Basic Care of House Plants – Light, Warmth and Watering

Basic Care of House Plants – Light, Warmth and Watering

Taking care of house plants involves replicating their original, often tropical environments.  Growing and displaying plants indoors has been popular for many generations. Particularly during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, people adorned their houses with exotic plants, and in some cases sponsored plant hunters to travel far afield to collect specimens for them.

During the late 19th century interest in plants waned, but about 40 years ago everything changed, and house plants became popular again in every walk of life, to an extent greater than ever before.

The purposes to which house plants are put, and the motives for possessing and caring for them, are manifold. Sometimes it is for their exceptional value in interior decor, which may or may not be inspired by an interest in growing them; then there is that almost primitive urge to cultivate, which exists in so many human beings, who derive satisfaction from bringing their gardening adventures, especially during the winter, into the comfortable environment of their homes: there are others who, haunted by a sense of deprivation because they have no care of house plants leaf garden, find that in house plants they can enjoy the interest they have yearned for; and, finally, there are the connoisseurs who find great joy in accepting the challenge that growing the more delicate and difficult subjects offers them.

Whatever the motivation, you will want to succeed, and there are a number of different aspects of cultivation and environment that have to be considered if house plants are to thrive.

Care of House Plants – Light

The fact is that human beings are able to remain healthy, or at least they think they can, in less light than plants need to thrive. Most places in our homes are not light enough to suit the well-being of many indoor plants, which means keeping them at their best under such conditions is not an easy task. It is, however, important to dispel one myth most houseplants don’t need long spells in direct sunshine; with a few exceptions, plants object to being exposed directly to the rays of the sun.

Dedicated enthusiasts can overcome the difficulty of poor lighting by installing cabinets or racks of shelves illuminated with fluorescent strip-lighting during the day (special tubes should be used which emit the right kind of light). A few gardeners even despise the unpredictable strength of natural light during the day and create a completely artificial environment for their house plants in a cellar, where the strength and duration of the light can be rigidly controlled.

Most of us are happy enough without special equipment, but the important lesson is that most house plants must have good light, but they appear to be as happy in artificial light as in sunlight.

The general rule is to put most plants in the lightest place out of prolonged sunshine in the room, and this usually means as near the window as possible. Obviously it helps to keep the curtains and blinds fully open as long as possible during the day. If house plants have to be put into a dark corner, make sure that suitable fluorescent lighting is provided to supplement the natural light. It must also be remembered that a group of plants in a dark corner is not very decorative unless it is lit up!


Warmth is an obvious necessity, especially when one realizes the very warm climates from which many of our houseplants come. Fortunately many more houses have central heating nowadays and this is a great help, provided humidity is given.

The big menace is fluctuations of temperature arising from fairly long periods early in the day when rooms are not heated much, then other periods when they might be overheated, followed by a rapid fall in the temperature during the night, perhaps even below freezing point. Such conditions are far more damaging for most plants than being kept in a constantly cool place. So keep houseplants in a position where the temperature is as uniform as possible.

Always avoid, for example, standing them on a mantelpiece or on a shelf over the radiator, where they might be roasted for part of the day, or behind closed curtains on the windowsill at night where it is likely to become intensely cold.


A good number of houseplants have a preference for high or moderate humidity. And as humidity is linked with temperature and air circulation excessive heat in a closed area will dry the atmosphere to such an extent that it is harmful to many plants. Controlling humidity in a living-room is difficult if overdone some plants might revel in it, but human-beings won’t.

Moist air is as important as warmth to many houseplants, so if success is to be attained it is necessary to provide humidity in the vicinity of the plants themselves. There are two principal ways in which this can be done.

The first is to put the plant in its original pot in another rather larger one (which might well have a decorated exterior), and to pack the space on the bottom and sides with moist peat, kept continuously moist. The second is to use a pebble tray. This consists of a tray or dish half filled with pebbles on which the pot is stood. Water is added to nearly cover the stones. This is topped up from time to time to compensate for evaporation loss.

Some plants, such as Cyclamen persicum and saintpaulias, respond well to a periodic steam bath. This is given by placing an upturned seed pan or block of wood at the bottom of a washing-up bowl and pouring into it boiling water to a level just below the top of the pan or block. The pot is stood on this platform for five minutes and then returned to its usual quarters.

Syringing or spraying the foliage, particularly in hot weather, assists in maintaining a high level of humidity. It is best to syringe early in the day rather than late afternoon or evening when the temperature is beginning to fall.


watering Water is important to all plants, but it becomes more of a problem for plants in pots. The problem many houseplant owners have to face is when to water. Unfortunately there is no one simple answer, so much depends on the nature of the plant, the time of year and the environment. Plants with fleshy leaves, such as cacti and succulents, do not require as much watering as the plants with thinner leaves, because they are able to retain moisture within their tissues.

On the other hand, plants with proportionately large leaves require more frequent watering, because they have a larger surface from which the plant loses water vapour. Again, there are generally two distinct periods in the year of the average plant, the season when it is growing fast and another when it is resting.

During the first it needs plenty of watering, which should normally tail off until the dormant period is reached. During the resting period the amount of water given should be quite small. Another important factor is the conditions under which a house plant is living. When the temperature is high and the light is bright, its demand for water is high. A plant kept continuously in a cool place requires much less frequent watering.

Also a plant habitually needs more frequent watering if it is in a well-drained pot. If it is in a clay pot, from which the rate of evaporation is higher, it needs more watering than it would if planted in a plastic one. Plants in small pots and those that are becoming pot-bound also need more watering. On the other hand, newly re-potted plants and those in large pots should be treated more cautiously.

Generally it is better to under-water slightly rather than to give excess, to allow the soil, which is darker in colour when it is moist, to dry out to a considerable extent before watering is repeated. Give plenty of water during the spring and summer, when the plants are growing and little when they are resting. It is best to use water with the chill off and a few plants prefer rainwater or softened water.

Each watering must be thorough with a fairly long interval between: a daily dribble is valueless. Because of the possibility of chilling when the temperature falls at night, house plants should be watered in the morning during the winter. In summer they should not be watered in direct sunshine as any water falling on the leaves is likely to scorch them.

There are two principal ways of watering by plunging the pots, or by watering from above. A plunged pot should be stood in water up to half its depth and allowed to stay there until the soil is fairly moist but not waterlogged. The water will be absorbed by capillary action.

After this, the pot should be drained and put back in its place. When watering from above it is important to have a space of at least 2-5 cm (1 in) between the rim and the level of the soil.

Use a small watering can with a long, narrow spout which can be inserted between the leaves so that they do not get wetted. It is important to remember, however, that some plants, such as cyclamen and saintpaulias, can be seriously damaged by having their leaves, stalks, and growing centres splashed, and these must be watered from below. Unless they are aquatic plants, such as Cyperus dyfusus, or great moisture lovers such as Helxine soleirolii (Mind Your Own Business), house plants should never stand permanently in water in a saucer.

Packing wet peat around pots and standing them in pebble trays has already been discussed, and these methods can help where the demand for water is very high, or if watering can only be carried out infrequently, or when the plants have to be left unattended for a few days. There are also automatic self-watering and wick-watering pots on the market that are useful for emergencies, but none of these devices is a real substitute for personal attention. There are also inexpensive instruments available for indicating when water is necessary, but their use must be tempered with experience, which in the end is the real secret to taking care of house plants.

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