Updated: Jan 19, 2021
Protect Your Pandemic Investment
The surge in popularity of indoor plants over the past few years is undeniable. The houseplant industry is booming. Our ongoing pandemic continues to fuel the house plant craze. I approve! The benefits of bringing nature indoors are many – mood elevation, improvement of indoor air quality, and the joy of close observation of nature through watching flowers bloom and new leaves unfurl.
Houseplant information is all over social media. Websites with tips for houseplant care are thick on the ground. Most offer a quick guide to plant care with not enough guidance. As a result, I hear worries and questions from plant owners whose indoor plants are failing to thrive or dying. In horticulture our mantra is “right plant, right place.” If you take this maxim to heart, you will enjoy greater success with your houseplants. What do you need to know about a plant before you make a purchase? Let’s explore general cultural requirements for houseplants.
Understanding the native environment of any plant is helpful. Many houseplants are native to warm climates such as the tropics or deserts. Tropical climates provide fairly constant temperature and rainfall. A tropical rainforest provides these plus shade from strong sunlight. Deserts are xeric or dry environments with little rain and punishing sunlight. If your houseplants originate in any of these environments, they will thrive indoors if you consider their needs.
An example: Let’s look at the fiddle-leaf fig tree (Ficus lyrata.). This wildly popular houseplant shows up in the best design blogs and magazines. With glossy leaves and tree-like habit, it adds architectural interest to chic interior design. Yet, it is a finicky houseplant, sometimes ending up leafless and curbside on trash day. A quick look at the Ficus lyrata Wiki article states the fiddle-leaf fig:
“ . . . is native to West Africa, from Cameroon to Sierra Leone
where it grows in lowland rainforests.”
Wow. Were you ready for that? Among specific light and soil requirements, fiddle-leaf fig trees require 65% humidity. Can you provide that level of humidity consistently in your home or office?
Essential Houseplant Needs – Replicating Native Environments
It may be impossible to replicate the exact conditions of the Kalahari Desert or the rainforest of the Congo Basin, but we can begin by selecting proper potting medium. All plants need proper drainage for good root growth and access to nutrients. Most house plants live in a soilless potting medium and do not contain actual soil or “dirt.” Soilless mixes contain components such as peat moss, perlite for drainage and some composted organic material. Tropical plants like fertile soils yet need good drainage. Tropical rain showers are brief, leaving soil moist but not soggy. Desert plants, such as cactus and other succulents, thrive in a sandy, porous, well-aerated soil. Excess water drains away quickly or evaporates. Cacti sitting in wet, humusy soil will not be happy.
Humidity, Watering and Drainage
Understanding the moisture needs of house plants is crucial. Improper watering can cause nutrient imbalances, poor root development, or stunted growth. Both over and under watering can kill a plant. Getting to know moisture needs of any plant takes good observational skills. Watering plants on a regular schedule is a good start, but other factors change moisture needs such as air circulation, temperature, standing water, and ambient light. Dracaena sanderiana or “lucky bamboo” is often seen growing in a vase of water, while cacti only need an occasional dribble of water, growing deeper roots in search of water.
Indoor humidity levels are important for houseplants. Being that many house plants are tropical, they will likely require 40-60% humidity. In cooler climates where homes are heated in winter, ambient indoor humidity drops significantly. Additional humidity may be needed to keep plants healthy.
Review houseplant temperature needs against the temperature range in your home. The popular ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) tolerates a temperature range of 55 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit for instance. What is the indoor evening temperature of your home, especially on a winter night? At what temperature is the thermostat set when you leave for winter vacation? Likewise, check summer indoor temperature for plants placed in direct sunlight. A south-facing windowsill might reach 100 degrees F or more on a summer day.
Potting medium rarely provides nutrients; primarily it helps conduct water and nutrients to containerized houseplants. Some potting media do contain added fertilizers. Make note of the NPK content (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) of commercial potting soil against the needs of your houseplants. Most tropical houseplants benefit from regular but infrequent application of a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10). Take care not to overfertilize. Plants growing in the limited space of a container generally need less fertilizer. Check the needs of each plant and adjust fertilizer rates and application accordingly.
With the wide variety of available houseplants come a wide range of light requirements. Plants need light for photosynthesis which is how they produce their food. Many houseplants tolerate a variety of light conditions, but some plants have specific requirements. Plants originating from the rain forest floor, like the peace lily (Spathiphyllum wallesii) tolerate low light conditions. Desert plants, like the cacti and other succulents need a minimum of 6 hours of sunny, warm conditions.
Many house plants are toxic to pets and humans. Please research toxicity information before bringing a plant to a home with pets or small children.
Growing successful houseplants requires a little knowledge and some vigilance. Keep “right plant, right place” in mind when selecting plants. Research basic cultural requirements for your houseplants such as water, light, temperature, and nutrients. Get to know your plants. Every other day or so check for watering, look at leaf color changes, check for evidence of insects or diseases. Most of all, enjoy the benefits of your houseplant collection. Enjoy observing nature in your home!
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