Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Living with Your Indoor Plants

If you’re anything like me your “house plants” are simply the plants you’ve had outside on your deck that need to come inside for the winter. Unfortunately mine are huge and I bemoan this fact every time I have to haul in these mini-shrubs and find a place for them somewhere in the house. I have a Clivia, for instance, that has to be carried in by two people! But they bring me joy indoors and out so in they come. I think there are plants that are perhaps better sized for your home year-round. In the northeast, house plants are simply those that might easily live outside in warmer parts of the country. Many tropical plants such as orchids couldn’t possibly survive outside in a Rhode Island winter. We like to grow plants indoors because they literally bring life into the home – energy, bright color, gorgeous foliage, interesting shapes, fragrance... We decorate with plants trailing them up around windows or stairways, gracing a corner of the living room, making a statement in the entrance hallway or simply being there in the kitchen when you come down in the morning – greeting you with their beauty. They are living artwork. Tending and caring for these plants is therapeutic in so many ways, particularly through the winter months when you can’t garden outside.
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Find plants that suit you and your home. If you don’t like spending a lot of time caring for them then get easy, no-care plants like a Chinese Jade Plant (Crassula arborescens), remembering, of course, that there is no such thing as a “no-care plant.” If indoor horticulture is what gets you up in the morning then you can go for more finicky plants like a Camellia. It’s a bit like choosing a dog in that you have to choose one that fits your lifestyle. If you like to go away and aren’t around to water then cactus and other succulents might be your plants of choice. What it really comes down to is choosing a plant that pleases you, in whatever way that may be. I have tried and failed at orchids but I keep on trying because they please me.


Your indoor plants are totally, 100% dependent on you for their survival. Plants that live in pots their entire lives get nothing if you don’t give it to them. They need you to feed them, water them, mist them, prune them and heal them. Keeping them clean is important because dusty plants can’t breathe (transpire) and look awful. I had a Rubber plant (Ficus) in my office for years that I would wash regularly to ensure its health and because it looked so good afterwards. I have also put plants in the bathtub and turned on the shower to simulate rain, taking care to make the “rain” gentle.  Place plants in an area where they will get the correct amount of light. This is the same whether you plant outside or inside. Try to find areas that simulate the kind of light they like naturally. If you know a plant’s native origin you will have some sense of what that plant needs to survive. In a sense you’re trying to recreate their homeland. Orchids, for instance, hail from tropical areas with moist warmth and filtered light – that’s what they best like so that’s what you try to give them. And don’t put cyclamen in a bright, sunny window because they like a lower light – put a cactus on that windowsill – they are used to bright desert light. Regular incandescent lightbulbs will not give a plant what it needs – only sunlight or grow-lights can do that and unless you are raising plants you probably don’t want the aesthetics of grow lights in your living space.  Correct light is a very important. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone into an office and seen a dried-out, half-dead Spider plant (Chlorophytum commosum) hung in a dark corner. They look dreadful and I itch to coddle them. The intent to have a live plant is there but maybe the time to care for it is not? Spider plants need bright light, plenty of moisture and frequent feeding. And often they are hung over a central heat duct. These plants like warmth but not too much heat.   Fertilizing a potted plant is essential. Most will benefit from a regular feeding of dilute fish emulsion like Neptune’s Harvest or, if you want to encourage blossoms you could use a fertilizer formulated for this purpose. I favor non-chemical gardening and recommend top-dressing any potted plant with some good home-made compost. The nutrients filter down each time you water.  When watering make sure there is drainage at the bottom of the pot and that the plant does not sit in water, or at least not for long. I always “overwater” my Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum Wallisii) but it drinks “like a fish” so rarely is it left sitting in that water. If you give a plant what it needs it will give back to you ten-fold in terms of happiness.


Plants inside the house are susceptible to dust, drying out, over-heating, poor light and, of course bugs. The one that seems to be oh-so-common is the fleshy white mealybug – you’ll see a white, waxy, wooly blob in the crotch of the leaves. If you catch it in time you can hand remove it, but if you miss it early then more drastic measures are required – even a systemic insecticide. But, as I said, I go for non-chemical and prefer to take alcohol on an ear bud and “hit” them with that. It’s not a bad idea to open a window briefly to let in fresh air, or turn on a fan to get the air moving. Stale air harbors pests and if plants are in close quarters they will easily transfer from one to the other. A book that I like is the Reader’s Digest, Indoor Plants: The Essential Guide to Choosing and Caring for Houseplants by Jane Courtier & Graham Clarke. I don’t agree with their chemical approach to problems but it is chock full of good information, the plant directory is easy to read and the photographs illustrate most of the problems.  “Indoor plants” do not have to live only indoors. If conditions are right you can certainly put them outside – that’s where they would naturally be, but bring them in when conditions get harsher and threaten them.I grew up surrounded by my mother’s house plants. When she died my father felt compelled to continue to care for them even though he knew nothing about plants. It was emotionally healing for him and brought him closer to her memory. Whenever I see a Zygocactus I think of her.

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