It’s about now that we realize those summertime tropicals aren’t going to survive our North Texas winter unless we take steps to protect them.
“They’re so beautiful. I just can’t sit by and watch them all freeze. What can I do?” That’s a question I hear several times daily just before the first frost, and it’s usually followed by this little gem: “Can I put them in the garage?”
Well, no. The garage just isn’t going to do.
Your garage will probably be too cold for ferns, ficuses, crotons and others. They’ll start shedding leaves within a week or two.
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Garages are cold and they’re dark. Even strategies like leaving lights on or hanging extra lights won’t make much difference. The plants are still going to struggle. Ferns, ficuses, crotons and many others will start shedding leaves a week or two after they’re brought in.
And things only get worse as winter progresses. When you take your plants back outside in the spring, many types will be lethargic and slow to recover. Hibiscus plants may not grow for several months, and bougainvilleas may not flower all year.
There is a way to utilize a garage for the emergency times when temperatures fall near or below freezing: Leave large plants on dollies and move them in and out as needed. There are weeks in early winter and early spring when they could be outside most of the time. But from late December through early February, it’s possible they’ll be in the garage for weeks at a time, and that’s definitely not good.
A better setting
Many of our best tropical plants will do quite well inside our homes. That is, after all, why they were brought into the market — for use as “house” plants. All they need is a bright east, south or west window nearby.
Odd as it may seem, sheer drapes actually deflect the light into a more even pattern, and that can end up helping the plants. Otherwise, give them the brightest spot you can find. If you have a sunroom with skylights, so much the better.
Tropical plants like cooler “people” temperatures, meaning 65-70 degrees. Give them light and avoid fireplaces and hot drafts.
Cut back on the water and fertilizer you give tropical plants over the next several months. My mindset has always been: “Maintain the status quo. Don’t let them grow.” Fertilize them monthly or less, and keep the soil moist at all times, but not wet. Finding ample light is your big hurdle in winter, and adding nutrition isn’t going to make up for dark surroundings.
Most tropical plants survive best in “people” temperatures, preferably just a bit on the cool side. That means 65-70 degrees. Warmer temperatures, once again, will promote lanky growth in the dark interior conditions.
And keep them out of hot drafts. Don’t set plants near fireplaces or heat vents. Dry household air is very damaging to tropical plants from the rain forests.
Plant diseases won’t be so much of a problem due to that dry air, but watch your plants closely for signs of insects. These can accumulate suddenly.
Most common among them will be spider mites, scales, mealy bugs and whiteflies. Learn to recognize them quickly, and step to your plants’ aid immediately. Natural predators didn’t make the move indoors with your plants, so you become the sole hope when a problem arises.
Spider mites will initially cause tiny tan mottlings on the leaf surfaces. They attack a wide range of plants. You’ll often see their damage, for example, on crotons. The problem is that spider mites are almost microscopic, so you may see the damage before you ever see the mites.
If you want to confirm them, thump a suspect leaf over a sheet of white paper. If you see tiny specks starting to move, you’ve got a mite problem. By the time the populations have built up enough for you to see the mites’ tiny webs in the axils of leaves, it’s probably too late to salvage the afflicted plant.
Mealy bugs and other scale insects are stealthy. They can cover your plants before you notice they’re there.
Fortunately, spider mites do not do well with water, so you can try putting the plant’s leaves under a water spray at the faucet. Rinse off both top and bottom leaf surfaces.
Mealy bugs and other scale insects are stealthy, too. They can cover your plants before you notice they’re there. Early symptoms are sticky leaf surfaces and shedding leaves. That’s when you begin to see the pests stuck to the leaves and stems.
Mealy bugs are white and crusty. When pressed, they exude yellow fluids. Hard-scale insects often look like half-BBs or oyster shells and are essentially immobile.
In all cases, you want to detect them early and use a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol to remove them.
And as if all of those aren’t difficult enough to eliminate, then you have whiteflies. These pests are highly mobile. Brush against an infested plant and you’ll be quite aware that they’re there. They’ll fly up in your face, then return to the plant.
No insecticide is especially effective against them. The best thing you can do is to wash the leaf surfaces (if possible) with two soft sponges dipped in warm, soapy water. Pull each leaf between the two sponges, then rinse, squeeze dry and repeat for the next leaf.
It’s boring, and it only works on large-leafed plants like hibiscus (one of their favorite targets), but it will help eliminate the whiteflies.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: http://neilsperry.com.