5 Factors for Healthy and Happy Houseplants
Many avid gardeners, in the spirit of perpetually nurturing plant life and getting dirt beneath their fingernails, will focus their attention more acutely on that of houseplants during the winter months. This can involve the transformation of one’s living space into an outright floor-to-ceiling jungle. At my household, this is most certainly the case, since not only do I have an obsession with chlorophyll-driven organisms, but so does my spouse. We have our mainstay houseplants: rex begonias, air plants, majesty palm, peace lily and several mother-in-law tongues, orchids, and terrarium projects. From the deck we have recently brought in for the winter the ferns, the passionflowers vines, the kokedamas we made in the early summer, and the jasmine bonsai. We also brought in a few plants that are likely dead from the looks of it, but where there is light and carbon dioxide, there is hope…right? I would be remiss not to mention the propagation stations we are operating in various sunny nooks around the house, future full-sized Christmas cactus, coleus, and begonias rooting in small water-filled bud vases. While your home may involve a few more or less houseplants than mine, there are a few basic factors to take into consideration when caring for your plants. Below are the biggest things to consider in helping your houseplants live their best lives.
First, it’s important to understand individual plant needs. Houseplants enjoy lower light intensities than most other plants and by definition are tropical plants; their native homes are deeply shaded rainforests. Move them around until you find that sweet spot of light if you need to. Just this past year I’ve had to experiment with different placements for an asparagus fern and its good buddy, a pothos vine. At first, I had both plants in the bathroom, but I soon discovered they needed just a bit more sunlight than was being offered in that vicinity. Next stop was my office. This new location also involved a larger friend group: a jade plant, rabbit foot fern, and a rex begonia.
Joining this larger group sitting upon my bookshelf not only provided a better light level and expanded social circle, but it also resulted in a higher humidity level, which is another important environmental factor within the scope of tropical plants. An easy fix for increasing air moisture as well as an attractive way to display plants, creating different groupings around the house can be a fun way to design with similar and/ or contrasting textures, colors and leaf sizes. Lisa Eldred Steinkopf, a self-proclaimed houseplant-a-holic, suggests another method to maintain a happy humidity level. Take the saucers or trays used to hold your houseplants, add pebbles and water to the trays, and then place the potted houseplants back on top of the tray. She is a wealth of knowledge on anything concerning indoor plants and can be found at http://www.thehouseplantguru.com. Lastly, keep in mind that when a plant is exposed to more humidity, it will need less water.
Again, it’s always prudent to understand your plants individual needs. While ferns will love you for providing them consistent moisture all throughout the year, other plants are not so appreciative. Overwatering during any season can be fatal, especially during the winter when indoor flora prefer to dry out between watering. If thinking in terms of a spectrum helps, consider ferns on one side with cactus and succulents all the way (miles and miles away) on the opposite end of that spectrum. Adopt the habit of checking the root zones of plants (and not just the soil surface) for water needs. Get a feel of your houseplants’ weights when just watered versus dry and, of course, there are plenty of books and online resources if you need to research a specific plant’s requirements.
Temperature is a factor often overlooked during the winter. Because we humans are not necessarily standing by drafty windows all day (and night) long and most of us have the advantage of being mobile, therefore creating heat, it’s easy to neglect this aspect for plants. Most houseplants like the thermostat set to 65 – 75 F for daytime temps, and about 10 degrees cooler during the night, not so different than our preferences. Practice extra caution for plants in colder climates. Avoid placing your plants too close to windows letting in a considerable amount of cold air or windows that frost overnight. Remembering to move them away each evening before dusk could be difficult but pulling down a shade or other type of insulation before sundown may be more manageable. Also, be aware of plants’ sensitivity to extreme heat. Plants in near proximity to fireplaces and other heat sources can become scorched and dessicated.
5. Plant Enemy 101: Pets
We have 3 pets at our house. Our boxer and 2 middle-aged cats. However, the only one who seems to be a threat to our green things is Miss Oakie Bobby, the Maine Coon with a healthy appetite for chlorophyll. She’s experimented with everything from cutting out perfectly canine-shaped holes from the foliage (and leaving green spit-up as a bonus) to using our bigger plant containers as toilets. Yes, she is lucky that she’s cute. Of course, there are plants that are toxic to cats and dogs and other animals (a natural defense mechanism), causing various degrees of vomiting as well as extreme discomfort to their gastrointestinal tracts. The most popular houseplants poisonous to both cats and dogs are aloe, pilea, pothos, cyclamen, peace lily, kalanchoe, philodendron, coleus, and dieffenbachia There are many more, and I recommend checking out the ASPCA website to get a full list. Petmd.com is a wonderful resource to refer to as well. After you’ve distinguished the harmful plants from the benign and arranged them accordingly to safeguard your furry friends, it’s time to use tactics to deflect your pets’ interests if deemed necessary. Adding undesirable effects to your container plants such as tin foil or other sorts of material that your cat finds disturbing can work. Spraying foliage with diluted vinegar will also help repel your pet from wanting to eat it. Did you know there is a product that is manufactured with lion dung to act as a deterrent for cats? It is called Silent Roar and you sprinkle it onto the soil. Humans cannot detect the scent, but the felines can. It will give them the impression that the plant is someone else’s territory. Cayenne pepper can be used in the same manner. Cats abhor the scent of citrus, too. I don’t have to tell you that dogs are generally easier to train than cats. You can tell your dog “no” when they closely approach your plants and reward them appropriately when they obey your command. Like cats, dogs are sensitive to cayenne pepper and citrus scents, too.
In closing, I’d like to ease any worried minds by saying if you have at least an inkling of intuition or any observational skills at all, your houseplants will be fine. First, start off with not forgetting about them. Follow up by taking a close look at each one, getting to know the signs of health versus signs of distress. And lastly, have fun! Curating your home with houseplants can bring so much joy, not to mention all the health benefits related to air quality and mental well-being, which is a whole other article entirely.