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Winter Houseplant Care: Everything You Need To Know

Plus, the hardiest house plants for Canadian winters.
By Naomi Hansen
An array of indoor houseplants on three levels, in a post on winter houseplant care. Our creative director, Sun Ngo, is our resident plant expert; these are just a few of the many plants she cares for at her home. Ngo's picks for tough, survive-the-Canadian-winter plants include snake plants, monstera deliciosa and succulents. (Photo: Sun Ngo)

If you’re a stellar plant parent in summer but often struggle to keep your plants alive and well during the winter months, then you might need to adjust your plant care routine.

“The biggest mistake I see is not changing up your care routine during the winter,” says Miah Mills, manager of customer care at Toronto’s Urban Gardener. “When the heating kicks on, our houses get really dry, and in Canada, it gets dark really early so we lose a lot of light quality. So as the conditions of our homes change, the needs of our plants also change.”

With a few simple steps, you can help your plants not only survive the winter, but thrive, too. Read on for how to best care for your indoor houseplants this winter.

Pick hardy plants

Taking the time to learn about a plant before buying it can go a long way, because some plants do better than others in colder and drier climates. “Plants that do the best [in] are ones that tend to thrive on neglect,” Mills says. “Plants that have really thick fleshy leaves that don’t transpire or lose a lot of water do really well too, because they just keep calm and carry on.”

In contrast, plants with thin and delicate leaves are likely to require more maintenance come winter. “The thinner the leaf, the more humidity that the plant needs to survive,” says Ashley Esakin, a soil scientist and the creator of the Gardening in Canada blog and podcast. But how can you tell if the leaves are thick enough? “If the plant leaf feels like it’s going to snap when you pinch it, then that’s a thick leaf,” she said.

If you want to buy a plant that will do well year-round—and especially in winter—Mills and Esakin suggest snake plants, ZZ plants, pothos, philodendrons, cacti and succulents.

A white and silver plant humidifier, used in a post on winter houseplant care. Put a humidifier, like this one from Levoit, in the same room as your plants to provide consistent humidity all day. (Photo: Levoit)

Control the humidity

If the air quality in your home is especially dry, or if your plants have thin, delicate leaves, you may need to increase the humidity level. “Nine times out of 10 if a plant is struggling it’s because it doesn’t get enough humidity,” Mills says, noting that misting your plants will only provide temporary relief, but isn’t a lasting solution.

One option is investing in a humidifier, which you should put in the same room as your plants to provide consistent humidity all day long. “There are a lot of really fantastic smart humidifiers out there that you can pre-set to a specific percentage, and then they will switch off once it reaches that, or kick back on once it drops below that,” Mills says. “A hot tip is to get [a] that fills from the top, so that you don’t have to lug it to your bath or sink to fill it up.”

There are also a few other tricks you can employ at home to naturally increase humidity. Moving your plants away from drafty windows and into rooms with higher humidity levels—like your kitchen or bathroom—can help, or you can place your plants in groups of three or four. “When a plant transpires it creates its own little humidity biome, so grouping your plants together is another way to increase humidity,” Mills says.

Three small houseplants in bright white and yellow ceramic pots, used in a post on winter houseplant care. Airplants (at left and middle) and gasteria (far right) are tough, hardy plants. (Photo: Sun Ngo)

Get a grow light (or lightbulb)

When it comes to winter plant care, the amount of light your plants receive can make just as big a difference as the amount of humidity. “I think people underestimate how much light a plant really needs to thrive,” Esakin says. “Houseplants need somewhere around 12 to 18 hours of light per day, so if we’re dealing with shorter daytimes in the winter, window light is simply not enough.”

Esakin recommends supplementing natural night with a grow light, which is an electric light bulb that imitates the spectrum of light from the sun. “It doesn’t have to be fancy—you can just switch out your regular lightbulbs in your house for grow lights [because] they just look like regular light bulbs,” she says. If you’re new to grow lights, look for them at your local plant, garden or home store. Esakin recommends General Electric full-spectrum LED grow lightbulbs, which look like regular lightbulbs and cost $20 per bulb.

One of the benefits of grow lights is that you don’t have to move your plants around come winter. “You can still have them spaced out around your home and enjoy them as decor,” notes Mills.

A moisture meter for houseplants, shown in A row of houseplants in colourful planters, in a post on winter houseplant care. A moisture metre—like this Uniroi one—will help you more accurately gauge the moisture in soil so you can avoid over- or underwatering.

Be mindful of how you water

Rather than watering your plants on a regular schedule, Mills recommends watering by touch. “Your plant may be using less water because its metabolism has slowed down [due] cooler temperatures or less light. Stick your finger in the soil to see if there’s still water in there first and then you don’t run the risk of overwatering your plant.”

On the other hand, you don’t want to underwater your plants either. “We want to keep the soil moisture above 20 percent, so you should still feel a little bit of moisture when you actually go to test that soil and that is a sign that it’s time to water. You never want to let it get to the point where it feels bone dry—that’s when it’s gone too far,” Esakin says, noting that cacti and succulents are the one exception for dry soil being okay.

If you’re not familiar with watering by touch, Esakin suggests getting a plant sensor—also known as a moisture metre—so that you can more accurately measure the level of moisture in the soil before you water, which will help prevent both under- and overwatering. Look for plant sensors at your local plant, garden or home store.

Fertilize—but gently

A plant’s metabolism naturally slows down in winter, which means you should adjust how you’re fertilizing accordingly. “As long as your plant is still growing, it’s safe to fertilize, but you just want to use something really gentle,” Mills says. He recommends using an organic fertilizer like one from Canadian brand BIOS, which makes natural plant fertilizers. You can also use worm castings, which are available at most plant and garden stores. “Sprinkle a tablespoon of [worm] onto the soil surface once a month. It's water soluble so it will dissolve when the plant gets watered and it goes into the soil to give the plant a boost.”

Using a gentle fertilizer is important because if you over-fertilize in winter, you could end up burning your plants. “If your plant has less light and cooler temperatures, those biological processes are happening a lot slower, so you want the plant to be able to use up all the fertilizer that you give it,” Mills says. “Whereas in summer, if your plant is vigorously growing, then it’s using up the fertilizer as quickly as you give it. So that’s why using a more gentle amount is better—you don’t want to burn it by doing too much.” If all you have on hand is a synthetic or chemical fertilizer, Mills says to just dilute it to one-quarter to one-half of the regular strength.

A group of plants in terracotta and other pots on a shelf, in a post about winter houseplant care. Terracotta pots allow plants to breathe, and are a great pick if you tend to overwater. (Photo: Sun Ngo)

Use a terracotta pot

If you tend to overwater your plants, Esakin recommends using terracotta pots over plastic or ceramic ones. “Terracotta is porous and allows for a lot of air flow, which is important because that’s going to ensure that the plant itself is going to be able to keep its roots nice and dry,” she says, noting that a terracotta pot will allow the plant to drain more equally overall. “With ceramic and plastic pots, the roots tend to be a little bit wetter, and they don’t allow for as much air transfer to take place.”

Be patient!

Mills notes that learning how to take care of your plants well can be a process and offers a word of encouragement: “Anyone who’s good at plants has killed their fair share of plants. So just because you killed one plant, doesn’t mean you’re bad at plants. It just might mean that you chose the wrong plant or that you didn’t get the conditions right, so learn a little bit more, ask questions and try again.”

10 hard-to-kill house plants

      • Snake plant
      • Whale fin plant
      • Rubber plant
      • Monstera deliciosa
      • Succulents (such asgasteria)
      • Fiddle-leaf fig
      • Spider plant
      • Air plant
      • Chinese evergreen (aglaonema)
      • Ponytail palm

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