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Now is the perfect time for houseplant tasks

Repotting, like many houseplant tasks, is easier done outdoors on pleasant fall days.Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor1 / 2
Buying and transporting new houseplants, such as this African violet, is safer in autumn before weather turns cold.Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 2

Well, the gardening season is about over, isn't it? What's that you say? I heard a resounding "No!" from all of us who get our gardening fix from houseplants all winter long.

Fall is a busy time outdoors for the final hurrah in yard and garden. With all the raking, digging and cleanup, it's easy to put houseplants on the back burner. But before autumn slips away, we should take a few minutes for tasks that will help us enjoy indoor gardening, houseplant style, all winter.

There are definite reasons for tackling the task now, before cold weather sets in.

• Buying new houseplants. Fall is an ideal time to purchase new houseplants. Most indoor plants are tropical natives that can be chill-injured when exposed to temperatures much below 50 degrees. That makes it difficult to buy and transport houseplants in winter when they must be wrapped and covered as snuggly as a newborn baby. Instead of running across a frigid parking trying to shelter a wrapped plant from the howling north winter winds, shop for houseplants on a mild autumn day. Transport home is much simpler.

• Repotting plants. Whether it's a new plant that needs upsizing to a larger pot, or an existing houseplant that needs repotting, the procedure is easier outdoors on a mild autumn day. Repotting indoors can be messy, by the time you cover the kitchen table with newspaper or plastic, haul in bags of potting soil and try to contain the mess while you pull a plant from its old pot and replant in fresh soil. Even if houseplant growers consider it "clean" dirt, it still makes a mess. Cleanup outdoor is simpler.

• Dividing plants. Plants whose stalks all arise from a central growing point, called the crown, can become overcrowded and benefit from periodic dividing. Peace lily, aloe, snake plant and spider plant are examples. Removing the plants from their pots, cutting down through the root system with a knife, saw or shears and repotting the divisions is easier outdoors.

• Washing houseplants. To clean dusty houseplants, a gentle shower of water removes most debris. Instead of hauling plants to the bathroom or kitchen sink, a slow spray from the outdoor garden hose is convenient. Plants can be left outdoors for a bit to air-dry before bringing back indoors.

• Insect control. The autumn washing just described helps eliminate or slow down many houseplant insect population explosions. Insect control is most effective when problems are detected and treated at the very first signs of trouble. Houseplant insect control sprays such as neem oil or insecticidal soap can safely be used indoors, but they're easier to apply outdoors on a pleasant fall day. It's wise to wash or spray newly purchased plants before mingling them with existing houseplants, because insect problems can easily be transferred.

• Apartment and condo dwellers. It's easier to carry a plant indoors through hallways and corridors if it's already been repotted and cleaned outdoors. Usually it's possible to find somewhere to work on plants by garages, dumpsters or lawn space. It eliminates the need to haul potting soil indoors.

Tips to foster a green thumb

• When repotting houseplants, high-quality potting mixes give the best results and are more cost effective. Cheaper, lower-quality potting "soils" can often be detected by their comparative heaviness in the bag. Miracle Gro Potting Mix usually yields success, as do greenhouse mixes offered at locally owned garden centers.

• Heavy, low-quality mixes often stay too wet, causing overwatering problems. Likewise, soil from a garden or flower bed usually performs poorly in a pot, even though it might be a wonderful in-ground soil.

• Drainage pebbles or stones aren't a good addition inside the bottom of a pot. Although they were standard practice years ago, research has shown these materials cause a layer of change, which actually impedes drainage. Best drainage occurs when a pot is filled top to bottom with potting mix. Good quality mix rarely seeps out the bottom drain hole.

• Houseplants are often happiest a bit underpotted. If the pot size is too large, plants wallow in too much soil, increasing the chance of overwatering. Increase pot size gradually as plant grows.

• Overwatering is the number one killer of houseplants and happens when a plant's soil is kept continuously too soggy. It doesn't mean too much is applied at one time. If in doubt, err on the dry side.

• The rule of thumb for watering most plants is a cycle of watering thoroughly until a little seeps out the bottom drain hole. Then let the soil dry before the next thorough watering. Frequency depends on pot size, indoor heat, light exposure and plant type. Many plants require watering only once a week, sometimes once every two weeks.