How *Not* to Kill Your Plants This Winter

Keep your green thumb shining, sun or no sun.

November 25, 2019
Photo by Ty Mecham

Winter days in New England can be brutal, and sometimes I wish I could just curl up under a blanket until the sun decides to come back. It turns out that our plants feel exactly the same way!

A lot of plants—especially outdoor ones—enter a period of dormancy during the winter. This is basically a temporary state of metabolic inactivity where plants do the bare minimum, using their stored-up food supplies to stay alive and not giving the slightest thought to stressful things like growing. It’s basically a season-long nap, and I am more than a bit jealous.

Jokes aside, plants go through chemical changes during the winter, which means you need to be caring for them a little differently. Here are the major things to keep in mind as you cultivate your favorite indoor and outdoor plants this winter.

Help Your Outdoor Plants Survive the Cold

Honestly, you could probably just let hardy outdoor plants do their own thing in the winter, and chances are they’d be just fine. (Can you tell my style of plant parenting is very laissez faire?) However, if you’re an exceptional plant parent, here are a few steps to help your outdoor plants have the best winter-long nap ever.

Know Your Plants

First of all, you’ll want to take stock of your existing plants. If you don’t already know, figure out which ones are annuals and perennial—annuals only live for one season, so they’re not going to come back after the winter. Common annual flowers include geraniums, sunflowers, marigolds, and zinnias, all of which can simply be pulled out and put in the compost.

You’ll also want to bring any tropical or subtropical plants indoors. Plants like palms and ferns might be perfectly happy outside during the summer, but they’re not hardy enough to survive freezing temperatures and snow. Just make sure to check them for bugs before you bring them in, else you risk all your other plants getting bugs, too (a mistake I’ve made more than once).

Trim Them Back

As for the perennials you’re leaving outside, it’s best to prune them back before the winter. You can cut back flowering trees, shrubs, and vines once they finish blooming, and summer-flowering plants can also be pruned in late fall. (However, my plant-expert mother says that many of the late-flowering plants like coneflowers have seed pods that supply birds with food when snow covers the ground, so definitely don’t feel like you have to cut them back.)

Just to make things complicated, some plants like azaleas, forsythia, and lilac form their spring buds in the fall, so you don’t want to prune those babies.

Cover Them Up

When you’re tidying up your lawn this fall, be sure to clear out old mulch from around your plants. Once the ground is frozen, you can put down a new 6-inch layer of mulch, chopped leaves, or hay to help keep the roots insulated and provide a buffer from snow.

Take Special Precautions for Potted Plants

Potted plants can remain outdoors during the winter, but they’re at greater risk of having their roots freeze, especially if they’re young. To protect them, you can wrap the pots in an insulating material (think burlap, old blankets, or even bubble wrap), place them close to the foundation of your house, and arrange them close together. You can also put a layer of mulch over them for added protection.

Keep Indoor Plants Happy

Your houseplants don’t require quite as much winter prep—after all, they’ll be staying inside, where the temperature will be cooler but not freezing. Instead, you’ll just want to adjust your care routine a little bit.

Give Them Plenty of Sun

The days get shorter in the winter, which means there’s less sunlight to go around. Some plants don’t really care about getting less light—for instance, low-light guys like ZZ plants and peace lilies will probably be fine no matter where they’re placed.

However, plants that need bright or direct light will be sad during the winter, so you may need to move them around to maximize their light exposure. It can help to put them near a bright window, but don’t put them too close as windows often get chilly at night (which we’ll discuss in a minute).

Cut Back on Watering

Here’s some good news: You probably won’t have to water your plants as much during the winter! Most houseplants stop growing when it gets cold, which means they won’t need as much water. When you do water them, make sure they’re able to drain out extra moisture to prevent root rot.

Protect Them from Temperature Fluctuations

Extreme temperature fluctuations aren’t good for your houseplants, so keep them away from drafty doors, cold windows, and heating sources like fireplaces or radiators.

Skip the Fertilizer

Because your plants aren’t growing much during the winter, they really don’t need fertilizer. Put them on a diet until spring rolls around, then pick back up with your regular fertilizing schedule.

Give Tropical Plants Extra Humidity

Know how your lips get extra-chapped during the winter? That’s because the air is usually quite dry, especially if you have forced-air heat.

Plants that thrive in humid conditions are going to be especially cranky about this dry environment, so if you want to pamper them, put them near a humidifier or mist them on a regular basis—or you can even put them in your bathroom to enjoy the shower steam!

How do you, and your plant babies, survive winter? Drop us your best survival tips in the comments below!

Grab your copy

It's here: Our game-changing guide to everyone's favorite room in the house. Your Do-Anything Kitchen gathers the smartest ideas and savviest tricks—from our community, test kitchen, and cooks we love—to help transform your space into its best self.

Grab your copy

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Freelance writer, product tester & baking enthusiast.


Jo November 26, 2019
Article title implied we’d get pointers on what to do without sun. Are there any good recommendations for a grow light that doesn’t look terrible? Or a good bulb I could put into a different fixture? I get morning sun but in winter it is pretty aggressively blocked by a neighboring building.
Susan November 25, 2019
A geranium is not an annual. Tender, yes, but not an annual.