Tips for selecting the right houseplant and getting it to grow

Wednesday, January 2, 2002

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Although the popularity of houseplants has waned in the last few years, as compared to 15 years ago, they still play a very important role in home and office decor.

They provide luxuriant colors that contrast or complement the colors of furniture, walls, and wall accents.

They soften harsh lines of furniture, wall corners, doorjambs, and windowsills. Houseplants provide benefits for the psyche as well.

Most indoor gardeners relish the idea of watching a plant grow, thrive, and blossom. Success suggests that all is well with the world. In fact, growing and maintaining houseplants is often part of therapy programs at homes for the aging, correctional institutions, and mental health facilities. Children often learn important lessons in responsibility when taking care of houseplants.

NASA has commissioned several research projects that are designed to study the effects of houseplants on air pollution in closed environments. Interestingly enough, the results show that many houseplants actually reduce the concentration of airborne pollutants.

With all of the benefits associated with houseplants, I am surprised that more people do not care for plants in their homes, apartments, and offices. There are just a few things that you have to keep in mind to be successful.

Which plant to grow

Your first concern when selecting plants for your home, office, or apartment, is the light levels in the area where you are planning to place a plant. Go to your local garden center and ask the clerks to show you plants that will grow in low, medium and high light conditions. Describe your intended plant location and the clerk should help you decide which plants will fit the location. Some suggestions for plants in low-light locations are Chinese evergreens, peace lilies, pothos and philodendrons. Plants that tolerate direct light are figs, diffenbachias, arbicolas, scheffleras, ivies, ferns, and palms.

Many gardeners keep the plants in the black plastic growing pot that they purchase the plant in. They then take this pot and place it in a more decorative pot that has no drain holes in it. Excess water will drain out of the black growers pot and collect in the bottom of the decorative pot. Watering is probably one of the most critical cultural practices for successful plant maintenance. You want to keep most plants evenly moist to slightly dry. Stick your finger in the soil. When it is dry, water the plant thoroughly so that the entire soil volume is filled with water. Let excess water drain off. Do not let the plant roots stand in water. If the soil is moist when you check it, then do not water the plant. The frequency of watering will depend upon the type of heating system, the temperature levels and the light levels in each home or business. I would check the soil at least every other day to determine if watering is needed or not. Once or twice a week would probably be the normal watering frequency in the area.

Inspect for insects

When you water your plants, inspect them for the presence of insects. Scale in particular, as well as aphids, and white flies can be a problem on houseplants. If you find an infestation, treat the plant with one of the pyrthreums on the market. This natural insecticide will provide some immediate knockdown for the insects that you find. In addition treat the soil with a systemic insecticide. When you water, the insecticide will be washed into the soil and then taken up by the plants roots. When insects attack the plant, they will ingest some of the insecticide and thus be controlled. You will find that plants growing indoors often collect dust on their foliage. Outdoor plants also collect dust on their leaves, but Mother Nature gives them a shower each time it rains. Since it doesn't rain indoors, you must eliminate the dust so that the plant will grow and thrive indoors. The easiest way to clean plants is to spray plant shine on the foliage on a bi-monthly basis. The plant shine not only cleans off the dust, but the clean foliage shines so that the beauty of the plant is appreciated.

During the summer you should fertilize your plants on a weekly basis to maintain nutritional levels in the soil. During the winter months, light levels are lower and days are shorter. Therefore, plants grow more slowly and need fewer nutrients to maintain themselves. In the winter only fertilize your plants once a month. Do not be in a hurry to repot your houseplants. Repotting is only needed when the root system fills the pot to the point that you can't stick your finger in the soil. In fact many houseplants actually do better when the plant is slightly pot bound. If you do need to repot, only move your plant up into a pot one or two inches larger than the pot that it is currently in. Try to do your repotting in the spring. This is the period when houseplants begin to grow more rapidly. Therefore they will acclimate to the new soil more rapidly.

If you don't have any houseplants, try your hand at one or two. I think that you will enjoy them and will enjoy taking care of them. If you don't do too well with one or two don't get discouraged. Just try it again. After all practice makes perfect.

Send your gardening questions to Paul Schnare at news@semissourian.com or by mail at P.O. Box 699; Cape Girardeau, Mo. 63702-0699.

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