Tis’ the season for indoor tropics

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You have battened down the hatches in your garden and waved good-bye to the season.  Time to sit down and read a good book.

tropical plants

Not so fast. Remember the tropical plants that you brought indoors in the fall? The hibiscus, oleander, mandevilla vine, and the herbs that are now dropping leaves on your living room floor? They could use some TLC right about now. Here is why.

You'll notice that as the temperatures out of doors fall so does the humidity in your home, condo, or apartment. It is important to remember that most tropical plants come from a warm, southern place. In other words, their native habitat is quite opposite of your current home environment.

The first thing that you should do is wipe down the leaves of your broad-leafed plants using insecticidal soap, which is more soap than insecticide. In other words don’t worry that you are exposing your hands to some toxic substance. Spray some on a clean cloth and wipe down the leaves of your plants.  Wipe both sides of the leaves thoroughly to remove dust and grime. 

Small-leafed plants, like the famous ficus benjamina or ‘Weeping Fig,’ can be cleaned by simply spraying the leaves with the insecticidal soap solution, top and bottom. 

My indoor plants are losing their leaves. Help!

Think, once again, about the natural habitat of your Dumb Cane [dieffenbachia]. Warm. Humid. Near the equator where there is lots of light. 

It is natural for most indoor tropical plants to lose some leaves this time of year, especially if you had them outside for the summer. The intensity of natural light in our homes right now is very low. It is not just the day length that causes the sun to lose power in winter, it is the low angle at which the sun sits when it does shine. The shortest day of the year, Dec. 21, is only two weeks away.

Your hibiscus is losing its leaves. Don’t be alarmed by this as the tree/shrub needs to lose leaves in order to rejuvenate itself. I cut my leafy tropicals back this time of year by at least a third. Don’t give them a bowl cut: reach into the body of the plant and remove some of the woody, less leafy growth with a sharp pair of hand pruners. This will encourage more growth from the middle portion of the plant, producing a thick, healthy appearance and more even flowering, in the case of the hibiscus. 

Fertilize? 

Generally I don’t fertilize my tropical plants this time of year. They are not growing as they did in the summer, so they have no need for the ‘nutrients’ or fertilizer. 

Re-Pot?

A tropical plant has its own way of telling you whether or not you need to re-pot it. Look for roots that are growing through the surface of the soil.  If they are not obvious to the naked eye then scratch the soil with your fingers to see if they lurk just beneath the soil's surface. Now tip your plant on its side and look for roots growing out of the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot.  If you don’t see them making an escape, feel through the drainage hole. If you find roots, your plant is telling you that it is time for either a bigger home or that it needs its roots pruned. 

Pull the plant out of the pot, roots and all. It is silly to think that you have to be gentle while doing this as, chances are, it is stuck in there, the roots making pressure against the inside wall of the pot in their effort to get out. For a large tropical plant this could be a two-person job.

Once released from its undersized pot, pull the roots of the plant apart and be ruthless in doing so. A pair of scissors may be called for. Or a small, sharp kitchen knife. The idea is to give the roots freedom and convince them that it is indeed time to create new ones: to put roots down into a new home. You are pruning the roots as you would prune the top portion of the plant and for similar reasons: to thicken them and encourage new growth.

When choosing a new pot, only go up one size. A 10-inch pot calls for a clean 12-inch.  An 18-inch calls for a 20 or so. I favour clay pots over plastic as I swear that plants perform better in them overall.  But then, that could be in my head. I do, however, know that clay breathes through every pore, while plastic does not breathe.   

Look for a quality mix that is weedless, light, open and one that does not contain nutrients. Many of the potting mixes created for summer containers contain a slow release fertilizer, which is well and good, but not for your valuable indoor tropicals that need a rest after the trauma of re-potting. A good, gentle watering after the re-potting exercise is over is all that is needed. 

- Mark Cullen appears on Canada AM every Wednesday morning at 8:40. He is spokesperson for Home Hardware Lawn and Garden. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at www.markcullen.com.”

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