Houseplant Care 101

Houseplant Care 101

I’ve heard the trembling-voiced confessions of many self-professed “plant killers” over the years. One day someone asked what technical subject intimidated me and I said, “Anything mechanical.” A blinding ray of light appeared from the heavens. I had the epiphany that houseplant care could be daunting, too. I get that now. Let me see if I can make “it” easier by sharing generalities about fall/winter houseplant care. 

Light: It’s easy to become infatuated when you see a beautiful plant for the first time. “I want to take you home right now.” Thoughts of what kind of light it needs to thrive, and the reality of what light you have to offer, are often missing from that internal conversation.

Find out what type of light this plant prefers. Direct sun, bright light and low light are very different considerations. Set yourself and your new housemate up for success. Years ago I read an easy definition of bright light. On the brightest part of a sunny day if you put your hand 6” off the top of the plant and see a strong shadow that site has bright light. Sun-loving plants will usually be able to tolerate a slide from direct sun to bright light. Bright light plants will languish in low light. Forgo the sexy, but light-loving Fiddleleaf fig (Ficus lyrata) for the dark corner and instead try: Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema), Sansevieria, palms (there are a number of good choices) and ZZ plant (Zamioculcas, shown below).                   

Watering plants on a once-a-week, whether-they-need-it-or-not schedule is tempting the Fates. Plants in smaller pots or in clay, will need more frequent watering than plants in plastic or larger pots. Once you’ve decided it’s time to water, the technique is the same regardless of the plant. You always want to water enough that water is coming out the drainage hole. If you take it to the sink or the tub to drain, great. If it’s in a saucer, pour off any excess water that hasn’t been absorbed after 30 minutes. Roots need oxygen to survive and start dying when forced to stand in water after that period of time.  If you’re not sure whether it’s time to water remember you can always wait a day or more, but it’s hard to reverse overwatering! So yes, plant only in pots that have drainage holes.  

Humidity: Cacti (above) and succulents (below) tolerate dry air. Most tropical houseplants prefer higher humidity than most homes have with central heating in in operation. Remember, too, the higher the indoor temperature, the lower the relative humidity. Solutions:

  • Plants transpire (give off water) as part of their daily business. Grouping them together raises the humidity for everyone in that immediate area.
  • Place your plants on pebble-filled saucers or trays. Fill with water, keeping the water just below the pebble surface so the roots aren’t sitting in/and wicking water. That surface evaporation raises humidity. 
  • The little spritzer atomizers that are used to raise humidity are a sweet idea, they are. The reality is that moisture has evaporated within 5 minutes of putting them away. Exception: Misting is a great method for watering air plants.

Fertilizing: During the seemingly unending short, gray days of a Chicago fall and winter most foliage plants won’t be making lots of conspicuous new growth. A plant that isn’t actively growing generally doesn’t need fertilizer. As spring days grow longer and brighter, and you see new leaves emerging, then fertilizer is appropriate. Orchids growing in nutrient-free bark or sphagnum moss are probably the most notable exceptions to that recommendation and need more frequent feeding.

Insects: While it’s tempting to race home and introduce your new beauty to the rest of your plant collection restrain yourself. No matter how good the plant looks it’s possible it might be carrying an infestation- either adults or eggs. If you have the luxury of a plant-free room place the newbie in isolation for at least 3 weeks to make sure it’s clean. Inspect thoroughly each week, then make introductions when you’re sure the latest family member has good personal hygiene.

By using these ideas your green thumb success quotient should soar!