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Cultivating a green thumb for houseplants

Posted on Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 10:05 pm

Houseplants are a colorful addition to your home and office.  Brilliant blossoms or luxuriant foliage can make a living space more inviting and comfortable.  Plants also filter pollutants, making the air we breathe cleaner.

Before purchasing a houseplant, first evaluate the location that you would like to place a plant in.  What is the light intensity and duration?  Is it hot or cold?  Is the area humid?  Knowing your location will help you

Stephanie Romelczyk

pick a plant that will thrive.  Houseplant books will have specific requirements of different plants and can help you choose the right one.

At the store, pick a plant that is healthy and attractive.  Don’t be ashamed to tip the pot slightly and check the roots.  Avoid plants that are pot-bound or that lack healthy white roots.  Also, check under the leaves for stowaway insects.  These insects will thrive in your house and could spread to your houseplant collection, making control very difficult.

When transporting, be sure to protect the plant in cold weather.  Place the plant in a large bag that encloses it entirely or place another bag overtop the plant.  Many houseplants are sensitive to cold temperatures and will be damaged by the temperature.  During warm weather, do not leave your plants in the car for extended periods of time.

The three key factors for houseplant survival are light, temperature, and humidity.

Light is the most essential factor because it allows the plant to make food, which generates new growth.  Exposure and distance from the window are important for light intensity.  In general, western windows receive the most intense light and northern windows receive the least, eastern and southern are in between.  The further plants are from a window, the lower the light level.  Keep in mind that the duration of this light intensity varies by season.

If your plant is vigorous and compact with a sturdy stem (as opposed to spindly), your plant is receiving adequate light.

Lucky for us, the same temperatures that we enjoy, plants also enjoy.  Houseplants prefer daytime temperatures between 70 and 80 F and nighttime temperatures between 60 and 70 F.  Be careful of drafts and keep plants away from heating sources.

Many houseplants originated in the humid tropics.  They prefer 55-60% humidity, but can tolerate 20-40%.  However, most homes and offices have dry air, with humidity between 10% and 15%.  You can easily increase humidity by grouping plants together.  Another way is to fill saucers or trays with gravel that is kept moist.  Or, you could place plants with a high humidity requirement in rooms that are naturally more humid such as the kitchen, laundry room, or bathroom.

Finally, let’s talk about water.  Many houseplant problems are related to over- or under-watering.  Watering is my weakness (and this is why many of my plants are cacti or succulents!).  You will need to water more often if your plant has large leaves, thin leaves, fine surface roots, is located in a warm sunny spot, is planted in too small a pot, is flowering or rapidly growing or in a clay pot.

Each time you water, pour enough water in to thoroughly wet the pot and allow some to leach out the bottom.  Then, remove the water from the saucer.  Allowing water to run through prevents dangerous salts from building up.

You can check the moisture level in the pot by inserting you finger about one inch deep.  If it feels moist, no need to water!  With small pots, you can judge the need to water by the weight of the pot.

Houseplants are a great addition to the household.  By providing them with some key conditions, many will perform well for you.  For more information on houseplants, reference VCE publication 426-100: Indoor Plant Culture or contact my office at 493-8924.

Stephanie Romelczyk is the Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent for Virginia Cooperative Extension in Westmoreland County.