GROOMING HOUSEPLANTS

It is not sufficient just to feed and water your plants and expect them to look their best. A little grooming can make all the difference to the appearance of a plant – particularly one in bloom or a foliage plant that tends to be leggy. There is a very good reason for removing dead flowers from a houseplant – not only does it look better but it also reduces the risk of moulds forming on leaves on which the dead flowers have fallen. It is for that reason that flowering plants are not used in sealed bottle gardens. The more floriferous the plant the more of a problem dead flowers become -Begonia sempeiflorens is an excellent pot plant, flowering for months, but each morning there will be a mass of dead flowers around the pot. Remove these daily and you have a highly desirable plant and a clean home – neglect them and you soon have a sorry-looking sight. Leggy plants, with bare and etiolated stems, look equally sorry for themselves. and frequently end up being banished from the home. Yet a little judicious pinching and pruning can usually improve these plants.

Tradescantias are attractive trailers, but may look ungainly with sparse stems a metre (yard) or more long: the polka dot plant (Hypoestes plujllostaclnia. normally sold under the name H. sanguinolenta) will rapidly become spindly even in good light – and the popular busy Lizzies (impatiens) often become gross and lank – yet all can be transformed into bushy plants by carefully pinching back any long or weak shoots. Sometimes, plants such as Philodendron scandens and ivies (Hedera helix) tend to make small-leaved sickly growth in winter, and this should also be cut back to healthier growth in spring. ‘Stopping’ the plant like this encourages the growth of sideshoots. and these in turn can be ‘stopped’ to make an even bushier plant.

Only treat plants in this way when they are growing actively (usually late spring and summer).

Turning plants

To achieve even growth and a symmetrical plant, turn the pot occasionally. A couple of times a week may be adequate for most plants, but where shape is important, such as a nicely rounded pelargonium or a charm-type chrysanthemum. an enthusiast would give the pot a quarter of a turn each day. Be careful about turning plants in bud or flower, however, as it may cause some plants to drop buds. Much depends on the plant – chrysanthemums would come to no harm but it could be quite disastrous for. say. a Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) once the buds are well developed.

Staking

Staking should always be done with discretion – it is easy to end up with the support being more conspicuous than the plant.

Some philodendrons. particularly P. Ultimatum and P. erubescens and the Swiss cheese plant [Monstera deliciosa) are effective grown up moss poles. Although it is possible to buy moss poles from garden centres and horticultural sundriesmen. it is not difficult to make your own. Select a stout tube (wood or plastic) or a stick about 5cm (2in) in diameter and of sufficient length for the pot and plant in question. Apply a thick layer of damp sphagnum moss (this is usually available al garden centres in spring, when hanging-baskets are being made, but you should be able to obtain it at any time of the year from a good florist): this can be fixed to the pole by wrapping a piece of green plastic netting

round it. tying in at regular intervals with green twine or nylon thread. Ordinary bamboo canes are not very satisfactory indoors – they are usually conspicuous and obtrusive, and unless the pot is a large one it is difficult to lix them firmly enough to hold a plant with heavy top growth, for plants such as Cissus antarctica, however, they can be perfectly satisfactory as these plants produce plenty of dense growth to hide the cane. Split canes are more successful and can be used in conjunction with rings to hold plants such as Campanula isophylla upright. You can also buy split canes dyed green.

Climbers of moderate proportions can be supported on pot trellises or cane spirals – black-eyed Susan (Thunbergia alala), and some of the slow-growing ivies can be grown this way. for climbers of more substance and more twining habit, this may not be adequate. Small specimens can be wound round wire loops – the Madagascar jasmine (Slcphauotis flori-biinda) is often sold like this and looks delightful.

Once a climbing plant reaches a stage where a self-contained support within the pot is not practicable, the decision must be made whether to propagate new plants and start afresh with a small specimen, or to incorporate the large plant into the décor as a more permanent feature.

Cleaning leaves

Even in the best-kept household, dirt and dust lurks, and it is as likely to settle on the plants as elsewhere. To attempt to dust all the leaves on your plants each time you dust the furniture is obviously pointless and impractical, but a periodic dusting will certainly not come amiss.

Plants with shiny leaves that have a natural gloss, such as the rubber plant (l-’irus elastica) and the sweetheart plant (Philodendron scandens) are naturally easy to clean. If you want to put a real shine on them you can use a proprietary leaf cleaning fluid, but it may appear to put too much of an artificial gloss on the leaves; a wipe with a moist soft cloth will be perfectly satisfactory. There is no way that a plant with hairy leaves, such as a gynura. or a spiny cactus, can be wiped with a damp cloth. The next best thing is a dusting with a soft brush – a pastry brush kept for the purpose is ideal.

Remember, not only will the leaves look better for being dust-free, they will also be more effective to the plant, as dust and grime can block the openings through which plants transpire and breathe as well as cutting down light.

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