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Snowbirds: Coddle Your Houseplants While You’re Away

20161126bThey’re known as snowbirds, migratory seniors who flee the cold of northern regions and spend their winter in the South, offering themselves 3, 4, even 5 or 6 months of vacation. They leave everything behind and join tens of thousands of others who bask on the beach every year while their friends shiver in the cold back home.

Snowbirds with outdoor gardens have nothing to fear for their plantations while they’re away: Mother Nature will keep them dormant. But what about houseplants? Three to six months without being watered would enough to kill almost any non-succulent plant. In fact, only two weeks without watering would leave most of them dead.

But it’s much easier to care for your houseplants while you’re away than you think. Just seal them inside a “mini-greenhouse” for the winter, that is, a transparent plastic bag, and take a few basic precautions, and they’ll be able to take care of themselves even if you’re away for 6 months or more.

Getting Them Ready

Water thoroughly, but not excessively: plants need to be evenly moist.

For this technique to work, your plants must be well watered, yet not sitting in soggy soil, because if the potting mix is too moist, that could lead to root rot. If possible, therefore, water them well 2 or 3 days before you’re to leave. That way any surplus water will have time to be either absorbed or to evaporate, yet the soil will still be evenly moist. And evenly moist is exactly what you want.

Also remove any dead or yellowing leaves, as they will only rot during your absence. Likewise, remove any flowers or flower buds: you won’t be there to admire them anyway and they too will eventually wilt and begin to rot. (A few rotting leaves or flowers are not, in themselves, in any way harmful to the plant, but it is less pleasant to return after 6 months of absence and see the plant healthy, but its soil strewn with moldy dead vegetation.)

Seal the plant inside a clear plastic bag.

Now place the plant in a clear plastic bag. A bag from the cleaners or a transparent bag for fall leaves will be needed for large plants, while you can recycle the transparent bags of your choice for smaller ones. You can either put one plant in each bag or regroup several in a larger bag.

You can prop up the bag with stakes if you want to.

Some gardeners prefer to put stakes in the pot to support the bag as if it were a tent so it won’t touch the plant’s leaves, but that is not absolutely essential.

Seal the bag with a twist tie and move the plants away from the sun (sun shining on a closed container would cook the plants it contains!). During your absence, indirect lighting will suffice, as would a bit of early morning sunshine.

Now go in peace. With plastic preventing water from evaporating, the air inside the bag will remain moist and your plants will benefit from moderately humid soil for months: exactly what they like!

No, Your Plants Won’t Asphyxiate

Don’t worry that your plants will “run out of air” inside a sealed bag: plants produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide during the day, then do the opposite at night. Thus, they produce all the air they need to breathe well.

Neither will they run out of water. If you need to water your houseplants so often when they’re growing in the open air, it’s because most of the water you give them simply evaporates. Inside a sealed bag, there will be no evaporation: the humidity can’t escape. So the plants will use very little water during your absence. Since you made sure that the soil was thoroughly moist (but not soggy) before you left, they won’t lack water either.

How Long Can You Leave Them?

How long can a plant live inside a sealed transparent bag? Easily 6 months and more likely, 8 to 12 months. If that strikes you as unlikely, remember there are sealed terrariums that have not been opened for 40 years and the plants inside are still doing fine!

Succulents Are a No-no!

Succulents need to be exposed to moving air: don’t seal them inside a bag when you travel.

There is one major exception to the recommendation that you can seal your houseplants inside a plastic bag while you travel. Succulents (cacti, crassulas, aloes, sansevierias, etc.) are among the rare plants that won’t tolerate stagnant air and high atmospheric humidity. Most of them would rot if you sealed them inside a bag.

On the other hand, they get well along with very little water because they lose so little of it to evaporation.

In their case, therefore, simply water well and remove them from any sunny window, without putting them inside a bag. In the open air, true enough, they will dry out, but only very slowly. Even after 6 months, they will still be alive, although maybe a bit shriveled. Water gently when you get back and they will gradually recuperate.

So if you’ve been hesitating about leaving your plants alone while you take a long trip south, don’t be concerned. It’s amazingly easy to keep houseplants alive while you’re away! If only it were as easy to care for your pets!20161126b

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

10 comments on “Snowbirds: Coddle Your Houseplants While You’re Away

  1. Pingback: Vacation Care for your Garden – Laidback Gardener

  2. Pingback: Browning Leaves on an Indoor Avocado – Laidback Gardener

  3. Do you know if this method would work for a Christmas Cactus for 2 months?

    • Sure! But also, a well-watered Christmas cactus will still be alive after two months even if you don’t bag it. It may shrivel a bit, but should recover fine.

  4. Hey! Can you suggest which of these plants would survive 2 months with the greenhouse method? Pothos, snake plant, fingertips, areca palm, money tree and a spider plant.

    • Pothos, areca palm, money plant and spider plant. Snake plant and fingertips can survive 2 months without any watering, although they’ll be quite dehydrated.

  5. Hi Larry – would my peace lily survive 3 months using this method? It’s sentimental and I would hate to lose it while I am away. Thank you!

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