New York-based plant coach and apartment farmer Nick Cutsumpas is on a mission to help people create their own green spaces and make the world a more sustainable place. Here, he clears up any confusion about plant dormancy: what it is, what it means for your plant, and why you shouldn’t freak out if it happens to your houseplants.
What the heck is dormancy and why isn’t my plant growing anymore?
I get this question once a week during the winter season, and it is a tricky concept to tackle with most clients. Living in NYC, we have four distinct seasons that affect our plant care routines, and if you go down Google’s plant care drainage hole, you will be overwhelmed with information about how terrible dormancy is. That being said, before we completely change up our plant care during the cooler months, it is important to understand what dormancy actually is.
In layman’s terms, dormancy is a period of rest when the plant is preparing for spring. The most common sign of dormancy is a deciduous tree losing its leaves in autumn. The growth phase is over, and like airplanes parked in their hangars, the buds wait patiently for clearance to take off in Spring. Dormancy is essentially a plant’s form of hibernation when food (aka light) and warm temperatures are less abundant.
However, the same principle does not always apply to our houseplants. Many of our houseplants originate from more temperate or tropical environments where seasonal swings are less volatile. Their growth may slow in the cooler seasons, but for the most part they are still capable of growth if treated to the proper conditions. My monstera puts leaves out all year long and many of my other plants are still growing but just at a slower pace. My FLF (Fiddle Leaf Fig) is the only plant in my collection that takes a break in winter but it comes back with a vengeance in April. If your plant lost all of its leaves this winter and you’ve attributed it to dormancy, then you’re probably in denial 😉
With this new understanding of what dormancy is and isn’t, it is integral that we avoid overreacting to our plant’s changed behavior. I don’t alter my routine significantly in winter and it is always my goal to provide as consistent of an environment as possible. The key is listening to what the plants are showing you, and I’m not afraid to do something unconventional like fertilize in winter if my plant is showing signs of a nutrient deficiency.
It is also wise to learn how to identify what other factors may be affecting its growth in winter. Changes in temperature due to drafts and dry heat, lack of humidity and a new location in your space can all inhibit your plant’s performance, and too often we mistakenly attribute this to the dreaded dormancy. Listen first, react second.
At the end of the day, we expect WAY too much from our plants. We expect constant growth. We expect lush leaves 24/7. We expect them to adapt to our lifestyle and plant care abilities. We expect perfection.
But this is not reality. Yellowing older leaves are normal. Slower growth is normal. Nature is normal. It will test your patience and impulsivity, but we have to respect the plant process. The moral of the story? Don’t demonize dormancy.