For the many new plant parents who adopted a fern or fiddle-leaf fig to spruce up their spaces during quarantine, their houseplants’ winter behavior — like shedding leaves or turning brown — may come as a bit of a shock. According to Erin Marino, director of marketing at the Sill, this seasonal change is totally natural. “The biggest thing I’d say is don’t freak out. You are going to see your plants look a little bit less happy, and it’s going to be obvious because you just came out of this wonderful summer growing season,” she says. With reduced sunlight and dry air from indoor heating, winter isn’t a time when your plants will thrive, but, with the right care, they can certainly survive. “Less sunlight typically sparks a plant’s natural dormancy,” says Casey Godlove, creative director at PlantShed. “They use less water, produce less new growth, and generally pause until spring.”
Plant-care pros stress that there are plenty of simple steps you can take to keep your greenery healthy in the winter. In terms of placement, look for spots in your home that get the most sunlight, but avoid putting plants too close to drafty windows or radiators. “Grouping plants together in a cozy ‘cuddle puddle’ is a great way to regulate moisture,” says Bryana Sortino, co-founder of plant subscription service Horti. “Plants transpire and release vapor into the air, so gathering them into a cluster creates more humidity in the air.” Now is also not the time to repot or fertilize your plants. As Rebecca Bullene, partner and co-founder of Greenery Unlimited, explains, “The plant isn’t really going to have the energy to process fertilizer, and you’re going to have a buildup of minerals and salt in the root system that can actually damage the plant.” Instead of watering on a regular schedule like you would in the spring and summer, experts say to look for signs of thirst — like curling or drooping leaves — since your plants won’t be consuming water at the same rate.
We asked our experts to recommend plants that can best handle the changing seasons as well as the best tools and accessories to keep all of your plants happy.
Best winter houseplants
The sansevieria laurentii, or snake plant, which is “nearly indestructible,” according to Godlove, was one of the most recommended low-maintenance winter plants among our experts. Gabby Santiago, plant-care specialist at Rooted, says they’re perfect for plant beginners and can even survive in windowless rooms. “Sansevierias will bear with you while you figure out the sunlight patterns in your place during the dreary winter months,” says Sprout Home founder Tara Heibel. “They are not fussy about being in the perfect lighting scenario and can handle a lower light frequency.” Lisa Muñoz, founder of Leaf and June, explains that snake plants “can withstand drafty windows, heat from heaters and radiators, and less humidity, making them a great plant for the winter months.” Bullene points out that because the snake plant naturally grows in dry climates, it’s especially drought-tolerant, so it won’t be too bothered by dry heat. Chantal Aida Gordon and Ryan Benoit, founders of the Horticult website and authors of How to Window Box, suggest experimenting with other varieties like the sansevieria cylindrica or the sansevieria masoniana. “They’re the funkier cousin to standard snake plants but about as forgiving,” Gordon and Benoit say. “They’re like sculptures.”
Marino groups the ZZ plant, another common houseplant, with the sansevieria since they’re both easy to care for and adaptable to less than ideal conditions. “These plants aren’t going to thrive necessarily during the winter, but they’re going to be able to handle it,” she says. It’s also Tula Plants & Design CEO and founder Christan Summers’s top pick. “It’s the most drought-tolerant plant next to the cacti, and it has this really shiny, waxy leaf, so it always looks happy,” she says. Godlove and Bullene recommend the ZZ plant because it can tolerate low light and infrequent watering. Gordon and Benoit add that the ZZ is “glossy, shapely, and looks cool next to the art on your wall, and it surprises you with new growth pretty often.”
Like the snake and ZZ plants, the pothos came up a lot among our experts since it doesn’t require a lot of direct sunlight. “There’s a reason you see the pothos plant in offices, nail salons, and malls,” Marino says. “It’s incredibly hardy and can handle a wide range of different light levels.” Heibel also loves the plant’s trailing look.
If your home gets a decent amount of sunlight year round but you struggle with dry air, Bullene recommends plants from the dracaena family, which are accustomed to low humidity. “A lot of them are native to Hawaii, and they actually grow on the [very arid] lava fields of volcanoes,” she says.
“You can’t kill them,” says Summers of the very hardy and low-maintenance cast-iron plants. “They have a really elegant leaf shape that I always appreciate in the mix of floppiness.” Muñoz agrees that they’re “extremely easy to maintain” and “acclimate well to drier environments in the winter months.”
Since succulents and cacti are generally known to be low-maintenance plants, we weren’t surprised that many of our experts say they are good options for winter. Marino suggests the pet-safe Haworthia: “They’re found in the desert, where it doesn’t rain a lot and there’s not a lot of humidity, so they’re not going to mind this at all during the winter,” she says. Heibel recommends placing succulents and cacti near any drafty windows since they do require a good amount of sunlight but can tolerate the cold better than tropical, leafy plants like the ZZ or sansevieria.
Also a type of succulent (but not a pet-safe one), the euphorbia milii, or crown of thorns, is another one of Summers’s favorites. “These bloom in February, and it’s always so nice to see something like that in the gray February of New York, especially,” she says. Depending on the variety, you can find them with pink, red, or white flowers.
With its white or red flowers, the Schlumbergera cactus (also known as the Christmas or holiday cactus) is one of the rare houseplants that’ll bloom in the winter, typically between November and January. “The buds look like ornaments, and the flowers are these gem-colored fluffy bells,” Gordon and Benoit say. Muñoz calls these cacti “a favorite nontoxic option that also produces showy flowers. They prefer protection from intense sunlight, and that’s exactly what we get in winter.”
Sortino says these plants “display semi-succulent properties, so they can sustain well with less water and oftentimes less light. Summers recommends the peperomia too, because its shiny leaves bring a lush, tropical feel to your home during the winter. Heibel is also a fan, especially if you’re looking to squeeze a bright, leafy plant into a small space. And because it’s nontoxic to cats and dogs, the peperomia obtusifolia is a good choice for pets who may nibble on plant leaves.
Best plant-care accessories for winter
If your plants are really suffering from dark and dreary winter days, there’s no shame in giving them a little boost with the help of a grow light. “I used to be a total purist when it came to grow lights until I was proven wrong,” says Summers. “Plants need light, so if winter means that light significantly decreases at your home, invest in a grow light.” Most household lamps have a yellow tinge, but plants prefer bright white lights that include all colors of the light spectrum. Bullene explains that this full-spectrum light is more similar to sunlight, so it’s almost like “fooling tropical plans into thinking that they’re still in this nice equator zone and getting the same amount of light they were getting in summertime.” Grow lights have a reputation for being unsightly or difficult to install, so most of our experts recommend using full-spectrum bulbs (Bullene likes Philips) that you can simply twist into any light fixture you already have at home.
Here’s another full-spectrum grow bulb that Summers sells at her store. “We try to keep it really simple because most people are not going to install track lighting,” she says. “Grow lights have become really user friendly for the home, which is great.”
For a grow light that’s actually aesthetically pleasing, Summers recommends this hanging pendant light from Rousseau Plant Care, which, she says, “mimics a full day of summer sun.”
After low light, low humidity is the biggest challenge for indoor plants. One way to introduce more moisture to your indoor environment is by adding a humidifier. Look for one that’s sized appropriately for your space, and keep it running as frequently as possible. Bullene and Summers recommend Honeywell humidifiers. “I’ve had a Honeywell for way too long, and it just won’t break,” says Summers. “It’s just amazing, and it’s easy to clean out.”
This humidifier is Santiago’s favorite because it doesn’t require a ton of maintenance. “Most humidifiers run through water super-quickly, and you have to constantly change them out, but this one is really good at maintaining moisture,” she says. “You can leave it filled for a week and not have to worry about filling it every other day.”
As a low-tech alternative to a humidifier, several of our experts recommend pebble trays, which you can either buy or easily make at home. Simply fill a tray with pebbles, pour in a layer of water and then place it directly underneath your plant. The pebbles keep the plant from being totally submerged in the water, but, as Marino describes, it “increases the humidity and the moisture levels in the air around the plant.” Bullene says you can also simply put a dish or a bowl of water on top of your radiator and let it evaporate into the air to humidify nearby plants.
If you’re keenly attuned to your plant’s health, you can keep an eye out for signs of thirst, but it’s not always obvious. Instead, Bullene recommends a self-watering planter, like the ones from Lechuza, that you fill with water from the base, where the plant’s roots can absorb it as needed. “That has a huge effect, because the plant’s allowed to drink from the water reservoir when it’s ready, rather than when the human deems that it thinks the plant is thirsty,” she says.
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