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How to Keep Happy Houseplants

How to Keep Happy Houseplants

I love houseplants.  They can’t be beat for cheering up a room or providing an all-natural source of air purification.  Most people choose houseplants based on looks.  They buy a plant that catches their eye, stick it on a random windowsill, throw away the care instructions and just water it from time to time.  The plant does okay for a couple years, then gets straggly and eventually finds it way into the trashcan.  Sound familiar?  It does to me.  For years I assumed that large amounts of sun and water were all any houseplant needed to thrive.  If a plant was struggling my solution was to add water or find a sunnier spot.  I did not have a green thumb.  Then I learned a few simple houseplant rules and have been rewarded with happier, healthier houseplants.  Here are the basics.

How to Keep Happy Houseplants

  • Buy from a reputable nursery.  Avoid mass produced plants that are sold with generic names such as “Tropical Plant”.  First of all you want to know what you’re growing.  Secondly, these mass produced plants are often weaker, lower quality specimens.  Choose plants that look perky and healthy.  Avoid plants that have discolored, wilted or damages leaves and any plant with noticeable bugs.
  • Follow light requirements.  This sounds like a no brainer but you’d be surprised at how many people try to force sun-loving plants to live in dark corners and then get frustrated when they shrivel up and die.  When buying a plant, first decide where you want to put it and what kind of lighting that space receives. Look at the plant’s tag and choose varieties that fit your lighting.
    • Full sun plants do best in sunny, southern facing windows.
    • Western facing windows are the next sunniest, followed by eastern windows.  They receive less direct light and are good for partial sun plants.
    • Only low light or very adaptive plants can thrive in the dim light of northern facing windows.
    • In addition to the direction your windows face, also consider objects (such as trees outside your window) that may block a lot of the sun’s rays.  If your house is dark, don’t despair – there are some excellent shade tolerant houseplant varieties:
  • Don’t overwater.  Overwatering is the cardinal sin of houseplant ownership.  Believe it or not, this is the most common cause of houseplant death.  Overwatering can lead to root rot, fungus problems, iron loss, etc.  Most plants can actually tolerate drought better than overwatering!
    • It really helps to allow the soil to dry between waterings.  Use the finger test to determine when plants need a drink.  Stick your finger into the soil about 1 inch deep, if the dirt feels wet or even just damp, don’t water.  Test again in a couple days and only water when the soil is dry to touch.
    • It’s also important that all of your pots have good drainage holes.  Some people also like to put a thin layer of pebbles in the dish beneath their pots.  This promotes drainage and protects your plants from sitting water.
  • Fertilize.  For years the thought of fertilizing houseplants never even crossed my mind.  Most of my plants grew okay, but usually pooped out within a couple years which I assumed was a normal lifecycle.  Then I learned that many well-tended houseplants can thrive for years and even decades!
    • Most people recommend feeding houseplants frequently during the growing season then tapering off during the colder more dormant months.  A simplified feeding schedule would be to fertilize every month when it’s hot, every other month when it’s cool and skip cold months.  If this schedule works for you – go for it, I commend you!
    • Unfortunately this schedule is not realistic for me.  I’m always working on ten things at once and unless I have a normal routine, things fall through the cracks.  My system is even simpler and still manages to keep my plants happy.  I recommend feeding your houseplants once a season.  Use each season shift as a reminder that your plants are hungry.  If you’re feeling responsible you can add a couple extra feedings during warm/hot months.  But even just quarterly feedings will provide your plants with a beneficial boost.
    • I like fish emulsion and kelp fertilizers because they’re natural, loaded with minerals and plants like them.  You can also add a little sprinkle of crushed eggshells to your soil every couple months.  This is a free way to add calcium and promote your plant’s growth.
  • Optional tip – If your plants start looking dusty, dirty or buggy, try putting them in the shower.   Spray them gently with lukewarm water to rinse away grime and deter mite and whitefly infestations.  Just make sure the spray is gentle and don’t leave them in there for more than a couple minutes – the goal is to rinse them, not drench them.  I recommend doing this in the morning so they have the whole day to dry out.  After showering, move them somewhere with good airflow so their leaves don’t stay wet for long.  Please note: This is not recommended for plants with fuzzy leaves or plants in the succulent family (ex. Cactus).

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