‘House’ and ‘plant’ do not go together

Published 6:00 am Sunday, January 14, 2007

One of the most difficult questions to answer is “what plant will grow best in my home?” Think about it. Is there really such a thing as a houseplant? Not in my book.

No plant on this earth is meant to grow inside a house, period. No plant is native to the great indoors although many species will tolerate the hostile home environment. The word “houseplant” is oxymoronic and misleading.

Quite a few tropical species fall into the contradictory category of houseplants — naturally thriving in a variety of regions of the world that are impossible to recreate in the interior of a home.

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So what’s a houseplant enthusiast to do? Well, one key to healthy plants for the home is to bring them outside during the warmer months. Giving plants fresh air, ample water and humidity, and providing natural light can do wonders for them. During winter, take advantage of warm afternoons and bring your plants outdoors for a little special treatment including drenching their roots with water.

Of course, you never want to carry a plant outdoors and expose it to full sun immediately, especially in spring and summer. Doing so will most likely create stress for a specimen that is not used to such bright conditions. Instead, select a spot that is in shade most of the day. Morning or late afternoon sun should provide enough light initially during the warmer months.

An ideal time to trim or shape plants that have become leggy is after moving them outdoors. Cut off any unhealthy foliage to promote new growth. Any leaf that has turned partially yellow or brown will not recover, so remove it from the plant. Do not just trim the yellow or brown edges off. Not only does this look unsightly, but it will further weaken the plant. Damaged leaves will die eventually, so why postpone the inevitable.

Clean your houseplants from top to bottom, including the undersides of the foliage, to wash away the dust that accumulates indoors. This treatment may also help get rid of soft bodied insect pests such as aphids, mealy bugs, or whiteflies.

If you are not able to bring plants outside in mild weather, give them as much light as possible, depending on the species. A south facing window is ideal for many tropical plants during winter. Choose a location where temperature fluctuations are not a problem — a spot near a fireplace, heater vent or drafty doorway is not good.

Plants use less water indoors than those growing outdoors. Water them only when the soil is dry to the touch. Water them thoroughly, allowing the excess to run out of the bottom of the container. Don’t allow trays or saucers to remain full of water. This only promotes root rot, disease, bad odors, and fungus gnat and mosquito problems, to name a few.

Once a plant seems to be doing well in a particular spot, leave it there. Most don’t like to be moved frequently. Just remember that plants are meant to grow outside — they will just tolerate the indoors. With that in mind, don’t get discouraged if a particular plant does not thrive in your kitchen window or foyer. Sometimes, no matter how much you nurture, you cannot make a plant happy. In that case, adopting the mindset of treating houseplants like fresh flower bouquets is advantageous. Luckily, they last much longer and in the end are just as easy to compost.

Traci maier can be reached at ratmaier@bellsouth.net.