If your experience growing plants indoors has been less than successful, you can increase your success rate with any of the following ten, almost-indestructible houseplants: Chinese evergreen (Alglaomema modestum and A. simplex), cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior), spider plant (Chlorophytum elatum), dracaena, philodendron, grape ivy (Cissus), umbrella tree (Brassaia or Schefflera), arrowhead plant (Syngonium or Nephytis), and piggyback plant (Tolmiea menziesii).
With roots restricted to a pot, houseplants are totally reliant on you to provide them with the nutrients they need for healthy growth. There are any number of excellent, all-purpose houseplant fertilizers on the market. Most houseplant aficionados favor liquid formulations for their ease of use and flexibility: Instead of a once-a-month full-strength feeding, houseplants benefit from the consistency of a every-two-week feeding with fertilizer mixed at one-half the recommended rate. And even though they are indoors, houseplants respond to the seasons just like their outdoor counterparts. Because of this, withhold fertilizer during the late fall and winter months, when plants are relatively inactive, and resume again once the daylight hours lengthen in spring.
Virtually all houseplants crave a loose, lightweight, fairly rich soil mix, one that allows for plenty of air circulation and good water retention. Experimenting with the proper proportions of sand, leafmold, vermiculite and other ingredients to come up with your own potting soil "recipe" is fine if you have the time and don't mind a few failures (and a lot of messes) along the way. The sure-fire method is to use a pre-packaged, sterilized soil mix. They are clean, easy to use, and relatively inexpensive. Just make sure to buy packaged soil labeled for use with houseplants; if you're not sure, ask the clerk at your nursery or garden center.
Houses are built to give their human inhabitants a more comfortable climate. More often than not, the indoor climate is characterized by low humidity and a fairly even 72° F, not exactly the ideal conditions for growing jungle plants. That said, there are a number of ways you can boost the humidity for indoor plants short of converting your living room into a greenhouse.
Group houseplants together in a large planter and place moist sphagnum moss around them, or set individual pots on the surface of pebbles in a shallow plastic or metal tray. Keep water in the tray so the bases of the pots touch the water.
Spraying leaves often with tepid water helps increase humidity and keep the foliage clean and healthy.
Kitchens and bathrooms are natural places for higher humidity because of running water and escaping steam.
A relatively inexpensive humidifier can be added to your central heating system, creating a more desirable climate for both houseplants and people.
Each houseplant has its own requirements for water but, again, a few basics apply across the board:
When you water, do so thoroughly until water drains out of the bottom of the pot. If the water doesn't drain all the way through, you haven't watered enough.
Always test the soil before watering: More houseplants die from overwatering than any other reason. Press your finger into the soil to the depth of an inch or so. If the soil is damp at that level, there's no need to water. Check the plant again in another few days. It's okay for a houseplant to dry out slightly between waterings, particularly during winter when growth has slowed. If the foliage of any houseplants begins to droop even slightly, water immediately and completely.
Oddly enough, using a lightweight soil mix (as mentioned below) will do more to correct watering problems than any other measure. A soil mix specially prepared for houseplants permits good drainage while at the same time encouraging water retention. The combination of a heavy, dense soil and regular watering spell death for almost any houseplant.
It isn't necessary to turn your house into a tropical jungle to get the most from houseplants. In fact, just a few well-placed, well-grown houseplants can contribute a lived-in coziness to any room, whether it's filled with Victorian clutter or spare streamlined furnishings. The trick is, of course, to make sure the houseplants are "well grown." It helps to realize that most of what we call "house" plants originate from humid, tropical climates and that the climate inside most houses, particularly during the winter months, is more like that of an arid desert. But give the plants what they want in terms of light, water, humidity, fertilizer, and a good soil mix, and they'll perform like they were back in their native environment.
Once you select a houseplant you like, find out what its likes and dislikes are. Houseplants grown by large commercial growers are usually sold with fairly informative tags attached. The tag should provide such basic information as the amount of light the plant needs, how much water it requires, etc. If an informational tag is not included, ask a knowledgeable clerk or look up the plant's requirements in a book specifically about houseplants. Once you're armed with the information, finding just the place to make your houseplant thrive may still be a matter of trial-and-error. A few basic rules, however, apply.
Begin by taking an inventory of the light levels in your various rooms at different times of the day. The bathroom and kitchen may have relatively high levels of humidity (which houseplants like), but low levels of light. The picture window in your living room may be flooded with light in the morning, but the drapes will need to be open for it to benefit your houseplants. A spare bedroom may stay relatively dark and cool most of the time. Try different houseplants in different rooms. Any houseplant will respond to its new location in a week or so, letting you know whether or not it's happy. And be prepared for happy accidents: If your piggyback plant is happiest on top of the refrigerator (even though it doesn't seem to make any sense to you), by all means, leave it there.
When you're told that a houseplant needs "plenty of light," that doesn't mean direct sunlight. Very few are the houseplants that can tolerate direct sunlight (especially when intensified by a glass window). Shear curtains are excellent at diffusing direct sunlight, creating an excellent environment for houseplants that need "plenty of light."
Any houseplant that gets "leggy," like an asparagus fern that sends out seven-foot runners, is searching for more light. Conversely, a stunted houseplant, or one with burned, crisp leaves, is receiving too much light.
Article published on April 21, 2005.