Nothing to Do: In Winter, Houseplants Are Ugly!

Your plants are ugly, suffering, or dying in winter? You ask for help and you’re always told the same three things: it lacks light, it’s too dry, and you haven’t reduced your watering enough?

But you try, you add a growth light, a humidifier… nothing works, your home remains a plant graveyard.

But why!? What are you doing wrong?

It gets frustrating in the long run, doesn’t it? Well, don’t despair: I have the beginner’s guide to understanding your plants during the cold season right here!

Indoor plants seen through a window
Image: Simon Berger de Pixabay.

Light, Humidity, Watering

Let’s settle these three parameters which are the most “obvious”.


Yes, there’s less of it in the winter… but there can also be more!

… What?

In winter, the sun is present for a shorter time, but it is also much lower in the sky. A plant which needs a lot of light might lack some, in which case a grow lamp can indeed help. But conversely, a plant that fears direct light, like a fern for example, could find itself right in the sun’s path in winter . Maybe in the summer, when it’s high in the sky, it never gets hit, but in the winter, it ends up with an hour or two of direct sun, causing it to burn.

Direct sunlight, summer or winter, is still direct sunlight! Get out your compasses (or not!) and observe the angle of our burning star. Your problem may be simpler than you think.


Well, yes, with the heat on, the air in the house is drier. Do me a favor and stop misting your plants… other than putting water everywhere, it doesn’t increase the humidity significantly. What really makes a difference: a humidifier, boiling water, taking a bath, putting water near your plant (with or without clay balls), or, my favorite laidback method: put it in a bag.

She’s ugly, isn’t she?

We had a rocky start. I bought her in the fall and as soon as the heat was gone, she started to wither. She spent about a month in the tub. I would water, close the sheer curtain, take her out, shower, put her back in the tub… A whole lot of trouble.

Finally, I told her: “If you still want to be here this summer, you’ll have to work a little harder. Put your back into it, lady!”

I put a bag over her head with a small pot of water underneath. Since then, she’s getting better; new leaves are starting to come out and she has a nice 75–80% humidity in her little greenhouse. Tadam!

triostar in a plastic bag
Photo: Audrey Martel.


Everyone says to cut back on water…I have some that are thirstier in the winter. Every plant will have different needs so, no secret here, stick your finger in the dirt to see if it needs a drink.

Plant drinks when they breathe. To breathe, they need the energy of the sun. The drier it is, the faster they breathe… See? It really depends on each plant, each room, each day! A plant facing south in the bathroom, or the same plant facing north next to the heater might have the same needs, or not at all. Put your finger in the ground instead of trying to make sense of it all.

Other Less Obvious Factors

Observe your plant. Take a step or two back and look around your plant. What do you see? Do this again at different times of the day. Here is what you might see:

  • The presence of a nearby radiator
  • A door creates an occasional draft of cold air.
  • Cold air comes in through the window.
  • Air circulates less than in the summer with the windows closed.
  • Your habits in the house are changing (do you smoke indoors in the winter, is your TV on 24 hours a day and the plant on top has too much heat?)
  • Your pet gets bored because it goes out less and entertains itself with your plants.
  • There is more or less movement in some rooms.

Some of these reasons may sound absurd, but I promise you that nature is just as silly! Why has my triostar in the bath withered and another one without any special care is beautiful in your home? It could be 1001 reasons! Some plants react to the sound of cows chewing, imagine the effect of all these seasonal changes! So keep an eye on your environmental constants, but also on your life habits in this cold season.

I’m Curious

I know that the blog is read all over the world and I wonder: where do you read us from, and what does winter look like for you?

Here in Quebec, it’s like mother nature’s menopause: one day it’s sunny and 15°F, one day it’s raining at 40°F, and another day it snows a meter and it’s -40°F!

… the funny pictures and videos you see on social networks… are REAL!…

Waterfalls in winter
Quebec City’s Montmorency Falls in winter. Photo:
Evan Velez Saxer.

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

19 comments on “Nothing to Do: In Winter, Houseplants Are Ugly!

  1. Bonnie Specchio

    We live on a small farm in central Illinois, but spend our winters in Gulf Shores, Alabama, where today it will be sunny and 67 degrees. I garden outdoors in both places but sadly cannot have any house plants as I would have to carry them with me between locations! Hope you have an early spring – I enjoy your posts!

  2. Winter is certainly not much to brag about here. Therefore, houseplants are not much to brag about either. If they get shabby or distressed, they just go outside for a while, and most can live outside through winter. However, this year, we got more torrential rain than since 1982. What a mess! The rain stopped immediately afterward, and has not resumed yet.

  3. Greetings from Southern Ontario. Very cold today – polar vortex on its way, then the forecast is rain next week, such an odd winter. Have winter sown some natives and perennials outside. My houseplants are happy and thriving. Can hardly wait for Spring. Thanks Audrey for your great columns. So glad Larry’s legacy is being continued by Mathieu and all the other contributors.

  4. From Aurora in Southern Ontario, halfway between Lakes Ontario and Simcoe. Here there’s a good snow cover and it’s now -6C and partly cloudy. Typically it could be warmer and wet or cooler and sunny. The snow could up and leave in a few days or not. My houseplants are fine, thank you!

  5. Joshua Tree, California – Mojave Desert. We got a whole bunch of issues for house plants down here!

  6. Greetings from central New York where the weather forecast this Friday is a high of 4(-15C) and a low of -9(-22C) without considering wind chill which will bring it down to -35(-37C). Brrrr!

  7. Luana Boulanger

    What do you mean when you say you put the plant “on a small pot of water”, is your plant (in the plastic bag) sitting IN this pot of water or is it somehow balanced ON TOP of that pot, without touching the water? Thanks.

    • audreymartel

      @Luana the small pot is direct on the soil. It’s a small glass that I manage to fit between the stem. Have a nice day 🙂

  8. Calgary where the motto is “If you don’t like weather, wait an hour’

  9. Christine Lemieux

    Mother Nature’s menopause in Nova Scotia as well! ?

  10. Christopher Lake, SK…Parkland Forest at the edge of the Boreal dotted with many lakes…cold, sunny winters with good snow cover. Warm humid summers. Thank you so much for assisting in the carrying on of Larry’s Legacy…RIP?
    My most favourite gardening site with relevant information! Keep up the GREAT work!

  11. Susan Wanty Otto

    Hello, from sunny Reno, NV, it is 13 degrees Fahranheit, in the valley at 4,000ft. We have 6 ” of snow on the ground, higher elevations have 3-10 ft of snow. I am not complaining we need the snowpack for water and skiing.

  12. Here in Minnesota, USA – at 9:00 am we have gotten to 1 degree F after days of below zero. Hoping to reach 15 degree F if the sun stays with us. We have about 3 feet of snow in the city with too much ice on the city streets. We are watching closely for the arrive of spring! A long ways off I am afraid.

  13. Hi Audrey! A big hello and thanks from near Peterborough Ontario. -20C this morning with 30cm of snow on the ground. I read you in both French (for practice!) and English.

  14. Paul Chilton

    I am in Blue Horizon Bay overlooking the Bay of St Francis. Latitude 34 degrees S at the Southern end of Africa. Interior temperature 28c, humidity 68%.
    Praying for rain after 7 years of drought.

  15. I’m in southern Indiana with the thermometer right now at 13 and the and the prediction of a high of 32 at 3:00 this afternoon. Cloudy with no snow cover or any in the forecast.

    I’m ready for some springlike weather if only for a day or two now and again. Probably won’t see any of that for another couple of weeks if then.

  16. Jt Michaels

    Answering your question, Audrey: Tip of the Mitt, NW Lower Michigan, USA.
    Our winter is much like yours. 14°F this morning!

  17. Thanks for your humour.

  18. Very useful article about houseplants. Good job!

Leave a Reply

Sign up for the Laidback Gardener blog and receive articles in your inbox every morning!