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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

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

  1. Leaving MA until May. Have large outdoor pot with hydrangea. How do I keep this alive? Thanks for any help!

  2. Can a Gum tree live for six weeks using this technique?

  3. Will a Gum tree survive 6 weeks with this method?

  4. Lydia Lucas

    Can I use garbage bags instead of transparent bags?

    • If you mean black garbage bags then no that wouldn’t work as the plant needs light to survive.

  5. Does a jade plant count as a succulent?

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  7. Do you think this could work for orchids?

  8. Randy Horner

    Our house will be 85 degrees when we are gone for 5 months this summer.
    Will this method still work in hi temperatures. We live in surprise Arizona

  9. I have done this the past several winters when we go away for two months and my plants actually look better upon my return than before we left! What does that tell you about my brown thumb? 🙁

  10. Teresa J Jones

    Where can I find large clear plastic bags?

  11. Hi, I have a Plumeria which is dormant now as it’s January, and will leave for 5 months so will be back in May, should I bag it or just leave it on a the balcony hoping it’ll survive, or is it better off bagged as well?

    • I’m no longer able to answer individual questions. However, you can use the search tool on the blog page to see if a past post has answered your question.
      Good gardening!
      Larry Hodgson

  12. Very helpful and interesting post! Would this work for poinsettias?
    And also: the bag should cover the whole thing? Pot, drainage holes, and all?

  13. Hello. Can I “bag” my oxalis, my young lemon trees (they are 1.5 ft long twigs as of right now ), my mature snake plant and my 9ft tall spread out rubber (fig) tree for 1 month of my absence? If so, how much light exactly would you recommend to leave them near? As far as air temp, the lowest would be about 48 with several warm ups to 60F throughout a 24hr period. Thank you in advance for your reply.

    • You wouldn’t need to bag the snake plant. Just water it well before you leave: it can take a month without water. The others would do best bagged. Moderate light (good light without direct sun) would be fine. Room temperatures would be fine. (I’d be concerned that the rubber tree wouldn’t like 48 degrees.)

  14. Hi, i have a collection of zonal, ivy and regal pelargoniums. If I must leave for 3-4 months with them on the balcony, should I keep them inside and sealed in a plastic bag as you suggest?

    • Yes, but just make sure their soil is only slightly moist, not wet. They’re a bit more sensitive to damp soil dans most other houseplants.

  15. Would this work for my violet? I was hoping it would work for the spider. We’ll be away for 6 months and turn off the heat. The lowest it’s been in the house is 34.

    • 34 might be too cold for the violet. It should be alright for the spider plant. Both will do fine sealed in a bag, although there’ll be some clean up to do on the violet when you get back.

  16. 6 months of snowbirding, should I put my jade plant in a bag, or will it be better off left to its own [natural] devices/defenses?

    • That’s one best left on its own.

    • I bagged a clivia last winter when we left for five months. When we returned the bag was FULL of spent flower petals. They were still their beautiful coral color so I don’t think I missed the show by long. I’m going to divide it before we go this year so I can take a piece of it with me – hoping to be with it if/when the bloom comes.

  17. 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!

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

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