansy or Johnny Jump-up
at the garden center catches your eye, buy it and plant it!
Stay a step ahead of rabbits...
...If it's green during winter or has particularly tasty buds
and bark it'll be fodder for bunnies, especially this year when
rabbit numbers have been prodigious. Put chicken wire fencing
around pansy plantings and protect the first two feet of small
bushes and the trunks of trees -- that's the reach of a cottontail
standing on packed snow. This is especially important around rabbit
favorites such as burning bush, euonymus, Viburnum bushes
and fruit trees.
Green thumbs up
to gardeners who take their love of nature into the voting booth
by questioning candidates' positions on environmental issues.
Although the U.S. has fallen far behind many countries during the
last twenty years in stewardship of the land, air and water, the
nation's growing number of gardeners could bring us back to the
Green thumbs down
to Daylight Savings Time, for taking away an hour in April when
a gardener truly needs ever minute, and withholding it until late
October when it's often too cool and dark to be of much use. How
aggravating, too, when the time changes saddle many of us with days
of jet lag during two of the most important gardening seasons!
Originally published 10/19/02