Bring tropicals inside before nippy nights

It won't be long until it's too cold outside for tender plants. Photo by Kathie Rowell.

It won’t be long until it’s too cold outside for tender plants. Photo by Kathie Rowell.

By Dan Gill, LSU AgCenter

As the weather cools down and nights get nippy over the next few weeks, gardeners need to decide what to do with their container-grown outdoor tropical plants. These beautiful plants, grown for their attractive foliage or beautiful flowers, are commonly placed outside for the summer where they provide a valuable addition to decks, patios and porches. However, these plants will not withstand freezing temperatures and must be brought inside for the winter. Like children going back to school, they generally are not too happy about it, either.

One of the most difficult problems these plants must deal with when brought back inside is the sudden reduction in the amount of light they are accustomed to receiving. Plants use light as their source of energy to create the food they need to live and grow. When their light is suddenly and greatly reduced, it’s as if they were put on a starvation diet.

It’s a good idea to move your outdoor tropicals in containers to heavily shaded outside locations for a few weeks to prepare them for their move indoors. Acclimating them to lower light conditions helps them adjust to the reduced light available when you bring them inside. Do this now, and you should still have time for them to acclimate before the first freezes.

It’s a good idea to move your plants inside before you have to turn on heat constantly. They can adjust to indoor conditions better before the extra stress of warm, dry air is added to the environment. Expect many plants to still be unhappy about the move. The better you acclimate your plants and the more light you are able to provide for them indoors, the less leaf drop you should see.

Houseplants that spent the summer outside also should be groomed so they will look their best, and you will be less likely to bring in pests with them.

When you bring outdoor plants in for the winter, follow these steps:

  • Clean the outside of containers using a brush and a mild solution of dishwashing liquid and water. Add a little bleach to the solution to kill algae growing on the pot sides. Do not get this solution in the soil.
  • Remove dust and debris from the foliage and where leaves join the stems. Hose down the plants and wipe the foliage clean with a soft damp cloth.
  • Remove all dead or yellow foliage, old flower stalks and dead or injured branches and stems. If a plant has grown too large for it to practically fit back indoors, you may prune it as needed to make its size more appropriate.
  • Put off repotting until spring if some of your plants have become pot bound. It would be more convenient to move plants inside in smaller pots than in larger ones.

Watering and fertilizing

Once they are moved inside for winter, houseplants will need to be watered less often. How much less is something you will have to determine over the first few weeks they are inside. Feel the soil regularly with your finger and water when the soil feels dry but before the plants wilt. In time, you will reestablish a schedule for watering the plants indoors. Remember, it is better to water less often than to water too often and cause root rot.

Cactuses and succulents are particularly vulnerable to overwatering. Be especially careful about not watering them too often.

Ironically, plants that spend all of their time indoors may actually dry out faster in the winter due to the warm, dry air and lower humidity produced by heating systems. Monitor plants carefully.

Most houseplants, including those brought in from the outside do not need to be fertilized this time of year. These plants will generally slow down or stop any new growth and enter a dormant or semi-dormant state. Indoor plants that show active, vigorous growth during winter could be fertilized, if desired.

Pest control

You should do a good, thorough job of pest control before bringing container inside. You’ll be glad you did. Thoroughly clean all snails and/or slugs from the bottoms of pots and dispose of them. If plants are infested with aphids, spider mites, white flies or thrips, treat with insecticidal soap or pyrethrin before they are brought inside. Control scale with Ultra-Fine Oil.

Gardeners are sometimes surprised to find ants have taken up residence in the soil of a container plant outside over the summer. Look pots over carefully – ant activity will be obvious. Kill them before bringing the plant inside by drenching the soil with a solution of pyrethrin mixed according to label directions.

Be on the lookout for critters such as frogs, toads and lizards that may hitch a ride inside with the plants. These beneficial animals should be carefully removed and released unharmed outside.

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