Spring Grooming for Houseplants

Spring or early summer is a great time to audit your plants and give them some extra TLC. Just like outdoor plants, houseplants respond to longer days and more intense sunlight with new growth. It also makes them more resilient to disturbances like repotting, pruning, and relocation. In this post, we’ll discuss some of the many plant care activities you can do at this time of year.

For best results, groom and water your plants early in the day, so they’ll have plenty of daylight to help them process any changes.

Prune

Pruning (aka cutting back) can happen any time of year, but it’s safest to prune in growth periods.

Reasons to prune:

  • Plant is getting unwieldy or growing weirdly

  • Spur new growth, encourage bushy growth (as opposed to leggy growth) in certain plants

  • Remove unattractive or infected* leaves

Tips:

  • Use a clean implement (rubbing alcohol to sterilize scissors or pruners)

  • Cut back to just above a leaf node (where a leaf grows out of the stem)

  • Young or soft stem plants can usually be “pinched off” using your fingers

  • Be careful not to pinch off the buds of flowering plants

  • You can often propagate the cutting (aka start a new plant)!

*If you’ve got a pest problem, it’s usually best to remove the most affected leaves and treat the rest of the plant with a plant soap or other remedy. It depends on the pest. It’s also a good idea to quarantine the plant away from your other houseplants.

Fertilize

It is generally advised to avoid fertilizing in winter or fall, which are slower growth periods for your plant. Spring and summer, however, can be a great time to give your plants a little boost with fertilizer.

There are many kinds out there; be sure to check the labels and apply according to instructions. Too much fertilizer can “burn” or be toxic to your plants. We generally recommend a liquid or water soluble organic fertilizer that dilutes in your watering can, and can be applied regularly (monthly or even weekly) during the spring and summer.

Why fertilize?

  • Add nutrients to depleted soil (repotting also helps with this)

  • Encourage new growth

What the letters mean (N - P - K):

  • N: Nitrogen, promotes tissue growth, chlorophyll development, and leaf growth; too much can discourage absorption of other nutrients

  • P: Phosphorus, promotes root, stem, bud, and flower growth; soil pH must be between 6.5-6.8 to be absorbed; soil organisms help with absorption.

  • K: Potassium, increases overall vigor and aids in metabolism (how plants use the sugars they produce in photosynthesis)

  • Note that organic fertilizers will also have micronutrients that contribute to a healthy biome in your potting mix

What the numbers mean (e.g. “2 - 3 - 1”):

  • The number indicates the percentage of those nutrients (N-P-K) by weight

  • Pay attention to both the concentration and the ratio

  • That said, most houseplants will be happy with a general fertilizer such as the Good Dirt Plant Food or Neptune’s Harvest. Some will do better with a more specialized formula (e.g. African violets, citrus, and orchids all have special fertilizers)

Aerate

This is a great thing to do throughout the year: take a chopstick or pencil or other similar object, and poke holes in the soil of your house plants. This breaks up compacted soil and brings more oxygen into the soil. It also helps water reach the roots better. You might be surprised how little water is absorbed when the soil is compacted. Be the earthworm.

Clean Leaves

Dusty leaves don’t photosynthesize as well as clean leaves. Use a soft cloth to wipe down leaves, and/or give them a nice heavy misting. Be gentle - most leaves break or tear easily.

Repot

As with pruning and fertilizing, spring is a great time to repot because your plant is in a growth period. That means it will more easily bounce back from the shock of being uprooted and will be able to make use of the additional leg room. In some cases, you might want to keep the current pot, but cut back the roots a bit.

Here’s a step-by-step guide on repotting. Before you get started, set yourself up for success...

  1. Clear a workspace. Don’t do this on top of your table with dirty plates and random mail around. You’re definitely going to be making a mess, so clear the space out first and the process will be enjoyable, not chaotic.

  2. Make sure you have plenty of fresh soil handy, as well as a dustpan and compost or trash.

  3. Make a plan. Take a look at what pots you have, and try to assign what plants will go with what pots ahead of time (some might stay in their same pot). The plan might change as you get started, but it will help to have a general road map.

Divide

Some plants propagate best by division. If you’re planning on dividing plants, now is the time to do it. This only works when you have multiple stalks of the same plant.

To divide: unpot the plant and gently pull the two root balls apart. Some breakage is likely to occur, but that’s okay. Repot the two divided plants as you would any plants. Note that divided plants (especially the smaller one) may take a few weeks to recover; it might look a bit sad and droopy at first. Be sure to give it excellent care (good light, appropriate watering), but also try to avoid disturbing it until it looks more robust.

Relocate

Outdoors:

Most plants we have in our homes are tropical plants that are adapted to shady, warm conditions. This means that many will thrive in a shaded outdoor environment during the summer, when temps and humidity are high. Only move houseplants outdoors when nighttime temps are in the mid-50s and above (you can look up the precise temperature range for your species to be extra careful). If you want to get your plants outdoors earlier in the season, you can begin introducing your plants outside during the daytime on warm days and bring them in at night. Once temps are consistently warm at night, you can leave them outdoors. While early or late day sun is usually okay, do not place most tropicals in strong direct sunlight - it could stress them out and potentially scorch the leaves (aka: plant sunburn).

Succulents that like direct sun can be moved to sunny environments outdoors, but be careful - even sun-loving plants can be shocked by the transition and could be scorched by a lot of extra direct sun. You may need to move them around a few times to get them used to the stronger light, and heat of summer.

In short, it is best to transition your plants slowly or in phases to an outdoor environment where they will be getting more light and experiencing a wider range of temperatures.

Indoors:

While not as strong as the outdoor seasonal changes, your indoor environment does have seasonality. The sun is stronger and the days are longer in the summertime. Then again, trees have leafed out and some windows may be receiving less sun than before. Some window plants may need to be moved accordingly. Alternatively, some plants that were kept away from drafty windows during the winter may be safely moved back to a window sill. Finally, make sure your plants aren’t in the direct stream of cold air from the AC.

Keep in mind that watering schedules will change slightly too. As plants receive more overall light and photosynthesize more, they will probably dry out more quickly.

Check for Pests

Pests are always something you always want to be on the lookout for when you’re watering or otherwise hanging out with your plants, but let’s face it, sometimes we get complacent, and that’s when pests can move in and get comfortable - particularly as the sun gets brighter and hotter during the summer months. This creates the perfect conditions for mealybugs and spider mites, especially if your plant is consistently wilty from exposure to the newfound glowing orb in the sky (looking at you, Boston).

As you are grooming your plants, observe for signs of pest: dark spots, inhibited growth, honeydew (sticky leaves), tiny bugs, or fine webbing can all be signs of a problem. Try to figure out what the culprit is, and remedy accordingly.







Alexandra Reisman