Grow Guide: Adaptable Houseplants and Cutting Back Your Garden This Winter

Get the answer to the question: "Are there any really good plants for indoors?"
Chinese evergreen

Chinese Evergreen

Chinese evergreen, dieffenbachia and dracaena tolerate low light and humidity indoors.

Chinese evergreen, dieffenbachia and dracaena tolerate low light and humidity indoors.

Gardening expert and certified wit Felder Rushing answers your questions and lays down some green-wisdom. You can get more of your Felder fix at www.slowgardening.net.

QUESTION:

I must really have a black thumb, because every time I bring a new potted plant home, it dies. Are there any really good plants for indoors?

ANSWER:

I empathize with you. A lot. Because in spite of many years of playing around with indoor plants, I too have had fun new plants shrivel and die once they get to my house.

Just a few weeks ago I answered a similar question about what it takes for gardeners in cool climates to move container-grown tropical plants from outdoors to indoors for the winter. The same applies to new plants that have been grown in the bright light and high humidity of greenhouses. It’s all about getting them adapted to the low light and low humidity of indoors — nearly the opposite of what they naturally prefer.

One of the most important tips is to try to keep them out of the direct draft from the heater or air conditioner, which dries them out too quickly.

Also, plants grown indoors usually don’t need quite as much water and fertilizer; feed them at half the recommended strength, and water only when they start to get really dry — some of mine don‘t need watering more than every three or four weeks! I check them by lifting the pots to see when they get really lightweight.

But for the best success, try some of these tried-and-true houseplants that have proven themselves to be well adapted to these conditions: Sansevieria (“mother-in-law’s tongue”), Philodendron (both shrub and vine types), Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema), dracaenas, peperomias, dieffenbachia (“dumb cane”), rubber tree, dwarf shefflera, pothos vine and peace lily (Spathiphyllum).

All have somewhat thick leaves that tolerate low humidity and fairly low light.

Let’s both just remember that there are no “house” plants; all are invited guests, with some being much easier to handle than others.

QUESTION:

Last fall I didn’t get around to cleaning up my flower beds until spring, and some plants died. Should I have cut them earlier?

ANSWER:

You aren’t alone in this! Most of us have plenty of other things to do before winter, and this is an easy one to overlook. But don’t feel like you are in a huge rush – most hardy perennials won’t die if put off a little while.

In fact, the short stems of some perennials actually protect against super hard freezes, and the winter foliage of some is kind of pretty in a way. I actually love the brown colors and wispy flower heads of ferns and ornamental grasses in winter.

By the way — and this is strictly for fun-lovers — you can also spray-paint faded ornamental grasses for a nice pastel glow that will last well into the winter…

Seriously, cleaning up old stems and foliage makes things a lot neater, helps plants green up faster and cleaner in the spring, removes cover for overwintering insects and snails, and can reduce the likelihood of diseases. And believe me, cleaning up thawed, mushy clumps of cannas, elephant ears and ornamental bananas the next spring can be nasty!

So while there is no real hurry — again, some plants actually have a certain decrepit charm after a hard freeze — when you get around to it, cut back ferns, asters, coneflowers, goldenrod, and other tender stems, and put them on the leaf pile or compost. Cover the ground under pruned plants with leaf or bark mulch to help reduce temperature swings in the soil.

And do pull up vegetable garden stakes and store them where they will stay dry. This not only preserves them better, but also keeps neighbors from noticing how untidy the garden may otherwise be.

One last hint: while you are outside, why not dig a bit while your dirt is still dig-able, and poke in a handful or two of spring-flowering bulbs that will give you a little something to enjoy until your summer stuff comes back next year?

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