Winter Indoor Plant Care

Winter Indoor Plant Care
by Elizabeth Waddington

Here are a few tips to keep your indoor plants thriving through our long cold Montana winters.


  • Pests can be a real annoyance. They usually appear after outdoor plants are brought inside for the winter, or when a new houseplant is brought home. Your houseplants may also sprout bugs once brought inside your house because they no longer have outdoor predators.
  • Spider mites thrive in warm, dry houses. Frequent misting under the leaves of houseplants will discourage them. A solution of 1 cup flour, ¼ cup buttermilk, and a gallon of cool water, applied in a mist, may be a good organic deterrent.
  • Small flies may occasionally appear around houseplants. These are called fungus gnats and are harmless to plants and humans in their adult form, though their larvae can damage young roots. Letting the soil dry out a bit between watering can discourage fungus gnats.
  • Remove aphids from houseplants with a mixture of equal parts rubbing alcohol and water and add a drop of dish-washing detergent. Apply with a soft brush. This also works on mealybugs and scale.

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  • When arranging houseplants in your home, consider their lighting needs. Some plants require lots of direct light to thrive, while others prefer lower levels of indirect light.
  • Put plants that can tolerate full sun in south-and west-facing windows, plants that like partial shade in east-facing windows, and low-light plants in north-facing windows.
  • Most flowering plants need to be within three feet of a sunny window.
  • Most plants require 12 to 16 hours of light per day.
  • Rotate plants once in a while to encourage even growth and prevent legginess.


  • Believe it or not, more houseplants die from over-watering than from anything else! Water plants with room-temperature water.
  • Use filtered water if your tap water contains high amounts of minerals or chemicals. Fluoride can cause the leaf tips of some houseplants such as peace lilies, to turn brown.
  • Water houseplants in un-glazed clay pots more frequently because the porous clay will absorb and evaporate some of the water.
  • If your houseplant leaves are dripping, even when you haven’t watered, it’s trying to rid itself of excess water (a process called “guttation”). This makes a plant vulnerable to disease-causing fungi, so you may want to reduce the amount of water you’re giving the plant.


  • Most houseplants are in a resting phase during the winter and do not require fertilizer. However, a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10) works fine, fertilizers with a higher ratio of nitrogen will promote more foliage growth, and flowering plants can use a fertilizer with more phosphorous.

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  • Most houseplants grow well with daytime temperatures of 65 to 75 degrees F and night temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees F. Temperatures below 50 degrees F or rapid temperature fluctuations may damage some plants.
  • Keep houseplants away from cold drafts, radiators, and hot air vents. Also make sure houseplant foliage doesn’t touch cold windows by placing a cardboard between the window and plant.


  • Humidity is a tough factor to perfect, as most homes are especially dry in Montana winters. Most common houseplants will be happiest when the relative humidity is between 40 and 50%.
  • Group houseplants near each other to form a support group to cope with the low humidity of most winter homes.
  • Set plants on shallow trays of moistened gravel to raise humidity. This keeps the pots out of standing water.
  • Occasionally turning on a humidifier near your plants can be effective at combating indoor dryness. You would have to hand mist plants several times a day to raise the humidity sufficiently.
  • Plants like cacti and succulents can tolerate lower levels of humidity.


  • Loosen the dirt in your pots periodically. Re-invigorate your houseplants by removing the top ¼ inch of soil and top-dressing with fresh potting soil.
  • If your houseplants’ leaves grow dusty, gently wipe them down with a wet paper towel. Too much dust can clog a plant’s stomata (pores), making it harder for the plant to “breathe.”

Challenge: does someone want to try this off-beat tip? To get rid of bugs in houseplants, push a clove of garlic into the plant’s soil. If the garlic sprouts and grows, just cut it back.


Submitted by Elizabeth Waddington



The summer that I turned ten there was a huge spider in our garden. She would spin a new web almost every day. Many days, I would take her off her web and set her on a length of sewing thread about a yard long. She would crawl up the thread until she reached the top, at which point I would spin my arms so she was at the bottom again, and up she would crawl. When we had both had enough, I would restore her to her web and give her a cricket from my ‘cricket farm.’ which was just some crickets in my garden who also served as playmates for an only child in a rural place. She and I played this game until the end of summer when I had to go back to school. I don’t know if the free meal was sufficient compensation for my daily molestation, but she tolerated me and I adored her. I guess it must not have been too awful for her because she stayed there all summer instead of moving her digs somewhere else. It wasn’t until adulthood that I finally identified her as an Argiope aurantia. She was large with yellow and black markings that were reminiscent of a tiger swallowtail butterfly, and her large orb web had a giant zig zag down the center. (Spoiler alert: I love animals, especially insects.)

Spiders, known as arachnids, seem to be right up there with snakes for triggering fear and disgust. The image of the black widow has been woven into our culture as a representation of evil. I would like to convince you otherwise.

My Argiope, common name Yellow Garden Spider, is a fascinating creature. Arachnids are easily identified by their eight legs and – if you get close enough to see – four eyes. As with most spiders, the female is considerably larger than the male. The males wander until they locate a female and then make a web nearby, eventually mating. After mating, the female will make several egg sacs and hang them in her web. The eggs will hatch in autumn, perhaps even after she has died from the cold, but the baby spiders will remain dormant inside the egg sac until spring. Each egg sac contains anywhere from 300 to 1400 eggs. As with other spiders, once a female finds a suitable location for her web, she will remain there all season unless she is disturbed. I suppose my Argiope friend thought the free crickets were worth the trouble.

Black Widow Spider                                                 2018 newsletter 1.1

These beautiful orb webs trap all kinds of goodies including everything from aphids to wasps to caterpillars to grasshoppers, but there are other types of webs that are equally effective, including funnel webs, sheet webs, mesh webs and the good old fashioned tangle webs also known as cobwebs. These webs can be useful in identifying the spiders who made them. I found a black widow in my garden last summer who had wrapped up a bumble bee and a wasp in her tangle web. Spider silk is one of the strongest natural materials, and is being studied by scientists and mechanical engineers for its potential uses.

Spiders are carnivores and are excellent pest control, and even help prevent the spread of disease by eating the insects that can spread it, such as fleas, cockroaches, flies and mosquitoes. Norman Platnick of New York’s American Museum of Natural History says, “Spiders are primary controllers of insects…without spiders, all of our crops would be consumed by those pests.” He postulates that “if spiders disappeared, we would face famine.” Less dramatically, spiders in your house make excellent pest control, and if you can overcome your fear, they can keep your home virtually pest free without chemicals! If the thought of sharing your home with spiders is too much for you, try to capture them and toss them out the door instead of squishing them. They are wonderful partners in your garden for managing all the hungry pests who want to eat your plants.

Although a spider bite is deadly for its prey, most spider bites are little more than bothersome to humans. Furthermore, spiders will not bite unless provoked by intense harassment or accidental contact such as being sat on or otherwise trapped. It’s wise to keep your garden shoes and boots inside, since a dark damp place is a favorite for black widows and ground dwelling spiders. If you stick a toe into a shoe and corner a spider, she will potentially bite in self-defense. Although some are more aggressive than others, as with almost every wild animal spiders would prefer to run away rather than to bite you. The native black widow is Montana’s only venomous spider of concern and if you think you have been bitten by one of these spiders, seek medical treatment. Be aware that as the days shorten in late summer, spiders may seek the protection of your home. (Unless they are black widows that can be a good thing.) Happily, according to Laurie Kerzicnik at Schutter Diagnostic Lab, scientists have determined that hobo spiders are not harmful to humans. She also reminds us that venomous spider bites are extremely rare in Montana and she points out that if the spider’s fangs even manage to pierce the skin, the infection following the bite can often be more dangerous than the venom itself. The non-native brown recluse cannot survive our cold temperatures, but could potentially hitchhike in on luggage. The bite from this spider can be dangerous, because it can become necrotic and seriously infected. Always seek the opinion of a doctor if you have any insect bite that causes concern, but remember that, statistically, more people in the U.S. are killed per year by dog bites (28) and cows (20) than black widows (7).

The next time you see a spider and panic, think of Charlotte, the benevolent spider. Spiders are beautiful, complex animals who are peaceful and relatively harmless to humans, and perform a vital role in the web of life.


Respectfully Submitted by Ann McKean

Master Gardeners at Billings Public Library


On Friday, April 13th, fifteen creative and ambitious Master Gardeners plus some of their family members used the Community Room at the library to host a Family Fun Night. it was open to the public with approximately 50 people in attendance. Educational displays on square foot gardening, garden tools, wise water use, pollination, good bugs, praying mantis, pine beetles and the Master Gardener Program were set up around the room.

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Merita talking with young girl

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Butler telling participants what he did

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Pat answering questions about African violets

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Karen H. at geranium table

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Vonnie heling with children’s activities.

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Casey D. and Cindy R.

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Pat M. and actors Bee, Ron, Merita and Joann

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Sharon Y. greeting guests

Those in attendance were told about the Master Gardener program and treated to a short skit “What is this?” in which they tried to determine who was telling the truth. The main activity for the evening was getting the audience to solve the Mystery at Orchard Manor as to why some plants were not doing well and who was responsible. Furthermore, there were children’s activities, drawings for gardening prizes, and snacks. Guests went home with zinnia plants, bulbs, square foot gardening packets and educational hand outs. This educational and fun event was immensely enjoyed by the participants as well as the volunteers.

~Submitted by Elaine Allard
~Photos by Joan Griffin

Pollinator Day at St Andrew Community Garden

Master Gardner Dave Kimbell was part of the program at St. Andrew Community Garden Pollinator Day event on June 23. He also did an interview with Terry Moore which is available to watch on YouTube, The garden is in its sixteenth year and has 140 plots (it began with 40)! It includes a mission garden from which produce is donated to area social services.

Book Review: Our Native Bees

Our Native Bees
By Paige Embry

Say “bee” and most people think of honey bees. There has been a lot of press devoted to the plight of honey bees in recent years as the number of hives declines and people worry about getting crops pollinated by traveling honey bee hives if there aren’t enough to go around.

Our Native Bees is about the “other” bees—the natives. Honey bees are not native to America—they come from Europe. There are over 4000 species of native bees in the U.S. and Canada. The author, in part, wrote this book to answer the question of whether the natives can fill in adequately to pollinate our plants if the honey bees disappear.

our native bees 3.pngThe first half of the book is devoted to the relationship of bees with agriculture and speaks to the question of whether natives can fill in for honey bees, and the second half is about the natives themselves, as well as ways to increase habitat for all bees. Along the way, every page is filled with interesting and captivating anecdotes of Paige’s quest to learn about bees and facts about bees that we wouldn’t ordinarily know. For example, ground nesting and being solitary is normal for native species. Many natives are small, even as small as a grain of rice. Most native bees don’t sting. And the majority of flowering plants rely on animal pollinators and the main pollinator is bees.

The book is filled with page after page of gorgeous photos of bees. The photography is absolutely spectacular and as fascinating as the narrative.our native bees 2.png

Both food (think flowers) and nesting sites are important to encouraging healthy native bee populations. When we think of creating a bee-friendly garden, we mainly think of the flowers we can plant. The author points out that providing nest opportunities is just as important (and sometimes can be  “unsightly” to a tidy gardener). There is an important chapter devoted to making golf courses and lawns more bee-friendly in ways that support the bees and are still usable and enjoyable to the people. In the first part on bees and agriculture, she describes how large fields with monocrops, herbicide usage and machine tillage are hard on all kinds of bees and she describes a farm with smaller, more diverse operations and why this encourages diversity of bees as well.

The more we understand the natural world in and around our gardens, the better we can garden in ways that support that world, as well as grow food and provide beauty. Learning about our native bees is a good place to start.

Book Review by Ann Guthals

Importance of Polinators

When people think of pollinators they usually think of bees, but small mammals (including bats), birds, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, and even wasps all contribute to the web of life through pollination. These animals are part of this magnificent partnership with plants and we are too. Of course there would be no pollinators without plants to pollinate, so we can use our love of gardening to take an active role in this beautiful dance of life by learning as much as we can to understand how it all works and using this knowledge to increase not only the pleasures of gardening in our own back yards (and our front yards!) and beyond, but also to intentionally and actively play a role in contributing to their survival, and in turn, ours. Knowledge is power.

We could not survive without plants. Plants feed us, and the animals that feed us. Plants provide the oxygen we breath. They stabilize and enrich the soil in which they grow, help keep our waters clear and feed and shelter the wildlife all around us. Pollinators are crucial to the reproduction of most of those plants and are directly responsible for a third of our food. Flowering plants reproduce through the transfer of pollen from the male part of a flower (the stamen) to the female part (the stigma) which then produces seeds. More than 75% of all flowering plants rely on animals for pollination, and thus, their reproduction. Conversely, those same pollinators rely on plants for their survival.

We are all tied together in this intricate ecological community. The ways we can contribute are myriad, but do not have to be difficult. As Master Gardeners, we are uniquely positioned to consciously harness our knowledge and passion for gardening to protect our pollinators and improve the quality of our lives and our community. We can plant whole pollinator gardens (and register them with the Million Pollinator Gardener Challenge ( ) like the Amend Park Community Garden did) or simply incorporate the types of plants that most benefit our local pollinators, bearing in mind that native animals evolved with and are most adapted to native plants. Remember too, that those nasty caterpillars eating our flowers and veggies (and feeding our birds) turn into beautiful butterflies, so try to share a little with them. I beg the caterpillars on my roses everyday not to eat too much! Use your valuable knowledge of Integrated Pest Management to limit your use of chemicals whenever possible. When planting for bees, remember to include plants that flower at different times during the growing season and try to plant in groupings of the same plant if possible. Experiment with plants that attract a variety of pollinators and always share what you’ve learned with your fellow master gardeners. Check your field guides, the library, the extension website, and the cornucopia of other websites on the topic for ideas and specifics.

We don’t have to re-landscape our yards to help our pollinators; the sum of the small changes we all make together in our approach to gardening can make a powerful difference in our quality of life now and the future. downloads/60284.pdf Goulsen, Dave. A Buzz in the Meadow. New York: Picador, 2014 Tallamy, Douglas W. Bringing Nature Home. Portland: Timber Press, 2007

~Submitted by Ann McKean