Want to bring plants indoors without the bugs? Find out the best way to debug your plants along with the recommended timing and temperatures for a smooth transition.
If you want to keep a small fruit tree dormant in storage during the winter, see potted fig tree winter care tips for complete instructions.
Bringing Plants Indoors
Many of us keep some houseplants including tropical and subtropical plants outdoors for the summer and return them to life indoors in late summer or early fall.
We may also have certain annuals or tender perennials like coleus or geraniums (Pelargoniums) that can also live indoors.
Use these tips to know which plants are good candidates for growing as houseplants (either for the winter or ongoing), how to prepare them, and how to eliminate pests along the way.
If you want to store tender plants (also known as “overwintering“) for the cold seasons instead of growing them as houseplants, the preparations listed here are the same.
- Plant Suggestions
- Best Timing
- Moving Plants Indoors
- Return Outdoors
If you live in a cold climate, plants that need to come indoors for the winter include potted tropical and subtropical houseplants, some tender perennials, and some long-living annuals.
Plants that are good candidates for indoor growing, either during the winter or year-round, are the ones that cannot withstand cold temperatures—not hardy, cold climate perennials.
Possibilities include plants sold as tropical and subtropical houseplants, as well as some tender perennials and long-living annuals like coleus and geraniums (Pelargoniums).
Some of these plants can thrive indoors, others will slow their growth or go dormant, but no matter what, do not expect summer behavior. It’s natural for many plants to slow down during the darker months of winter.
The first step is to do an inventory of your outdoor potted plants and determine which ones are candidates for some sort of overwintering, whether it’s as houseplants or in dormancy, safely stored where they will not freeze.
I choose according to what’s healthy, what I have room for, and which ones I like best.
Plants To Overwinter Indoors
- Tropical and subtropical plants
- Abutilon (flowering maple)
- Boston Fern
- Brugmansia (Angel’s trumpet)
- Cacti & some succulents
- Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi)
- Citrus plants
- Coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioide)
- Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis)
- Elephant Ears (Alocasia)
- English Ivy (non-hardy)
Herbs | Options include basil, parsley, rosemary, and mint. This has a complete list with more tips on growing herbs indoors at home.
The ideal time to get plants ready to come indoors is when the growing season is coming to an end but average outdoor and indoor temperatures are not more than 10 degrees apart. If your home is heated and cooled to hover around 70F° (21°C), you should transition the plants to life indoors before outdoor temperatures start averaging below 60°F (15°C).
- Get plants ready to come indoors in late summer or early fall when outdoor lows are still averaging above 60°F (15°C)—not lower than that. The closer to indoor temperatures, the better.
- The average indoor temperature most of these plants like is around 70F° (21°C) with moderate (not low) humidity. Around 50% humidity is good.
Getting the plants moved early will reduce their stress and yours. For me, that’s about 4 to 6 weeks before our average first frost. You want to be well ahead of damaging cold snaps.
If you’re curious, look up the temperature tolerances for your specific plants. Some tap out at 55°F (13°C) while others can tolerate somewhat colder conditions. We just choose a safe average to keep it simple.
If you’re reading this because you have your first frost warning, move your plants to a sheltered location now.
Pick a spot that will remain over 60°F (15°C) overnight and deal with the rest tomorrow.
Find Your Frost Dates & Hardiness Zone
Average Frost Dates | Use this calculator at Almanac.com. Enter your city and state or province to find your first and last frost dates and number of frost-free days.
Ecoregion | Learn about the native plant and animal species and environmental conditions specific to your region to better understand why your garden choices matter.
Learn More: Understanding Frosts & Freezing For Gardeners
How do you prepare plants for indoor growing?
The goal is to stress the plant as little as possible, making a fairly seamless transition from outdoor to indoor growing conditions, while bringing few or no pests in with them.
The whole process, unless rushed, should take about two weeks.
These are the steps—you may find logical reasons to do them in a different order or skip some.
The most important thing is to decide on a plant-by-plant basis. A rubber plant will happily take a bath while a tomato plant is too fragile for a bath or much handling at all.
Keep the plants outdoors during these steps, ideally on a patio away from other outdoor plants.
To Do List
- Tidy up the plant
- Apply insecticide
- Bath or shower the plant
- Clean the pot
- Repot if necessary
- Reapply insecticide
- Gradually adjust to indoor climate
Plant Tidy Up
- Examine the plant for any sign of pests, dead parts, or disease.
- Use fine snippers to trim away any dead or damaged parts. Clean blades with rubbing alcohol before each cut.
- If diseased, let it go. It’s not worth the risk to other plants.
When growing outdoors, we have the entire web of life to look after bugs (insects and other animals) that may be attracted to our plants.
Indoors, without the natural checks and balances, we need to eliminate them to avoid infestations and infecting other plants.
Examine your plants for any pests or signs of pests present on the stems, leaves, and soil. This can help decide how thorough you want to be with your preparations.
Again, we’re only calling them “pests” because they are not welcome indoors. Outdoors, they are all part of the circle of life.
Signs of Problems
- bugs present – you see them
- chew holes in leaves
- curling or mottled leaves
- sticky substances
- yellow spots
If there are pests visible, spray directly with an insecticidal soap spray, consider giving the plant a bath or shower, repot if necessary, and reapply the spray following the recommendations.
Some types of plants have so many nooks and crannies that it may be impossible to ever reach every bug with the spray.
About Insecticidal Soaps
Insecticidal soaps are non-selective, meaning they will kill any soft-bodied bugs they come in contact with. This is why we would not recommend regular use in gardening and restrict application to plants coming indoors.
- True insecticidal soaps will say “potassium salt of fatty acids” on the label, usually just under 50%.
- The product may be RTU (ready to use) or require diluting with distilled (not hard) water.
- Do not use regular dish soap. Most are actually detergents, not soap, and much harsher on plant tissues.
- Always follow the directions on the product label.
- Most say to reapply every 4 to 7 days when preparing plants for indoor growing.
Are insecticidal soaps safe for pets?
No. The product labels say to keep pets away when applying the product and do not let pets near plants that have been treated.
Are insecticidal soaps safe for all plants?
No. these soaps are not harmless for plants and some are more vulnerable than others. According to the product information, they should not be used on any delicate plants including ferns, bleeding hearts, azaleas, and sweet peas, and should never be applied to plant cuttings or seedlings.
If you are unsure, test a small area on the plant first and wait a few days to see if any tissue damage occurs.
How long does insecticidal soap work?
Insecticidal soaps only work while wet when applied directly to certain bugs with soft bodies or some others during their larval stages. Once the soap is dry, they have no effect. Plenty of other insects and arthropods are not affected by it.
Alternatives to Insecticidal Soap
You can also give the plants a bath to force some bugs away from the plant and remove any grime from the leaves. This, of course, is only for tougher plants like tropical rubber plants that tolerate submersion in water.
- Fill a large tub with warm water.
- Add insecticidal soap (optional) to the water according to product directions.
- Submerge entire plant in tub with rock or brick to weigh down root ball if necessary.
- Soak for 30 minutes, remove plant and allow to drain completely.
- Use soft rag to wipe all surface of leaves and stems.
If successful, some bugs will be floating in the water, free from your plants.
Some gardeners give the plants a shower instead of a bath by spraying the foliage and stems with hose water to dislodge any bugs.
It’s not as thorough as a bath but may do for any plants that don’t mind a blast of cold water.
Don’t forget to clean up the flower pot or container as well. Clean the exterior and have a nice, deep saucer ready for indoor use.
Should I repot plants before bringing them indoors?
We repot plants (replace their potting mix) either to improve the potting mix and/or provide a larger pot size.
Decide about repotting on a case-by-case basis as some plants find it stressful.
If you’ve seen fungus gnats flitting about, it may help to replace the top few inches of potting mix where their larvae hide. Be careful not to disturb the plant roots. This has tips for dealing with fungus gnats including using sticky traps to catch the adults.
Otherwise, consider repotting later on in winter.
If there is time before temperatures dip, keep your plants in a sheltered location outdoors away from other plants for a week or two to monitor the bug situation.
If you see more bugs while the plants are still outdoors, reapply the insecticidal soap as recommended.
Moving Plants Indoors
With your plants all cleaned up, it’s time to come inside.
I see a lot of advice about this step that seems far too generalized or unrealistic.
Some gardeners are adamant that its best to transition plants to lower light conditions, either starting with part-shade outdoors and/or moving to a low light spot indoors—at first.
Others say, with light already diminishing as we head toward winter solstice, it’s best to give the plants as much light as possible indoors since it will probably be less than they were accustomed to outdoors during the summer.
But it’s not one-location-suits-all. Different plants have different light needs and some are far more reactive to changes than others. I’m going to treat my sun-loving tomatoes and herbs much differently than some of the tropical plants originating from shady, rain forest conditions.
It really helps to know your plants and their preferences and just do the best you can to accommodate their individual needs.
If indoor humidity levels are low (40% or less), the plants may also show some stress from this. This explains why humidity levels are so important to plant health and why maintaining a level around 50% helps.
What to Expect
Depending on the plant and how drastically growing conditions have changed, your plants may slide right into life indoors as if nothing happened while others may sulk, have some dieback, or worse.
The most important thing is to give them time. Some may drop a bunch of leaves or show other signs of distress but, as winter moves along, most should gradually recover.
Also, signs of stress may not show up until weeks or months after a drastic change. Keep that in mind if your citrus seems fine until mid-winter and suddenly drops its leaves. That may be the result of the move from outdoors to indoors months earlier and the plant simply needs time to recover.
Winter is also a time of dormancy, so don’t be surprised if growth halts entirely during the low-light months.
Indoor Plant Care
In general, winter is a time to ease way back on watering and hold off fertilizing.
Come spring, as light increases, it’s time to increase water to meet individual needs. Liquid fertilizer may also be warranted.
When is it safe to put plants outdoors again?
The general rule is when outdoor temperatures are consistently at least 60°F (15°C) and any risk of frost has passed you can start transitioning plants back outside. This will be late spring or early summer depending on your location.
Just like young plants ready for transplanting, a period of hardening off over a few weeks will ease the stress of the transition to summer outdoors.
- Insecticidal Soaps For Garden Pest Control | Clemson.edu
- Easy Houseplant Tagging System To Simplify Plant Care | Empress of Dirt
- How To Keep Houseplants Watered While On Vacation | Empress of Dirt
- How To Overwinter Potted Trees Like Figs | Empress of Dirt
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
How To Bring Plants Indoors For The Winter
Supplies & Materials
- Four to six weeks before first frost, tidy plants by removing any dead, damaged, or diseased parts. Clean snipper blades with rubbing alcohol between cuts.Plants
- Apply insecticidal soap to any visible bugs following product instructions.
- When soap is dry, give plant a bath by submerging it in tub of warm water with (optional) dose of insecticidal soap (see product instructions for amount). Add brick or rock over root ball if needed to weigh it down. Wait 30 minutes.
- Gently wipe leaves with cotton rag to remove any dust or grime.
- Replenish potting mix and/or move to larger pot if needed.
- If there is time before temperatures get below 60°F (15°C), keep plants in a sheltered location outdoors away from other plants for 1 to 2 weeks to monitor for bugs.
- Reapply insecticidal soap per instructions as needed.
- When ready, move plants indoors to sunny location. Isolate from other houseplants if possible to further monitor for bugs for a few weeks. Reduce watering and stop fertilizing according to individual plant needs until growth resumes in spring.