During the hustle and bustle of the growing season, we spend so much of our time on our outdoor plants that our indoor ones often wind up ignored. So when the weather turns and we start to spend most of our days inside, that’s the perfect time to turn our green thumbs to our houseplants. Take a good, hard look at yours now. While you’re still stuck indoors, provide them with a little extra special care while you still can – so when you return to your outdoor living adventures, your houseplants can make it through another season of neglect.

Seriously rootbound houseplant

With roots growing out of the drainage holes this severely, this plant is definitely overdue for repotting.

Photo Credit: Viktors Neimanis

Pot of soil

Use top-quality potting soil when repotting a houseplant.

Photo Credit: Ljupco Smokovski

Watering ivy

Watering appropriately is one of the best ways to make sure your plants stay green and healthy longer.

Photo Credit: GoodMood Photos

The first part of houseplant TLC is the hardest: tough love. It’s true that over time, we often stop looking at our houseplants – they simply become fixtures in our homes, and we accept them as they are. But now’s the time to step back, open your eyes and take a clear, unemotional look at your plants. Are they overall healthy and thriving? Are they well-situated? If one is very lanky or missing lots of leaves, you may need to declare it a lost cause – and pitch it into the compost pile.

Don’t be sad. It’s not that you’ve got a black thumb. And no, you’re not wasting a perfectly good plant. The fact is many houseplants are native to tropical jungles. Combine that with the fact that before they’re sold, they’re raised in the perfect environment of a greenhouse that replicates their sunny and humid native habitat. Then we come along and bring them into our homes – relatively dark, dry and cold environments (at least that’s probably how they feel about it).

Chances are, however, most of your houseplants do okay in their unnatural surroundings. Nevertheless, take a closer look to see how you can make it even easier for your plants to live – and thrive – in your home:

  • Assess the pot size. Is your plant overgrowing its pot? If you aren’t sure, look for roots pushing out of the top of the soil and/or out of the drainage holes. Or does it look as if the stems are pushing up against the rim of the pot? If so, it’s time to give that plant a new home. But don’t overdo it – too big isn’t better. The new container shouldn’t be more than an inch (or 2) larger than the original because houseplants also don’t like too much room. And always use top-quality potting soil appropriate for the plant.
  • Give your plants a rinse. As long as they don’t have fuzzy leaves, most houseplants will appreciate the occasional shower. This removes dust from the foliage, allowing the plant to better use the little light available to it – especially during winter’s darker, shorter days. Just put large plants in the shower and smaller plants in the kitchen sink under the gentle “rain” of the spray attachment. Wash up under the leaves, too. You may even knock off some overwintering insects. When you’re finished, be sure to dry the leaves gently, if practical, with a soft cotton cloth – then buff them carefully to a nice shine.
  • Trim off damaged parts. If leaves are yellowing or browning, trim them off. They’re dying and will only sap energy from the plant.
  • Consider giving the plant a haircut. If ivies or other trailing plants are really long, give them a trim to keep the stems closer to the length you’d like. With many plants, you’ll encourage fuller, bushier growth overall. (You can even propagate some plants – like philodendrons – by just rooting them in water. Voilà – more houseplants!)
  • Refresh the soil. If you’re not repotting, take a look at the current soil. Is it crusted or compacted or simply a little diminished? If so, use a dinner fork to lightly work off the top layer. Then fill ’er up with a little fresh potting soil.
  • Hold off on fertilizing. During winter’s short days, most plants aren’t actively growing. Wait until March or so, when days start to grow longer, to begin fertilizing with a product made specifically for houseplants. Carefully follow all package directions to the letter, erring on the side of underfertilizing rather than overfertilizing.
  • Check the light. If your houseplant seems to be struggling for adequate light, consider boosting it by finding a better spot for it or supplementing with a lamp or grow light.

Once you’ve got your houseplant back in good shape, you may want to clean up the pot. Unglazed clay pots can get downright unattractive with mineral deposits and other variations of the surface, and most other pot types will benefit from a wipe down with a wet cloth. Knock off mineral deposits by scrubbing with straight vinegar on a toothbrush or scrub-type kitchen sponge. Rinse or wipe clean.

When you’re finished, step back and admire how successful your houseplant makeover has been. Repeated at least once a year, this annual checkup and tidying is sure to keep your houseplants looking better and living longer – even when they’re being ignored.