By Madaline Sparks
Tropical plants on the deck waiting to be prepared to come inside.
It’s October and my panic is setting in. Going from temperatures in the 80s and 90s one week to the 40s at night a few days later has kickstarted my annual anxiety about overwintering more plants than I can bring into my small house. Every year I pledge to migrate less of the treasured plants that have provided us so much enjoyment over the summer, but I can’t bear to let many of them go and so, without fail, I procrastinate and go through this agonizing exercise every fall with one eye on the weather forecast.
Succulents, begonias, houseplants, elephant ears, pelargoniums, a huge rabbit’s foot fern and more are now the focus of my attention, with the clock ticking. There are four tasks to complete before the chosen ones are relocated into the house and I count at least 40 pots that I want to bring inside (eek!). Here’s my system.
A variegated ficus, succulents and a fancy leaved pelargonium that will be moved inside soon.
My first difficult step is to determine who makes the cut. I won’t bother to bring in any plant that isn’t looking healthy and robust. If the plant looks unattractive or visibly stressed after a summer vacation, it’s doubtful that it will improve during a transition inside. Reduction of light is usually the biggest problem for plants that move inside. Shorter days affect their health as much as climate change. While still outside, move them into as much shade as possible to help them begin adjusting. There will still be some leaf drop as they acclimate to central heat and less light, but this step will help lessen the shock.
Next, I clean them up by removing dropped leaves and spent flowers from the soil surface and snip yellowing leaves. It’s not necessary to prune plants back drastically. As a matter of fact, they need all the light-gathering leaf surface you can give them to make the transition. I trim for shape, especially if plants have put on extremely vigorous growth over the summer. Check the spot they'll be returning to and trim new growth for size, if necessary.
Once you've moved them inside, stage plants in groups and vary the levels to make them part of your decor.
Using a hose end sprayer on a gentle setting, I thoroughly spray the soil with at least a gallon of water to flush out minerals and salts that may have accumulated. This also may force out or drown some pests in the soil. While I’m at it, I clean dirt or other debris from the outsides of pots with water and a small brush.
The Last Step:
About five days before bringing the plants in, I deal with any critters that have taken up residence in the soil. Aphids, scale, earwigs, ants, sow bugs, spider mites or mealy bugs could be present (or their eggs!). Don’t risk bringing them inside where they can cause havoc. I don’t like to use chemicals, but organic methods of insect control for this situation have not proved effective for me, so I make an exception in this instance. Bonide Systemic Houseplant Insect Control is a granular formulation that will kill bugs and larvae in the soil that you can’t see, and it continues to work after you move the pots in. I've found I only need one application to take care of any infestation. Follow the directions carefully.
I never use saucers outside, so pots won’t sit in standing water. I need to locate enough of them (clean and in the right sizes) to fit each pot and the places they’ll be located. I also use cork mats under the saucers to protect furniture and floor coverings when watering. You may have needed to water almost every day when the plants were outside because of the drying effects of wind and increased sun. Plants will need much less water inside but misting regularly to increase humidity will be helpful. In most cases, let the soil dry out completely before giving them a thorough application — until water comes out the drainage hole. It’s better to underwater than to overwater. Withhold fertilization from October to March because most plants are resting from active growth.