Writing by Leslie Dock

Whether you are an avid gardener or brand new to plant parenting, facing the shorter cold days ahead and grieving the loss of warmer growing days can be rough. Fret not – you have options to continue your gardening adventures indoors. Here are some indoor plant care prescriptions to help ease you into winter. 

To choose the prescription that is right for you, select the level of experience you have cohabitating with plants from the following list:

Little to no experience: You have a self-proclaimed “black thumb.” Your space could use a touch of green, but you just don’t know where to begin.

Moderate knowledge: One succulent somehow became ten, and now, cruising for cute pots at TJ Maxx sounds like a fun little Saturday outing. You’re ready to expand your botanical family.

Infatuated with plants: There is little to no space near any window in your house. You can only use the shower because the bathtub is for plants. Your plants “get” you.

Your plant Rx: Little to no experience

Everybody must start somewhere. Even if you killed a plant or two, you are in good company. We have all forgotten to water or drowned a small green friend, even when we had the best intentions. No judgments here. What’s important is your instinct to have a plant in your home. 

Your prescription is simple: find the right place in your space. 

Plants need light, heat, water and food. Too little or too much of any of these elements can undermine a plant’s health. To maximize your success, I recommend scouting a place in your kitchen (near a window) before you purchase your new plant. We tend to spend the bulk of our time in our kitchen and are used to completing daily chores there. Plus, kitchens have water. If your kitchen doesn’t have any windows, find a window nearby.

Determine how much light your plant will receive. Will your chosen spot bathe a plant in direct sun for part of the day? Is the light passive and weak, but it’s the best you’ve got? If you aren’t certain, set reminders on your phone to check the light in your spot every hour or so on a sunny day, if you can manage it. Remember that the angle of the sun changes as the seasons progress, so go by the light now and expect to adjust for exposure when the days get longer and the sun is more directly overhead. 

Next, place your hand where you expect your plant to live. Do you feel any drafts? Is there warm air radiating from a heat register or blowing in from a nearby vent? If you feel like you could sit comfortably in that spot without a fan or blanket, your plant will like it there too. Don’t worry if your spot isn’t optimally comfy. You can adjust for a hot spot by choosing a plant that will thrive with a little extra warmth and by throwing a little extra water its way. Should you feel extreme drafts, however, look for another window with warmer conditions.

When it comes time to choose a plant, choose something easy, like a snake plant for lower light conditions or a succulent for a spot with direct or higher light conditions. Both are incredibly forgiving friends and can go for surprisingly long periods without water. 

Your plant Rx: Moderate knowledge 

Now that you have been introduced to the joys of plant parenthood, perhaps it’s time to bring some variety into your fold. After all, we spend a lot more time indoors during the winter months, and that means less time breathing fresh air and much less time exposed to the soothing power of green leaves. 

Plants and humans are symbiotic creatures. Plants convert the carbon dioxide we breathe out into the oxygen we need to survive. Some can also filter out airborne chemicals circulating in our homes. Similarly, in exchange for a warm place to live, water and a little food, plants soften the edges of our indoor spaces with their varied forms and textures and offer us stress relief through green bathing.

As you look to expand your plant family, I urge you to choose based on your capacity to provide proper humidity. Many of the plants you will find at your local greenhouse or garden store will be tropical in origin. Some, but not all, will need properly humid conditions to thrive outside their native tropical habitat. Our homes are much drier in the winter, but that shouldn’t stop you from exploring plants such as ferns, ivy or violets. Consider augmenting your internal atmosphere with a humidifier, setting out wide bowls of water, or committing to misting the plants that require a more humid environment. Bathrooms tend to be the most humid rooms in the house. If you can spare your tub space and have a decent amount of light, you can turn your bathroom into a veritable arboretum.

Along with humidity, it is crucial that you provide your plants with just the right amount of water. If you are away for many weeks at a time, you’ll want to choose plants that can withstand a bit of drought, such as the easy-to-love-and-care-for aloe plant. Conversely, if you work from home and enjoy more frequent plant care, take a long look at alocasia plants; they love humidity, and their broad, shiny leaves will need regular dusting or a good wipedown.

Pay careful attention to the watering needs of your plants. More houseplants are killed due to overwatering than underwatering. A general rule of thumb is to water no more than once per week. Remember to adjust for the dryness that indoor heating brings. When in doubt, stick a finger into the soil. If you don’t feel any sense of moisture at about the first knuckle point, it is likely time to water. If you really want to take your watering game up a notch, use filtered water on your plants. Tap water contains salts and minerals that may not jibe with your plants’ chemistry. 

Your plant Rx: Infatuated with plants 

I get it. You are busy. Bringing in all those plants and figuring out how to arrange them so they fit and get the light and humidity they need means you have a lot on your plate. However, soon you’ll have worked all that out and will be ready for your next plant challenge. Have you considered edibles? I’m not talking about a few herbs above the kitchen sink. I am referring to lettuce, micro-greens and maybe even a lemon tree if you have the space for it.

Edible plants bring an incredible amount of joy to the grower. You get to witness a plant’s life cycle over and over again, and the feeling of eating something you have grown yourself is incredibly satisfying.

Let’s say you want to try micro-greens for your first project. You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to get started. A sunny, warm spot, some potting soil, seeds, a shallow tray with drainage and a grow light or two are enough to get you going. Once you have thickly seeded a half inch of soil, water evenly and maintain consistent moisture. Place the tray in a sunny, warm spot by day and provide a few hours of artificial light in the evening. The key is to mimic the cool-season conditions that greens like to grow in outdoors. Be sure to turn the tray so the seedlings don’t stretch too much toward the light on one side. Once you get your method down, you can turn around a batch of microgreens every two to three weeks. You can use this same method on lettuce, paying special attention to heat and humidity. Take a stab at mix leaf lettuce rather than head lettuce. You can turn around a crop in about a month.

Bonus tip: Rotate your plants so they don’t defoliate on one side. Light bounces off light-colored walls, but you will still need to rotate your plants for best results.

And remember, even if you fall back on old habits and over-water your favorite ficus, don’t despair. We often learn more from failure than from immediate success. 

This article was published in the November/December 2023 edition of Connect to Northern Westchester

Leslie Dock
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Leslie Dock is an accomplished freelance farmer, gardener, permaculture practitioner and educator based in Katonah. Originally from Wisconsin, she made her way to NYC to pursue a career in acting in 2001. After 15 years in the city and numerous vocations, she moved to Katonah with her family and discovered a passion for agriculture and gardening.

“I feel so lucky to live in Katonah,” Leslie says. “We have access to a small-town community and communion with nature and one of the greatest cities in the world. The only thing missing is a killer taco joint in town.”