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Transition tropical plants indoors once temperatures drop

“There was a cool night recently and I’m wondering when I should bring in my tropical plants that are in containers on my deck. One of my favorite plants is a hibiscus.”

—Jeff Blumquis, Plainfield

It’s best to move your tropical plants indoors when temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Many will do poorly in cold, rainy weather. Start the process by inspecting the plants for insect pests like aphids, spider mites, and mealybugs. Spray leaves with a strong stream of water to kill most foliage insect pests. Mealybugs can be cleaned from leaves with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol. Clean plants by pruning yellowing leaves and reducing plant size as needed.

Gradually acclimating plants to indoor conditions can make the transition smoother, if you have the time to do so. Start by moving the plants into the shade for a few hours a day and gradually increase the time the plant is in the shade over a period of 7 to 10 days until the plant is in the shade all day.

Rapidly changing weather conditions in the fall may not allow for this approach. If there is a cold night, with a long period of warm weather forecast to follow, then you can bring the plants outside after the cold night to extend the display. The most important thing is to get the plants inside as temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. In the fall seasons, when there is a more gradual drop in temperature, push the limits by leaving the plants outside later, with night temperatures dropping to the 40s, as they will have acclimated to the colder weather. A light frost for a couple of nights can kill these plants.

Since you will be bringing your hibiscus indoors for the winter, I am assuming it is a tropical hibiscus that grows in a pot. If your hibiscus has glossy, deep green leaves and large orange, red, yellow, pink, peach, salmon, or double flowers, then you probably have a tropical hibiscus. Many tropical hibiscuses have more than one color in a flower.

Keep your plant in a relatively small pot, as hibiscus flowers do best when their roots are crowded. Try to give your plant a break for a few months when you bring it in by minimizing pruning, reducing watering, and moving it to a cool room with bright light. Don’t pressure it to bloom during the winter and save the old foliage.

Some leaves are likely to turn yellow and drop off as the plant adjusts to a new indoor environment. Other tropical plants may do the same in response to dramatic change in the environment. In March, cut the stems, move to a sunny spot and increase watering. When new growth appears, start fertilizing lightly every two weeks. Five to six hours of full sun a day is important for these plants to do well indoors.

For more plant tips, contact the Plant Information Service at the Chicago Botanic Garden at plantinfo@chicagobotanic.org. Tim Johnson is senior director of horticulture at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

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