No one is immune to errors, or perhaps bad luck, and I am no exception. While watering another plant the other day, my Philodendron Pink Princess caught my attention – it was droopy. This is unusual, I had watered this plant a couple days prior as the soil had been dry – it should have been perky and well.
This led me to lightly pull on the base of the plant – a healthy root system will typically hold well, but rotted roots are more likely to fail, allowing you to easily lift the plant out of the soil. Sure enough, my Pink Princess came right out of its pot – and in hindsight I should have been doing this over a potting mat; I made a bit of a mess. But we live and we learn.
The root system was devastated. Many roots came off easily and were squishy in my hands. While this plant’s roots are naturally a dark red colour and seeing rot can be difficult, it was obvious in this case – the texture of roots should be firm and they should never pull off when you run your fingers over them. I had some work to do if I wanted to save this plant.
It may be worth noting that it is a good idea to take cuttings for propagation when you find root rot – this is in case your efforts fail, as they sometimes will. In this case, I didn’t, but that is because I already have several cuttings rooting at the moment.
I began by rinsing all of the soil off of the roots – and since I didn’t have a way to sanitize the soil, it all went into the organics bin. This soil now has bacteria and organisms in it that will continue to cause rot – so it sadly cannot be reused.
I then cut off all the rotted roots– leaving only the healthy, burgundy roots behind; rot will easily spread and it is important to remove all affected roots. I then placed the plant into a glass of clean water for a couple days to rehabilitate. Once the plant begins to perk up, I will re-plant it in fresh, well-draining soil.
First things first – there is no reason why a houseplant that thrived in your home during the spring and summer can’t survive the winter. Most plants won’t grow very much in the winter, and some will go completely dormant and won’t grow at all. Houseplants are also increasingly susceptible to root rot, pests, and other issues during the winter transition. You definitely want to take some precautions to help them out a little bit.
One major thing you need to consider when preparing your houseplants for winter is lighting. During the summer months the sun is much brighter, and the days are much longer – so during the winter your plants will be receiving less light on two counts. There are a couple of ways to help with this. One: move your plants closer to the windows. This is great but be sure not to move them too close to cold windows as the low temperatures can hurt them more than the increased sun will help them. Frost is not your friend.
The second way to create more light is to invest in grow lights. These don’t have to be ugly or overly expensive, simply buy grow light bulbs and use any lamp that you like – so long as it can handle the appropriate wattage. One thing I will say about grow lights is that they are VERY bright, sometimes unpleasantly so, so I tend not to use mine unless I really need to.
Another winter consideration is central heating and drafts. When I had radiators, I didn’t notice the same issues that I have with my current forced air heating system – the drafts of hot air not only dry out my apartment, they also hurt my plants. Plants hate drafts – whether those are from a cold window or a heating vent – so be sure to place your houseplants a safe distance from cracked windows and heaters in your home.
This also ties into humidity. Here in Toronto, we are spoiled for humidity in the summer. In fact, during the summer months I often don’t run a humidifier at all – I just open my window to let the natural humidity in, but the winter is very different. It is cold and dry – meaning I have to run both my heater and my humidifier. I find investing is a decent humidifier is pretty essential – and it’s good for your own health as well as your plants. I suggest buying one that fills from the top and has a built-in hygrometer. I keep mine set to 60% throughout the winter; I find if I set it too high I end up having to re-fill the tank too often for my liking, and 60% is enough to keep my plants happy.
You also want to change your watering and fertilising habits in the winter months. Since your plants will be growing less, they will take up less water. Water also evaporates less in the colder, darker months, so you will need to cut back on watering. I suggest buying a moisture meter if you aren’t sure when to water and gradually watering your plants less frequently to ensure you don’t overwater them.
You also need to cut back on fertiliser. Your plants use fewer nutrients in the colder months and over fertilising them can lead to burnt leaves and roots. It is important to cut back on, or sometimes even completely omit, the fertiliser you use. Only fertilize when your plants are growing.
The final winter consideration is pest control. Houseplants are very susceptible to pests and illness during changing seasons. Every fall and spring I take all (yes ALL) of my houseplants, group by group, into my bathtub and wash off all the dust from their leaves before spraying them down thoroughly with a houseplant pesticide. I always look for one that tackles spider mites, mealy bugs, thrips, and aphids. I try to use preventative measures like this all year round – but I am especially thorough during the transition to winter.
The winter will not be the death of your houseplant collection, but you do need to take some extra care and adjust your habits a little. I also recommend not propagating your plants or re-potting them until spring if you can. Best of luck and keep cozy!
Most gardeners have seen, at some point in their journey, root rot. What is it, what causes it, and what can be done?
Roots Require a few things to be healthy and to function properly. They require moisture, nutrients, and air. Proper aeration of the soil is essential to prevent waterlogging and suffocation. If roots remain stuck in heavy, wet soil for too long they can lose essential access to oxygen and begin to decay. This decay is what is commonly called root rot.
Prevention is the most effective way to combat root rot, although we will also cover measures that can be taken to try to save a plant with rot. The best way to prevent rot is the choose or create a soil mixture with proper aeration. Good houseplant soils will include a healthy amount of perlite, bark, coconut husk, horticultural charcoal, or pumice. It is ideal the choose a soil with more than one of these amendments. You can also add these elements to existing soil in order to improve aeration and drainage. Be sure to also place your plant in a pot with a drainage hole in the bottom.
If your plant does develop rot, the best thing to do is to first remove your plant from its pot and compost the soil, do not reuse it as the rot can spread to another plant. On the affected plant trim any rotted root. Roots that are soft, dark, or falling off should be removed.
If after this pruning you still have a significant root system, the plant can be re-potted in fresh soil. If the plant no longer has roots, or has very few, it can be placed into damp sphagnum moss, or in a glass of water, in order to regrow its roots.