Fussing Kills

Transplanted Kiwi Charles Jackson continues the theme, with his take on the winter growth/rest theme.
by C.S Jackson, Westcliffe on Sea, Essex, England
Chamaerops No.37, Winter Edition 2000

Having just read Issue 34 of Chamaerops, I believe Paul Saunders in his ”Saunders Report” has raised an issue that many exotic plant growers may or may not be aware of. This issue is one that can mean quite literally the life or death of a cherished plant. It is the question of the annual rest period that is absolutely essential to the health of many plants, except those originating from the most tropical of latitudes.

All subtropical and temperate plants are growth-adapted in the wild to have a short or long rest and recuperative period during the winter. This rest period allows the plants’ systems to take a break and repair or relax their mechanisms so that when the warmth and sunshine of spring arrives, they are fit and ready to work hard at growing during the coming season. Sadly, many of us, myself included, have panicked at the first cold autumn winds and rushed all the delicate plants inside the house to an artificially lit and heated environment to protect them against the worst of the cold winter weather.

By spring, these plants have either languished, or the fronds (or leaves) have turned brown-edged and pallid looking. Put outside again in the warm spring weather, these plants will sometimes fret; growth comes to a standstill, and ultimately the plants may succumb to mould and eventually die. This happened to quite a large juvenile Nikau palm of mine. I had left it out in cold greenhouse conditions every winter for a number of years, and it had survived fine, albeit with slight frost damage one year. However, for some inexplicable reason, one winter I thought I would overwinter it indoors...with disastrous results.

It survived most of winter indoors, growing slowly, and as spring approached it started to deteriorate. It was placed back outdoors in the shade in April where it slowly died because I had fussed over it and it didn’t need fussing. Fussing kills! Sadly, I had not learnt my lesson from many years of losing houseplants due to what I thought was the heating and dryness indoors. I have subsequently discovered, rather expensively, that it was not giving all plants a winter rest that had actually killed them. So I decided that from now on all outdoor plants are left outdoors and either put into the garden shed or pulled under the shelter of the veranda with some fleece thrown over them. This applies for all the temperate and subtropical palms, tree ferns, Strelitzias, ground ferns, citrus, Norfolk Island pine, Bougainvillaea, etc.

This treatment works. As long as you can find a place for your tub plants that is sheltered from wind, frost, and rain, then they will almost certainly pull through the winter; take them indoors, however, and chances are you will kill them. As for the plants that I myself grow indoors in my conservatory, which are mainly cycads, they do not receive artificial heat, so a cool period for them is assured, with warm conditions on sunny days and cool nights. Inside my flat all my other indoor plants are in my north-facing lounge with little heat and a Gro ñ Lux lamp to supplement the winter light. All the plants in this room are tropical or subtropical and not hardy to very low temperatures. Even these plants deteriorate to an extent during the winter indoors, but with them there is no outside alternative.

The moral of the tale is to always give your palms and other exotic plants a winter rest. For subtropical plants, give two months of cool temperatures, let the potting mix dry out to only just damp, and place plants out of frost, wind, and particularly rain. For temperate plants, all the above applies but give them three months of cool temperatures. You will be amazed at how much better they grow in spring and the following summer simply because they have had time to recharge their ”batteries” for another busy year.

So remember:
Subtropical = 2 months
Temperate = 3 months

Don’t take them indoors as the central heating will kill them, and lastly don’t fuss over them because they don’t appreciate it - you are probably killing them with kindness.


  29-01-23 - 00:10GMT
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