It’s a tough season for the gardener who loves to entertain.  We know that we should bring in big healthy houseplants that have spent the summer outside, such as schefflera, ficus, philodendron and sansevieria.  We know that they will benefit from a smooth temperature transition and react with less leaf loss and yellowing if we approach this in a timely manner.  We also know that one morning we’ll walk outside and the cold will have flattened the plants we’d meant to ravish for cuttings – our coleus, alternanthera, lantana, ruellia, plectranthus and many others.


I’m never certain I’ll easily find ‘Escargot’ Begonia next year, so it comes in. There’s only so much room, so other more common begonias will have to perish outside.


We know all this, and yet we tarry.  These plants are simply so lush and healthy that their absence cannot be filled with a bale of straw and a rustic bushel basket of pumpkins.

We have to let go, and at the same time, open our cluttered homes to refugees that don’t want that low-lit corner of the living room any more than we want to move the armchair and give it to them.

It’s a time of transition for all of us, but the end result is better if we just get on with it.  Take those cuttings now, and if you don’t have a greenhouse, here are a few tips on what to do with subtropical, leafy plants that either a) won’t go fully dormant in a dark garage; or b) that you mysteriously want to get cozy with over the winter.

This beautiful spiny monster was recently brought to a swap by a friend. I didn’t hesitate. It’s inside now, highly armed, and dangerous.

DECIDE if you really want to do this.  Don’t you have naïve friends who would swoon at the thought of being gifted with a six foot schefflera?

Be ruthless.  If you’ve got limited space, save the healthiest and the happiest, turn your back on the others, and go shopping in the tropical ‘houseplant’ section of your big box or nursery next spring.

INSPECT the foliage carefully, looking for scale on the undersides of waxier leaved plants such as ficus.  Wipe them off with a damp, rough textured rag if the infestation is light.  If heavier on some leaves, remove the leaf entirely.  Scale is not an issue you want exacerbated by houseplants coping with lower levels of light, water and nutrients. Two doses of neem oil a week apart will often take care of the stragglers.

Ditto spider mites which love to feast on the sap of tropical leaves such as bananas or majesty palm (Ravenea rivularis) that are subjected to dry conditions.  If you’re planning for a jungle look in a semi-arid desert (your home), you’ll be battling these guys.  Again, oil or soap based sprays work well.

Mealy bug is happy to ride in on coleus, plectranthus and even jade plants – hiding out in axils along the stem and causing a big headache by February. I usually use chemical warfare on these incredibly clever insects as I have had little luck with organic methods and they breed fast.

HYDRATE herbaceous, leafy plants thoroughly the day before bringing them in.  You won’t have another opportunity to thoroughly moisten every particle of growing media like you can with a gentle hose.  Let them dry out for a day then use a dolly to move the big ones.  There’s no point going into winter with a wrenched back or scratched floors.


This umbrella tree (schefflera) and bird-of-paradise (strelitzia) must be carefully inspected for scale before coming in.


POSITION your plants in the greatest amount of light possible, bearing in mind that direct sun through glass can burn tender foliage.  Some plants such as dracaena, philodendron or sansevieria can exist with much lower levels of light, so strategically position them to take real estate that a sun lover such as crown-of-thorns (Euphorbia milii) can’t handle.

The rose blush on this yellow crown-of-thorns (Euphorbia milii) has been enhanced by plenty of sunlight. Although this wonderful plant will continue to bloom in lower light levels indoors, color nuance like this will be lost.

PROTECT your floors, cabinets or table tops with plastic saucers.  Don’t assume that glazed ceramic saucers are waterproof.  Condensation can build up between the saucer and the floor and cause mildew. In my shallow quest for form over function, I have ruined many a wooden surface.

SCHEDULE a day every week that you will attend to watering and/or feeding.  Plants generally need less of both during the winter, but that doesn’t mean none at all.

When you let soil get really dry it will repel water, fill your saucer in five seconds, and leave you in shock the next day when you find a wet trail across your hardwood floors.

IGNORE a bit of leaf loss or yellowing as plants transition to a different, drier environment.  Invest in a nice mister to give them a little treat twice a week.

REJOICE in April, when you get those space-hogging, insect sheltering, could-be-healthier, free-loading albatrosses out of your house.

Until then, CONSIDER transitioning to stunning tropical and subtropical plants that happily go dormant in a cool dark garage such as canna, colocasia, bananas, caladium and gingers (amongst others).  We’ll talk about how to handle them in two weeks when the frost has started the process.

Let the gnashing of teeth begin. MW

Article reprinted with the permission of The Frederick News Post