Home & Garden

Happier Houseplants

Let there be (appropriate) light

By Betty Mackey |

In winter my houseplants get more of my attention, not because they need me but because I need them. Some are older than my grown children and have lived with me in four houses in three states.

Even though I love them, in spring and summer with the outdoor garden going I am not so kind to my houseplants. Some are saved from inattention by summering outdoors in their pots and others by their innate ability to cope with conditions I provide, and are cherished survivors.

My plants are lucky to have a sunroom with good natural light. It does not freeze but gets cool at night. I apply light fertilizer occasionally. So far so good.

The tough part is that I let the plants get dry and then come crashing in with lots of water to save them before it is too late. There are certain succulent, tough, fleshy plants that actually need some kind of treatment and I have lots of them. A nurseryman uncle came to visit and when he saw my plant collection he laughed heartily because seeing what types I was growing—jade plants, dracaena, cacti, aloe, Christmas cactus, and hoyas—”told” him what kind of patchy care I was giving them. Most houseplants do best with regular care on a schedule. They adjust to it and know what to expect.

Everyone who grows houseplants has an environment and style of care giving. Are you a plant pamperer, constantly watering? Some plants prefer that, especially those with soft leaves and flowers, while other will suffer from rotting roots. Do you have strong light or a lot of shade? What direction does the window face? Do you have plant lights? Warm temperatures at night or cooler ones? Are you willing to amend the soil and repot the plants as needed, or is it more of a triage situation?

These factors affect what you can grow. Trial and error is an inefficient way to learn. To prevent holding a survival of the fittest experiment, asses your conditions and personality and then look for houseplant compatibility.

Plants have ways to tell you what they need. Just looking at a plant that sports a waxy skin, no leaves, and numerous spines should tell you that this plant evolved in a desert and does not want water and shade. Give it sandy soil and lots of light and it should be happy. Plants with lots of small, delicate leaves usually want less light and more water. If your plants droop just a few hours after they are watered, they could be telling you that they need larger pots and fresh soil, or that they have a root problem. If plants are dusty looking, give them a shower.

Start by finding plants that are suited to the light levels you offer and select those you prefer. Plant tags, houseplant books, and the Internet can give you an idea of what conditions each one requires and variations in size and color among plants of the same species.

Bright light can be created with plant lights or can come from a south-facing window. Plants needing this exposure should be within four feet of the window in most cases. Medium light levels can come from artificial lighting or from east- or west-facing windows. North-facing windows provide low, diffused light.

Here are some of my favorite house plants along with tips on their needs:

Variable conditions. Zeezee plant, with glossy, alternating leaves, spiky mother-in-law tongue, arrowhead vine, and philodendron are easy and unlike most plants can grow in high, medium, or low levels of light. All of these have really good leaf shapes.

Bright light. Flowering houseplants such as amaryllis, Christmas cactus, hydrangea, African violet, and begonias like a lot of light. It should be indirect but bright for African violets and cyclamen. Christmas cactus should not have soil that stays too wet, and decreasing the light it receives in fall will stimulate its seasonal flowers. Plants for bright light and well-drained soil include cacti and succulents, jade plant, and Hoya carnosa. Plants for bright light and moist soil include begonia, avocado, citrus such as lemon or calamondin orange, gardenia, abutilon, and others.

Medium light. Croton, grape ivy, moth orchids, peace lily (spathiphyllum), spider plant, tradescantia, dracaena, Aglaeonema, coleus, aloe, and others thrive in medium light. Some plants for bright light get by in medium light. Moth orchids re-bloom with low amounts of water. Some people place an ice cube on top of the planting medium instead of watering. The flower spike dies; use the stake and clips for the new flower stalk that emerges.

Low light. Aspidistra, (cast iron plant), ferns, and plants with variable light needs grow here. Variegated plants need more light than plain green ones of the same type.

Place plants that need good drainage in unglazed terra cotta pots because they “breathe.” Plants whose soil should never dry out grow in glazed clay pots or plastic ones. Dry air is a problem in winter, so mist your plants. If the top of the soil feels moist, even a moisture-loving plant has enough.

Let your plants adjust to their room. Rotate them now and then so all sides get light. Enjoy what grows. Discard what dies. If a leaf is yellow, don’t give up on your plant. No leaf lives forever. Just discard it. Repot the plants now and then with houseplant potting medium, not garden soil. Admire your plants and tell them they are wonderful; they will stay with you for a long time.

The Hunt Winter 2012   Issue

This article was published in Home & Garden from the Winter 2012 issue.
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