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Give your houseplants some love now, so they can cheer you up all winter

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: October 8, 2020
  • Published October 8, 2020

It's time to clean up your existing houseplants, removing dead leaves and branches, and trim them for shape. While you do so, inspect for bugs and slugs. (Getty Images)

It is October, and while temperatures may still be relatively high, the indoor gardening season has started. You should be asking: “How are my houseplants doing?”

Wait! Wait. This is not yet another of Lowenfels' (justifiable) pleas — I am coming up on 45 years of them — to set up some sort of lighting for your indoor plants. No, it is the annual call to check on your plants. It is a long season; you should at least start with plants that are likely to make it.

Let’s start with three plants that need to be primed so they will flower during the winter, beginning with amaryllis. These are the world’s easiest plants and will produce the biggest and most amazing flowers you will ever grow, indoors or out. Right now, deprive yours of water and let the foliage die back. Put pots in dark, cool storage for the next 8 weeks. If you see amaryllis bulbs for sale, get them. This includes catalog offerings.

Next, so-called Thanksgiving cacti, Schlumbergera truncata, bloom around the holiday, but only if you place plants in natural light with low temperatures, as low as 50 or so. It is also imperative to have the right kind of holiday “cacti” (really not cacti), as there are two basic kinds. The Thanksgiving one has serrated leaves, and the Christmas one has smooth leaves. Water these plants sparingly until the plant flowers.

Pelargoniums — aka geraniums, the plants blooming in your summer baskets and containers — will bloom this winter, too. Bring indoors, let them finish blooming, and then cut the foliage back to both reduce their size and to shape them. (The cuttings can be calloused over in 48 hours and started in sand or soil, but not water.) The mother plants should be grown in cool locations and can withstand natural light. If you put them under lights, however, they will bloom again in a month or so. Otherwise, you should get flowers after January.

Next, clean up all your existing houseplants, removing dead leaves and branches, and trim them for shape. While you do so, inspect for bugs and slugs. Scale (brown, hard spots on leaves), mites (webs and yellowing leaves) and aphids (you know these!) are likely suspects. Start with Neem-based pesticides if you want to try to control things. Seriously infested plants need to be tossed. (I know. It is difficult.)

Some plants will need re-potting. Give them another inch or so in diameter. Make sure your new containers have drainage. Make sure the plants are at the same level as in the old containers.

Finally, get some new plants. Local nurseries, chain stores, florists and supermarkets all sell “cute” little houseplants which have the ability to grow into large specimens. This is a great time to buy them both so transport them without worrying about cold weather.

The same goes for buying plants online. There is little problem shipping them now. Wait another few weeks and you may run into problems. There are lots of places that sell plants online. Poke around, if for no other reason than to see what the prices are compared to what you can find locally. And, of course, make sure they ship to Alaska. (When are these folks going to realize Fed Ex and Parcel Post have their biggest facilities here?)

Like it or not, we are all going to have to spend more time indoors than normal. Houseplants are not going to be a luxury, but rather a necessity for sanity. Welcome to the indoor season.

Jeff’s garden calendar for the week:

Spooky Garden: Alaska Boo-tanical Garden has a spooky walk through Oct. 24, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. There are Halloween displays and it’s free for members and kids 6 years old and younger. $5 for non-members. For more info, see

Fall in-service day camps at the Botanical Garden: Special day camps for Anchorage School District in-service days for students ages 6-13. 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16. $40 for members, $45 for non-members. Pre-registration required; limit of 15 students.

Driveways and walkway: Time to stake yours so the snowplow knows where to stay.

Spring bulbs: Buy 'em and plant 'em.