Waking Up Your Houseplants

Larry Hodgson has published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in both French and English. His son, Mathieu, has made it his mission to make his father’s writings available to the public. This text was originally published in the newspaper Le soleil on March 7, 2004.

Houseplant with an alarm clock next to it

You think it’s still winter? Think again: it’s spring… at least for houseplants! After a long winter of semi-dormancy where they lost more leaves than they produced, they’re back in full growth. Indeed, for a few weeks now, they’ve been growing uncontrollably: new leaves, longer stems, even flower buds are appearing.

It’s the length of days and not the temperature ( that is still cold outside) that provokes this reaction. Under the influence of the short days of October, November and December, they had fallen into a winter lethargy. But with the longer days, houseplants are taking this as a sign that spring is back. However, it’s up to you as a gardener to perfect the situation to ensure that their efforts to grow better are successful.

A Bit of Fertilizer

Support your plants’ renewed growth with a little fertilizer. They didn’t need it in the depths of winter, but they do now. There are two main options: slow release or water-soluble fertilizers. A single annual application of slow-dissolving fertilizer is sufficient (although the label usually suggests that the fertilizer will benefit for six months; indoors, it dissolves more slowly… and in the fall, houseplants don’t need fertilizer anyway.). As for soluble fertilizers, apply them at a quarter of the recommended dose, with each watering until October.

Which fertilizer to use? Know that all fertilizers are good for all plants; it’s no longer worth buying 15 different fertilizers for 15 plants. Use whatever fertilizer you have on hand. If you must buy fertilizer, know that for good growth and flowering, a general-purpose fertilizer will do the trick.

More Humidity, Please!

The number one enemy of houseplants this time of year is dry air. Granted, the days are longer, which encourages growth and flowering, but the dry air, so common in our homes in winter, hinders their progress: new leaves emerge wrinkled or brown at the margins or tips; flower buds dry out before they even show their color. Using a humidifier can do them a world of good. Don’t forget to compensate for water loss through evaporation with fresh water so that your plants’ leaves and flowers enjoy near-summer humidity.

This extra moisture will be useful to the plants as long as the heating system, which is responsible for the dry air in our homes, is operating, that is, until May.


Beware of “Bugs”!

If the length of the day affects plants, it also has an influence on insects. During the winter, many insects go into “diapause”: a semi-dormant state where they reduce their activity and aren’t very visible. The increase in day length signals to them that it’s time to wake up. The most visible of these bugs is the whitefly, but thrips, spider mites, mealy bugs and others are also in full swing. Watch for their arrival and isolate affected plants as soon as you see them. At least four weekly applications of insecticidal soap will be needed to control them effectively.

mealy bug on an indoor plant
Photo: Tarquin

A Little Cleaning

To flourish, plants sometimes need a little direction. Prune out branches that are dead, too long or growing in an undesirable direction, and pinch off others to stimulate denser growth. Remove dead leaves and flowers so that sunlight can penetrate and air can circulate freely. And don’t forget to rotate the pots a quarter turn every week to ensure even growth.

A person repots a houseplant.
Photo: Gardening Solutions.

A New Pot?

Plants that are very tightly packed into their pots or whose potting soil is contaminated with mineral salts (you can see a white or yellowish crust forming on the sides of the pot or on the plant’s stem) will require repotting. Remove them from their pots and shake the root ball to knock off about a third of the old soil. If you want the plant to continue to grow, replant it in a larger pot (about 2 to 5 cm larger than the previous pot). If, on the other hand, the plant is big enough for your needs, prune the roots, shortening them by a third, and repot the plant in a pot of the same size as the previous pot. Note that a drainage layer is NOT necessary: studies show that it often promotes rot. Plant directly in houseplant potting soil.

For cacti and succulents, you could use a “cactus potting soil” or add a third of sand to a potting soil for indoor plants. For orchids, use a special potting soil for orchids.

Cuttings in a mini greenhouse

Division or Cuttings

For aging plants that no longer have a nice shape, you might consider starting another one rather than transplanting.

If there are several offshoots (babies) at the base of the mother plant, separate them and pot them up in individually. Since they’re small, with a restricted rooting system, use a small pot.

For plants with bald stems, take cuttings instead. A stem length of 15 to 20 cm, depending on the size of the mother plant, will do. Remove the leaves from the lower half of the stem.

Fill a pot with moist potting soil and insert the cutting, covering it with a clear plastic bag to reduce evaporation. Place the cutting where it will receive good light, but no direct sun. When new shoots appear, which can take as little as a week for a coleus and as much as 6 months for a croton, remove the bag and treat your “baby” as an adult plant.

There it is! A little care now and you can enjoy the beauty and benefits of houseplants for the rest of the year!

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

5 comments on “Waking Up Your Houseplants

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  2. very helpful as always 🙂 Keep sharing your thoughts!

  3. I had a great time reading your content and found it to be really beneficial.

  4. Thank you for continuing to share Larry’s tips and wealth of knowledge.

  5. All while we are experiencing our most wintry winter in recorded history.

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