Books & Prose


Overwintering: The Living Room Diaries 2017

By Anna M. Warrock

I think climate change has come to my living room.

My Ming aralia (Polyscias fruticosa), which I tout as a hardy, carefree houseplant that in 30 years never had a bug on it, in December was covered in aphids. Why now? Is increased heat coming from the south-facing window where my plants hang out during winter? (Internet research reveals that aralias are prone to bugs, but maybe that rap is topsy-turvy “truthyness”—this was a 30-year clean record!)

Overwintering is fraught with such perils. Houseplants so enjoy their vacation on the front porch, it is a cruel business to bring them indoors. I also subject some of my container plants to the indoor experiment, a decision that carries responsibilities.

I try to shift most plants by early October, when temperatures inside and outside are about the same and before the indoor heat comes on in earnest. The particularly pouty plants—elephant ear (Colocasia “Pink China”), coleus, and the aralia—begin dropping leaves immediately, their way of pointing out how poorly a comparatively stagnant, dim living room replaces six months on the porch or patio. About December they stop, looking slimmer—and frankly, now they actually fit in the living room.

I repot and cut back from their summer abundance the container plants, including red and pink geraniums, “Purple Queen” tradescantia (Tradescantia pallida), Jewels of Opar (Talinum paniculatum, a wonderful container plant with a spray of fairy flowers above juicy green leaves, related to purslane), and this year Persian Shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus). But like most plants, they want to grow, and all winter I prune branches and pinch growing tips to give them a solid profile or they will get leggy and frail.

Adequate light is a prime concern. Turn plants weekly or so to keep them shapely. Leaves always stretch toward the window—no indoor space can match outdoor light (at least without dedicated grow-lights).

Watering also has its perils. My list says, don’t water the clivia (Clivia miniata), keep the geraniums and begonias dry between waterings, and the tradescantia can take some neglect. But don’t forget that plant tucked in the corner—yikes! When did I last water the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera sp.)? Despite its name, it likes a good watering.

Then you must deal with invasions of scale (I spent one winter repeatedly wiping scale off a bay plant [Laurus nobilis] with q-tips dipped in alcohol), white flies, aphids (see above), and ubiquitous fungus gnats. If you have gnats, you have gnat larvae, the culprits that eat plant roots and can kill potted plants. I’ve just lost a scented geranium, likely because of slightly too much water, which the gnat larvae like. Online sources say, keep every plant fairly dry between waterings, replace the top 2 in. of soil, and repot the plant if you’re desperate (although even bagged potting soil most likely harbors gnats).

Watering is also probably the cause of the yellow mold that sometimes appears on soil. It’s harmless to you and the plant; it comes when the soil stays moist enough and indicates some organic digestion is going on. Just scrape it off the soil. Some sites suggest sprinkling the soil with cinnamon, a natural fungicide, which I’ve yet to try.

Originally published in slightly different form in the Somerville Garden Club newsletter, 2017.