Caring For Your House Plants

Even though the weather feels like spring outside, a sudden cold snap can turn conditions back into winter. So now is a good time to concentrate on your house plants; to give them extra loving care they miss when you"re outside in your garden.

House plants can really liven up any room. Philodendrons, airplane plants, and Swedish ivy are some of the easiest plants to grow. I've always had luck with Dracenas, both the classic dragon plant, and the corn plant, as long as I don't over water them. Pothos and Nephthytis do well in low light situations. And for a shelf or ledge out of reach, I've found silk plants to be an excellent choice. They never wilt, never need fertilizer or repotting, and never have dead leaves. You do need to dust them once in a while, however.

If you have live plants, you do need to water, fertilize, repot and pick dead leaves off them once in a while. In exchange, they help clean the air in your house, some even bloom on occasion, and live plants add an extra homey feeling to a room that silk plants never quite manage. Personally, I prefer live plants to silk.

In winter, your house plants, like many of your outdoor plants, slow down their growth. The shorter hours of sunshine have convinced them to take a break from growing, so most of them won't need fertilizing again until spring. In general, they also need less water, but with your furnace on, the air is drier and the soil around your plants dries out more quickly. So it is important to check those pots more often, and try to maintain a happy medium.

Of course, the drier air affects your house plants directly, in addition to causing the soil to dry out. You can combat this problem by misting your plants regularly (except for the ones with furry leaves, such as African violets). Another approach is to cluster your plants together, and then place low saucers filled with water between the pots. The water will evaporate, providing a tiny oasis of humidity for your plants.

With most house plants being semi-dormant right now, winter is a good time to transplant them. If they're root bound (masses of roots in the pot, roots actually coming out from the drain holes, or roots swirling around outside of the core of potting soil), you'll want to repot the plant in a larger container. But like anything in gardening, there are a few exceptions to this rule. The most notable one is the airplane plant, which won't produce those hanging babies unless it is root bound. If the plant is not root- bound, it may need repotting anyway, especially if the soil smells moldy or the plant is showing signs of root problems.

About two hours before you start, water the plant in it's old container thoroughly. Then when you're ready to go to work, hold your hand over the soil and turn the plant and pot upside down. Remove the plant from the old pot carefully, and gently untangle the roots. Cut off any part of the root ball that is broken, dead, dark brown or rotten. In the new pot, start with a layer of clean stones, broken clay pots, or even clay pellets in the bottom to allow for drainage. Spoon in a layer of potting soil over this drainage material, and center the plant in it's new home. Fill the sides in with more potting soil. Press the soil firmly into place. Don't fill the pot too full, though! You need to leave room for watering later. If you have a plant that seems to demand watering more often than you get around to it, you might want to try one of those new planting medium blends which are especially formulated to retain water.

If you don't want to repot a plant, it might enjoy a bath and a shower. Place your plant(s) in a sink tub or bucket ( I recommend the latter, since it makes less of a mess to clean up later!) and fill it up with water until it actually comes over the edge of the pot. Let your plant sit in this water for an hour or two, to leach out accumulated salts and exhausted fertilizers. While it is bathing, you can gently wipe off the leaves with a damp cloth (unless the leaves are fuzzy, in which case you don't want to get them wet). Be sure you let the plant drain well before you put it back on your coffee table or shelf, so you don't get a ring of muddy water on your furniture!

While you're looking over your plants, keep any eye out for aphids, white flies, scale, and mealy bugs. These pests may be dormant outdoors, but they can thrive quite happily in your house. You can treat all of them with insecticidal soap, as long as you remember to apply it regularly. A systemic insecticide mixed in with soil is also effective, but be sure to keep pets and children away from the treated plant and it's pot.

In exchange for these little bits of kindness, you house plants will flourish, and provide you with a tiny bit of spring time even in the dead of winter.

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