Winter is always a difficult time as you watch in dismay the beautiful green foliage of your plants turning brown. The cold winter days seem to drag on longer without the joy of watching your buds flower. So how can we best care for our plants during this chilly season?
Living Simply is a landscaping and plant service in Pialligo that caters to Canberrans plant needs. Manager Graham helped uncover some tips and revealed common misconceptions about looking after your plants in our chilly Canberra winters.
1. Limit water and fertilizer
One of the most common mistakes is over-watering your plants. Graham tells us to limit the amount of water we give our plants.
Only water when you remember to throughout winter. Preferably every 3-4 weeks in the morning.
Watering in the morning allows the plants to dry before the evening, preventing fungal and bacterial diseases from developing and preventing excessive evaporation.
As for fertilizer, forget it. Winter conditions naturally cause plant growth to slow. You’re more likely to have an abundance of new growth that is weak and scraggly, not green and lush if you fertilize during winter.
2. Be aware of how the light changes with daylight savings
As Canberra tilts towards the southern hemisphere and we say goodbye to daylight savings, we lose the intensity of the sun that our plants flourished under during spring and summer.
It’s important to consider the amount of sunlight your plants are now receiving and the angle they are receiving it.
Take the time to observe how the sun is helping or hindering your plants throughout the winter months and consider changing their placement if they aren’t getting the right amount of sun anymore. This will help your plant to remain healthy throughout the dormant winter season.
3. Consistent Temperature
Graham references multiple conversations he has had with customers (one of them being myself) who simply don’t consider consistent temperature as being important for their plants.
Plants thrive best under consistent conditions including temperature.
Keep an eye on your indoor plants especially. Are they getting too hot with your attempts at heating up the home? Are the humidity levels hindering their development? Graham informs us that 60-80% of humidity is ideal for most indoor plants. If you see your plant dropping leaves rapidly and is unusually dry, it’s normally a sign that your plant is suffering from bad humidity levels. To fix this, fill a spray bottle with water and give your plants a light spray on the foliage.
4. Damaging Frost
Your outdoor plants will feel the chill of Canberra’s winter bite more intently than most with the frost levels. Frost forms when the liquid cools into solid ice crystals. Graham explains that the most damaging part of frost to plants isn’t the formation but the melting of it the next morning.
The consistent freezing, melting and refreezing within the plant tissues damage the cells.
The symptoms that plants show when they are affected by the frost are initial wilt, followed by turning brown or black and crispy before falling off your plant.
There are several ways to stop your plants from getting frostbite.
- Cover your plants before dusk
- Bring potted plants indoors
- Choose cold-hardy or frost-resistant plants for your outside garden
- Warm plants with water jugs (similar to a hot water pack for humans)
- Place your plants as high off the ground as possible
These methods will help your plants retain heat throughout the day and store it overnight in the soil to help protect your plants from that bitter frost.
5. Give them a spin
Give your plants a gentle whirl around. This will assist the plant growth and productivity with the distributed exposure to light.
The rotation caused will distribute light evenly around the entire plant body.
As we have seen through the process of photosynthesis plants utilize light energy. The quantity, quality and duration of light heavily affect the plant’s growth and development. By rotating your plant you are allowing the greatest chance of success for every side of the plant to access natural lighting and store the energy given into its cells.
6. Look out for pests
Your plants aren’t the only thing looking for some warmth throughout Canberra’s cold winter days.
Pests such as spider mites, fungus gnats and mealybugs are all looking for a humid place to rest.
Unfortunately, during winter, our plants are the ideal place for these pest’s holiday homes. Look on the surface of your soil for these bugs. If you see any take immediate action in removing them.
Removal can include
- Remove any heavily infested part of the plant
- Wiping off the pests with a damp rag
- Using a cotton swab dipped in alcohol or vegetable oil
- Spray them using insecticidal soap
- Isolate the plant so the pests don’t move to the plant next door
Repeat the process until the insects have left the plant. Continue to monitor daily for any eggs that may have been laid or any stubbornly hidden stragglers.
7. Winter mulching
The goal of winter mulching is to stop the ground from thawing resulting in the harmful process we saw earlier with frost.
Winter mulching helps keep the plants in a dormant state with a steady temperature.
There are several benefits to winter mulching. These include conserving the water in the soil, stopping new growth that may be damaged by the bitter winter winds until spring and protecting the soil from compaction and erosion.
Graham informs us that an ideal choice for winter mulching is loose and insulating. These include shredded mulch, straw, shredded leaves, sawdust and aged compost.
Wait to mulch until the first frost. Otherwise, you may cause more damage to your plants rather than help. Apply mulch on a cloudy day, preferably when rain is on the radar and always clear the area of weeds before mulching.
8. Accept leaf and growth loss
Dormancy is a plant’s natural survival method against winter conditions. A plant will experience lower metabolism levels throughout this season. This is due to a lower sunlight intake producing lower sugars in the plant’s cells.
The plant is conserving nutrients.
Throughout this dormant state, plant foliage loses a chemical compound called chlorophyll. Other natural chemicals such as nitrogen, magnesium and phosphate are used like recycling in the plant’s stems. This is why leaves fall off the plants and they maintain a dormant state.
Plants have a temperature memory, Graham explains. They can measure the product of time and temperature to work out how cold it is, how long it’s been cold and when it’s time to break dormancy through proteins.
When the plant breaks dormancy it will begin functioning at a higher metabolism level producing higher sugar levels and allowing leaf growth to appear throughout spring and summer.
9. Dust off leaves
Two plant hormones, auxin and ethylene, strip the leaves of their nutrients throughout a plant’s dormant season. This causes the plant to be unable to clean any infections on its leaves, including dust.
By lightly brushing the dust off your plant’s leaves weekly you are helping the plant to rest in its dormant state without having to exert itself using stored energy.
A layer of dust blocks sunlight and hinders the plant’s ability to photosynthesize, threatening its health throughout its dormant state.
10. Prune and repot
By pruning and repotting your plant you are helping it live its best life, giving it the best opportunity to grow bigger and better throughout the warmer seasons.
Pruning improves the plant’s health by encouraging the plant to put its energy into the new growth
Pruning has multiple benefits for your plant’s health.
- Prevent the spread of disease by removing dead leaves and limbs
- Control and direct new growth in the direction you want it to go
- Compensating for root lost during repotting by providing the plant with a smaller space to spread its energy
- Improving air circulation and allowing light to reach previously hidden limbs
Repotting provides space for roots to grow
Repotting allows the plant access to organic matter which is a limited and essential resource for all potted plants. Graham explains that replenishing the organic matter allows the plants to feed on healthier food and gives them space to spread and grow their roots. This in turn creates a larger space for the plant’s leaves and flowers to grow with their roots having a larger capacity for gaining and storing energy.
These tips and tricks can help us all prepare both our indoor and outdoor plants for the cold days that lay ahead, throughout our typical chilly Canberra winter.
Photos by Olivia Paull