Keeping House plants Thriving and Healthy

House plants are enormously popular. Unfortunately large numbers of them die prematurely because they aren’t properly looked after.

There is a vast selection… climbing, trailing, upright, bushy, and so on. Some are bought for their flowers; others simply for their foliage. Before choosing, though, give some thought to the room conditions in which your plant will have to live. A cool, sunless room will be fine for many foliage plants such as aspidistras, ivies, the halxine (or ‘mind-your-own-business’ plant), philodendron scandens (the ‘sweetheart vine’), and the maranta (or ‘prayer plant’). A bright room but without direct sunlight will suit a kangaroo vine, a fuchsia, a Swiss cheese plant, and a pickaback plant (which produces tiny plantlets on its leaves in summer). Flowering house plants, like ‘mother-in-law’s tongue’, the ficus (or fig plant) and spider plants appreciate some direct sunlight.

Some people like to fill a sunny window with plants, and if you’re one of these you could choose from a shrimp plant (so-called, of course, because its flowers resemble shrimps); a coleus, which is really a glorified stinging nettle with superbly coloured leaves; a geranium; a ‘busy Lizzie’; a passion flower; and, of course, cacti and plants described as succulents – that is, those which are flleshy and may be prickly.

Gas fires (and other heat sources) are a big danger to most plants. The ‘busy Lizzie’ and billbergia will tolerate them, but most flowering plants object.

Miniature gardens are quite popular, and in many cases cacti or succulent plants are included. If so, don’t mix them with other plants which dislike dry conditions. Bottle gardens should contain small plants which grow slowly. Never use cacti or succulents and limit the contents to half a dozen plants. Chosen with care, plants can be grown together in one container, but although they should contrast visually they must all be of the types which thrive in the same conditions.

Next, watering, with a reminder that over-watering is the biggest killer of house plants. It’s no good giving plants little doses of water each day; this makes the soil airless and soggy. Watering should be carried out according to the time of year. In winter, when growth ceases and the plant rests, occasional watering is all that is necessary – two or three times a month. In spring onwards, water two or three times a week. As the temperature rises and daylight increases so will the need for water.

Cacti and succulents need much less water. Generally speaking, the larger the leaf surface of plants the greater the need for water. Don’t leave watering until the soil has completely dried out or the leaves will begin to droop. And don’t leave water in the container in which the pot is standing, although there are two exceptions here: the ‘mind-your-own-business’ and the cyperus (’umbrella plant’). They like having their feet wet! Use water at room temperature, if you can, but use only rainwater on heather, hydrangeas, cyclamen and azaleas. Cyclamen, by the way, don’t like water from above. Neither do African violets or gloxinias. Put these in soak up to the rims of their pots, then drain them. Remember that fires, radiators and central heating systems dry the air, so keep an eye on your plants and, if necessary, stand them in some container on pebbles, which should be almost covered with water. Syringing leaves helps too; do this in cool conditions in the early morning.

Don’t forget your plants when you go off on holiday – as if you would! You can buy automatic watering devices, which solve the problem, or you can moisten the soil and seal the plant in a polythene bag. Alternatively, you can stand the pots out of direct sunlight, water them, then surround them with damp peat or screwed-up newspaper. The best answer, though, is to get a reliable neighbour to come in every now and then to tend to the plants in the normal way.

Plants can get pot-bound, which means they’ve outgrown their containers. You can recognise this condition when growth is noticeably slow, soil dries out very quickly, roots grow through the drainage hole, and when, having knocked the plant out of the pot, there appears a mass of root and little discernible soil. Repotting, when necessary, is best done in spring.

Few house plant owners seem to worry about increasing their own stock. It’s worth mentioning, though, that tradescantia (’wandering Jew’), busy Lizzies, coleus and ivy cuttings will form roots if stood in a bottle of water.

Plant troubles, in the main, can be avoided if you study their characteristics. Some, like poinsettias, have a short life-span, anyway. Others succumb because of soil dryness, over-watering, fluctuations of temperature, draughts, too much or too little light, and gas fumes. Pale leaves or spindly growth result from too much warmth or water. Yellowing leaves mean cold draughts or over-watering. Wilting results from too much sun, too much or too little watering. If flowers or buds drop, again over-watering or dry air can be the cause. Colourful leaves which turn all-green are not getting enough light.

You can buy house plant annuals which, as the name suggests, grow for only one season. Morning glories, nasturtiums, ‘black-eyed Susan’, and ‘cup and saucer vine’ all provide good, colourful value. Then there are the curious insectivorous plants which trap and eat small insects. The drosera (’sundew’) and the dionaea (’Venus’s flytrap’) are two good examples.

Cacti and succulents are popular. They don’t often bloom but when they do their flowers are brilliant. They like maximum sunlight and require very little watering, except during the growing season and high summer. Other than that they need very little attention.

N.B. Botanical names have been used in the foregoing except in cases like busy Lizzie, where the popular name is more recognisable.

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