Article and Photos by Evin Morrison, Extension Master Gardener
The holidays have come and gone. In all the hustle and bustle, it’s not surprising that some of our normal day-to-day tasks have fallen by the wayside. Maybe like watering your houseplants?
As we look to 2023 with the best intentions, maybe include a few plant care resolutions with your fitness plans and Dry January. Winter is a hard time for our houseplants, and cold temperatures and dark days will remain through March. By implementing just two care tips, you will come into spring with a house full of happy, healthy plants.
Dust and/or rinse your plants every other week
The heater is blasting, the humidity is low and no matter how hard we try to avoid it, those conditions lead to dust. We all take the time to dust our surfaces to keep ourselves healthy, but your plants need the same treatment. We want our plants looking beautiful and not like something we just pulled out of the attic.
Plants use a combination of photosynthesis and respiration to create energy, which allows them to grow and stay healthy. This process relies on leaf surfaces being able to absorb light and having good oxygen flow. Dust sitting on leaves prevents both from proceeding in the optimal way. The plant’s ability to photosynthesize is already at a low point this time of year because of how short the days are, but a layer of dust makes it harder for the plant to absorb the available sun. Imagine holding up a semi-sheer piece of fabric in front of a lamp, light still gets through, but not at the same brightness.
Respiration is slowed when dust build up blocks the pores that are found on almost all foliar plants. These pores are called stomata and are responsible for absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. Simply by wiping down your leaves with a microfiber cloth, the plant will be able to breathe again. If dusting with a rag seems too tedious, you can create a mini rain shower by setting plants under the shower or sink faucet to rinse the leaves.
And if plant health wasn’t enough to convince you to add this chore to your growing to-do list, spider mites love to make a home on dusty leaves, and they are much harder to see when the leaf surface is already dirty. If you are concerned about the possibility of spider mites, which are a common problem this time of year, you can dust your plant and then wipe the leaves with a little neem or horticultural oil. The plant’s leaves will shine, and the oil will help repel pests.
Dump the watering schedule and really look at your plants
One of the biggest reasons that a plant declines in our homes is due to watering. Some people are serial over waterers and others forget to give their plants a drink until it’s too late. No matter what pattern you fall into, we’ve all killed a plant because of a watering problem. To avoid this pattern, it’s often recommended to stick to a watering schedule. While this can help remind a forgetful indoor gardener that it’s time to find their watering can, it’s also a common reason that a plant’s H₂0 needs aren’t met.
Throughout the year, the environment in our homes fluctuates. Obviously, the swing from the winter chill to the summer heat isn’t as drastic for our houseplants as it is for the perennials outdoors, but it’s still enough to make a difference. The change from heat to air conditioning, the relative humidity, and evaporation rates all change season-to-season, so watering habits also need to change to account for the different environmental stressors.
To really learn what your plants need, let them all dry out a little, pick a day and give them all a good watering. Three days later go back and check the soil moisture make a note of which ones are still moist, which one are starting to dry out, and if any are already dry. Then go back three days after that and do the same. As a rule of thumb, most houseplants are happiest when they are rewatered after the top few inches of soil dry out. Not only will the plant be getting enough to drink, but by allowing the top layers to dry out you are more likely to avoid a fungus gnat breeding ground, as these pests breed in the top inch or two of only moist soil.
After your experiment, you should be able to see which plants are happy to get watered weekly and which ones might be able to go a few weeks at a time without a drink. Ferns might need water every three days, but a snake plant or ZZ plant can get water once a month and thrive. The plant that was happy all summer, but now dries out every few days, might be too close to a heating vent. Take an inventory of your plant’s needs, rather than adding “water plants” to a weekly chore list, to ensure that you have fewer losses this year. And if you’ve been overwatering, it might even free up some time to tackle another resolution!
Don’t forget: You’ll want to check in again in the spring and summer months to see how watering needs increase or decrease for each plant.
The new year is a time to start fresh and resolve to do a few things that bring joy. Caring for houseplants should be a fun and relaxing hobby and with these two resolutions, your plants will thrive and be much less work in the long run. Here’s to a pest-free, stress-free year of thriving houseplants!
Urton, James. “Stomata — the Plant Pores That Give Us Life — Arise Thanks to a Gene Called MUTE, Scientists Report.” UW News. May 7, 2018,
University of California Davis, Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources, Fruit and Nut Research and Information Center. “Photosynthesis & Respiration.” Accessed Jan. 8., 2023, https://ucanr.edu/sites/btfnp/generaltopics/Tree_Growth_Structure/Photosynthesis_Respiration/