How to Keep Your Houseplants Thriving

Hopeless with plants? Do your friends joke about your “black thumb” and buy you silk plants? Keeping houseplants isn’t rocket science, and it doesn’t require a degree in botany-just an ounce of knowledge and a lot of common sense.

Know your plant. Most houseplants are, for those of us in the northern hemisphere, tropical in origin. What this means in practical terms is that they don’t survive our winters outdoors, thrive in indirect light, and generally (though not always) require moist conditions. There are exceptions, of course: some tropical plants won’t survive inside our homes because they need more light than we can provide or more humidity than we care to withstand.

It pays to do a little research. When you buy a plant, ask the retailer for the botanical name of the plant (this makes it easier to look up later). Find out from the garden or plant shop what kind of general conditions it needs. Some require bright light, some moderate, and some can withstand low light. The same goes for watering.

Soil, air, water, and light. These four are really all it takes. There are a number of plants that don’t require soil (the epiphytes or “air plants”), but all require some measure of the other three. In all likelihood, your plant will be potted in soil already, so the air, water and light are up to you.

Air: Drafts are bad. This should be taken as a general guideline, and not a hard and fast rule. Drafts and breezes can dry out a plant much faster than even bright sun can. If it’s winter, don’t let the plant sit too close to the furnace vents or in the path of a fan.

Light: There is such a thing as too much. Most tropical plants we have in our homes are what are considered understory plants.That is, they grow underneath much larger trees that shade them much of the time. For our purposes, what this means is that “bright light” to a houseplant can be translated roughly as “in the vicinity of a sunny window” but not necessarily on the sill. Be aware, though, that some houseplants require a lot of light-so much that you may need to invest in a full-spectrum “grow lamp” to keep your plant at its best. There is, of course, such a thing as too little light. Again, ask some good questions when you buy the plant, and consider doing a little research on your own.

Water: The cause of death of the majority of houseplants is overwatering. People kill their plants with kindness. Remember that plants have been around for millennia in much less hospitable conditions than your living room. They’re tough. Plants, just like some mammals, “hibernate” during the cold months. With the lower light levels and lower temperatures, plants don’t use as much energy, and so need less water. As spring arrives and everything begins to warm and brighten, the plant starts using much more energy. Adjust your watering accordingly.

Again, nothing beats good specific knowledge of your plant, but most plants need to be watered only when the top �½-inch of their soil begins to look and feel dry. There are, again, plenty of exceptions. Some plants need to have their soil kept a little moist all the time. Others need only be watered once a month.

Some tips on watering:

  • Room temperature water is best. Let water sit out overnight if you draw it from the faucet.
  • The larger the pot, the less frequently you will need to water.
  • Never, never,put a live plant into a pot without drainage if you can help it.
  • Buy a saucer to put underneath your plant so that when it drains, the water doesn’t end up on your carpet.
  • For those species that require more humidity, place a layer of small (pea-sized) pebbles Ã?¼ to Ã?½-inch deep in the saucer,and set the pot on top of it. The pebbles and water create a humid “micro climate” for your plants. Keep the saucer watered even when you’re not watering the plant.

Lastly, a brief note on fertilizing. Again, know your plant. Plants of the genus Dracaena are very popular as houseplants, but they don’t like to be fertilized very much, and should never be fed more than once a year. Never fertilize a sick plant-it will likely make the problem worse, rather than better. Read the instructions on your fertilizer-if you use a water-soluble plant food, mix it properly and be consistent about its application. If you prefer, use a slow-release granular plant food. They’re just as effective and feed for 3-4 months at a time.

Keeping plants can be rewarding, especially as you notice the little green thing you found at the store grow new leaves, flower, and eventually end up as a big green thing. A little knowledge goes a long way.

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