Yes, it’s that time again: Fall is in the air and winter’s on its way. While some people dread the snow to come, I enjoy it…especially looking out at it from my window with a cup of hot cocoa in my hand, dreaming of the next gardening season. Of course, this planting season has to be put to bed first, and that means making sure any tender plants you want to save are brought inside for winter protection before that first killing frost comes.

Rootball examination

Be sure to check the plant’s root system for any hidden pests before bringing it indoors.

Photo Credit: Marjorie Pullman

Topsoil removal

Remove the top layer of soil from all plants no matter how free of pests they seem to be.

Photo Credit: Marjorie Pullman

Jewelers loop

Who says pest hunting can’t be fashionable? This bejeweled jeweler’s loupe allows you to take a close-up look for any unwanted bugs or disease.

Photo Credit: Marjorie Pullman

Cleaning pots

Before reusing any pot, clean and soak it in a bleach-and-water solution overnight, then let it dry out the next day in the sun.

Photo Credit: Frank Tansey

Whether you’ve got some containerized palm trees on your patio that serve double duty indoors as houseplants in winter, some tender perennials you plan on digging up and rescuing from winter’s chill, or you’ve just given your houseplants a nice holiday outside, the first thing you must do before bringing any plant indoors is a thorough pest inspection. So before you move that plant an inch (because movement could scare any pests into hiding), start scouting.

Check the foliage, stems, all nooks and crannies, and the undersides of leaves. I suggest even using a magnifying glass and small flashlight, as well as any other helpful tools to find smaller pests like spider mites. Even if the plant itself looks good, scoop out 1- 2 inches of the topsoil it’s sitting in – some pests may be hiding down there. Pull the plant out of its container to check its roots, too. If you have to dig the plant out of the ground for indoor transport, be sure to knock off as much of the soil from the root ball and top of the plant as you can to see what may have infiltrated the root system.

Next, give your houseplant or transplant a “shower.” Just squirt a bit of mild dish detergent into a quart of liquid and transfer the solution into a spray bottle. Spray all over the plant, followed by a gentle rinse of warm water. If you see any bits of dirt or remaining pests, egg sacks or cocoons, wipe them off with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol, or use tweezers if the lingering bits are stubborn.

Once the plant is clean and you’ve confirmed it’s pest-free, you can ready it for its return to the great indoors. You’ll need a clean pot. If you want to reuse the one it lived in outside, be sure to sanitize it before repotting with a 10-to-1 water-to-bleach solution. Add fresh potting soil and move the plant indoors. Now, even though you’re certain your plant isn’t housing any pests, it’s still good practice to keep any plant you’ve moved inside away from your regular houseplants for a few weeks – just in case you missed any sneaky pests during your inspection and cleaning.

Of course, if you come up with a heavily infested plant during your outdoor pest inspection, you should probably consider tossing it. If you decide you can’t live without your plant, then do the best you can to remove all pests, repot the plant with fresh potting soil, and give it fertilizer. Then put it in sheltered quarantine (and expect to keep it there until the plant is completely pest-free). Continue to keep an eye out for pests, and repeat the pest-removal process in another week.

If you feel you’ve done all you can and have no other choice, you can try chemical solutions as a last resort. I prefer to start from the weakest to the strongest pesticide. For example, my first line of defense is insecticidal soap. This insecticide is made of potassium salts of fatty acids, which suffocate insects. The compound is similar to dish soap (but it’s not the same thing), making it a safer choice for indoor use. No matter what line of defense you use, always carefully read and follow the label directions. If you just can’t solve your pest problem, then it’s time to reconsider “saving” the plant – and just let it live on in memory.

Once all of your tender plants have made it back indoors, be careful not to overwater them. Although you probably had to water your container plants every day during the dry summer, your plants won’t need as much water inside. Just stick your finger in the soil to feel how dry it is before watering. And don’t forget to give any newcomers a boost of fertilizer – after all, coming back inside is a bit of a shock to their system, so they’ll need a little help adjusting.

After your plants are all nestled and healthy for their long winter’s nap, remember to give them a spray of water once in a while. This extra bit of moisture helps them get through the dry indoor winter. Then join me in that cup of hot cocoa, sit back and watch the snow fall while dreaming of next growing season.