July 12, 2011

House Plants.....Not As Scary As They Seem

Posted by Kristin

I must say that this post was inspired by all the beautiful flowers I got to cut this week when I was at Moutainview Farm to pick up our share.  After finding a few empty spaghetti jars for vases and cutting the flowers to just the right height, I woke up this morning surrounded by this:

And This:

I love the saturated colors of the flowers:

And the different shapes and textures:

One of my favorite flowers this week is actually an herb: dill! It smells fantastic and I love the greenish-yellow airy texture it adds to the bouquets:

So while these flowers are only annuals, they got me thinking about how much I value being surrounded by green throughout the year. Enter house plants.  House plants get a bad rap sometimes. Mention the word and either you'll think of some old, persnickety lady in a living room with plastic-covered sofas surrounded by plants at every turn or you'll hear the groan of "Oh but I just can't water them right and they always die and they're just not worth it!". 

Well I'm offering a counter argument today. House plants can be good companions. Its just about picking the right ones for the right spot and giving them their basic needs: water, light, and some TLC everyone in a while. 

I used to have no interest in house plants until the spring I started a new job with Gardener's Supply Company in Burlington, Vermont.  A great resource for organic gardening supplies and equipment, I worked in the greenhouse and nursery and soon got exposed to the world of house plants, mainly because it was my job to keep them alive (can you say pressure!). However, after a few months of working in the greenhouse, I really got to like certain plants and the interest they offered. I especially appreciated them in the dead of Vermont winters, when an overcast snowy day is more the norm than sunshine. By the time I left Gardener's Supply to attend this awesome grad program, I had quite the slew of plants that made the trip from Vermont down to the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts. I also left with a wealth of information about how to choose the right plants, keep them alive (and even help them thrive), and other basic maintenance tips.  I promise by the end of this post you'll be itching to go out and get a Philodendron....just you wait.

The basic needs of house plants are light, water, and maintenance.

Just like we need a certain amount of sunshine to fulfill our vitamin D requirements, plants need light to survive.  Often when you purchase a plant, it will come with an informational tag; hang onto these like gold!  See if the tag specifies what kind of light the plant requires. If it does, it will often say bright, indirect, or low light.  Here's what that all means:

  • Direct light: usually found in a south facing window, it's light that is directly on the leaves for 6+ hours a day.

This succulent can handle the direct sun out on our porch all the dang day- not very common with most houseplants.

  • Bright, indirect light: This is light that is bright but not direct for the majority of the day. This would be in the interior of a room that faces south, east, west, or directly adjacent to a north facing window (the north side of building never gets direct light). 

This Hoya is in my east-facing living room but receives no direct sunshine on the leaves, hence its bright but indirect light.

  • Medium light: this light is usually found even further in the interior of a south, east, or west-facing room or next to a north facing window for 4 to 6 hours a day.

This Begonia, originally a cutting from Laura's plant, is in medium light. Its in the living room as well but in a lower light spot.

  • Low light: usually found in a room with minimal windows or only north facing windows, it gets no direct sun.

Apologies for the bad picture, but its to show what low light looks like. Despite being west facing, our kitchen has a porch off of it, really limiting the amount of light that the room gets.

Perhaps the most important thing I can say about plants and water is that they appreciate consistency. Again, hang on to those million-dollar plant tags; they should instruct you as to what the watering needs are of that particular plant. If they don't, and you know the name of your plant, look up its watering needs either online or in a plant book.

Most plants appreciate a thorough watering once a week. However, if the plant is in a hot, sunny windowsill, it may need water more often, especially in the summer months. If the plant is in low light, it may take longer for the water to be absorbed by the plant and evaporate, so it may only need water once every 10 days or so. How do you know when to water? Read on...
  • The most important thing is the feel the soil in the pot before you water! Stick your finger 1" into the soil. Yes, these means getting dirt on your hands....but after all, what do you think you're food grows in?
  • If the soil is wet (as in water could be squeezed out of it) don't water. Plants don't like wet feet (this is what I meant when Laura mentioned my use of this term here).
  • If the soil is moist (a crumbly texture like brown sugar that stays together if you mash it) leave it be for another day. Then water.
  • If the soil is dry (like white sugar that just crumbles apart completely) water well. 
  • When you water, fill the pot with water up to the brim.Let it soak through and repeat. I often place my plants in the kitchen sink when I water so the excess water coming out doesn't run all over.
  • Some plants, like succulents and cacti, like to get very dry between watering. For these plants you can generally stick to a once a week schedule in the summer months. But still stick your finger in the soil before you water to see if its dry. Yup, you just gotta get that index finger dirty.
  • During the winter, plants go into dormancy (aka a deep sleep) and therefore don't require as much water. Usually in the winter I water most of my plants every other week. But I always stick my finger in the soil before I water (are you sick of hearing about the importance of that yet?).

Most plants require a little regular maitenance every so often.
  • Fertilizer: Some people swear by regularly fertilizing their plants. Some plants really do need it (like orchids) and others do okay with out it. Visit your local garden center to see what they offer for fertilizer. Most houseplant fertilizers are water-soluble; that means that you add it to the water when you water your plants, usually once a month. To be super honest, I never fertilize my plants. Call it lazy or wanting to see who the real survivors of indoor life are; I just don't do it. Maybe some day I will but not today.
  • Re-potting: A general rule of thumb is to re-pot plants every 1 1/2 to 2 years. A good way to tell if your plant needs to be re-potted is look at the bottom of pot. If you see roots coming out chances are its about time.  Also, if the plant seems really dense with roots or if water runs straight through, it probably would appreciate being re-potted. It's recommended to go up a 1/2 " to 1" in pot size, just enough to allow for a bit more soil to surround the plant. Too big of a jump in the pot size can stress the plant. Often stickers on pots will say the width size in inches.
  • Grooming: This essentially means removing any dead leaves or flowers from the foliage.  It can be done as often as once a week to once every few months. Often with my flowering houseplants I just pinch the flowers off as they finish blooming each time I water them.

Recommended Plants:
Here's a short list of some really easy houseplants to take care of:

Low Light: Peace Lily, Philodendron, Pothos, Spider Plant, Snake Plant, Dracaena, Ferns

Medium Light: Begonia, Cordyline, Anthurium, Ficus, Schefflera, Peperomia

High Light: Norfolk Island Pine (one of my faves), Ivy, Hoya, Podocarpus, Jade, many succulents and cacti

Great Reference Books:
The Houseplant Encyclopedia- Just an overall good reference book that goes into more detail about lighting, water, and maintenance.

How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 House Plants that Purify the Air in Your Home or Office- A whole other topic I didn't cover but a definite benefit of house plants.

The Organic Gardener's Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control- Another important topic but one I didn't want to get into in this post. Keep you eyes peeled for House plants Part 2: Tackling Those Pests.

Now go out and buy that philodendron.....I know you want to!


  1. Jenni ArchambaultJuly 14, 2011 at 6:46 PM

    This inspired me to collect wild flowers and place them all around the house. Thanks for the great tips!

  2. Hey Jenni. So glad it inspired you- that's the idea! I just love having flowers around- it makes it more cheery somehow.