The botanical winter shuffle: Moving your plants inside

Vineyard Gardens owner Christine Wiley with tuberous begonias, a type of flower that is relatively easy to grow inside during the winter. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

With fall here and frost threatening, Vineyarders are hustling to move their houseplants off decks, out of window boxes, and back indoors for winter. We Islanders love nature and not many of us are happy to give up the pleasures of outdoor living when the air turns chilly and days grow shorter. Our plants feel the same way.

Many indoor gardeners move their houseplants outdoors in May for a summer of sunshine and fresh air. The autumn move to dryer, warmer, and darker indoor conditions calls for special care.

Although there are many “rules of thumb” about the best way to keep your plants healthy inside, not all plants are the same. Plant care advice may be found in books, online, and from green-thumbed friends. We turned to some Island plant sellers for tried-and-true tips.

Vineyard Gardens in West Tisbury specializes in shrubs and trees, annuals and perennials, and doesn’t emphasize houseplants. But according to veteran staff member Debbie Dean the nursery offers many plants that enjoy both outdoor and indoor conditions.

Attractive, foolproof choices include begonias of all sizes with colorful blossoms, and flowering maples. Both still have eye-catching foliage when blooms are fewer in winter.

From bushy asparagus ferns to the delicate maidenhair variety, ferns make an easy move from porch to parlor, and are well suited to indoor living since they need little light.

Ms. Dean said many varieties of ivy and fleshy-leaved sedums are good indoor choices too. Durable Scented Geraniums add an aromatic hint. Several herbs including rosemary and thyme can winter comfortably in the home, “but keep them far away from the woodstove.” She favors a spray bottle for extra moisture.

Like all gardeners, Ms. Dean cautioned against pests when moving plants indoors. “You could be bringing in more of nature than you want.” She urged a close inspection of leaves and roots, treatment if necessary, and re-potting in a fresh, clean container.

Ms. Dean takes a no-nonsense approach to saving annual plants. She warned that although some die-hard gardeners dig up zinnias, marigolds, basil, peppers, and other plants from the autumn garden, they will only survive indoors a few weeks because their growing season is over.

Nearby Middletown Nursery carries a variety of houseplants and others that thrive outdoors all summer but need shelter from winter storms. They include flowering plants like hibiscus, Mandevilla vines, passionflower vines, and plumbago.

Manager Heidi Larsen-Arroyo advises customers who need to bring these glamorous specimens indoors to put them in the brightest spot possible and far from heat sources. “Keep an eye out for insects,” she warned. “Insects will sneak up in the middle of winter.”

And don’t be alarmed if they drop their leaves in late winter. “They need a break, but they’ll leaf back out in a month or so.”

Middletown displays pots, planters, watering cans, and supplies for re-potting and maintaining your houseplants. Though the nursery closes on November 4, Ms. Larsen-Arroyo said there’s still time to take advantage of bargains, and celebrate autumn with the kids at the season’s last Family Fun Day, Sunday, Oct. 28, 11 am to 2 pm.

A lush jungle fills the Jardin Mahoney greenhouse in Oak Bluffs. Warm and moist, it’s a pleasant place to be on a chilly day. There are palms of every size, several types of orchids, all manner of greenery, even Meyer lemon trees.

Owner Paul Mahoney suggested easing the transition from sunny deck to living room by bringing the plant into the brightest location in the house first, before moving it to a dimmer area.

“Let it acclimate gradually to a lower light level,” he said.

Most plants take a breather in winter as daylight wanes, said Mr. Mahoney, and some go semi-dormant. This is a good time to cut them back, allowing them to conserve energy and establish new roots for spring.

Mr. Mahoney recommended treating plants with neem oil, a natural product effective against a broad range of insects including mites, and is a fungicide. He warned that many insects and especially mites are hard to see. But knock the branches of a plant over paper and mites will fall off, visible as tiny reddish specks.

Don’t kill plants with kindness. It seems natural to keep them wet when the thermostat is high, but it can hurt instead of help.

“People tend to over-water,” said Mr. Mahoney, who like others, recommended letting plants get fairly dry before watering. Some list cacti and succulents as plants that can get totally dry between waterings, while others like citrus trees demand more moisture.

Mr. Mahoney had good news for the plant lover whose home lacks big windows or is surrounded by trees. Many plants live happily with lower light, he said, listing several palms, Chinese evergreen, and spathiphyllum with pretty white flowers.

Donaroma’s in Edgartown is another leafy oasis, its extensive greenhouses filled with tall trees to hanging ferns and ivies to tiny tabletop gift plants. Mariko Kawaguchi, senior designer/horticulturist, offered tips for keeping your houseplants happy when summer ends.

First and foremost check for insects, she said, and recommended Safer’s Insecticidal Soap (non-toxic). “It’s like dusting your furniture,” she said, stressing the need to examine and clean plants regularly.

Moving from high outdoor humidity to dry indoor air is a major shift for plants. Ms. Kawaguchi suggested a humidifier and setting pots in a shallow tray of gravel with water underneath for constant humidity.

When trying to decide on the right care for your plant, do some research. “Figure out its background, where is it indigenous to, where did that plant come from,” said Ms. Kawaguchi. “It gives you clues.”

If plants look peaked after winter months indoors, Ms. Kawaguchi advised encouragement. “Tell them to hold on, May is right around the corner.”