How to Build A Microclimate for Your Tropical Plants
During winter, our homes become a refuge for leafy tropical plants that would otherwise struggle and die if left out in the cold. However, it's difficult to keep winter's influence on our plants completely at bay. Our plants feel the cold season in three key ways: the chill that sets roots into dormancy, the shorter days that lead to less energy absorption from the sun, and the dry air created by heaters that drops beneficial humidity. One way to dampen the affects of winter is to create a microclimate for your tropical beauties.
A microclimate is a space within your home that is tailored to your plants' needs. Done correctly, the environment will keep itself going, and your plants will share light, stay warm, and provide humidity for one another while clustered together.
To get started, cluster several tropical plants together and make decisions about placement and interventions around three aspects: light, warmth, and humidity.
Tula's Tropical Room is a microclimate in itself, where tropicals are clustered together and circulate beneficial heat, light, and humidity. Pictured here: Calathea lancifolia, Epipremnum aureum ‘Neon Pothos’, and Chamaedorea Elegans.
Our homes get less natural light in the winter because the sun is up for fewer hours. If the spot you've chosen for your microclimate gets less than two hours of direct sunlight, consider getting a grow light. A fluorescent bulb could help supplement light, while a stronger LED could feed a microclimate all on its own – no sunlight required.
If your chosen microclimate location still gets 3-4 hours of direct light in the winter, choose how you place your plants according to their specific lighting needs. For example, a taller Ficus lyrata could happily stand above and filter light for a more sun-sensitive Calathea.
If you get more than 4 hours of direct light (say you have large, south-facing windows) consider purchasing sheer curtains to diffuse the light for your microclimate.
Think of your microclimate as a tropical rainforest, with different plants at different heights depending on lighting needs.
Tropical plants like it hot. While they can happily subsist in temperatures well into the fifties, extended exposure typically leads to a period of dormancy. Roots deactivate, take in less water, and growth slows. As a result, chances of overwatering increase and stagnant water in the soil could lead to bacterial infections or pests like fungus gnats.
Plants clustered together in a microclimate will retain the natural heat of the sun as it passes over them.
Build a successful microclimate a few feet away from drafty windows. And if you really want to keep roots activated and pots dry, heat mats add another layer of warmth.
However, avoid placing tropical plants on top of radiators, and try to avoid placing your microclimate in direct line of a central heat vent. The benefit of heat gained in this way often does not outweigh the damage done in our third aspect: humidity.
Often overlooked, a lack of humidity is the difference between your tropicals looking lush and crispy. Grouping plants together in a microclimate helps circulate humidity from humidifiers and misting, taking more of the weight off of winter care. Keeping all the tropicals together means one humidifier can do more, and hand misting doesn't need to happen as often.
You can also create a few moisture trays amongst your microclimate. Cover a plant saucer with lava rock and fill with water. The evaporation of water over time will raise the ambient humidity in the room.
A humidifier may be the essential tool of a tropical microclimate at home. Not only do they benefit your plants, but also your skin and respiratory system. Many also have heat settings that release vapor at a warmer temperature for your tropical leaves. And many plants benefit from ambient humidity in the air as opposed to droplets that settle on the leaves.
The mother Thaumatophyllum bipinnatifidum at Tula looms above an ever-running humidifier and its own mini microclimate of Spider Plants, Philodendron micans, and Epiphyllum oxypetalum.
As plant lovers, we often think of winter as a time when our tropicals stop growing and struggle for a few months before the burst of growth in spring. But with a successful microclimate that keeps plants warm, lit, and humidified, you may be surprised by how much winter becomes a time for tropicals to flourish.