Keeping your Houseplants Happy & Healthy!

Published by Bucks Country Gardens in Bucks Country Gardens

The recent historic snowstorm that pummeled Pennsylvania occurred while I was vacationing in Puerto Rico (lucky me!). Snowy, cold winters are when I treasure the green of my houseplants. As I hiked through the lush El Yunque Rain Forest in Puerto Rico, I saw many super-sized tropical plants around me; the same plants that we bring into our homes as houseplants. The air in the rain forest is humid and the canopy of trees overhead filters the bright tropical sun. This natural environment helps to remind me of what our houseplants need in our homes to thrive.

Plants can be used to enhance our homes in several ways. Single large specimen plants can be used as a focal point or several plants can be clustered together for an arrangement, with varied textures and shades of green. Collections of small plants can also be potted together as a dish garden; especially useful for small homes, apartments, or even nursing homes. An added benefit of plants in the home is that they remove toxins from the indoor air.

The first step to success with houseplants is to select a plant suited for the space where you plan to put it. Most tropical plants like bright, indirect lighting, similar to the floor of the rain forest; however, some will tolerate low light (like a North facing window sill) and others require high light (like a South window sill). Some low light plants include Aglaonema (Chinese Evergreen); Spathiphyllum (Peace Lily) and Zamioculcas (ZZ plant). Plants that prefer high light and some direct sun include cacti, succulents, and crotons.

Most plants are purchased in black plastic pots so select a slightly larger decorative pot with a drainage hole to display your plant, coordinated with the room color where you will place it. Decorative cachepots (pots without drainage holes) can be used to hide the plastic pots and protect your furniture from water damage. The plant can be removed and watered, then placed back into the cachepot.

You are ready to take your gorgeous plant home, now the challenge is to keep it alive and healthy! Most of us will admit to killing at least one houseplant (myself included). A few simple tips can help you be successful. We all know that plants need water, but not always how much and when to water (most houseplants die from overwatering). Generally, plants like their soil to be slightly dry between watering.  A finger stuck into the soil should feel dry to the first knuckle. Small plants can be picked up and if they feel light, it is time to water. Some plants, such as ferns and peace lilies, like to stay moist; while succulents and cacti, prefer to be drier between watering. A moisture meter probed into the soil can help, especially with large plants, to indicate soil moisture levels and when to water. Always water your plant well, until water comes out the drainage holes, so that the entire root system is wet. This also applies to cacti and succulents — remember it may not rain often in the desert, but when it rains, it pours. Water plants less in winter when they are not actively growing.

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Another important requirement for houseplants is humidity. Our homes, with heat and air conditioning, are much drier than the humid tropical forest where these plants grow. Mist your plants with a spray bottle or place them on a pebble tray, which is just a saucer filled with pebbles and water. Remember to keep the plant from sitting in water-so keep the water level below the top of the pebbles. Moss can also be placed on the soil surface or around the pot to absorb water.

Fertilize your plants with a basic, balanced houseplant fertilizer in spring and summer, when the plants are really putting on new growth. There are special fertilizers to use for certain plants, like African violets, orchids and cacti/succulents. Follow dilution directions on the fertilizer packages and don’t over fertilize (too much of a good thing is never a good idea).

Bonide Hort OilPeople often say that those who talk to their plants have happy healthy plants. I think this is true because they pay attention to their plants, water when needed, and spot any problems, like insect pests, early, before it is too late.  Some common insects, which attack our houseplants, include mealybug, scale, and spider mites. Mealybugs look like white cottony spots on the stems and leaves (the insect is hidden inside). Scale looks like a hard casing (similar to a limpet shell) attached to the stem or leaf undersides.  Spider mites are minute insects found on the undersides of the leaves. They are detected by telltale mottling of the leaves or visible webbing. I don’t like to spray nasty, smelly pesticides in the house and most of these pesky insects can be taken care of by use of horticultural oil which smothers them, or insecticidal soaps. If caught early, you will have a better chance at eradicating these pests. Some houseplants, like begonias, are prone to fungal issues on their leaves. These can appear white or spotted. Remove any infected leaves and spray with a fungicide. Prevent fungal issues by watering in the morning and try to keep water off the leaves.

With these few basic tips, your plants should grow well and stay healthy for years. Repot them into new, slightly larger pots, every few years and you will enjoy beautiful, healthy plants in your home, as I have, for many years. Houseplants help us bring a little bit of the tropical forest into our homes to lift our mood and bring some green into these cold winter months.

Kathy Evans | Greenhouse Design & Sales