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7 steps: Time to bring those tropical plants inside

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Jessica Walliser
Houseplants that have spent their summer outdoors, like this dieffenbachia, need to be handled carefully before being moved back indoors.

As autumn’s cooler temperatures arrive, it’s time to start thinking about moving tropical plants, houseplants, orchids, and other non-hardy plants back indoors. If any of these types of plants spent the summer on your patio or porch, they’ll need to go back inside when the nighttime temperatures regularly dip into the 50s.

Though you certainly can just pick up the pot and move the plant back indoors, you’d be smart to do it in a way that gives the plant a bit of time to transition. Following the steps I outline below improves your chances of success and helps limit the common issues gardeners sometimes face when relocating plants after they’ve spent the summer outdoors.

1. Your first step in a healthy transition back indoors, is to water the plant well. Then scrub the outside of the pot with a stiff brush to dislodge any soil or pests on the sides or bottom of the container. Don’t use any detergents to clean containers with plants growing in them; just use plain water and a brush.

2. Thoroughly wash off both the tops and bottoms of all the leaves and stems. Do this with a sharp stream of water from the hose. This process helps to dislodge any small insects who might be apt to piggyback their way indoors on the plant.

3. Carefully inspect all leaves and stems for signs of pests. If the foliage of any of your plants is covered with a shiny, sticky residue, your plant may have a pest infestation. This residue is called “honeydew,” and it’s the sugary excrement of several different soft-bodied insects, including aphids and scale which can be quite problematic on houseplants. Also look for small bumps along the plant’s stems. If you spot any, crush them with your fingernail. If they crush easily and reveal a liquidy interior, scale insects may have made a home on your plant. Wipe them off with a cotton ball soaked in isopropyl rubbing alcohol. You can also treat most houseplants with an application of horticultural oil before moving them indoors if they have evidence of pests. Check the label instructions to be sure your plant can be treated with horticultural oil safely prior to application.

4. When the plant has been carefully inspected for pests and treated as necessary, it’s time to move it indoors. This transition can be a difficult one for some plants so I recommend not rushing it. Dramatic changes in temperatures and light conditions can cause some plants to lose all of their foliage, but moving them indoors gradually can help mitigate this. If possible, move your plant indoors for the night and then back outdoors for a few hours every afternoon, when the temperatures are warmer. Gradually increase the amount of time the plant spends indoors until it’s inside full-time. Each plant’s preferred light level is different, so do a bit of research to find out exactly which light level is best for each plant, and then find an indoor location that accommodates their preference.

5. If you’re going to put your plant on furniture, hardwood floors or another finished surface, be sure to put a saucer under the pot to protect the surface. Though you shouldn’t allow water to sit in the saucer after irrigating the plant (the roots could rot), saucers are very good for protecting furniture from water damage.

6. Once your plant is indoors, it’s time to stop fertilizing until the spring. Winter fertilization often leads to leggy growth and tender shoots that are prone to pest infestations. Hold off on fertilizing until the days grow longer again in March.

7. The final step in the transition process is to cut back on watering. Since most plants shouldn’t be encouraged to actively grow during the winter, they don’t need as much water. Houseplants that are overwintered are a welcome mat for fungus gnats. These small flies produce larvae that feed on the fungi that grow in constantly-moist potting soil. You’ll know they’ve infested a houseplant when you see lots of tiny bugs fly up off the soil every time the plant is disturbed. Simply cut back on watering the plant to get rid of fungus gnat problems.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.

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