Caring for house plants during the winter

Tips to keep house plants healthy and looking good

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Q. My lovely house plant collection, acquired in the spring to brighten the kitchen and living room, has begun taking on a bedraggled look. Leaves are turning yellow and dropping. Others have brown tips. Some now have weak, leaning stems. What can I do to restore their good looks?

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A. At this time in the year, low natural light levels, short days, and cranked-up heating systems with resulting dry air all make life difficult for most house plants. Keep them alive over winter and they’ll perk up with fresh growth in the spring.

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I’ve simplified house plant care by setting the pots on windowsill trays, available at some garden centres. Where this suits the situation, trickling small amounts of lukewarm water into the trays supplements watering from the top and supplies humidity as the water evaporates.

Dry air, drafts, abrupt changes in temperature and low light levels can all contribute to leaf drop. Overwatering in winter can set plant roots up for rotting, which will cause leaves to yellow and drop. Except for plants in active growth or bloom, reduce watering in winter. Water when a top layer of soil has dried and the pot feels lighter than usual when lifted.

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Use room temperature or tepid water.

High temperatures, hot drafts, dry air or/and dry soil are common causes of dry, brown leaf tips and edges. If possible, lower room temperatures slightly.

Physical contact will damage some plants enough to cause browned leaf tips. Ferns are particularly susceptible to browning from being brushed against.

Weak, leaning growth happens in inadequate light. Leaves grow paler and smaller, and new growth is weak and spindly. Stems elongate and lean as they reach for more light.

Distances increase between leaves and the oldest, lower leaves drop. Variegated plants lose their distinctive colouring and split-leaf philodendrons stop splitting.

Gradually move affected plants to a brighter location. If no brighter natural light is available, supply some artificial light.

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