Keeping Plants Happy and Alive in Winter

Winter might be a bit of a hard time for us with the wet and cold but at least we can get warm & dry by putting on dry clothing or lighting a fire. If you were a plant stuck in a pot or in a garden there is nothing you could do to combat the wet and cold. This is silly you may say, as plants are plants and whatever Nature throws at them is a problem of Nature not yours.

Wrong, the plants you place in your garden or pots are your problem as those plants did not have any choice in the matter. Too often we place a plant where we would like it to grow, whether it is a suitable place for that particular plant or not. If the conditions are not ideal for the plant (soil/drainage/sun/shade etc) the plant will not thrive, be poorly and maybe even die. We are then likely to say that we don’t have green fingers and that is the problem. The problem is our lack of understanding the needs of each type of plant and then providing for those needs to the best of our ability.

I will give you two classic examples of right plant: wrong place;
Citrus trees resent wet feet which means that they must be grown in an area that is free draining and sunny. Many areas have heavy clay soils with a bit of top soil on top of the clay. Clay holds water in wet times and goes like concrete in dry times. Place a citrus tree into that situation and you would be lucky if it faired well. Alternatively if you created a good sized raised bed in the same area and planted the same tree in the bed it would thrive, or if you planted the same tree into a 100 litre container with a good mix of compost and top soil and then buried the container half into that spot it would also thrive. This means in some cases you can grow something successfully, in the spot you want to grow it, if you create a better environment for it.

Another example is the very popular winter flowering plant, cyclamen, which are available from garden centres at this time. I remember some years back an elderly lady sending me a photograph of a Cyclamen plant she had purchased that had over 50 flowers on it. She had placed the cyclamen on a coffee table in the middle of her lounge and even though it did have a mass of flowers it was a pitiful sight. Being some distance from the window in a room that would go from very warm to very cold quickly (dependant on the heating being on or off) the poor plant was stretching for needed light and suffering badly from rapid temperature fluctuations. Added to this was likely overwatering. I believe her pride and joy would have passed into Cyclamen heaven shortly after the photo was taken.

Pop down to your garden centre and have a look at the cyclamen that have freshly arrived from a nursery. They look beautiful, lots of flowers and many buds, standing proud and very tempting to purchase. If you do buy one and take it home make sure you give it the right treatment so it will look just as good over the weeks ahead. Cyclamen love the cold and require ample bright light. They hate it too warm and detest wet feet.

Indoors they need to ideally sit on a windowsill getting as much light as possible and every few days they should be turned around 180 degrees so that the side facing away from the window gets its share of good light for a while. If you don’t do this then it will become unbalanced as the side away from the window struggles to get to the light. Wait till the foliage or flowers droop a bit through lack of moisture then give it a reasonable drink of cold water or even better plunge it into a bucket of water, wait till it stops bubbling and then place it outside on a full light porch for a couple of days before returning it to the windowsill. A bit of a liquid plant food in the water would also be an advantage to the bulb.

When you draw the blinds at night in your then heated room the cyclamen will be in the cool area between the window and the blind and not suffer from too much heat.

If you have visitors coming by all means bring the cyclamen down and put it on the coffee table so it can be admired but after they go put it back on the windowsill or onto the porch outdoors.

I remember reading years ago about the Victorian homes which would have excellent displays of ferns, palms and many other plants living in rooms with curtains that would be drawn much of the time.
These plants received very little natural light but to the visitor they appear to be thriving.
The reason for this was that every few days the servants would take all the plants out into the conservatory and bring in identical plants, fresh from the conservatory, to spend their few days before being swapped around again.

Indoors house plants need to be near to windows and even more so in the winter when day light hours are short.
Over watering of indoor plants in winter is fatal as wet mix makes for much colder roots when the heating goes off and this spell root rots. Ideally one should wait till the mix is just about bone dry and the plant’s leaves start to droop then give a small drink to just moisten up the mix a little.

In winter pot plants do not need much water. Another problem arises that in heated rooms the air becomes dry and thus moisture is sucked out of the plant’s foliage (and your skin also)
This drying can cause the tips of leaves to dry and go brown and sometimes extends over the whole leaf. To overcome this problem you need to get moisture into the air for the sake of the plants and your own skin. A shallow dish of water above or near the heat source was what I used to recommend but a better way is to string a line of nylon cord about 30mm below the ceiling between two walls, at one end of the room. Throw your damp washing over the line to dry. Costs nothing extra for dry washing and your plants enjoy the moisture, in fact since doing this in my lounge, I need only actually water the plants about once a month.

Plants growing outdoors can be assisted in winter by supplying them with a little Fruit and Flower Power every month. It contains potassium and magnesium which keeps the foliage from yellowing in winter and hardens up the growth making them more cold resistant.
Wet feet hurt a lot of plants and if you make a trench around existing gardens, about a spade deep, then surplus water runs into the trench where it will more quickly evaporate with wind and sun helping drain the bed. This can also be done just out from citrus tree’s drip line to aid them.

Also a monthly spray of Perkfection helps prevent plants succumbing to wet root diseases as it builds up their immune systems.

I am sometimes asked why a plant or citrus tree has lost its leaves during a wet period where the same plant has been in that spot for several years. This can happen due to concrete paths been laid or construction happening where the natural water course for surplus water has been changed.

A concrete driveway for instance will collect a lot of rain water which cant soak in, so the water runs off into surrounding areas. Another example can be a evergreen tree as it gets bigger the foliage deflects a lot of rain into the drip line (thats why its called a drip line) and creates a water course further and further out, over time, while the soil under the tree is much drier. This new course of water maybe then running through where the old citrus tree is growing and the extra water becomes a problem for it.

It is all fairly logical; for instance the neighbours might put in a BBQ area near the dividing fence and the following wet period your citrus tree suffers.

Frost tender plants should be protected with the spray on frost protection Vaporgard, or covered with frost cloth. Look after your plants now and you should still have them with you later in the year.

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