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How-To Guide for Buying and Caring for House Plants

Ramsey Press 3/22/2004


How-To Guide for Buying and Caring for House Plants


Bringing a bit of the outdoors inside

Whether your house or apartment is large or small, traditional or modern, you can make it more pleasant and attractive with house plants. Notice how magazines always picture rooms with more plants than most of us think to use. Where winter rages growing plants give a sense of summer and continuity, an escape from cabin fever. Where winters are warm, people want the indoors as well as outside to be lush, green, and living rather than sterile, bare, and artificial.

Caring for indoor plants is a calming, soothing therapy that eases other problems. But all plants will not grow in all places. Finding the ones that will adapt to your lifestyle and your cycle of care as well as to your home's temperature, light conditions, and humidity is the secret of success.


Bringing a bit of the outdoors inside


Most of us find some plants short lived for us. Enjoy these while you can and don't expect more than they can give. There are plants for every place. Try new ones until you find the ones that thrive for you. Here are a few suggestions you may find useful whether you consider yourself a casual plant fancier or a green-thumb gardener.

Selecting Your Plants Top of Page
You'll want to consider available space, your purpose in adding plants, and the climate of your plant setting: light, humidity, and the degree of care you wish to provide. One rule that always follows, is to buy strong, healthy plants; never bargains that may be difficult to maintain.

Plants need wrapping in transit only if the temperature is below freezing. But whatever the season, take them directly home. Don't let them sit in a hot or cold car while you shop or visit. Sometimes there is a period of adjustment: slow growth, sometimes even a few dropped leaves or buds, while they adapt to their new conditions.

Light Top of Page
Selecting Your PlantsCacti are some of the few plants that take direct sunlight well. If a plant receives too much light, the leaves may bleach out to shades of yellow. Too little light is a common reason for spindly stems, or for small leaves that are widely separated on the stem. While plant tags usually carry specific information about the light requirements of each plant, the plants themselves also give clues. Deep green foliage is rich in chlorophyll, enabling the plant to survive on relatively little light. Plants with dappled leaves also do well with broken light, as these varieties often trace their origin to the forest floor. African violets and many other plants do well under fluorescent lights for 12 to 16 hours a day.
 

As a rule, south windows give brightest light, east next, then west. North windows offer only low light. Blooming plants need more light than foliage plants. Move new plants until you find the spot that suits them best.

TemperatureTop of Page
Avoid drafts of both warm and cool air. Most plants like night temperatures 10 degrees or more cooler than day temperatures. Some plants, like cyclamen, prefer only 60 degrees in the daytime. The ones that can will adapt and live like you do. Enjoy the others briefly and understand why they can't stay longer.

Watering Top of Page
While soaking plants from below every few days is usually preferred, you may avoid lime buildup on the soil surface by letting water run through the pot from the top. As mentioned, you will have to water less frequently if containers are larger. You will keep moisture conditions more constant if you can group plants tightly in larger waterproof containers within beds of peat moss.

WATERING CANPlants need much less water during short days of winter than during spring and summer. Flowering plants need more water during budset and bloom, less otherwise. Most plants prefer to be kept evenly moist, but some do best if allowed to go long enough between waterings for the top surface of the soil to feel dry to the touch.

Grouping for Appearance and EnvironmentPLANT STANDS
For displaying plants, you may not want to rely on your coffee table, end tables or window sills exclusively. Readymade or specially-built plant stands give you much more freedom of design, and tightly grouped, the plants will tend to create their own beneficial microclimate of better humidity which they can share. Humidity of between 60% to 70% is usually best. A bay window is ideal for your plant family, as they can enjoy the abundant natural light plus a cooler environment in winter months, when rooms are heated.

HumidityTop of Page
The low humidity in a heated house is one of the biggest problems for plants. Beside grouping, you can raise humidity by setting pots on trays of damp pebbles, misting the foliage (of all but fuzzy-leaved plants) with a fine spray of water often or daily, or using a humidifier. The longer and colder the winter, the more stress on plants.SPRAY BOTTLE

In warm climates, on the other hand, misting is not necessary and could lead to fungus.

Plants for Special Places
Plants that are pampered indoors in most of the country can grow outside in places like Florida and California. But you'll still want some inside. Keep some of your favorites in containers. Enjoy the luxury of rotating plants from a Rest and Restoration area outside to the spotlight inside when they are blooming, loaded with fruit or berries, or otherwise in prime condition. Adjust watering as needed to avoid rot.

Pots and ContainersTop of Page
Always use clean pots of the right size. If you reuse a pot, be sure to thoroughly clean it, especially on the inside. Plants do best in pots where roots fit snugly. As the plant grows, repot to progressively larger containers. Foliage mass is a fair indication of the mass of root growth. Containers should be big enough so that there is room for watering every three days or so. Pierced pots enable you to water plants from the bottom by soaking. Good drainage is also provided by these bottom holes which will require use of an outer bowl or saucer. With closed pots, a layer of broken pot fragments or coarse gravel at the bottom should keep roots from standing in water.

 

POTS AND CONTAINER

 

Soils and Fertilizers Top of Page
Soils become compacted with normal watering. Any white mineral crust that forms should be removed, and the soil carefully loosened with a kitchen fork or icepick. Then it's important to add humus in the form of peatmoss, sphagnum or leaf mold to keep soil moist and aerated. Sterile expanded mica or volcanic perlite will serve well to improve the root environment. These should also be added to most commercial potting soils for better plant growth. If sand is used in your mixture, it should be coarse, not the fine grade that will pass through a screen sieve.

PLANT SUPPORTS


Fertilizing is most important when plants are actively growing, as in spring and summer. Liquid fertilizers are easy to handle as most may be simply added to water.

Always feed according to label directions or less, never more.

Grooming Top of Page
 PRUNE PLANTS Be sure to remove dead leaves and twigs from your plants and from the surface of the potting soil. This waste can be a breeding site for pests or infections. Keep leaf surfaces free from dust, and don't forget that most plants benefit from a shower once in a while at your kitchen sink, laundry or bath tub.

Summer Vacation Outdoors
A happy plant, like a sleeping baby, should not be disturbed. In any case, you'll want some plants indoors year round. But any that are sulking, at

 

Care and Feeding of Popular Plants
PLANT CARE CHART

OUTDOOR PLANT GROUP

 

The end of a long winter, or any that have insect problems will benefit greatly from spending summer outdoors. After danger of frost is past, pick a place in moderate shade and where you will remember to water them as needed. Move them outdoors for just a few hours at first, then back inside, and extend the hours out every day for a week or so until plants adapt. Or move them first to the porch, then to a sheltered spot and finally to their summer home. A very few, like pineapple, citrus, and geraniums, can take full sun.

You can sink pots in soil or group them together so they'll dry out less often. Insect problems usually disappear as plants thrive and natural enemies help. Lift occasionally to break off roots growing through the bottom and trim topgrowth as needed. Bring plants back indoors, reversing the adjusting process, before freeze or furnace time.

PropagationTop of Page PLANT SUTTINGS
Some plants are easily started from cuttings, as Philodendra, that can be placed in vases of clean water. Others, like Sanseviera leaves can be started directly in sandy soil that is kept moist. Slice leaves with a clean razor blade, and dust their cut ends with rooting hormone. Dividing root masses, especially where a plant is sending up new offspring, will also provide additions for your enjoyment.

Some Problems Top of Page
Lack of flowers and small, pale leaves on excessively long stems are often the result of insufficient light. Yellowing leaves often indicate insufficient nitrogen fertilizer, and spotty leaves might be traced to the impact of direct sunlight hitting the plant.

A crusty salt buildup on the top of the soil is a common result of overwatering. If extreme, it may also result in the entire plant taking on a yellow cast.

White mealy bugs attacking gardenias and camellias may be removed with cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol. If found on the plant roots, the plant should be discarded.

If you have a problem you can't diagnose, -talking to your plant' won't help nearly as much as talking to your florist or garden center representative. It's best then to take a leaf or stem along to help with the diagnosis.

Some PestsTop of Page
The best way to combat houseplant pests is to prevent them. Closely examine all new plant you bring into your home, as well as those brought in from your own garden. Affected plants should be isolated immediately to discourage transfer of pests or disease.

Your garden supplier stocks many excellent products for control of pests affecting potted plants. Read the labels carefully for information on what they are intended for, how to use them safely, and how to dispose of empty containers.
White mealy bugs attacking gardenias, camellias, or alcohol. If the fuzzy, scale-like insects are found on the plant roots, the plant should be discarded. Some advise against use of alcohol on cactus.

Aphids can often be controlled with a solution of soap and water.

Brown scale required scrubbing with soap and water plus an insecticide your garden center can recommend.

Red Spiders can be removed by forceful spraying, and controlled by application of rotenone or pyrethrum compounds.

Earthworms that may have come in with soil from the garden may plug the drainhole in the bottom of your flower pots, but they do not harm plants. Lime or limewater will usually destroy them.

  Widely Grown Flowering PlantsTop of Page
FLOWERING PLANTSGardenias (Gardenia jasminoides) also called the Capejasmine, this plant ranks at the top for sweet-smelling blossoms. It requires high humidity, an acid soil. They are difficult to keep in the normal home environment. Yellowing leaves usually indicate an iron deficiency. One of the commonest, and worst pests to attack gardenias are white mealy bugs, mentioned above under Pests.
Some people have kept gardenias for years sitting in a saucer of water. It is one of the few plants that can do this. If you buy one in bud, remove all but a very few buds. These thrive outdoors in warm climates and benefit from summers outside elsewhere.

Cacti, like succulents, are the most forgiving of plants. They like the high temperatures and low humidity of most houses. Many have beautiful blooms. Holiday cacti tend to set more buds if they are outside long enough for a few cool nights (50 degrees). The holiday cacti need long nights to bloom, so keep them in a room where lights go off early in the evening. For all cacti and succulents, be sure soil is somewhat sandy and drainage is excellent. Most like bright light and low humidity.

Geraniums (Pelargoniums). These are most often the star of planters outdoors or inside. Planted solo or part of arrangements with other plants, geraniums contribute interest with a variety of colors and foliage. They tolerate full sun, and can be started easily from cuttings placed in damp sand. If you give them too much water, they drop leaves; if too little water, they look stunted. Soil should be slightly acid.

In the fall, bring in healthy cuttings from outdoors and pot directly with rooting hormone. Plenty of light is recommended, but not direct sunlight. If you bring in potted geraniums, cut off the top 1/3.

Geraniums can be carried over through winter in newspapers or paper bags if soil is shaken from the roots, and they are soaked for a time once a month. They should be cut down before replanting.

African Violet (Saintpaulia) is another favorite for both its blooms and its styles of foliage. Potting soil should include 1/4 sand. They require only low light. If you choose to grow new plants from leaf cuttings, keep the leaf from touching the sand/peat mixture by propping it up with pebbles. AFRICAN VIOLET

Chrysanthemums received in pots from your florist can be planted outdoors whenever there is no danger of frost. Different varieties bloom at different times as the days grow shorter in the fall. Some will not bloom again before frost returns, but they can be taken back indoors. Mums transplant easily even in full bloom. Always pinch back plants until August to create an attractive, rounded shape.Chrysanthemums

Azalea require diffused sunlight and temperatures between 55 and 60 degrees. They can be moved to the garden outdoors if cut back a bit to encourage branching. Azalea prefer acid soil and plenty of moisture but not on the leaves. As roots characteristically stay near the surface, the plant doesn't need soil of great depth.

POPULAR FOLIAGE PLANTS Top of Page
Philodendron FOLIAGE PLANTSdo well in warm, sufficiently moist soil, out of direct sunlight. Overlong runners can be cut and grown in water, to which charcoal may be added to maintain clarity. Philodendron are highly resistant to disease, infection and plant pests.
 

Agleonema (Chinese evergreen) make their contribution with the effect of variegated leaves. Durable plants, they prefer warm settings with low light. They also can be propagated from stem cuttings in peat and sand.

Dracaena (Corn plant) generally grow tall, and can grow large enough to establish their presence in big living rooms or lobbies. Some varieties have spotted or striped leaves. They like moisture and warmth and do best out of direct sunlight. Dracaena prefer a mixture of leaf mold, sand and peat moss. Three stalks, growing at different heights, gives the most dramatic presentation.
Dracaena
Sansevieria
are those familiar variegated speartips, hardy enough to survive most home growing conditions or commercial settings. Direct sunlight, however, is one condition to avoid. They require little care but prefer good drainage and temperatures above 55 degrees. Cleaning the leaves as needed improves the appearance of these long-lived plants. Surprisingly, some varieties will put forth blooms.
 

 

ASPATAGUS FERN, PASSION FLOWER, GRAPE IVY, SWISS CHEEZE PLANT, POTHOS VINE, DIEFFENBACHIA - DUMB CANE, STICK YUCCA

Succulents are not a plant species but a type of plant that can be found among many plant families. They include cactus, aloe, sedum, kalanchoe and crassula, or jade plants. These do require sunlight, a porous soil of up to 1/2 sand and good air circulation. Some cactus can be grown from seed.CACTI, CACTUS

Did You Know?
A NASA study concluded that indoor plants can dramatically reduce toxic chemical levels in buildings with poor ventilation. NASA recommends placing 15 to 18 plants in an 1,800 square foot home to purify the air. Maximize effectiveness by placing plants where air circulates and by keeping plants healthy.

Getting StartedTop of Page

  • Pick location
    _light
    _humidity
    _space
  • Selecting your plants
  • Pot or container
  • Proper soil or sand mixture
  • Fertilizer and nutrients
  • Container for watering
  • Stand for displaying plants
  • Tools for pruning or grooming
    _pruning shears or scissors
    _spade
    _plant ties

    Some facts may vary by region. Please check with your local lawn and garden dealer if concerned about possible variations.