Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
November, 2008
Regional Report

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Summer may be over, but houseplants fill our home with color and comfort.

Heavenly Houseplants

Just when the outdoors turns bleak and frigid, my houseplants are ready to cheer me up. The "holiday" cactus are already in bloom, and the orchids are beginning to send out flower spikes. African violets are covered in bouquets of flowers, and euphorbia 'Diamond Frost' makes me forget about the cold white version outside in the morning. Of course, the "plain green" houseplants contribute their share, too, making my rooms feel more alive and vibrant. Houseplants are no slackers when it comes to longevity either. I know many people besides myself that have inherited houseplants from mothers and grandmothers, aunts and neighbors.

Maximizing Success
Just like with outdoor garden plants, soil matters. Don't try to save money on potting soil. You want a high-quality soilless potting mix. There are a number of widely distributed brands, any of which are fine to use. If you're the kind of person who forgets to water, consider choosing the type that contain water-absorbing granules.

There are a number of different approaches to fertilizing houseplants, many of which I've tried. Probably the most important criteria for fertilizer is remember to use it. For me, the easiest answer has been to use a water-soluble fertilizer added every time I water. The one I currently use for all my plants is a balanced fertilizer, which means that it contains proportions of the three major nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, plus it has micro-nutrients and trace elements. Another important aspect is that it does not contain urea, which can burn plants. To see if your fertilizer contains urea, look under the listing for nitrogen.

Watering is the 800-pound gorilla in a room full of houseplants. Some plants need soil kept moist, others need to dry out. Mine are just so grateful to get any at all, that they've either adapted or gone to houseplant heaven. Over my lifetime of talking with and observing gardeners, my theory is that most people overwater. The skill and art of watering is to not wait too long. Take the time to observe your plants. One of the telltale signs is that leaves will begin to change color before they wilt.

Pest control is also related to your powers of observation. Pay attention to the tops and bottoms of leaves as well as the stems. The main pests of houseplants are spider mites, scale, and aphids. I keep spray bottles of neem handy to spot-treat pests, both insects and diseases, when they first appear. If your houseplants are set close together, set the pest-infested one apart from the others for several weeks until there are no signs of the problem.

Try These
If you don't already have what are known as Thanksgiving and Christmas cacti, then this is the perfect time of year to acquire one. Although these are true cacti, the flat, segmented leaf-like branches have no spines. Showy, multi-petaled flowers in shades of pink, rose, red, and white appear in late fall to early winter. The actual blooming time has less to do with the holidays and more to do with day length and temperatures of autumn. These are long-lived plants, that should not be overwatered and prefer being potbound. They also can become quite top heavy, so grow in clay pots.

Because propagation techniques have been developed to mass-produce orchids, this horticultural domain once regarded as elite has now become quite populist, with plants widely available at groceries and box stores. The moth orchid, or phalaenopsis, is the one most often seen and the easiest to keep alive and have rebloom. They come in a range of plant and flower sizes and a wide array of colors besides the traditional white.

Phalaenopsis grow well in the bright light of an east, west, or south window. You'll know if you don't have enough light when the foliage turns dark green and limp. Daytime temperatures of 70 to 85 degrees F and a minimum of 60 degrees at night are best. Orchid specialists say to keep the bark growing medium evenly moist, but mine tolerate much drier conditions. It's important to not let orchids stand in water and to keep water out of the center of the plant. Fertilize with a water-soluble bloom-boosting fertilizer.

There are hundreds of other possibilities for houseplants, available both locally and mail-order. They brighten the long winter days ahead and make your home a haven.

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