Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
December, 2003
Regional Report

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Houseplants like this Chinese evergreen can really beautify a home. They'll thrive if provided a little special care to help them feel welcome.

Making Houseplants Feel at Home

The term houseplant is really somewhat misleading. No plants are native to the house. Most are native to the understory layers of tropical rain forests where they thrive in the moist, humid, low light environment. Man has collected these plants and brought them indoors because they are among the few plants that can survive in the low light, indoor environment NOT because they necessarily like it indoors.

Why be so picky about terminology? Because to think of them and treat them as if they belong in an indoor environment leads to the majority of houseplant problems. Understanding the environment they prefer can help you make them feel at home in your house and help turn a brown thumb a little greener.

The Light-Challenged Home
The typical indoor environment has very low light intensity. Houseplants differ significantly in their light needs. A plant in less than sufficient light will gradually go downhill. Under minimally sufficient light, it will survive but not grow very much. In winter, light levels are even lower, adding to the stress on plants. Placing a plant in the higher light intensity of a shady outdoor location for the summer can help rejuvenate it and allow it to build up its reserves, enabling it to withstand a subsequent period indoors.

The air in a house typically has low humidity. Some houseplants benefit from measures to increase the humidity around them. Terrariums, placing gravel trays filled with water among the plants, and grouping plants together are ways of creating a humid environment. Temperature fluctuations also are stressful to plants. Remember, there are no heating or air conditioning vents in the rain forest! These drafts can result in more stress and damage.

Fluctuations in light intensity can severely stress plants. The tissues of a plant change to adjust to the light intensity of their environment. A plant grown in low light will be much more efficient and sensitive to light than the same species grown in high intensity light. If you move a plant growing in low light next to the plant in the high light environment, it will sunburn or scorch while the same species grown in high light will not be affected.

Moving plants from high to low light will result either in gradual decline, or in the case of some plants like Ficus, sudden leaf drop. These factors are important to remember when bringing your plants indoors for the winter. It's best to gradually acclimate them to the indoors over a period of a week or two. Start by bringing them in for a few hours a day, increasing the time slowly over a two-week period. Larger plants can be first moved to an outside location with very low light intensity for a couple of weeks and then into the house.

Overwatering kills more plants than all other factors combined. Overwatering deprives the roots of oxygen and promotes root rots. Most plants should be watered thoroughly and not watered again until the growing mix has begun to dry out. Some, such as African violets, do well in a continually moist, but not wet, growing mix. Wicks draw water up from a reservoir underneath the plant to provide a gradual, constant supply and eliminate the need for frequent watering.

Finally, plants do not grow as vigorously in winter. Cooler temperatures and lower light intensity result in slower growth. Plants therefore need less water and fertilizer than in the summer months. Avoid the temptation to try to fertilize them into vigorous growth, as this will only create more problems, such as root rots and salt damage.

These comments are generalizations that apply to most plants. However, each plant species is different. Ask your nurseryman about a plant's needs when you purchase it. It will save you a great deal of disappointment and help you get the most satisfaction from your plants.

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