Dawn Combs
February 5, 2014

Look for signs of scale on your winter houseplants. Photo by Dawn Combs (HobbyFarms.com)
Photo by Dawn Combs

If you’re like me, you brought a lot of your tender herb plants into the house at the end of summer. After several months of dry indoor air, a lack of beneficial insects and salt softened water, most of our plants are beginning to suffer.

I brought in a beautiful bay tree (Laurus nobiliis). It has sat in my dining room in front of a bright sunny window since then. Just before Thanksgiving, I thinned out the bushy branches, taking a large amount of leaves to make a batch of bay rum aftershave for Christmas presents. Since then, I’ve picked a leaf here and there for soups and stocks. By removing leaves carefully in a random fashion you can actually relieve some of the stress on a plant that isn’t thrilled about being inside.

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Battling Scale Insects
My herbs try to be stoic for as long as possible, but usually by late January they are beginning to show signs of distress. The biggest problem for me has been soft-body scale insects. The last time I went to pick a bay leaf I had to wash a few off before using it. This is not appetizing, to say the least, and it tells me that my indoor gardening needs to be stepped up a notch.

The first order of business is to wash off the invaders. For this, I fill a bowl with warm water, a bit of castile soap and a couple drops of grapefruit essential oil. You can use any of the citrus essential oils, but grapefruit has the highest concentration of d-Limonene, which is the effective compound you’re looking for here. Using a soft wash cloth I start at the top and move downward, paying special attention to under leaves and along mid-ribs. Scale insects tend to look like a flaw in the leaf, so you must make sure you don’t overlook them.

Hydrate with Rain Water
After the sponge bath, it is important to water your plant. Most of us have water that comes from a city supply that is highly chlorinated or a well that must pass through a water softener. If you are in the latter category, like myself, you need to be wary of watering your plants with tap water. The concentration of salts that can build up will weaken your plants and leave them open to predators. Instead, it’s best to either collect rainfall outside, get your water from an outdoor tap that comes directly from the well or harvest snow. We have quite a bit of snow on the ground here, so that’s what I’ve been doing. Gather snow in a large bowl or pitcher and allow it to melt indoors before watering.

Harvest snow or rain water to hydrate your houseplants. Photo by Dawn Combs (HobbyFarms.com)
Photo by Dawn Combs

Examine the Reason for Stress
Many of our Mediterranean herbs simply aren’t terribly happy in the dryer climate of our homes. They will just have to endure until warmer weather, and you will compromise by spritzing them with water, as well as pouring it from a can. If your plant has overgrown its pot, is being used by your cat as an exciting nature-filled litter box or merely has outpaced the soil’s ability to provide nutrition, there are of course things you can do to further remedy the situation. Next week, I’ll talk more about what you can do to feed your indoor plants a healthy diet during the winter months.

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