Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
January, 2007
Regional Report

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Houseplants that tolerate low light levels, such as Chinese evergreens, help create warm, inviting indoor settings.

Make Your 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. We have collected these plants and brought them indoors because they are among the few plants that can survive in low light indoors -- not because they necessarily like it there.

Why be so picky about terminology? Because to treat them as if they belong indoors 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 typical home 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.

But sudden fluctuations in light intensity can severely stress plants. The tissues of a plant change to adjust to the light intensity of its 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 may 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 is 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.

The humidity levels in our homes are typically quite low, and some houseplants benefit from measures to increase the humidity around them. Using terrariums, gravel trays filled with water, or humidifiers, and grouping plants together are ways of creating a more humid environment.

Temperature fluctuations 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.

Plants do not grow as vigorously in winter so they need less water. Overwatering kills more plants than all other factors combined by depriving the roots of oxygen and promoting root rot. Most plants should be watered thoroughly and then not watered again until the growing mix has begun to dry out. (Although some, such as African violets, do well in a continually moist but not wet growing mix.) Self-watering containers with wicks that draw water up from a reservoir underneath the plant can provide a gradual, constant supply and eliminate the need for frequent watering.

Plants also need less fertilizer than in the summer months. Avoid the temptation to try to fertilize them into vigorous growth. You cannot make up for a lack of light or warm temperatures with extra nitrogen.

These recommendations are generalizations that apply to most plants, however each plant species is different. Ask your nursery professional 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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