For beginners, let's begin by saying that a home is not perfect growing conditions for most plants. The term house plant is actually a false term – there are no plants that I know of that naturally are found growing in a home. Most are grown in tropical locations where sun light, humidity and nutrients are high and the plants thrive. When they are grown for sale to you, the homeowner, they are grown in the same conditions, in a greenhouse – plenty of sunlight, humidity and nutrients. Now unfortunately most homes are not ideal growing conditions, especially at this time of year. As we all know, the amount of light and the duration is dramatically low, the humidity in our homes is low from the heating equipment which keeps us warm, and sometimes we forget that the soil that our plants grow in needs to be changed about once a year to keep it fresh and free from mineral deposits from watering. In all truth, our homes are closer to being the Gobi Desert than a tropical paradise. There are ways to overcome these obstacles to keep those plants looking a fresh and full as the day you purchased them.
If you add supplemental lighting for your plants and put the lights on a timer to be on for 11 to 13 hours, you will notice a dramatic improvement. Supplemental lighting does not need to be expensive. One of the most inexpensive ways of adding light is to head to your local home center and purchase a 4 foot fluorescent fixture (which is around $10). DO not purchase the fancy Grow Lights at $7 + per bulb. Just purchase one cool white and one warm light bulb. By using both of the bulbs, you will be adding close to the full spectrum of light at about ½ the price, and from my own experience, does just as good a job. If the plants are in a living space and you do not want to hang 4 foot fluorescent fixtures in your living room, just change the bulbs in your current light fixtures to full spectrum bulbs, and again try to leave them on for 11 to 13 hours per day.
There are a couple ways to increase the humidity. Adding a humidifier to your living space will not only improve the plants health, but also your own. In our case we end up drying like a prune in the winter, as well as coughing because of the dryness. Adding humidity will keep our skin soft and our lungs lubricated. For plants, humidity is an additional way for them to uptake moisture. Leaves not only produce chlorophyll, but on the bottom sides have cells which open and close to exchange moisture, CO2 and oxygen. The simplest way of adding humidity to the area directly around your plant is to purchase a saucer or tray for underneath the pot. Fill the saucer with gravel and fill with water, then place the pot on top of the gravel. Make sure that they pot is not sitting in the water, but instead on the gravel. You do not want the plant to have wet feet, possibly creating root rot or fungus.
For nutrients, since the plant is not actively growing during the winter, using a houseplant fertilizer that is balanced at ½ the suggested rate will be fine. I like using Schulz’s house plant food simply because it is balanced and the container is smaller than most, saving on space. Watering is another concern during the winter. Again since the plant is not actively growing, most waterings will last longer than in the spring, summer or fall. Try to stay away from the “weekly” watering schedule and use your finger to be the judge. If the soil feels moist, don’t water - dry, water. It is that simple.
A great way to deal with several of these problems is to put the plant in the shower with tepid water. This will also take care of cleaning the leaves of the dust that can accumulate during the winter. Just let the plant sit in the tub for one hour to fully drain, then move on to the next.
In general, these quick tips will keep your houseplant healthy and lush through the winter.