While you are out shopping tomorrow or in the weeks to come, think about investing in something that will make your living and working spaces a little more enjoyable: an indoor plant. Besides improving indoor air quality, houseplants can give a place a homey, healthy feel. They also give their caretakers a sense of accomplishment as they grow and bloom.
So what if your thumb is a little less than green? Take it in stride and try another kind of plant. I have sacrificed my fair share of aloe vera plants — which top the list of easy-to-grow houseplant selections. Aloe and I are just incompatible.
African violets, though, which have a reputation of being a bit more finicky, thrive in my office window, and I have gotten an orchid to re-bloom twice in my home.
The key to houseplant success is to understand what kind of light you have in the space where the plant will reside. Away from any kind of window or light source, silk and plastic is your best bet. Regular lamps and overhead lighting simply lack the intensity necessary for plant survival. Back in the corner, on top of the bookshelf, etc., a plant is unlikely to thrive.
Some easy-to-grow and low-light houseplants for beginners:
• Cast iron plant
• Spider plant (also called airplane plant)
• Kalanchoe (mother of thousands)
• Pothos (often mistaken for philodendron, but easier to grow)
• Sedum (many species)
• Sansevieria (snake plant, mother-in-law’s tongue, many species)
• Dracaena (sometimes called corn plant but unrelated to the vegetable)
• Chinese evergreen
• Umbrella tree
• Parlor palm
Direction of the window makes a difference, but so does the amount of light passing through. Put your hand in the light above where your new plant will sit. Can you see a shadow? Is it a light shadow or a dark, clearly defined shadow? A light shadow means you need a plant that can tolerate low light or indirect light situations, while a dark shadow means you need a plant that can handle bright, direct light.
There is room for adaptation — let’s say you have a plant that needs indirect light and only have bright south windows. Hang a sheer curtain or thin blind to lessen the light intensity. To increase light, remove the shades or use a specialty lamp.
Plant selection is the next step toward success. There are three major temptations at the garden center: plants with beautiful flowers, plants with beautiful, glossy leaves and plants with thick, interesting stems.
You can have all three! Just make sure their light requirements fit with what you have available in the space you plan to keep them. Ask a knowledgeable sales person for assistance if the label is unclear.
One other little thing that goes along with location is the temperature of the spot. Most houseplants will flourish at 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit. A drafty doorway might be too cold, and a spot in front of the heater vent might cook your poor little plant. (I once lost a cactus in a cold entryway because I was unaware of just how chilly that spot could get.)
Once you get your new plant(s) home and in the right place for their light and temperature requirements, your only worry the first few months should be about proper watering.
Follow a few simple rules and watering will be easy:
• Let the soil dry between waterings.
• Apply water until it runs out the bottom of the pot EVERY time you water. That means using a saucer or placing the plant in the sink. If the pot is sitting inside another pot or in one of those pretty little foil wraps, this also means emptying the excess water.
I know it is heavy to move, the pot is less attractive with a saucer, you are worried about the water damaging the floor or table, you happen to have just a little water in this cup, etc., etc. But I promise you will have greater success and healthier plants. Over time it will become a habit to water this way.
One exception to watering until water runs out the bottom of the pot: plants that prefer to be watered from the bottom, like African violets. That still means using a saucer and letting the soil dry between waterings.
When the days start getting longer in the spring, you will want to fertilize. The easiest way is to use a water-soluble houseplant fertilizer or slow-release fertilizer capsules according to label directions. Potting mix also contains fertilizer, so additional products may be unnecessary for awhile if you re-pot your plants in the spring.
Speaking of re-potting, eventually you will need to do that too, but wait until the plant outgrows its present container or you notice a buildup of salt (white residue) on the soil surface or on the container itself.
Salt buildup will be reduced by following the recommended watering practices above. You can also let the water sit overnight in a pitcher before applying the water to the plant (which helps but is sometimes impractical) and/or use distilled water.
Did I mention my African violets are blooming again?