Jul 13, 2010

Your Houseplants and Some Ways to Make Them Love You

There are a few things you can do to make your plants fall in love with you...and they have ways of showing it!

When you walk into a room full of healthy plants, you can just tell. They look nice, and just seem happier in general. You feel happy watching them grow and develop. Showy leaves boast great color and shape, and green leaves are a healthy shade of green - never yellow or brown. A sick plant can have transparent leaves, brown spots, sunburn, or curled leaf margins.

Here are some ways to avoid the sick plant, and keep them looking amazing:

1. Give the plant good light
Good light is essential to plant health. Plants need light for photosynthesis. Too much light can spell death, while too little will equal poor, leggy development. If your plants are reaching for the nearest window, then for Gods' sake, move them closer to that window! Many plants prefer lots of indirect sun, so a west or east window will work the best. Plants that thrive on lower light can handle a north facing window. For those hardcore desert plants like cacti, give them direct sun in a south facing window. A few other full sun plants: Croton, living stones (lithops), Hens and Chicks, Flaming Katy (Kalanchoe), Basil, Chives. Many verigated plant varieties like lots of sun to keep their leaf colors looking nice and sharp!

2. Water should be room temp
Shocking the plant's root system is never a good idea, so avoid this at all costs. Use room temperature water from your tap (or distilled water if you prefer). Make sure the water isn't ice cold, but also not scalding hot: either of these temps can damage the plant! If not exactly room temp, warm water is okay, too.

3. Don't over-water!
Overwatering is the number one cause of plant death. Why? Because nearly everybody does it. Chances are you know at least one friend who’s told you: “I can’t grow plants because I always kill them.” Well the sad reality is, yes, you do. But your friends can change: When it comes to watering, in a lot of cases, less is actually more.

Overwatering can lead to root rot, fungus gnats, and a whole slew of nasty problems, ending even in death. At the very least, why waste the ten bucks you spent for that Peace Lily? Peace Lily is actually a great plant for learning when to water: when the plant is thirsty, it droops. Once you water it, it perks up again. If you buy a cactus, go easy on the watering – cacti hold water in their leaves or stems, so they need much less water than plants which don’t hold water. Here are some VERY loose guidelines for watering (based on how some plant tags are labeled in grocery stores and garden centers):

Water sparingly = water once every two to three weeks
Water frequently = Water twice a week, or when the top half-inch of soil feels dry to the touch
Keep on the dry side = only water when the top 2 inches of soil feel dry
Keep plant evenly moist = Keep the soil damp, but not soggy

Never let a plant dry out altogether. Also, make sure your plants don’t sit in water!

4. Select the right size pot for your plant
Make sure your pot size is right for your plant. Too large, and the soil cannot dry out properly. Too small, and the plant will constantly need a drink. Look to plant size when deciding which pot to select. If the plant is 6 ft tall, it will probably need at least a 10, 12 or maybe even a 14 inch pot to accommodate it. If the plant is around 5 or 6'' tall go with a 3 or 4" pot. Select a pot that will fit the root ball comfortably with room for about 1"  of soil around the roots. The pot should also be deep enough for 1 to 1.5” of soil beneath the roots, and about 2” of soil above the roots. Make sure to leave space for watering!

5. Don't skimp on soil...cheap is never good
Cheap soil is (usually) bad soil. It clumps together easily and holds a ton of water, and usually is dark colored. It also becomes as hard as a rock when it dries, making rewatering expressly difficult, since any water you add to the pot just flows down the sides of the rootball. You can buy a ton of this type of soil for very little at the hardware and other stores, but don’t be duped! Plants that like good drainage will suffer from staying too wet! If you absolutely must buy them-- or have friends who like to  buy cheap soil as gifts-- you can amend it with one part sand or perlite to make them a bit lighter.

Better still: buy more aerated soils, like Miracle-Gro Potting Soil (I know people who HATE Miracle-Gro potting mix, but in my opinion, their soil is some of the best on the market! The Miracle-Gro cactus mix is excellent for its namesake, as well as palms, citrus plants, and many succulents). Watch out: when you buy a new plant, in many cases they will already be potted in peat moss, a very wet medium. It holds A LOT of water and can potentially rot your new purchase, so the best thing to do is repot the plant into fresh soil pronto.

6. Provide humidity if needed
Plants like African Violet or Prayer Plant (Maranta leuconeura ) benefit from increased humidity. Use a pebble tray filled with a bit of water to just below the pebbles. Take care that the plant isn’t sitting in water! The pebbles should keep AV’s above the water. Another way to provide a quick burst of humidity is to mist your plants with a mister bottle. Clean water at room temp is best. Ever been in the grocery store by the veggies when the misters kick on? The water helps produce stay green, and so does your houseplant mister bottle! Bathrooms are an excellent place to keep plants that like lots of humidity, since your bath, shower, toilet and sink all use water, which then evaporates into the air.

Ways your plants show their love:
1. A thirsty plant will perk up
2. A well fertilized plant will stay greener longer (and look more beautiful)
3. Flowering plants will bloom
4. 'Parental' plants produce 'babies'
5. New leaf growth is a good sign!

For more on these 5 ways of plant love, see my next blog!

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