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Photograph: Courtesy Chicago Plants

How to keep your houseplants alive during Chicago winters, according to experts

Is your plant collection looking a little worse for the wear? Here are some professional tips.

Emma Krupp
Written by
Emma Krupp

Despite having a less-than-green thumb, I've somehow managed to fall victim to the plant-buying craze that's afflicted so many of us over the past year. Rearing a coterie of jade plants and pothos was easy enough in the summer—just water weekly and let them photosynthesize!—but within the past two months, winter has felled several beloved plants and left a pretty sad-looking gap on my sunroom's windowsill. 

So where did I go wrong? It's tough to say for sure, but Ozzy Gámez, the co-founder of Plant Shop Chicago in Albany Park, says the plants likely suffered from a mixture of drafty windows and ill-conceived TLC. "In winter, you're going to possibly want to be hovering over your plants a little bit more, just because you're stuck indoors," he explains"But it's good to keep in mind that your plants might need a little less going into winter." 

Want to make sure your plants fare better than mine as we continue to trudge through the cold months? Here are some (mostly) easy wintertime tips from Gámez and other local plant care experts. 

1. Abandon your watering schedule

Plenty of humans—the organized ones, at least—like sticking to a schedule. Plants, on the other hand, might not be so fond of your once-a-week watering routine. "A number one error in the winter months is overwatering," says Stephen Hill, general manager of Wicker Park's Sprout Home. Depleted sunlight, reduced growth and tons of other unpredictable wintertime factors affect how quickly your plant dries out and how much water it requires, so you should plan on adjusting accordingly. At the risk of sounding dramatic, know that drenching your plant can leave it weakened to the point of no return: "When this happens, roots are damaged, which is then realized by damaged leaves," Hill says. Fungus gnats, disease and death may ensue. 

Instead, it's best to regularly stick your fingers in the plant's soil to see whether it needs a drink: When the soil feels dry several inches down, it's time to water. Paying attention to external factors, like how cloudy it's been over the past few days, can also help inform your decision. (Less sun = less time for the soil to dry out.) 

If you insist on sticking to some kind of schedule, consider picking a day each week to feel out the soil of your plants. "If you're checking the soil on Sunday, and then realize that it's been cold, it's been dark and the soil is still moist and it doesn't need water yet, then you know that you shouldn't water that day and should wait to the next day, and so on," Gámez explains.

2. Hold off on repotting

"Every time you repot a plant, you put it through repot shock," Gámez says. "It's stressful no matter what time of year, but if you repot it in winter—when the days are really short and really cold—it often guides your plant in the wrong direction." Even if you realize it's been years since the soil's been changed, force yourself to wait for just a few more months; the plant will bounce back with ease once springtime rolls around.

3. Check the humidity levels in your apartment

You're not the only one who gets dried out from having the heat cranked up! Most houseplants are native to subtropical areas, where humidity levels are well over 50 percent, so dry air—like the kind currently pouring out from your radiator—can lead to wilting and crispy-looking leaves. You'll never be able to replicate the sultry environs of the tropics, but there are a few steps you can take to make sure your plants stay happy throughout the winter months.

First, you'll want to look into ways to up the moisture levels in your apartment. "I usually tell people that they want to keep humidity at a minimum of around 50 percent," says Ryan Glynn, the founder of Chicago Plants in Wicker Park. The easiest (and generally most effective) way to achieve this is with a humidifier, but you can also try placing your plant in a dish filled with pebbles and a bit of water; the water will generate humidity as it slowly evaporates. Lava rocks, broken pieces of terra cotta and similar materials are also great for this, as long as you make sure they elevate your plant so that it's not sitting in standing water. And don't lean too heavily on your spray bottles: Glynn and Gámez agree that misting, although beneficial for about an hour, should be considered more of a temporary solution to dry air.

Another way to boost the ambient humidity is to group your plants in one area of the apartment. Aside from reducing the amount of humidifiers you might otherwise be inclined to buy, this arrangement can help create a humid microclimate—sort of like a miniature forest—as the plants release moisture. Finally, if you're still not sure if there's enough humidity in the air, Glynn recommends nabbing a humidity-gauging hygrometer from a plant supply store or Amazon; they're a surprisingly cheap way to achieve exactitude.

4. Maximize your plant's light exposure 

Shorter days mean less sunlight, which is especially rough on sun-loving tropical plants like big-leafed Philodendron. If you feel like your plant isn't getting enough sunlight, it's OK to switch them to a more advantageous spot for the season. "During the winter months, I'll typically move plants around in my own home if I can, just to make sure that the spot they're staying in from roughly October until April is still going to give them exposure to a lot of light," Glynn says. South-facing windowsills, which typically receive the most indirect sunlight throughout the day, are an excellent choice if you're looking to boost sun exposure.

Want to give your leafy guys even more access to sunlight? Grab a dust cloth and get cleaning. "It's helpful to gently wipe your plants' leaves or just take them over to the sink, bath or shower and rinse them down," Hill says. "Removing dust will allow the leaves to breath as well as take in what sunlight is available."

An additional note on sunlight: As you pick spots for your plants on a windowsill, try to get a feel for how much cold air is leaching through the glass. Cold is more likely to kill a plant than low-light conditions, and if you're saddled with especially drafty windows, it's worthwhile to sacrifice a little sunlight in the name of keeping your plant warm. (Succulents, which love sun and deal with massive temperature fluctuations in their native desert habitats, are the exception to this rule.) 

5. And finally... try not to freak out about the little stuff

Look, we're inside a lot these days! When you're sitting in your apartment all day, it's easy to stare at your windowsill and fret over wilting leaves. Just remember: Plants go through a dormancy phase, and all three experts assured me it's normal to see reduced growth, dropped leaves and other worrying wintertime developments. Resist the urge to break out fertilizer or a watering can and try to go with the flow; odds are you'll be rewarded with a still healthy-plant in the springtime. And if you're still concerned or have species-specific questions, it's never a bad idea to reach out to your local plant shop. 

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