How to help houseplants survive winter

The bad news? There's not a lot you can do.
Snow is pretty, but your plants are better off without a front row seat to winter wonderland. Kruchenkova / Deposit Photos

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On the first sub-freezing day in Brooklyn, catastrophe struck. I woke up to find that the leaves on my pothos and Chinese Money Plant were wilted and wrinkled in a way that could indicate a lack of water—or a potentially deadly lack of heat. I immediately moved the stricken plants to another corner of the room, away from the windows. Notably, my Tricolor Stromanthe, string of hearts, and succulents still looked perky—and have continued to since. 

My super high-tech strategy was to place the damaged plants on the ground, below the windowsill, with one of my grow lights pointed directly at them. Then I waited to see the damage. 

[Related: 7 key plant care tips we learned this year]

Pothos are notoriously hardy, so I was surprised my plant had such a dramatic reaction in the first place. But soon it bounced back, and only about a sixth of its leaves yellowed and died. My pilea wasn’t as lucky. The round leaves that once spread out to completely hide the stem were now all but gone. The plant lost more than three-quarters of its foliage, and only the newest leaves remain at the top with a sad, bare stalk beneath them. 

I asked plant sellers how they handle this problem—after all, having plants in the window is a key sales technique. Here’s what they say*: 

“Dropping leaves is normal. There are so many reasons your plant could be under stress. Certain species need to be next to a humidifier, especially with central heating—they dry out really quickly.” 

Irene Kalina-Jones, Outside Space Garden Center 

“It depends on the type of the plant. Some plants, especially if they have lighter leaves, are susceptible to cold weather. If they have thicker leaves, those plants should be hardier. If you don’t know what kind of plant you have, you could google it or download an app that identifies plants for you.” 

Tannin Arceo, Stonefruit Botanical 

“If you have a draft, that’s hard on your plants. Move them if you can, but then you have to worry about a lack of light. The cold will kill your plants faster than the lack of light though, so it’s better to move your plants away from the cold.”

Staff at Natty Garde

The advice boils down to this: do prior research on which of your plants are most vulnerable and move them away from the window when you know it’s going to get cold—especially if you don’t have great insulation. 

“Prevention involves evaluating your space ahead of time,” says Johanna Oosterwyk, greenhouse manager at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Horticulture. “Not just for light, but for drafts and low humidity.” 

[Related: The best indoor plants for people who kill plants]

Heating the area is obviously an option. But heaters dry plants out, so you’ll need a humidifier. And if you move a plant away from the window, it’s going to need more light. The whole situation is a many-layered “if you give a mouse a cookie” situation. 

My plants look like they are going to survive in their non-ideal spot below the window. Now all there is to do is wait until spring. 

*These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.