Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Hobby Profile: Houseplants


Ikea would call this "mixed succulents"


The idea of outdoor gardening continues to terrify me: the work; the schedules; the equipment; the bugs. Houseplant gardening is more my speed. Once you get a houseplant, all you really need to do is put it in a sunny spot and water it once every week or two, and it just quietly exists. (Plus, they clean your air!) Hobbies don't get much lower-maintenance.

Houseplant Tips

To prepare me for my houseplant journey, I read Houseplants for Dummies, which I totally recommend. However, there's not much you need to know if you stick to easy-care plants. Here is all my knowledge:

Sunlight

Getting my plants sufficient sunlight has been the main make-or-break thing for how well they do. Most indoor rooms are quite dark compared to the outside, especially in my house. (You can tell how bright your room is if you extend your hand out in front of you on a bright, sunny day. If you can see a stark shadow, it's bright. Vague shadow, it's diffuse light. No shadow, it's dark. Yes, even if you can still see and read. A plant would consider it dark.) Even when I put my plants right by the window, the ones that survive tend to be the ones advertised as "tolerating dark conditions."

If your plants have long, long, spindly stems with spare leaves, this is known as having a "leggy" plant and it means it's not getting enough light. Other symptoms such as leaf discoloration and general sadness often also mean the same thing: not enough light.

You basically can't provide too much light. Very few houseplants have an upper limit on how much light they'll take. Even those that tolerate low-light conditions do just that, tolerate: not grow or thrive (and certainly not flower or fruit).

To increase light:
  • Place plants directly by the window, in the path of direct light. (Not in front of a fan or air conditioner, though; plants hate drafts.)
  • Keep curtains and shades open during the day. And, hey, wash your windows while you're at it.
  • Consider moving some plants outdoors (onto a deck or porch, perhaps) during the warm summer months. Plants can store nutrients for months, so sometimes if you can provide enough light during part of the year, you can keep it going the rest of the year.
  • If you simply cannot provide your plants enough light, you can get a daylight spectrum grow light, but I'm always afraid if I stock my Amazon cart with grow lights I'll be placed on an FBI watchlist.


Watering

  • Desert or tropics? Houseplants generally come from the desert or the tropics (places where it's basically room temperature all year long). Desert plants should be watered sparingly, only when the soil completely dries. With tropical plants, the soil should be kept moist (but not sopping).

  • Dry & drench. Even if you are dealing with a desert plant that likes to dry out completely between waterings, when you do water, give the plant plenty to drink. You know you have watered enough when the water comes through into the saucer beneath the plant pot.

  • No wet feet. Plants hate to stand in water. It rots their roots. After watering, make sure to dump out any pooled water from the saucer.

  • Humidity is your friend. Not strictly about watering, but water-adjacent: as with light, there's generally no upper limit on how much humidity your plants want (basically, you'll become uncomfortable long before they will.) So, go nuts.


Potting

  • Choose the right size pot. Most plants don't mind being in a rather compact pot, but you can tell a plant has outgrown its pot when the roots start sticking out the bottom. (This is often the case when you first buy a plant.) When potting up, choose a pot 1-2" larger than the previous pot. You might think you can pot a small plant into an enormous pot, because it's no worse than being in the ground, but really it will cause headaches since it will be hard to keep the soil the right moistness. You'll have to overwater it to ensure the roots get any water at all, and then it will take forever for the soil dry out, which may lead to rotting if the plant likes to be dry most of the time. A correctly-sized pot promotes the right wet/dry cycle.

  • Drainage, drainage, drainage. Good drainage is basically the only requirement for a good plant pot. Check the bottom of plant pots for one large, or several smaller holes. I also prefer pots with unattached saucers, for better drainage and ease of dumping out any excess water. Don't repot plants into jars or any container that wasn't meant to be a plant pot unless you drill holes in the bottom. If you have a pot or container you love that has no holes in the bottom, don't pot the plant directly in it--plant it in a well-draining pot and then place the whole thing in the decorate outer container.

  • Use potting soil not dirt from the backyard. Potting soil is sterilized, so it won't grow fungus and mold (as easily), and it's designed for proper moisture retention in containers. (Now that I think about it, these arguments might be propoganda from Big Potting Soil, but since bagged potting soil is cheap and guaranteed not to contain dog poop, I went with it.) Avoid potting soil with built-in fertilizer like Miracle Gro. This can be too powerful for houseplants. If you go online you can get into a rabbit hole about what type of soil is best for what type of plant, but basic houseplant soil seems to work for all of my plants. (I've even heard it's better for African violets than "African violet mix"!) Sometimes I mix in a little perlite (lightweight, round, white silica pebbles, which promote aeration and drainage). You can also get potting soil with perlite already mixed in.


Pruning

If you have a leggy plant or you just want to achieve an attractive, bushy shape, prune away. As long as you prune away no more than 1/3 or so of the plant, it should be fine. Use sharp, clean scissors or pruners (clean them with rubbing alcohol before and after to avoid cross-contamination should any of your plants carry a fungus, mite, or disease). A few houseplants don't want to be pruned and won't grow back if you do (the Norfolk Island Pine springs to mind), so check up first, but for most, pruning will actually promote growth. For flowering plants, plucking or pruning spent flowers will promote growth of new flowers. 


Fertilizing

Don't bother.


Bagel's List of Easy Easy Easy Care Houseplants

I tend to get into new hobbies in a big, big way, and houseplants were no exception. At my height I had over 20 houseplants. Now I have a more manageable 10. Just as I get into hobbies in a big way, I drop them just as abruptly, so any plants that were too finicky or required too much ongoing maintenance withered under my erratic care. Here are the plants that have managed to survive me, and, therefore, may survive anyone! (Warning: many houseplants, including these, are at least a little toxic if eaten. Generally, they won't kill you, but you can get a nasty upset stomach. If you have babies or pets, check the toxicity before buying a plant.)

Snake Plant

Sansevieria trifasciata

The snake plant has leaves that resemble swords sticking up into the air. This was my first houseplant and has never given me trouble. It basically doesn't need any light at all to survive (though it needs light to grow). It can also tolerate full sun. It doesn't care. This is one of those plants that thrives on neglect. It prefers to stay in the same pot year after year (they say only to repot it if it breaks the pot). It hates to be overwatered, overcoddled, or overloved, but forget about it for a few weeks and it will be just fine.


Money Plant

Pachira aquatica

These plants have rounded, hand-shaped leaf clusters, and the trunks are often braided by the florist.  It's a pain to keep the trunk braided, but you don't have to. This one likes to be kept moist, but, apparently, tolerates consistently inept handling. Having a Money Plant in your home is said to help you with your financial life! So, really, it's an INVESTMENT (okay, it's a superstition).


Jade Plant

Crassula ovata

This succulent has twisty stems and thick, rounded little leaves. It also dislikes overwatering and doesn't mind a little neglect. You can trim it into bonsai shapes, but you don't have to. This is one of the easiest plants to propagate: just trim a leaf (or wait for one to fall), let the end scar over a bit, and place it into a cup of moist soil. The leaf will take root and begin a new plant.


Dragon Tree

Dracaena marginata

Our skinny tree-like dracaena is our longest-lived plant to date (my wife got it before we met), and it has been doing really well despite not being very close to the window. The long, pointed leaves can get brown tips, but you can just trim them off with scissors.


African violet

Saintpaulia

While slightly more finicky than the other plants on this list, the African violet is probably the easiest consistently flowering houseplant. It's certainly the only one I've gotten to flower more than once. It likes to be kept moist, so keep it in a self-watering pot (there are special "African violet pots" that will do the trick: it's really just an outer ceramic pot with an inner pot made of a more permeable clay, and water can be trapped between them so the plant can slowly draw it in.)


Honorable mentions

I either haven't owned these or haven't for long, but they have also been recommended to me as easy-care houseplants: Peperomia, Dieffenbachia, Streptocarpus aka Cape Primrose (flowering alternative to African violet), Christmas cactus. My friend has a Polka Dot Plant (hypoestes) in her office, and its cheery pink leaves are almost as good as a flower (and easier to maintain!) Most succulents are pretty easy. Air plants, little tentacle things n glass globes, are supposed to be quite easy. The Norfolk Island Pine has a reputation for finickiness, but after losing several branches early on, mine has somehow survived against all odds and now seems to be doing well. I also have a lemon tree that had a similar Lazarus-like rebirth, though it has still never produced a lemon bigger than a dime.

The worst that will happen if you pick the wrong plant--that is, one that won't tolerate the conditions you are able to provide--is that it will die in three months, and you can get another one. Eventually, you'll find one (or ten) that enjoy your home or office window, and they'll become your decor, your budget air purifiers, and your quiet companions. Enjoy!

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