Diarmuid Gavin: How to protect your houseplants in winter

I spent my formative years studying and working in our wonderful Botanical Gardens at Glasnevin, learning all about plants, where they originated from and what conditions they needed to grow.

Every few months, my fellow students and I would be assigned a different area of the gardens and our role was to help the permanent staff to look after their spaces. So long summer months were spent staking herbaceous perennials in the winding borders, while autumn brought the tedious task of weeding a huge rockery, removing thousands of tiny succulent plants.

The posting we all vied for in winter was in the greenhouse, where sleet and rain could be swapped for the tropical woodland climate of the orchid house. In the middle of winter, the palm house gardeners took great pride in setting out a wonderful display of flowering houseplants, designed to inspire and educate. There’s so much we can grow indoors and at this time of the year, it’s a lovely way to enjoy flowers when they are scarce enough outdoors.

And as many have just returned to school or work post-Christmas celebrations, the heavens have opened and the wind is howling, so it’s time to consider once again our indoor gardening. There are few basic rules to houseplant care in winter. As the days shorten, most plants respond to the diminishing light levels by slowing down or even becoming dormant. As they are not growing, they usually don’t need food and their watering requirements drastically reduce.

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The most common reason for houseplants dying is too much water and this is particularly the case in winter.

Lack of light can also cause them to look limp. But you also need an even temperature away from draughts. Try to avoid positioning them near radiators, which can cook the plants.

A friend recently asked me why her house plants were dying – it turned out they were all sitting on under-heated floors and had baked dry. And if your plant requires humidity, the best way to achieve this is sitting the pot in a saucer or tray of pebbles soaked in water. Misting leaves will also help as will grouping plants together to create mini-climates.

Kalanchoe are one of the easiest indoor plants because they are succulents. This means they have the capacity to store water in their fleshy leaves so won’t mind if you forget to hydrate them now and again. When you do water, make sure any excess water can drain away and then leave them alone and let the soil dry out.

You’ll have seen plenty of Kalanchoe Blossfeldiana in the shops last month – it’s also known as the Christmas Kalanchoe. It has vivid flowers, usually in red or pink. For quite a different Kalanchoe, look out for ‘Magic Bells’, which has wonderful, grape-like bracts out of which orange flowers appear.

The Bromeliad family is also quite easy to manage. The most famous member is the pineapple, which is mainly grown for its delicious fruit. However, there are also ornamental pineapple plants which have much smaller fruit – Ananas ‘Pacifico’ for example – and look very cute.

Guzmanias, vriseas and the urn plant Aechmea all belong to this family as well. What they have in common are exotic looking central rosette flowers in bright neons, pink, purple, red or yellow. Water by placing a couple of inches of water in the rosette – its urn shape will hold the liquid – and only sparingly water the soil. Replace the water in the urn every couple of weeks as it can turn mouldy.

Bromeliads are monocarps – this means once they have finished flowering, their life cycle is complete and they will die.

They do produce baby offsets which can be replanted and these, in turn, will flower in a couple of years. But when they are in flower, the flower spike can last a couple of months, which makes them good value and a cheerful blast of colour on wintry days.

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