GREEN GODDESS: Green your home from the inside

GARDENING GODDESS • BY KATHY JENTZ

Indoor gardening or keeping houseplants is a hobby that many outdoor gardeners bewilderingly often do not pursue. Conversely, there are many green thumbs out there who fill their homes and workplaces with plants, yet never touch an outdoor one. With the current trend of blurring of outdoor and indoor living, I’m hoping this strange separation of growing worlds begins to fade away.

Why bother?

I turn to indoor plants for solace during our (admittedly fairly mild) DC-area winters. Their greenery reminds me that spring is just around the corner. For that same reason, I love forcing bulbs as well to make the seasons “hurry up.”

Then there is the frugal gardening practice of over-wintering your outdoor plants indoors — ergo making them indoor plants for at least five months of the year. I know there must be many of you out there that, like me, have some blooming zonal geraniums, herbs, succulents, and coleus in your kitchen windows right now. They are just biding their time until they can once again grace our outdoor spaces.

Also consider the intangible “feeling” part of the houseplant equation. When I visit homes and offices without living things in them — both plants and pets — I just can’t stand the sterility and usually don’t stay long. My favorite stores are those with a few cats roaming around and some cacti crowding up their counter space. And don’t get me started on hotel rooms with nary a green leaf — the first thing I do on any trip is run out for a small plant or flower bouquet to breath some life into it.

I think this process is instinctual. My body just knows that it needs oxygen that houseplants provide in spades. Did you know that many plants actually remove the toxins in our indoor air as well? Try a Peace Lily, Spiderplant, or any of the ivy cultivars in your bedroom for ridding those airborne pollutants given off by carpeting, fabric dyes, detergents, etc.

But I have a black thumb!

That is exactly what I used to think after going through five African violets in one year of college. What I’ve learned since then is the same lesson we outdoor gardeners get drummed into our heads: right plant, right place.

If you have a cool, dry home, you are not going to have luck with moisture-loving plants. Unless that is, you adjust the environment to address this growing requirement.

Examine where you would like to have some greenery in your home or at work, then seek a plant that fits that space. Just as it never works in your backyard, you can’t force a plant to adapt to conditions it will just not thrive in.

A good resource for selecting houseplants for specific environments is “A General Guide to Houseplants” a publication available online at the West Virginia agriculture department, www.wvagriculture.org. Offline, consult the popular The Pocket House Plant Expert by D.G. Hessayon, which lists over 1,000 plants.

Plant choices for beginners

Bromeliad, Croton, or Dracaena are all smart picks for beginner indoor gardeners — especially if you are placing then in low light situations such as an office.
Other good choices for those looking for easy-care houseplants are Jade, Begonia, and Aloe. All of these can withstand a bit of occasional neglect.

Mother-in-law’s tongue or Snake plant or Bird’s-nest plant (Sansevieria) is popular because it will tolerate just about any growing condition. If you want a truly hard to kill plant, this is it

Pothos is a terrific choice for many neophytes as it can thrive in conditions from bright sun to indirect light. It can be grown as a hanging plant or wound around a stake or left to trail along window ledges and shelves.

Growing tips and secrets

One friend of mine was bewildered as to why her African violets never bloomed, while mine put on 20 or so flowers at a time. (Yes, I kept trying to grow them even after killing quite a few.) Here is the secret: two drops of liquid houseplant fertilizer per week.

Without fertilizing your indoor plants may live a long life, but it won’t be an optimal one. While you can skip adding nutrients to many in-ground garden plants, your indoor garden has only the limited soil in its own pot to pull nutrients from. Once those are depleted, which can happen rather rapidly with regularly watering, they are left without nourishment.

Fertilizer comes in liquid form or powder that you can mix yourself with the weekly waterings. For those of us with too little time and too many plants, you can also buy plant fertilizer spikes with slow-release fertilizer that need replacing once or twice a year.

Here are a few tips I’ve picked up from fellow indoor gardeners:

  • Turn your plants regularly for even growth and shape.
  • Close shades at night to protect houseplants near windows from cold. Put a newspaper between houseplants and the window pane to protect against chilly drafts.
  • Give foliage plants an occasional shower. They will grow better without a coating of dust.
  • Line windowsills with aluminum foil. The foil reflects light and provides extra light for houseplants.
  • As with your outdoor garden plants, don’t just go off the plant tags. Many indoor plants are mislabeled or seriously lacking in relevant information. After you purchase a plant, research it to make sure the name is correct and that you have the right conditions to grow it.
  • If you have south-facing windows, you can grow almost anything indoors. You are even luckier if those windows are in your kitchen and can provide a steady supply of herbs all winter long.
  • Most indoor spaces are extremely dry and central heat worsens that effect on plants. Fill your plant saucers or trays with pebbles with water just to the bottom edge of the plant pot. You should not have the plants actually sitting or soaking in water.
  • Over watering kills more plants than any single factor. Worse than neglect is the indoor gardener who keeps adding water to moist soil. We are all guilty of this mistake which can cause your plants’ roots to rot. If you cannot help yourself, you might be advised to buy only plants that like wet feet and constant moisture such as Gardenia, Umbrella Plant, and Abutilon.
  • Container choice and good drainage are the key in maintaining plant health.
  • Group your plants so that they can share a moist environment and for your ease in caring for them together.
  • Set a regular weekly watering routine. During this time take a minute to examiner each plant for possible disease, insect infestation, etc. Remove and dead or dying leaves and blooms.
  • Repot your plants every few years. Plants like their roots to fit snuggly so move up to progressively larger pots.
  • If you reuse a pot, be sure to thoroughly clean it, especially on the inside.
  • Just as you enjoy the outdoors, many of your plants will like to spend the summer outdoors. Be careful of sun-scorch and give them a week or so of transition time in a protected space such as under your deck or in your garage. Watch the nighttime temperatures to ensure they do not get exposed to the cold.
  • If you are a frequent traveler or forgetful gardener, choose cacti and succulents. More than just spikes and dry sand, there are many more selections available now. A large bowl of mixed varieties can be quite beautiful.
  • Some houseplants are meant to be annuals. Again, just as with your outdoor garden, these are there to add color and blooms for a season or two then to be composted. Do not feel guilty about treating them as they were intended.
  • When selecting a plant to purchase, pick ones that are full of healthy foliage, insect-free, and well-potted (the roots should not be growing out the bottom nor be wrapping in on themselves).
  • After purchasing your plant, have it double-bagged and limit its exposure to the outdoors if you are bringing to home during the winter months. In the summer, never leave a houseplant in hot car.
  • Be aware that many houseplants have go through a period of acclimatization when transferred to your home environment. They may drop leaves or flower buds. Do not panic. It may take a few weeks or month to go through this transition time. Ficus trees in particular are notorious for resenting any changes and showering new owners with leaves. Rest assured, they will adjust.

Kathy  is slowly filling her home with greenery — crowding out her cat’s favorite window perches.

About the Author

Kathy Jentz
Kathy Jentz is editor of Washington Gardener magazine and is a long-time DC area gardening enthusiast. Washington Gardener is all about gardening where you live. She can be reached at @WDCgardener on Twitter and welcomes your local DMV gardening questions.