If your houseplants have the winter blahs, try showering them

January 18, 2023

American English slang gives us “lead balloon,” meaning a dismal failure. Trucker's jargon includes “lead-footed” for a driver with a heavy foot on the gas pedal. Plumbers work with pipes, and pipes used to be made of lead, so our modern word “plumber” comes from the Latin word for lead, “plumbum.”

The first mechanical shower dates from 1767 in England; it used a large tub and a chain-pulled overhead tank.

Now that we have modern indoor plumbing, it’s time to get the lead out and give your houseplants a shower. An occasional shower helps counteract the low humidity that’s common to indoor settings in winter. Plants breathe through a process called respiration, and washing the leaves with water removes the buildup of dust and dirt. This lets the plant breathe and photosynthesize more efficiently. Showering your houseplants also rinses away many pests, along with their eggs. Spider mites, in particular, thrive on dusty leaves.

Showering can also help alleviate the problem of mineral buildup in houseplant soil. It seems contradictory, but fertilizer, which is used to promote growth, can actually stall or even harm growth if it builds up in the soil. This is usually seen as a ring of white, crusty deposits along the soil line and around the pot’s drainage holes, even appearing on the outside of clay pots. Heavy salt buildup can eventually lead to wilting, brown leaf tips, dropping of the lower leaves and slower growth, because the salts inhibit the plant from taking up water. Making sure your potted plants have proper drainage can help avoid this problem. 

Before showering houseplants, cut off any dead, diseased or discolored leaves, and remove all debris such as sticks from the soil surface. Place a sieve over the shower or sink drain to keep dirt and plant debris from clogging it. Use lots of water, at least twice the volume of the pot, to make sure you’re dissolving and flushing away all of the excess salts from the dirt. 

To wash one or two houseplants, or several smaller plants, you can easily rinse them under a sink faucet with a spray nozzle. Otherwise, sticking all of your houseplants in the shower or bathtub is the easiest way to give them a good rinse.

Never shower plants such as begonias, African violets and cyclamen, which don’t like to get their leaves wet.

Let the rinsed plants drain fully before putting them back on their saucers or drip trays. Never let plants sit in water, because the water can be reabsorbed by the soil along with any salts that were washed away.

However, if you are going on vacation, there is a simple way to keep your plants well watered for weeks. Gather all of your houseplants in the bathtub and thoroughly drench them using the overhead shower. Next, fill the bathtub with 3 inches of water and cover all the plants with clear plastic. 

The standing water helps keep up humidity levels and allows the plants to wick up water from below. You can safely leave most houseplants in this impromptu terrarium for two weeks without worrying about them drying out. After returning, let your plants dry and make sure they drain thoroughly before putting them back in their regular places.

A winter shower might be just the pick-me-up your plants need.


  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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