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Down the Garden Path

Houseplant FAQs

Although most Master Gardener help desks are on hiatus right now for the winter, questions still come into the office. It is interesting to see the seasonality of the questions this time of year, and this month, there is a thread among most of them – houseplants.

Q: I love my succulents in the summer, but they are already getting leggy. Can I stop that?

A: Winter is really a hard time to keep succulents looking good. What sun they get is of a lower intensity and for fewer hours each day, even in the brightest window you have. Right now, they are reaching out to get more sunlight. The shortest winter days are upon right now; Winter Solstice is this week, in fact. Adding strong supplemental lighting will help, and keep the light source as close as you can to the foliage. Incandescent bulbs generate a lot of heat so those cannot be too close. The newer LED technology and florescent grow bulbs work well. Turning the plants frequently will lessen the obvious stretched look as well.

Q: I thought I had done all the right things to my houseplants before I brought them back inside, but now I have these small flies in and around my houseplants.

A: Since they are associated with your houseplants, they are most likely fungus gnats. Fungus gnats cause no harm to pets, your plants or to us. They feed on fungi in the soil of your houseplants and need that higher humidity around your plants to survive. Since many houseplants do not actively grow in the winter, keep the soil on the drier side. Sometimes on older established houseplants, they will have roots circling the bottom of the pot and block off the drainage holes. Tap the plant out of the pot and do some root pruning. Growing in a clay pot is more forgiving than a plastic pot and can help dry the soil out sooner. As you need to repot, using the same soil media helps manage your watering schedule. Lastly, many plastic containers look great, but may not have any drainage holes at all.

Q: The family is going on vacation. What is the best way to handle my houseplants while we are away?

A: Do not water them "really well" be for you leave, as this can cause some real problems. If you are only gone 7 to 10 days, no special care is needed. If your vacation is extended, consider asking your neighbor or family friend to come over and water lightly. This may be the same person that comes to feed the family dog or cat.