Q: I bought lots of new houseplants last summer to brighten my bedroom and home office. I fed them regularly during the warmer months with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer and they thrived. Now winter is here, should I be feeding them less?
A: Usually, the answer is yes. The majority of indoor plants don't need feeding in winter, nor do they need much water.
'Most houseplants enter a dormant or resting phase during winter,' explains Kayla Gajdascz, the co-founder of Mental Houseplants. 'Their growth slows down significantly, and they require less energy.'
Fertilizing indoor plants during this period can lead to an excess of nutrients that cannot be used effectively, Kayla continues. 'This can lead to a buildup of minerals in the soil, potentially causing fertilizer burn to the roots.' It can also result in wilted and yellowing leaves, sometimes with brown tips. What's more, applying fertilizer may stimulate excessive foliage growth that the roots can't support, adds Kiersten Rankel, a plant expert at Gregarious, Inc.
Top tip: 'Succulents and cacti especially require little to no winter feeding once summer growing periods have completed,' Kiersten says.
Kayla Gajdascz is the co-founder and president of Mental Houseplants, a company dedicated to spreading the positive impact that plants have on our mental health. One way that the company does this is by partnering with NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (the Massachusetts chapter), and donating a portion of every sale to them.
Kiersten Rankel is a certified Louisiana Master Naturalist and regularly volunteers with local community gardens and nonprofits to help restore critical ecosystems along the Gulf Coast. She earned her master's degree from Tulane University in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology after her undergraduate degree in Environmental Biology, also from Tulane. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking and tending to her 150+ houseplants and vegetable garden.
Plants that can benefit from fertilizing in winter
There are, however, a few exceptions to this 'no feeding' rule. These are the plants that continue to grow in winter, such as the ones that produce winter flowers. For instance, you may wish to consider fertilizing winter-blooming orchids, says Kayla. Amaryllis – beautiful, festive flowers that grow from bulbs – are another example, as are indoor cyclamen.
Vladan Nikolic (Mr. Houseplant) suggests using a phosphorus-rich fertilizer to promote flower development on winter-blooming houseplants. 'Remember that fertilizers cannot be a substitute for the lack of light,' he adds.
The Miracle-Gro Blooming Houseplant Food, available from Amazon, is a popular choice.
Additionally, if you provide grow lights and maintain a warm and stable indoor environment, some other plants may continue to grow and could require light fertilization, Kayla says. If you can see new leaves and shoots, it’s safe to fertilize, Vladan adds.
If you decide to feed your plants, don't fertilize them as frequently as you would in the warmer months, advises Kayla. To reduce the risks of overdoing it, Vladan suggests diluting fertilizer at half or quarter strength.
Vladan Nikolic, otherwise known as Mr. Houseplant, is a houseplant expert with over 10 years of experience. He is the founder of the houseplant care blog MrHouseplant.com and also an influencer who helps newcomers in the houseplant world become great plant parents. You can find him on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
When should you stop fertilizing houseplants?
'The best practice is to stop fertilizing six weeks before the onset of shorter daylight hours,' says plant expert Kiersten Rankel. The soil will retain nutrients for several months, she adds.
When should you start fertilizing houseplants again?
'Resume fertilizing when new growth begins to emerge in spring,' says Kiersten Rankel. 'This supports plant development.'
'In general, it's best to avoid fertilizing houseplants in winter, respecting their natural growth cycle,' Kayla concludes. Instead, she advises focusing on providing optimal winter houseplant care through other means, such as maintaining humidity. Repotting should also be avoided, she adds.
Maintain temperatures above 55°F and place your plants in the sunniest window possible, recommends Kiersten. 'Check soil moisture periodically and water only when partly dry,' she adds. This is important for reducing the risk of root rot during the colder months – a potentially fatal problem for plants.
It's also essential to protect houseplants from central heating during the winter, otherwise, they can quickly dry out. Occasionally cleaning their leaves can also be beneficial – it helps them receive adequate light, and keeps them looking their best.
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The garden was always a big part of Holly's life growing up, as was the surrounding New Forest where she lived. Her appreciation for the great outdoors has only grown since then; over the years, she's been an allotment keeper, a professional gardener, and a botanical illustrator. Having worked for Gardeningetc.com for two years, Holly now regularly writes about plants and outdoor living for Homes & Gardens.
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