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Published December 20, 2008, 12:00 AM

Winter can take a toll on houseplants

Have you noticed that your skin has felt dry and itchy since the cold weather arrived? The problem is the cold temperatures outside and lower humidity in your home. Your houseplants may also be suffering from the effects of lower humidity. While this may seem like a strange time of year to be discussing houseplants, the change in a household environment can be difficult for them.

By: Sandy Eckelberg, The Jamestown Sun

Have you noticed that your skin has felt dry and itchy since the cold weather arrived? The problem is the cold temperatures outside and lower humidity in your home. Your houseplants may also be suffering from the effects of lower humidity. While this may seem like a strange time of year to be discussing houseplants, the change in a household environment can be difficult for them.

Most houseplants originated in tropical environments. These climates provided high humidity and rich soil, ideal conditions for plants. When the tropical plants were “tamed” by a botanist, they were and still are grown in greenhouses where temperature and humidity can be carefully controlled.

Household environments offer less than ideal conditions for growing plants. There is a laundry list of conditions to which a plant must adapt: dry air, low light, low humidity and artificial heat in winter. But there are ways to improve the growing conditions.

First, give plants proper light. Plants usually grow well on window sills or table tops. A word of caution: When the temperature drops below freezing and the windows are covered with frost, remove plants from window sills during the night and put them back in the morning.

Light needs vary with the type of plant. Check the tag that comes with the plant when it’s purchased. A particular plant may not need a sunny window or a shady corner — more is not always better. Some plants’ leaves may be sensitive to the sun and may become scalded.

If a plant needs light, but sunlight isn’t available, you can use artificial light. In most cases, low light will result in spindly, weak growth.

Humidity or moisture in the air is necessary and beneficial to most tropical houseplants. A 40 to 60 percent relative humidity is ideal. Yet this cannot be provided in homes during winter, as heating systems dry out the air. To increase the indoor humidity from time to time, mist the plant’s foliage with a fine spray of water. Another method of increasing humidity is filling a drainage container with gravel which is covered with water. Place the pots on the pebbles, being certain that the bottoms are not sitting in the water. Change the water every few days because stagnant water is a good breeding place for insects.

If a plant needs more humidity than a window sill can offer, put it near the dishwasher or in the bathroom near the shower. A plant might even sit in the bathtub, where it could easily receive a daily misting.

Watering can be tricky. Typically, you’ll need more water in heated rooms during the winter, however, plants can easily be killed by over watering. For most plants, water when the soil surface begins to dry. The water you use should be at room temperature.

Use the “feel” test to determine if the soil is dry and hard. If the soil looks light colored, it’s usually time to water. If it feels damp or muddy and looks dark, wait a few days. Be sure to provide adequate drainage.

Most houseplants, de-pending on size of pot, location, type of soil and size of plant will need weekly waterings. A lack of water will cause yellowing and wilting of plants. However, these same symptoms are characteristic of too much water. If leaves are wilted due to lack of water, they will become turgid after a good watering. If the leaves do not become turgid after a watering, then probably too much water has been given over a period of time causing damage to the root system.

Most houseplants re-quire little fertilization during winter since rapid growth is not made at this time. Feeding once or twice during the winter months will be adequate for most plants. Some may not need any fertilizer during winter months.

Avoid drafts and provide fresh air. Plants do not like locations that expose them to cold or hot air. They also suffer from gas fumes and products of incomplete combustion, which makes fresh air essential during winter.

Clean the plant’s foliage by washing with warm water. You may add a drop or two of detergent to the water used for cleaning the leaves. Rinse washed leaves with clear water to remove soap film.

I often give my plants a spray either with a kitchen sink sprayer or in the shower. Keep plants attractive by removing dead leaves and faded blooms.

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