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How-To

Can All Houseplants Go Outside in Summer?

Fine Gardening - Issue 194
Plants were never meant to live inside. While you could keep your houseplants indoors at all times, letting them out in the summer can be good for them and for jazzing up your patio. Photos: Kindra Clineff

A whole lot of bonding has happened, and you’ve forged a closeness akin to family with your houseplants this year. But when summer arrived, you needed to turn your attention elsewhere. The perennial garden was calling, and you just couldn’t find time to keep up with watering indoor plants that became increasingly thirsty in the heat. So here’s a guilt-free solution: Send your green family members outdoors. They’ll love you for it.

Growing plants outside is a great way to solve a whole lot of issues. First of all, you share plant care duties with Mother Nature. And let’s face it, she’s a pro. In a good year you’ll be watering less often, because precipitation will be partly on her plate. And even if it doesn’t rain regularly, hitting potted plants with a hose is much less labor-intensive than lugging watering cans to various windowsills. You get a reprieve from worrying about drips on the carpet. And if you’re smart, you can make watering responsibilities even more streamlined by grouping plants together in their summer digs. Plus, plants love fresh air and all it entails. They make additional root and stem growth, they become healthier overall, and they are less susceptible to insect ravages. In other words, houseplants tend to be happy campers when you send them outside.

Will this work for all your houseplants? Actually, it will. Of course, if your only outdoor outlet is a balcony facing a bright exposure and your plants are all shade lovers, that won’t work. But otherwise, almost all plants love spending the warm season outside as long as you remember to wait until the weather warms up sufficiently at night to prevent cold damage and you match the right plant with the right outdoor location. Check plant labels carefully, or research light preferences.

That said, consider a few critical details when sending plants outside. Here’s a quick rundown of points that will make your plants’ Outward Bound experience a happy one from everyone’s angle.

Photo: Steve Aitken

Be sure the plant is not potbound. Although houseplants usually don’t complain loudly when their roots are cramped in winter, summer is a different story. In plein air, they will dry out frequently if their container is filled with thirsty roots. Keep houseplant care duties to a minimum, and check the root system before bringing a plant outside. Repot if necessary. Graduate slowly—a 2-inch promotion should do it. Don’t make your plant swim in an oversize base.

Do not bring plants outdoors on a bright, sunny day. This is a cardinal rule, and breaking it will always end badly. Even if you were growing that plant in a sunny, south-facing window, it’s not the same. Plants can get sunburned, just like you. And they are going to get torched if their first few days are sunny. Even succulents and cacti can burn if they aren’t accustomed to bright light. Let them acclimate gradually. Either choose a cloudy week, or initially put houseplants in a very shady spot that remains shielded from direct sun reliably throughout the day, or throw a sheet over the plants for five days to a week while they adjust. In blazing hot sun, give them more than a week to make the transition.

Match light preferences between a location and a plant. A shade-loving plant is never going to thrive in searing sun, so position accordingly. Stress will hinder the plant’s growth, and leaf burning might result. When in doubt, err on the shady side. If the plant starts to stretch toward more light, move it into the sunbeams.

Position plants where you’ll have access to a hose. You might yearn to station a plant at the end of the driveway where the whole world can admire your style, but get real. You’ll never remember to water that plant consistently, and neither will the mailman. Find a high-visibility place where watering is easy. You want to make this as streamlined as possible. Clustering plants together is an even better idea. That way, watering will be ultra-efficient. Plus, grouping potted plants together creates a design statement.

Photo: Steve Aitken

Let the water run before giving a drink. If a hose is sitting in the beating sun, it can easily hold a stream of scalding water. Don’t aim that at tender foliage; send the initial trickle elsewhere, and test the water before letting it loose on your plant’s tender leaves.

Watch out for drips. Look up when you set a plant outdoors to make sure that it isn’t going to be hit by a waterfall in a cloudburst. Forgetting to do that is going to lead to washed out soil and damaged foliage for sure. This is particularly essential when you’re growing below a roofline. And there’s no need to fit your plants with saucers outside.

Ensure that your container has proper drainage. For some unfathomable reason, not all containers have drainage holes. Manufacturers probably think that the pot might be used as a cachepot—or something. Without drainage, the soil in that container is going to become a soupy, stagnant, smelly mess. (Sorry to be so graphic, but it’s true.) Drill holes if necessary. If that’s not possible, transplant.

Stop worrying about bugs. This may come as a shock to many gardeners, but insects are not waiting to chomp on your houseplants. If your plants are healthy, they probably won’t attract any bugs whatsoever. If you forget to water a plant and it stresses out, yes, bugs will swoop in and take advantage of the poor suffering green thing. In the rare case that a plant does become infested, just use an organic control. No need to bring out the big guns. Checking plants for hitchhikers is never a bad idea when bringing them back indoors. But don’t let that stand in the way of your plant’s summer vacation.

Remember to bring houseplants back indoors before cold weather. Watch the weather in autumn—like a hawk. After a summer of healthy growth, the last thing you want is a frosted plant. Night is when the temperatures tend to really plummet, and the thermometer can make extreme spirals downward. Be prepared. Get windowsills ready, and line up your drainage saucers. Skip the mad dash scenario. Actually, before a frost threatens, bring in begonias, orchids, members of the African violet family, coleus, and other very tender plants that prefer warm temperatures.

So let your houseplants play outdoors in summer. They want to see the great outdoors, and the world would love to see them. They make strong growth, they gain vibrant color, and everyone is happy. But do it smart. And get them safely inside at the right moment for next year. You need each other.

—Tovah Martin is the author of several books on houseplants, including The Unexpected Houseplant: 220 Choices for Every Spot in Your Home.

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