Softening Up

In spring, overwintered potted plants and new plant starts go through a process called “hardening off”. This process involves gradually acclimating the plants to life outside where light is brighter and wind is stronger and temperatures fluctuate through a much wider range than the plant would ever encounter indoors. I have found that repeating this process in reverse every autumn is very beneficial to my indoor/outdoor potted plants such as white sage, bay laurel, and citrus trees. I’m not aware of an official term for this reverse process, so I’ve taken to calling it “softening up”.

Timing and Division

Nighttime lows have begun to dip into the high 30s in my area, and that’s my cue to begin the softening up process. Since I have many potted plants, I divide them into three groups to minimize the amount of time I have to spend moving planters every day. The first group will require the longest softening up transition, and should be spending most of its time indoors by the time I begin transitioning the second group. The second group will require a shorter transition, and the third group requires very little transition at all.

Extra Care For The Most Delicate Plants

The first group consists mostly of tender evergreen herbs. These plants are the most sensitive to environmental shifts, and require the most delicate care during the softening up transition. Most of the Mediterranean herbs will fall into this category: bay laurel, sage, rosemary, and lavender for example. White Sage, a California native plant, also responds well to this treatment. These plants appreciate a two week softening up process, and for me, that begins right now.

Note: I also bring these arid climate plants indoors if rain is in the forecast during the softening up period, because in past years I have observed that a soaking rain can moisten the potting soil so thoroughly that it may take a month or more to fully dry in the cooler, damper environment of my home. Since these plants are mostly from arid climates, they do not appreciate that long wet period, and may suffer root rot or fungal infection if that happens. When I water them manually, I am able to control the amount of moisture these plants receive so that they will not have wet feet for long periods of time. Perhaps if you grow your plants in very sandy potting soil, or if your home is very dry, rain may not be an issue for you.

Faster Transitions for Hardier Plants

My second group consists of tougher plants that are frost-tender, but not as sensitive to shock as the first group. My second group consists mostly of citrus trees and succulents. I grow lemon, orange, lime, aloe, and dragonfruit in pots, and I find that those are all very resistant to shock, but they appreciate a little bit of softening up and will reward you with greater vigor if you treat them gently. These plants respond well to about a week of softening up. I don’t find it as necessary to bring these plants indoors before rain, unless the root system hasn’t yet filled the pot it is in.

Winter Care For The Easy Going Plants

The easiest plants to transition are those that naturally shed their leaves and go dormant over winter. For these plants, it’s not a big deal if they experience a transition shock and lose their leaves a little early. They tend to bounce right back in the spring. I generally leave these plants outside until they are almost totally dormant, only bringing them in if there’s an actual frost in the forecast. Some types of plants that often fall into this easy care group include figs and other deciduous trees, bulbs, tubers, and rhizomes.

The Softening Up Process In Detail

Step 1: Ideally, before beginning the softening up process, examine all the plants you plan to bring indoors. If they have any insect infestations, it’s easiest to tackle this now while they’re still outdoors. Any mess you make will remain outside, and you can avoid creating a new infestation in your home. If you can’t do this right now, then I doubt will cause a true disaster. The worst that has ever happened to me involved spending an afternoon scrubbing up plants in my bathtub, or setting out a trap for fungus gnats.

Step 2: In the evening, I round up the potted plants that I am currently softening up. I take them all indoors to spend the night in the house. Early on in the softening up process, I may take the plants back outside in late morning, so they can spend most of the day outside. Midway through the softening up process, I begin keeping them indoors until early afternoon. Towards the end, I will keep them indoors until late afternoon and give them just a few hours outdoors.

Step 3: When the plants have been fully acclimated, I bring them all indoors one last time. I place them in their permanent winter places where they will stay until spring. I keep my dormant plants in the basement, since they don’t require much sun or heat. I place other plants as close as possible to sunny windows. I have experimented with adding artificial lights, but none have worked out for me. They don’t seem to provide enough benefit to equal the expense and difficulty of their use. I find that although my plants don’t really thrive and grow vigorously in winter window light, they do survive this way until spring and will resume their vigorous growth patterns when they return to their outdoor lives. However, if you don’t have adequate window light, you might find grow lights to be an important part of your overwintering strategy.

If you’re interested in learning more about container gardening, you might enjoy these other articles from The Strawberry Moon Blog:

DIY Recycled Seedling Pots
DIY Plant Stand: How to build a convertible plant stand, potting bench, or boot bench
The Quest For Dragon Fruit (Pitaya)
Improved Meyer Lemon Tree

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If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

Our Plastic Legacy

I try really hard to avoid plastic waste. I recycle, I carry reusable utensils in my pockets to avoid consuming single-use flatware, I bring my own reusable bags to the grocery store, and I try to avoid the infamous plastic drinking straws at restaurants. But try as I may, plastic is everywhere. It’s unavoidable for most of us. And much of it is not even recyclable. So what is an eco-loving citizen to do with all those unavoidable plastic wrappers, bubble mailers, old toothbrushes, zip ties, and other small miscellaneous non-recyclable plastics? We could throw them in the trash, but these small, lightweight articles are very likely to blow away and cause harm to water, wetlands, wildlife, and ultimately to ourselves. Since these deadly convenience items persist in our environment for many lifetimes, their cycle of harm repeats on a loop.

The ultimate solution to this problem is too big for any one person to solve completely. We need corporations to refuse to make this stuff. We need scientists to develop better building materials for products. And since so far, the money is on the other side of this argument, we’ll probably need politicians as well. But I do not fit into any of those categories, and likely, neither do you. Nevertheless, we don’t have to participate in this harmful cycle. We can choose a more responsible, constructive second life for the unavoidable plastics that cross our paths. And in the process, we can also build cool, useful stuff that just might make the world a better place.

Enter: the Ecobrick. An Ecobrick is a plastic bottle, packed tightly with wrappers and small plastic items, then sealed with a screw top lid. If you pack the bottle tightly enough, it can become a weight bearing building material, similar to a brick. Even better, the tiny wrappers and other small items stored inside the bottle are effectively imprisoned, thereby prevented from wreaking havoc on the greater ecosystem.

Completed Ecobricks
My Collection of Completed Ecobricks

I’ve been packing my own plastic (and some plastics from friends and coworkers) into empty drink bottles for the past 10 months. It takes some time, but I find it meditative and stress-relieving. It’s surprising how many items fit inside one bottle. It can take me multiple weeks to fill one bottle, even when combining my home plastics with those from my office. Someday, eventually, I hope to collect enough of these “bricks” to build a new potting shed in the garden using Ecobricks and cob as the primary building materials. It will probably take a long time to collect enough bricks for this goal, but that’s okay. I view it as a lifelong practice. Or at least, for as long as disposable plastic items remain ubiquitous on our planet.

Let’s Get Started!

There are already really good instructions on how to make an ecobrick from the Global Ecobrick Alliance, so I won’t repeat that here. To start, all you need is a clean and dry drink bottle, and a sturdy, smooth stick that is longer than your bottle and less than half as wide as your bottle opening. You can pack the bottle with plastic items as you encounter them, or store up all your packing plastics throughout the week until you have a free evening to stuff them. I do a mix of both depending on my schedule. Everything that goes into the brick must be mostly clean and totally dry. For example, if I have an empty bag of chips, I might turn it upside down and shake out the crumbs before stuffing it into the bag. If it’s oily inside, I’ll wipe it out with a towel before packing it inside my bottle. If I have an item soiled with significant food residue, I wash that with water and dish soap and then dry it alongside my clean dishes before packing it inside the bottle.

What Can Go Inside The Bottle:

Examples of plastics that can be packed inside of bottles to make ecobricks
  • Empty bags of chips
  • Candy bar wrappers
  • Drinking straws
  • Empty bags of frozen fruits and vegetables
  • Cellophane wrap
  • Sandwich bags
  • Shopping bags
  • Twist ties
  • Zip ties
  • Bubble Mailers
  • Styrofoam
  • Discarded toothbrushes
  • Crushed up plastic utensils
  • Empty bags of coffee
  • Tea bag wrappers
  • Wine capsules (the colorful plastic seals that cover the cork and bottle neck)
  • Lots of other items. If it’s plastic and it’s soft or tiny, it can go inside your brick!

What To Do With Completed Ecobricks:

The Global Ecobrick Alliance has another great article called Building with Ecobricks that is definitely worth reading. The section called Earth Bottle Building describes the cob technique I plan to use for the potting shed. If you decide you don’t have any use for ecobricks but you’re still interested in making some, you could donate them to someone who can use them. We do accept ecobrick donations here at Strawberry Moon Farm, as do some other organizations and individuals. If you know you want to donate your ecobricks, find out in advance what kind of bottle your recipient builds with. It’s important that all the bottles be the same size for effective and aesthetic building, so your bottles will need to match those of the project you’re donating towards. You can look for someone accepting ecobrick donations near you on the GoBrik website. This site also encourages you to log your ecobricks, assign unique serial numbers to them, and share validations within the ecobrick community. Feel free to join the Strawberry Moon Farm community on GoBrik!

Gatorade and Pepsi Bottle Ecobricks
28oz Gatorade (left) 20 oz Pepsi (right)

I use two types of bottles. The first is the 28 ounce Gatorade bottle. It’s the middle size gatorade that is often sold at gas stations. This one is nice because it is a very sturdy bottle, and it has a wide opening so you can include larger items. The other bottle is the 20 ounce Pepsi bottle (or any other 20 ounce Pepsi product such as Mountain Dew, Dr Pepper, 7-Up, Bubly sparkling water, Aquafina bottled water). This is a flimsier bottle with a narrower opening, and I find it a little harder to stuff than the Gatorade. However, they’re much more common, so if you have trouble finding a 28 ounce Gatorade bottle, this might be a great option for you. Whichever bottle you choose, happy bricking!

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor