Surviving Until Spring

Here’s one corner of our winter home filled with plants. Some are the summer potted plants that we’re overwintering – like aloe vera and banana. There are some hippeastrum in here too, in various stages of bloom.

This is an interesting time of year for the indoor gardener. It took years for me to recognize patterns, and now that I see them, I no longer struggle with the inevitable.

It goes like this: at the end of summer, I haul in all the potted plants that can be overwintered indoors. This includes citrus, some herbs, food trees like avocado, mango, banana, papaya, and geranium and lemongrass. Some are placed in the sunniest window in the house. Some are placed under grow lights.

Within the first month, they all go into shock. Leaves go brown and drop by the hundreds. The plants look sick. Soon after, insects like mealybugs and fungus gnats infest the weakened plants. Mealybugs are hard to beat, and the heavily affected plants go into the trash. Out comes bowls of apple cider vinegar to combat the gnats.

By December, some plants have stabilized. They’re shadows of their summer selves, but they’re alive. Others are still on the decline. By January, decisions are made: the plants that are clearly giving up, those that won’t make it to spring, are discarded. The remaining plants are rearranged a bit, pruned of dead growth, and given a little nourishment.

These are the plants that will see another summer. From January onward, they are slowly improving. At least they’re done dropping leaves. They know, as we do, that we are moving closer to the sun now, and they’re responding.

From January forward, I don’t change a single thing about their lives. I don’t move them to another part of the house, I don’t suddenly start watering them more, I don’t give them much nitrogen. They’ve stabilized right where they are, and to change their care now would kill them.

Two years ago, I had a gorgeous avocado tree that I had grown from a pit. In one year, it was nearly 4 feet tall, with leaves like elephant ears. In autumn, I brought it indoors, placed it in a bright window, and pretty much neglected it. It got very little water. Dust collected on the leaves. But the tree, as lonely as it was, was robust and happy.

The following March, I decided to put it in the kitchen sink, give it a deep watering, a feeding, and a cleaning. It looked beautiful. It was the best avocado tree I’d ever grown.
A week later, it was dead. As soon as I returned it to its window, all fed and watered and clean, all its leaves dropped and it shriveled up. It most definitely did not like the attention. 

Sitting in its little window, receiving nothing more than benign neglect, it went into a kind of happy, safe stasis that I disturbed by trying to pamper it. It was a huge mistake.

We kill our plants with kindness. We kill them by not listening to them. Outdoor plants that come indoors for winter do best with the least amount of care. Being smarter than we are, they know that summer is their time to play: winter is time to rest. Don’t forget them completely, but for the most part, leave them alone.

Our Mexican lime tree is doing great: I throw a little water at it a few times a week and leave it exactly where it is. It has not dropped any leaves since the big drop last fall. I let dust collect on the leaves. No food. It’s good with what it has, and to give it more would do it in. Like me, it’s staying under the radar, and waiting for spring.

Each winter, I manage to successfully carry more summer plants safely through to spring. But it’s been a trial-and-error endeavor. I still regret that magnificent avocado tree. But another pit has taken root. This one looks good. Only 69 days until spring.

Live in peace.

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