A Cook’s Garden: Preparing houseplants for winter indoors

Contributor October 26, 2011

Let’s get this straight: I am not one of those gardeners who talks to her plants. But as more evidence comes to light about plants’ biochemical communication, I sometimes wonder what they are saying about me.

My three large citrus plants sit on the terrace, just in front of the French doors, waiting to be brought inside for the winter, and they’re doing very well. The Ponderosa lemon just bore a huge, ponderous fruit and is working on several more. The Meyer lemon has more than two dozen fruits ripening, and the calamondin is covered with them. So pollination for all three must have been excellent, as waxy white blooms perfumed the terrace on and off all summer and the bees did their work.

Barbara Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.” View Archive

But a sense of foreboding hangs over the scene. Will it be another winter of sticky windows, sticky floors and sticky furniture, as scale insects mysteriously emerge and take up residence in these potted trees? Will the webs of spider mites — also sticky from the honeydew secreted by the scale — bedeck them as well, in a winter-long celebration of Halloween? I can hear the chatter out there: “She’s just not a houseplant person.”

I’m trying hard. This year I sprayed all three thoroughly with a horticultural oil, to smother any lurking scale eggs. I’m going to do it again before a killing freeze threatens and I bring all tender plants inside. My bay plants, which also face a winter of scale indoors, are being dispatched to a sunny window in the furnace room, where they will not freeze, and will not infect the citrus with their ills. This year, I promise, I will water everybody just enough, including the rosemary plant that seems to need it almost daily when kept inside.

I’m not sure my indoor accommodations are ideal for citrus. My friend Debby Nevins, who has famously good luck with them, thinks I should have them in a cooler spot in winter. I’m sure she is right, because when I’ve kept them in a minimally heated greenhouse they consider it heaven, rewarding me with buckets of luscious fruit. But since our budget has defunded greenhouse heat this year, frost-sensitive plants are stuck with the living room, the only big enough place in the house with bright light. It also contains the woodstove which, in large part, along with sunny windows, heats the house. When it comes to heat, I am even more tropical than a lemon, so the woodstove is non-negotiable.

It’s possible that, despite my best efforts, one or more of the trees will throw a leaf tantrum the minute they all come inside. That would not be fatal. Citrus can lose all their leaves and grow new ones — although the fruits might not ripen quickly. But I’m sure I can do better this year. Maybe I’ll test their soil. Perhaps they need iron, or lime. But the muttering on the terrace continues: “She’s all talk.”

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”

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