Winter is a great time to groom and prune houseplants |
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Jessica Walliser
Houseplants, such as this “Moonlight” philodendron, should be groomed a few times a year.

Winter is a great time to do a little houseplant tending. While it’s not the best time to repot houseplants, that’s best done in the early spring, winter is a great time to groom your houseplants and trim back any that are overgrown.

Trim and clean

Houseplant grooming can be a very relaxing job. Start by trimming any dead leaves or stems off the plant, using a pair of clean, sharp pruning shears. When removing dead leaves, be sure to also cut off the leaf petiole (stem) so you don’t leave a “stump” behind. When going from houseplant to houseplant, dip the blades of your pruners in a cup of 10 percent bleach solution or spray them with a bit of Lysol disinfectant spray to kill any pathogens that could be spread from plant to plant.

Another important step in grooming houseplants is to clean off the foliage. Use a soft, damp cloth to wipe any dust or grime off of each leaf. Leaf-shine spray products are available for this job, but they only cover up the dust rather than removing it, unless you wipe the leaves off first. Dusty houseplants receive a reduced amount of sunlight and may even have stunted growth, if the dust layer is very thick. You can also use the cloth to wipe down the stems of the plant, too.

Use a clean pair of scissors to cut off any brown leaf tips, cleaning the scissors carefully between each plant. Houseplants sometimes develop salt burn at the tips of their leaves if the fertilizer salts aren’t flushed out of the soil during the watering process. Always water houseplants in the sink and be sure at least 20 percent of the water that goes in the top of the pot drains out the hole in the bottom, taking excess fertilizer salts with it.

Another important step in houseplant grooming is to carefully inspect the plant for pests. If you spot any bumps along the stems, scale insects could be present. Look on the bottom sides of leaves for small insects such as whiteflies, mealybugs or aphids. If you spot any, wipe them off with a cotton ball soaked in isopropyl rubbing alcohol. If there’s a sticky coating on a houseplant or on the floor or table beneath it, there’s likely to be an insect infestation in the plant. A thorough inspection of the leaves and stems can confirm this.

If your houseplants are overgrown, it’s also a good time to do some trimming. Long, vining houseplants, such as heart-leaf philodendrons, pothos, hoyas and the like, can be trimmed back at any time. Removing a few of the long vines from time to time encourages thicker and bushier growth in the future.

For very overgrown, tall houseplants that have bare stems with leaves only at the top, pruning them back is a bit more complicated. Cut back only half of the stems and wait to see if they develop new leaves before cutting back the remaining branches. Some houseplants easily develop new growth after pruning while others do not. Doing it piecemeal like this will tell you which type of houseplant you have.


If the cut branches don’t sprout new leaves in a few weeks, consider air-layering the plant instead. This technique is ideal for houseplants with woody stems, like rubber tree plants, dumb cane, dracena and others. To air-layer a houseplant, nick the plant’s stem with a sharp knife about 8 to 10 inches below the terminal point of the stem. Then, you dust the cut with rooting hormone (available at your favorite nursery), wrap the area with a large handful of wet sphagnum moss, and then cover the moss with a piece of plastic wrap from the kitchen, fastening it to the stem and around the moss ball with a twist tie at either end.

Every few days open the plastic wrap and spray the moss with water to keep it moist. Within a month or two, roots will begin to form from the place on the bark that was scored with the knife. When you start to see these new roots emerging through the moss and starting to touch the inside of the plastic, it’s time to cut the new rooted piece of stem off the mother plant (just below its roots) and pot it up to live on its own.

Air-layering is one of the best ways to deal with overgrown houseplants. You’ll be able to keep all the new, smaller-statured off-sets and do away with the overgrown mother plant without any guilt.

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 Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.

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