Houseplants require a little maintenance now and then, including a bath and an occasional re-potting, in order to stay healthy and look their best. But if you learn what to look for and what their signs mean, you’ll know what they need when they need it. You may also derive some unexpected benefits from keeping real living plants, not plastic imitations, in your home.
The right amount of light and heat
Generally speaking, if your plants’ leaves start to look pale, if they seem to be longer than usual, or if new leaves appear smaller than normal, they may not be getting sufficient light. On the other hand, if the leaves develop brownish or yellow spots or begin to curl downward, they are probably getting too much light. Just reposition them accordingly and find a location they prefer.
If your flowering plants stop making flowers, that indicates they may need more light. Put them somewhere near a window and make sure they get at least nine hours of light daily. Flowering plants can be bothered by drafts, too, so avoid placing them near a heating or air conditioning vent. They won’t like the frequent changes in air temperature they will experience if they are too near a vent that has an output controlled by a thermostat.
The word “leggy” is a gardener’s term used to describe a plant that looks like it’s having a bad hair day. The plant appears scraggly and has uneven growth. A leggy houseplant is usually getting overheated in its current location. Another indication that your plant is getting too hot is yellowing, curly, or wilted leaves. The fact that a plant may be getting overheated doesn’t mean it’s getting too much sun. Just move it away from the heart source without depriving it of light. Make sure it isn’t near an internal heat source, like a heating vent or appliance. If the only heat source is a window and the plant is on the windowsill, try moving it to a nearby table. Rotating it now and then during the healing process should help to even out any uneven growth.
The right amount of water (and a trick or two)
Over-watering kills more houseplants than anything else. The lower leaves of a plant that’s being over-watered will start to curl and wilt. The plant’s stems may get so saturated that they turn squishy. Generally, you should make sure the soil isn’t wet or damp before you water and also check to make sure your pots are draining. The drain holes can become clogged.
If a plant isn’t getting enough water, the leaves tend to wilt and turn brown, starting at the tips. When you have a houseplant that reaches this stage of dryness, soak the pot in water for 20 minutes or so, then remove it from the water and let it drain. Wait until the soil in the pot is dry to the touch before watering again and you should be back on schedule.
There are also some tips regarding watering. If the water is too cold, it can damage the plant. Room temperature is ideal, but a temperature range that’s not too cold or warm is okay, too. You can also save the water you use to boil veggies or pasta, let it cool, and water your plants with that. They like it and let you know by producing fuller, lusher foliage. The pasta water will also promote growth of beneficial bacteria in the soil, making your plants more disease resistant.
Sometimes your houseplants need to be misted, other times they need a full-on shower. In the winter, humidity in your home can get low. Plants may begin to develop brown, wrinkled areas around the edges of their leaves when this occurs. Gather them up and mist them now and then until warmer weather and higher humidity returns. When you have the time, periodically put all your plants in the shower or take them outside. Use the shower head or a hose-end sprayer to give them a bath and wash off any accumulated dust or other material. Make sure the water isn’t hot or cold and that the spray is fine enough not to damage the plants. Let them drip dry and return them to their places.
To feed or not to feed
Unless your winters are not much different than your springs or summers, don’t fertilize your houseplants in the wintertime. If they need fertilizer, you will typically see their lower leaves looking pale and dropping off.
A basic rule to follow when fertilizing is to feed flowering plants with a fertilizer high in phosphorous and non-flowering plants with a fertilizer high in nitrogen. Read the labels, pick the right mix for your houseplants, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions during application.
Spring is the season to repot. A plant in need of repotting will frequently wilt between each watering. You may also see roots growing out of the drain holes in the bottom of the pot. Get a larger container, some eggshells broken into small pieces to add nutrients, and some potting soil. Mix in the shells, loosen up the root ball of your formerly pot-bound plant, and relocate it to its new home.
Tips to promote growth
Removing dead leaves and spent flowers will encourage your plant to make more. If the plant is getting a bit spindly and you would prefer that it be bushier, prune it by removing not more than an inch of new growth from the ends of the branches. The plant will begin to bush out, getting fuller rather than spindlier.
House plants have their own way of communicating. If you know how to decipher the signs they give you, you’ll know what they need and when they need it. But is it worth the effort to maintain plants inside your home? Well, yes it is, according to NASA! If you would like to read NASA’s report regarding phytoremediation, the term used to describe houseplants’ ability to remove contaminants from the air in your home, you can check it out here: ntrs.nasa.gov/citations/19930073077.
There are also studies indicating that houseplants may reduce stress, improve your outlook about your job, boost your productivity, and even help you recover faster when you’re sick. So, if you don’t already have some, head to your local nursery and find some houseplants you like.