Houseplant Care Tips with Exotic Touch

By Kathy Conner Cornell

Southside Master Gardener
This Urn Plant, Aechmea faxciata, is a bromeliad that blooms annually. The bloom usually lasts for several weeks. The white on the leaves is scale that allows the plant to absorb moisture from the air.


          With any luck, your houseplants have had the opportunity to spend the summer outdoors.  Most of these plants came from areas of high humidity, something our Southside summers have in buckets.  It has been my experience that exposing interior plants to the natural atmosphere makes them stronger and healthier.  Just watch out with the sun, most are happy with dappled shade or at least shade in the afternoon.  Bringing the plants in before the first frost.   If you are concerned about bringing insects into the house just give the plants a blast with the hose.

          Houseplants provide color in our homes when not much is happening in our gardens.  They filter the air and give us fresh oxygen.  Because they are dependent on us for water and food, there are a few tips that are good to know.  As with kids, if you spoil a plant from the beginning, it will always need to be spoiled to survive.  In a recent webinar the annual and perennial guru Allan Armitage said that it is important to let container plants dry out between waterings to toughen them up.  Frequent shallow waterings lead to weak root systems.  It is recommended to water once a week during the typical growing season and every week and a half during the winter.

          Fertilizing should be done at a diluted strength of 1/4th of the recommended amount during the growing season along with the regular watering.  The plants thrive on a small steady amount of fertilizer versus a big bang once a month.  Using organic fertilizers will reduce the salt buildup caused by synthetic fertilizers.  I have found Worm Tea to be especially effective.  Stop using fertilizers from December 1 to March 1 to give plants their winter rest period.  Turning the plant a quarter turn during watering will keep the plant shape uniform.

          Snake plant Sansevieria trifasciata, many types of Philodendron, Pothos Scindapsus and Begonias are tried and true houseplants.  But sometimes you might want to adventure into something a little more exotic.  Bromeliads are a favorite of mine.  There are so many types with gorgeous blooms.  Many people consider them difficult but there are a few tricks that help.  Bromeliads are epiphytic meaning they grow on something else, therefore they have weak root systems.  You might have to add a stick or some other type of support when the plant reaches a good size. 

          When growing bromeliads be sure to use the diluted fertilizer method mentioned above.

Water thoroughly and allow to dry out.  Hard water that goes through a salt softening system cannot be used, even if aged.  It will kill the plant.  Rainwater is a great alternative.  Contrary to what is usually mentioned on the plant care tag, do not allow water to stand in the cup (rosette) of the bromeliad.  This works in nature but at home you are setting yourself up for rot.

          Bromeliads need lots of humidity.  Misting daily will work but who has that much time.  Since I have several different types I use a rubber boot tray.  The plants rest on the ridges and then I fill the base with water.  The pot should be resting above the water, not in it.  For a single plant, a tray of gravel with water will work. 

          Bromeliads are hapaxanthic meaning that it will bloom once, produce seed and then die.  So because the original plant is dying, all is not lost.  Look for a little baby or with luck, babies growing at the base of the plant.  You can just let them grow in the same pot or divide and repot.  To divide – wait for 3 full leaves to develop on the plantlet.  To plant, use Bromeliad potting mix or orchid potting mix, which is more commonly available.  The key element with these mixes is that they are well draining.

          Bromeliads won’t bloom unless they get full spectrum light.  Sunlight provides full spectrum as do gro-lights.  In the house I have mine where they get morning and some afternoon sun.  I used to keep my bromeliads on our front porch.  One year we had it screened it.  That following winter none of them bloomed.  The next year I tried putting them out under a tree and they bloomed the next winter.  If you have followed my suggestions but are not getting blooms from a mature plant, take it out of direct sun and put in a plastic bag with an apple. Leave for 4 – 7 days, remove plastic and in up to 3 months blooms will appear. 

          Houseplants decorate our house with nature.  Take care of them lovingly and don’t be afraid to try something exotic.  For more information on the Southside Master Gardener Association visit or contact Bill McCaleb at the Halifax Extension Office at 434-476-2147.