Mother Earth Living

How to Care for Houseplants

Although many houseplants are easy to care for, no living thing is zero-maintenance. Ensure survival of your new living decor by learning how to care for your houseplants.
By Jenny Andrews
November/December 2011
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Produce multiples of your favorite plants with a stem cutting.


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Houseplant Care Basics

Although many houseplants are easy to care for, no living thing is zero-maintenance. Refrain from bringing a plant home from the garden center, plunking it on an aluminum pie pan on the windowsill, and forgetting about it until it’s crispy. To create a life-filled home, first make sure you’re houseplant-ready by considering five major factors: light, temperature, humidity, soil and water.

Light: Most houseplants are native to tropical climates where they grow in the shade of larger plants. Hence, they’re happy in the lower light levels inside the average home. To determine what type of light needs you can accommodate, watch your windows throughout the course of a full day, and estimate how many hours of sun fall inside, both directly and indirectly. Plant categories include low, medium and high light needs—labels indicate how many hours of sun they require.

Temperature: Most houseplants need daytime temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees and night temperatures 5 to 10 degrees lower—conveniently comfortable temperatures for humans, as well. Be sure to keep plants out of drafts and away from heating and air-conditioning vents. Avoid putting plants against windowpanes where temperatures can be scorching hot or freezing cold.

Humidity: Because most houseplants are tropical (succulents are the exception), they need relatively high humidity. Most homes have low humidity, especially in winter. To counteract this, you can do several things: Group plants together, where they help retain their own humidity; place a tray of pebbles and water under the plant (but keep the pot from sitting directly in the water); mist plants regularly; or set up a humidifier nearby.

Soil: Real garden soil is a no-no for indoor plants. Most soilless mixes (confusingly called potting soil) contain a combination of peat moss, most often unsustainably mined from wetland bogs in Canada and Michigan; perlite, a volcanic glass; and vermiculite, a mineral that sometimes contains asbestos. The majority of potting soils also come with slow-release fertilizers mixed in. A few companies offer handcrafted potting soils with better ingredients (see Resources). At the very least, avoid chemical fertilizers by choosing an organic, chemical-free mix. You can also find peat-free mixes; they cost more, but they last longer because peat tends to break down quickly. You can also make your own potting-soil mix using ingredients such as compost, worm castings, rotted sawdust or wood chips, and sand; find recipes at plantideas.com or motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening//how-to-make-your-own-potting-soil.aspx.

Water: Improper watering is the most common cause of houseplant demise. Underwatering and overwatering have similar symptoms: wilting, yellow leaves and defoliation. To make sure you’re watering correctly, use the second-knuckle rule: Stick your finger in the soil a couple of inches (to your second knuckle). If the soil is moist at the deepest point, don’t water. If it’s dry, water. If you have a rain barrel, it’s good to occasionally give your houseplants rainwater, which is free of salts and chemicals.

Plant Propagation

It’s fairly easy to produce multiples of your favorite plants for yourself or a friend with stem cuttings. Here are some basic instructions. For a more detailed version with step-by-step photos, visit gardening.about.com/od/gardenprimer/ss/Cuttings.htm.

  1. With sterilized pruners or sharp scissors, cut a healthy piece of stem with a few healthy leaves.
  2. The node is the part of the plant the leaf grows out of. Place the cutting on a flat surface and slice halfway through the node with a sterilized razor blade.
  3. Remove all but one or two leaves.  
  4. Put potting soil in a small container, and poke holes in the potting mix with a pencil.
  5. Dip end of cutting in rooting hormone (available at garden centers) to stimulate growth. Tap off excess hormone.
  6. Place cutting into hole in potting mix and gently firm soil around it. Several cuttings can fit in one container.
  7. Cover your cuttings with a plastic bag to keep in humidity and heat (don’t completely seal the bag), and put the container in a warm area with partial sun.
  8. Keep cuttings moist, and in a few weeks check for roots by tugging and testing for resistance.
  9. When cuttings have developed roots, remove from the bag and plant in individual pots.

Resources

Potting Soil  

FoxFarm Soil & Fertilizer Company 
Handcrafted organic, peat-free potting mix and fertilizer

Organic Mechanics
Organic, peat-free potting mix delivered by biodiesel trucks

Books 

"The Indoor Gardener: Creative Designs for Plants in the Home with 125 Inspirational Pictures" by Diana Yakeley

"Indoor Garden: A New Approach to Displaying Plants in the Home" by Diana Yakeley

"Indoor Gardening the Organic Way: How to Create a Natural and Sustaining Environment for Your Houseplants" by Julie Bawden-Davis


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