Design

Houseplant Myths

If your outdoor gardening skills don’t seem to translate indoors, you might be laboring under one of these misconceptions

Fine Gardening - Issue 184

Admit it: you are dying to adopt something green and growing into your home. But you hesitate. Although you might be a whiz in the garden, somehow translating those skills onto the windowsill gives you a crippling case of cold feet. True, with lower light levels and furnaces blasting, indoor gardening certainly poses different challenges. Plus, rather than sharing the duties with Mother Nature, you are responsible for every facet of care. But adding nature into your home can spell the difference between debilitating cabin fever and happily hunkering down at home with your best botanical buddy (or buddies) by your side. And really, houseplants are not as scary as they seem. Here comes a series of common misconceptions about houseplants coupled with simple solutions. You can do it!

Myth: I have a full-time job; therefore, I don’t have time to run relays with watering cans to quench the drinking habits of thirsty plants.

Reality: Although some people have a drinking problem, most houseplants do not. As long as you are home every three days or so for an hour, you can probably fit houseplant chores into your busy schedule. It’s true that houseplants depend solely on you to keep them quenched, but indoor plants are usually not as thirsty as plants grown in containers outdoors because of the lower amounts of light they receive. In fact, most indoor gardeners are guilty of overwatering houseplants in their zeal to play the good host. Don’t drench your houseplants—they don’t want or need constantly soggy soil. Check the soil before watering. Dig a finger just below the surface, and water your plants when the soil is dry to the touch. When you water, fill the pot to the rim with water and let it soak in. If a plant is constantly dry, check the root system and graduate to a larger container if necessary. (Skipping to a much larger pot is not the solution, though; overly generous repotting leads to perma-soggy soil).

Myth: My home is so dry that the cat sends out sparks. A plant cannot survive in my Sahara-like environment.

Illustration of house plant with cat

Reality: A tropical, humidity-loving plant adapted to a rainforest environment as its native digs probably will not be happy. But there are plenty of other options. Choose from the vast array of cacti and succulents as well as peperomias (also known as radiator plants) that thrive in low humidity as long as you have sufficient light. Or take steps to counteract the Death Valley effect by growing lots of houseplants, clustering them together, and keeping them sufficiently watered. Or set the menagerie on pebble trays (a baking pan does the trick, as long as it has a rim) filled with an inch of pebbles above half an inch of water, refilling the water as it evaporates around the plants. Or—and this is definitely the easiest fix—get a humidifier. What doesn’t work, and can even be detrimental, is misting your houseplants. Practically speaking, you would have to spritz around a plant several times an hour 24/7 to raise the humidity. Besides, not many plants love having their foliage constantly wet, and you are courting all sorts of nasty diseases that breed on damp leaves—not to mention the ills of sleep deprivation while handling that mister.


Tip: Take your plants to the bathroom

If your plant needs moist air, place it in the bathroom, which often has the best conditions for many houseplants. But if you try the tray of pebbles to increase humidity, make sure the pot is set above the water level. Otherwise, the soil will ­absorb the water, potentially keeping it too wet.


Myth: My home is a clean machine, and houseplants make a mess.

Illustration of house plant with broom and bug

Reality: Not so! You can find plenty of tidy, neatly dressed plants that remain buttoned down and keep their act together without requiring a cleaning crew. Again, some plants tend to shed leaves or (even worse) develop brown ones. Avoid spider plants, and steer away from plants that sprinkle spent flowers all over the place. (Loropetalum chinense, this means you.) Remember to water regularly. Many plants (hibiscus and zonal geraniums come to mind) signal discontent by dropping leaves. A little nurturing goes a long way. While you’re watering, give plants a quick inspection, removing anything that looks off-color. It’s called grooming, and any living thing will benefit when you keep up appearances.

Myth: I’m phobic about bugs, and houseplants are magnets for “wildlife.”

Reality: The vast majority of houseplants are not prone to bug problems; that’s why indoor gardeners for the last century or more have managed to successfully host houseplants. Granted, houseplants such as fuchsias, coleus, abutilons, bougainvilleas, and hibiscus can attract insects, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule. And keeping the bugs away is not only about plant selection. Treat your plants right, and insects will be less prone to pester them. In general, stressed plants fall prey to all manner of bad things. How do you prevent stress among your plants? Water them regularly (not to the point of drenching, however, which can court fungus gnats), give them sufficient light according to their needs, don’t crank up the thermostat so that you’re sweating, and remove spent flowers as well as browning leaves. Taking these steps will reduce the likelihood of your plants being victimized by predators. Another good idea: Monitor new plants before bringing them into the fold. Check carefully for insects at the nursery, and keep newbies segregated from plants already in residence.

Myth: Who wants drips all over the place? Houseplants are going to ruin my furniture.

Reality: That’s why God created saucers. Every houseplant should be matched with a saucer. Think of it as a design challenge. Whether you choose an old enamel dish or a newly purchased terra-cotta version says a lot about who you are creatively, so tap into your inner mix-and-matcher. But all saucers should follow some important specs: They need to be at least an inch wider than the base of the pot they’re servicing (even wider is better). They absolutely have to be waterproof; if a saucer is terra cotta, it should be glazed to prevent seepage (in other words, it needs to be accident-proof). And feel free to be obsessive with double safeguards when putting plants on any valuable furniture—even for a few minutes. Put a cork round or a metal tray beneath the saucer as further protection, or just find somewhere less dicey to exhibit your plants. No need to court disaster, right? Plus, leaks are less likely to happen if you water properly. Fill the container once to the rim, and let the water soak in. Don’t force further drinks on the poor green thing.

Myth: Houseplants need bright light, and I don’t have a greenhouse. My house is not as dark as a dungeon, but it’s definitely not crystal clear.

Illustration of house plant in dark basement

Reality: True, some houseplants need bright light and might noticeably suffer on a sill facing east, west, or north. Don’t go there. Steer away from nonnegotiable sun worshippers such as succulents, cacti, bougainvilleas, hibiscus, and most herbs (mint is an exception). Although heavy bloomers are probably not in your cards, there are plenty of houseplants in the spectrum that thrive in low light. For example, begonias, peperomias, prayer plants (marantas, ctenanthes, and calatheas), cissus, jasmines, bromeliads (vriesias, tillandsias—alias air plants—cryptanthus, neoregelia, etc.), hoyas, and members of the Afri­can violet clan are just a few examples of plants that are fine with an east or west window, especially if it is unobstructed by trees or neighboring buildings. Got a northern exposure? Try ivies, ferns, and mosses. How can you tell if your light levels are in synch with your plant’s needs? Check out body language. A plant doing a yoga stretch toward the light or making spindly growth is sending a strong hint that its light needs are not being met.

Myth: I pile on the sweaters in winter. My house is too chilly for houseplants.

Reality: Some like it cold. If your lips aren’t turning blue inside your home, you can find houseplants that will survive. Complain about the cold all you want, but the plants won’t mind. In fact, most houseplants are fine with temperatures that dip to 55°F at night with a hike to 65° during the day. Some houseplants—zonal geraniums, camellias, most herbs except basil, and agaves come to mind—can tolerate even cooler temperatures. Of course, there are exceptions. Members of the African violet clan, alocasias, most orchids (except cymbidiums), hibiscus, calatheas, heliotropes, gardenias, and bougainvilleas might protest or unceremoniously drop leaves when temperatures are not toasty.

There are perks to giving plants a slightly chilly reception. Atmos­pheric humidity is usually higher, and insects that tend to be active and breed in hot, dry climates—such as aphids and red spider mites—are not as much of an issue when the furnace isn’t blasting hot air.


Tip: Get help remembering to feed and water

If you sometimes (or frequently) forget to water or to feed your plants, your smartphone can help. Simply set a reminder for the time interval—say, three weeks for feeding. Amazon’s Echo device can do the same thing.


Myth: Houseplants are hungry, and I have a family to feed. Who has time to serve another set of meals?

houseplant illustration surrounded by soil and eco-friendly products

Reality: People overfeed their plants. But in your defense, the gardening industry has set up a system that puts your potted plants’ nutritional needs solely on your shoulders. I’m not an advocate of soilless mixes. Instead, I use an organic potting soil with compost included. Because the plant has access to oomph in its soil, feeding isn’t a life-or-death factor. Additionally, from March to November, I serve up a 2-4-1 fish fertilizer diluted according to the label directions once every three weeks. This works beautifully to perk up houseplants, even though it’s not a balanced fertilizer. The higher phosphorous dose keeps the flowers coming, while the nitrogen ration pleases the foliage without urging a plant to muscle into the next-size container with lightning speed. (Most of us have finite window space and don’t want to deal with a jolly green giant.) In winter, serve food only on ­demand (pale foliage can signal hunger in a houseplant). The vast majority of houseplants do not need food throughout winter when they’re in a holding pattern. Pushing growth when light levels are low leads only to leggy, spindly growth, or worse.

Myth: I’m an organic gardener outside, and houseplants wouldn’t work with my ethics.

Reality: Put the connection between problems and houseplants out of your mind. First of all, a healthy plant is not going to court insects or diseases. But if problems do strike, there’s no need to whip out the heavy artillery. Nowadays, you can find everything from organic potting soils for your houseplants to organic solutions for pest and disease issues at local nurseries. Stock your weapon cabinet with certified organic products rather than tougher stuff. Identify the enemy, and check labels to make sure the product you choose is recommended to combat the issue you face. Check the life cycle of the foe, and apply the product as frequently as necessary to keep the enemy in check. To be absolutely safe, I bring houseplants outside even when I apply organic products. But again, proper growing techniques and wise plant selection will eliminate or reduce problems. “Right plant, right place” is as valid indoors as it is in your garden. And hopefully, your plants will ­become such an important part of the family, you won’t dream of neglecting their needs.


African violet
African violet. Photo: Friedrich Strauss/gapphotos.com

Begonia
Begonia. Photo: Friedrich Strauss/gapphotos.com

Fishbone prayer plant
Fishbone prayer plant. Photo: Friedrich Strauss/gapphotos.com

Houseplants that thrive in low light

  • African violets (Saintpaulia spp. and cvs.)
  • Begonias (Begonia spp. and cvs.)
  • Calatheas (Calathea spp. and cvs.)
  • Fishbone prayer plants (Ctenanthes spp. and cvs.)
  • Grape ivies (Cissus rhombifolia)
  • Ivies (Hedera spp. and cvs.)
  • Jasmines (Jasminum polyanthum)
  • Peperomias (Peperomia spp.)
  • Prayer plant marantas (Maranta spp.)
  • Wax plants (Hoya spp.)

Wax plant
Wax plant. Photo: Howard Rice/gapphotos.com

Zonal geranium
Zonal geranium. Photo: Heather Edwards/gapphotos.com

Houseplants that can take it cool

  • Agaves (Agave spp. and cvs.)
  • Camellias (Camellia spp. and cvs.)
  • Chives (Allium schoenoprasum and cvs.)
  • Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
  • Zonal geraniums (Pelargonium spp. and cvs.)

Cape primrose
Cape primrose. Photo: gapphotos.com

Gardenia
Gardenia. Photo: Clive Nichols/gapphotos.com

Houseplants that need it warm

  • African violets (Saintpaulia spp. and cvs.)
  • Calatheas (Calathea spp. and cvs.)
  • Cape primroses (Streptocarpus spp. and cvs.)
  • Elephant ears (Alocasia spp. and cvs.)
  • Hibiscus (Hibiscus spp. and cvs.)
  • Heliotropes (Heliotropium spp. and cvs.)
  • Gardenias (Gardenia spp. and cvs.)
  • Bougainvilleas (Bougainvillea spp. and cvs.)

Jade plant
Jade plant. Photo: Howard Rice/gapphotos.com

Pincushion cactus
Pincushion cactus. Photo: Maxine Adcock/gapphotos.com

Houseplants that take low humidity

  • Agaves (Agave spp. and cvs.)
  • Aloes (Aloe spp. and cvs.)
  • Echeverias (Echeveria spp. and cvs.)
  • Jade plant (Crassula ovata)
  • Peperomias (Peperomia spp.)
  • Pincushion cacti (Mammillaria spp. and cvs.)

Tovah Martin is the author of several books, including The Garden in Every Sense and Season and The Indestructible Houseplant. She gardens in Roxbury, Connecticut.

Illustrations: Elara Tanguy

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