By Kathy Conner Cornell
Some people who love gardening, don’t have the same feeling about houseplants. This gardener finds their color and beauty a pleasant relief from the frosty air and biting winds of winter. These little wonders clear the air by removing certain toxins caused by common household items such as carpeting, pressed board, shampoo, shower curtains and drapes. Houseplants, as all plants when photosynthesizing, take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. All to show that houseplants and humans are natural partners.
Now that you might be considering bringing some houseplants into your home, let’s discuss some plant needs. If you’ve ever attended any of my programs, you’ll know that I always start by saying The Gardeners Golden Rule – put the right plant in the right place. Houseplants are no different. So take a look at the area where you’d like to have a houseplant or 2 or 3. Determine how much light does it get and at what times of the day. Do you want something in your bathroom where the humidity level will be high. if you have pets or small children poisonous plants may not work for you. But whatever the situation, there is the right houseplant to fit the bill.
A few of my favorites are pothos, snake plant, bromeliads, orchids and begonias. Pothos, Epipremnum aureum, is often referred to as a variegated philodendron but the two are not related. Pothos has shiny green leaves with golden blotches. I have one growing in a container of water in the bathroom that looks lovely with its foliage cascading down a cabinet. Pothos is not a picky plant. It prefers bright light but will be ok in less light but might have smaller leaves.
Bromeliads are a tropical epiphyte, meaning in the wild it depends on other plants for support, so has shallow roots. When purchasing a bromeliad, the tag will suggest keeping the cup or plant center filled with water. I can tell you that this may work in the wild but it will not work indoors. There are many different kinds of bromeliads including the pineapple. The cool thing is that the blooms are very showy. The trick to remember is that after the mother plant has bloomed, it will slowly die. But it will put out children plants to carry on the species. Bromeliads like some humidity. I solve that problem by resting them on a boot tray. The tray has raised ridges to rest the boots so the dirt falls below. I keep the boot tray filled with water so it provides the desired moisture but keeps the plant from setting in the water.
Snake plants, Sanservieria spp., are about the most tolerant houseplants there are. If you manage to kill one, then you are committing the most common houseplant sin – overwatering. Think about it, its instinctive when a plant looks unhappy you give it more water. Underwatering and overwatering have the same symptoms. You shouldn’t be watering more than once a week and only a small amount. Snake plants are pretty much okay in any light level. The downside is that they are poisonous if ingested which is why another common name is Mother-in-law’s Tongue. So if you have indoor pets or curious children this many not be the plant for you.
Another epiphyte is the orchid. There are over 20000 to 30000 species and more than 70000 cultivars. Orchids have showy blooms that remain for a long time. My husband and I were given one in bloom for Christmas. Just last month the final blooms dropped off but a new shoot had emerged so it is blooming again making it 10 months of blooms so far. Who wouldn’t love a plant that brings cheer for such a long period. Orchids can take a lot except overwatering. To avoid this, drop 2 ice cubes in the plant every week and problem solved. Don’t be afraid to buy those bargain orchids in the grocery store when all the blooms have dropped off. Just cut back the spent bloom stems, do the ice cube trick weekly and in time you will have a new flush of blooms.
Begonia species only number in the thousands but they are still a great plant to consider. At a Master Gardener graduation several years ago, I was given a wax begonia. This begonia sets on my dresser in the offseason and sets on the porch steps in the season.
Yes this is the same wax begonia that we buy to use as bedding plants every summer. The beauty of begonias is that they bloom sporadically. Rarely does my wax begonia not have blooms, there are times when there are more blooms but there are always some. Begonias also have wonderful leaf shapes, textures and coloration. This makes them beautiful all the time. Begonias like light but will survive in low light conditions.
A few tricks to know for growing houseplants. Most want a good potting soil. I prefer just generic potting soil, not one with fertilizers or moisture control. If a plant needs good drainage like the orchids and bromeliads, I use an Orchid soil mix. For fertilizing, I have learned that a little continuously is best versus a big bang monthly. I dilute a water soluble fertilizer at 1/4 strength for my weekly watering. No fertilizing should be done starting in December through the end of February. Houseplants need that rejuvenation period. During these months, week and a half waterings are enough.
I prefer plastic type pots, I feel clay takes up the moisture and the plant doesn’t get it. But they have their fans. The pots must have drainage holes so water can drain. Plants don’t want to set in water. Don’t be tempted to fill the bottom of the pot with packing peanuts, pebbles and (I know you Master Gardeners are waiting for it) smashed beer cans. Top down watering seems to be most effective. Houseplants love the outdoor humidity during the summer. Once the last frost has passed we take the plants outside on our front porch. They get light but not direct light which is often too much. Time to come back inside in October.
I hope by now you are encouraged to try some houseplants this winter. I so enjoy having their sunny faces around during grey winter days. Give some a try and remember, less is more when it comes to watering!