Should I Fertilize Houseplants in Winter?

Understanding the growth cycles of plants is a vested interest of Master Naturalist Sarah Jay. Here, she’ll give you all you need to know about fertilizing houseplants in winter.

Close-up of a man's hand holding a wooden spoon full of yellow fertilizer granules over a potted Philodendron King of Spades plant indoors. The plant has pinkish stems and large, deeply lobed leaves of a glossy, rich green color.

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Fertilizing houseplants is important in giving them what they need to thrive. Seasoned houseplant lovers know that establishing a good schedule for feeding your indoor pothos and philodendrons is paramount. You have to know when to fertilize and when to hold off. 

In winter, many houseplants go dormant. However, not every houseplant does. That makes the question of whether or not to fertilize a houseplant in winter more complex than it may seem at first. But knowing your plant will tell you everything you need to know. 

By understanding your houseplants’ growth habits, you’ll have a good idea of who needs additional nutrients in winter and who should be left alone. Recognizing active growth and dormancy simply by observing your plants is one way to do this. There are other ways as well!

Is Your Plant Actively Growing?

Start here. Plants cannot take up additional moisture and nutrients in dormancy, and fertilizing them now can cause issues down the line. However, if you notice the characteristics of an actively growing plant, you can continue to fertilize. 

Signs of Active Growth

Close-up of a blooming Kalanchoe blossfeldiana on a light windowsill. It is a charming and compact succulent, renowned for its eye-catching, vibrant pink flowers. The plant features clusters of small, four-petaled blooms that create a visually striking display. There are many unopened small round pinkish-green buds among the green foliage. The plant has fleshy, scalloped-edged leaves that are dark green in color with a waxy texture.
Some houseplants, like kalanchoe, remain active in winter and produce new leaves or flowers.

Look out for newly developing leaves and flowers to determine whether or not your plant is dormant. Some houseplants, like kalanchoe or Christmas cactus, are still doing their thing even when the day length shortens and temperatures decrease. 

Trailing houseplants may continue to develop new leaves, and others may grow flowers. Snake plants are particularly interesting in this regard, as winter is their time to produce a spiked inflorescence. 

Dormancy

Close-up of a potted plant Epipremnum Aureum 'Marble Queen' pothos on a gray table in a bright room. The plant produces heart-shaped leaves with marbled patterns of green and creamy white. The creamy white streaks create a marble-like effect, giving the plant a luxurious and sophisticated appearance.
Identify plant dormancy by observing slowed growth, lack of new leaves, browning, and dry soil.

If you can’t determine whether or not your plant is actively growing, check for signs of dormancy. Slow growth and a lack of newly developing leaves are the main characteristics of a dormant plant. But it can be difficult to tell by looking at your plant if growth has slowed. 

Another easy way to tell is browning and dropping leaves. While this can be a sign of disease or pest infestation, it’s also part of the natural cycle of many plants. Unless they are evergreen, they may lose some leaves in colder seasons with shorter day lengths. 

Check the soil to see if your plant is dormant. Dormancy prompts less energy output and less need for moisture and nutrients. After you water, if you notice the soil remains moist for quite a while, you are likely dealing with a dormant plant.  

When to Fertilize in Winter

Now that you know how to look for signs of active growth, you can determine a schedule that works for you and your houseplants. Here are some guidelines for fertilizing plants in winter. 

Is Fertilizer Good for Dormant Plants?

Close-up of a woman's hand adding granular fertilizer to a potted house plant Philodendron billietiae. Fertilizers consist of many small, round, yellow granules. The Philodendron billietiae is a stunning tropical houseplant featuring elongated, heart-shaped leaves of rich green color.
Plants need less water and nutrients during dormancy to prevent issues like root rot.

Dormant plants do not use as much energy to grow and, therefore, don’t take up as much water and plant food. Feeding them when they’re dormant can lead to problems, like fertilizer burn or the fungus that causes root rot

In this case, the water and nutrients become food for pathogens rather than the plant. Avoid overwatering and providing additional nutrients to houseplants in winter when they can’t take them in. Let the soil dry out completely before you add more water, and wait for spring to fertilize again. 

Actively Growing Plants

Close-up of a plastic bottle of liquid greenish fertilizer stuck into the soil of a potted Dieffenbachia plant. Featuring large, oblong-shaped foliage with a vibrant blend of green hues and creamy white or yellow markings, the Dieffenbachia exudes a tropical and ornamental charm.
Fertilize actively growing plants indoors cautiously, avoiding over-fertilization.

If your plant shows the signs of active growth we discussed in the previous section, you can still fertilize. The outdoor environment may have changed your house’s environment in winter, though. That makes fertilizing less necessary, even though your plants are still growing. 

Follow the instructions on the label of the fertilizer you choose. Reducing the regular dosage to half or quarter strength by diluting in water is a good way to ensure you don’t over-fertilize. 

Supporting Dormant Houseplants in Winter

Dormant plants don’t need fertilizer and extra water during winter, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need care and attention. Instead of feeding them, focus on keeping them healthy while they sleep winter away.  

Watering and Lighting

Close-up of a man watering a potted monstera plant in the kitchen. The man is wearing a green checkered shirt. He waters the plant from a white jug. The monstera plant is large, growing in a large white pot. It is illuminated by the sun's rays breaking through the windows. The Monstera plant has large, heart-shaped leaves adorned with unique splits and perforations.
Water plants less in winter and adjust the lighting via good positioning, supplementing with grow lights as needed.

Just as your plants don’t need extra nutrients, they need less water. Monitor the soil and ensure the proper moisture is present. The same rules apply, but your plant will absorb water much more slowly than it would in an active growth stage. 

When it comes to lighting, you may find that as the sun lowers in the winter horizon, you need to supplement to provide the same amount of light as you did before. Grow lights will help you in this regard, as will repositioning your plant to be closer to the rays of sunlight coming through a window. Remove that light-diffusing curtain, and adjust as needed. 

Prune Away Damaged and Dead Leaves

Close-up of a gardener's hands pruning damaged, dry, dying Aglaonema leaves using pruning shears, indoors, on a white table. The plant is in a beautiful decorative wicker pot. The Aglaonema, commonly known as the Chinese Evergreen, is a visually appealing houseplant admired for its lush and vibrant foliage. The plant boasts broad, lance-shaped leaves with distinctive patterns of green to silver.
Continue maintenance during dormancy, remove dead leaves, and prune damaged ones with sterilized tools.

Maintenance doesn’t stop when your plant goes dormant. Even evergreen plants may lose a leaf here and there in winter. Remove these as they appear so the little energy your plant expends to live goes toward living tissue rather than dead leaves. 

If there is any damage to your leaves as you move them to a brighter light source or as you move them indoors, prune those away as well. A good pair of pruners or snips will do the trick. Sterilize them before each use to prevent the transfer of disease. 

Keep Leaves Dust-Free

Close-up of a woman wiping fiddle leaf fig leaves from dust with a blue damp cloth. The woman is wearing pink rubber gloves, a yellow long sleeve and a blue apron. The fiddle leaf fig (Ficus lyrata) is characterized by large, glossy, violin-shaped leaves with prominent veins.
Dust houseplants to prevent mites, ensuring optimal photosynthesis by maintaining clean leaves.

As your houseplants sleep the winter away, keep them well-dusted to avoid attracting mites that love dust. This also keeps their leaves free of matter that will block their leaves from absorbing light and humidity. 

Give your plants all the photosynthetic power they can get by dusting them regularly with a damp or dry cloth. 

Provide Humidity

Close-up of Ultrasonic humidifier with sensor spraying water vapor steam near a windowsill with potted houseplants. A humidifier appears as a compact, electronic device designed to add moisture to the air in indoor environments. It is rectangular in shape, with a white plastic body and a black round touch screen showing the humidity level as a percentage.
Provide humidity to houseplants that need it with a humidifier or water source.

Not every houseplant needs supplemental humidity, but some benefit from a humidifier or nearby water source. Even though your plants won’t take in as much moisture, the humidity will continue to help those who need it. 

A small fountain or pebble tray situated amidst your indoor garden is not just great for plants that need humidity. It’s also highly relaxing for you. 

Monitor for Pests and Diseases

Close-up of Fungus gnats stuck on yellow sticky trap. Non-toxic flypaper for Sciaridae insect pests stuck into the soil with a potted Alocasia plant. The Alocasia houseplant is characterized by its striking and exotic appearance. Its large, arrow-shaped leaves showcase prominent veins.
Monitor and treat pests and diseases during dormancy using insecticidal soaps or neem oil.

Always monitor for pests and diseases, regardless of your plant’s condition. You can still treat pests and diseases in dormancy. In fact, your plant will have less ability to fight them off than it would in active growth. Dormancy requires energy conservation, after all. 

You can also use insecticidal soaps or neem oil as a preventative on plants that aren’t sensitive to these treatments.

Final Thoughts

You may find yourself fertilizing houseplants in winter, but it’s best to hold off if your plant is dormant. Look for signs of dormancy or active growth to determine which course of action is best. Above all, do not forget that dormant plants need maintenance too! 

Give them love and care, and you’ll enjoy thriving indoor plants year-round. 

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