Houseplant Tips

In Winter, horticultural interest moves indoors as we look to brighten up the household during the dark winter months. We receive many questions about how to care for houseplants, particularly as many are given and received as presents over the festive season. Frequently these plants are discarded after they have finished flowering, but with the correct care they can give you years of reward. However, if provided with the wrong conditions, these plants can very quickly deteriorate, causing us to question our horticultural abilities.

Often the problem can be that we have tended our plants with too much love and care, over-watering and feeding being the major factors in the deterioration of plants. Over-watering can accelerate pests and diseases and cause the plant’s roots to rot. Many plants come in ornamental pots or baskets that have little or no drainage in them ; the addition of perlite to the compost will improve the drainage, as will sitting the plants on a gravel tray, or a layer of gravel or hydroleca at the bottom of a ceramic pot.

Many people believe they need to water the plants every day to keep them healthy, but in most cases this is not necessary. A lot of houseplants originate from hot, arid countries so therefore have minimal water requirements. A seasonal example of this would be the poinsettia, which is a native of Mexico, and only requires watering (with tepid water) when the surface of the compost feels dry. The Christmas cactus only requires regular watering when in flower, and actually thrives on neglect for much of the year, as a long rest period is needed to promote re-flowering. Another victim of over-watering is the orchid, which many people regard as a difficult plant requiring a lot of care. The popular orchid varieties, sold in garden centres and even supermarkets, require minimal care, and with careful watering, can provide many years of beautiful displays.

Another example of over-caring for houseplants is by re-potting them too soon or re-potting them in too large a container. Many plants, including orchids, African violets, and streptocarpi, prefer to be confined to small pots, as this mimics natural growing conditions.

Other conditions which need to be considered when choosing a houseplant are light levels and temperature. Plants with shiny, glossy leaves, such as the Swiss cheese plant, are susceptible to getting scorched if placed in direct sunlight, but will thrive in a more shaded part of the house. With large, architectural plants like the parlour palm, whose foliage is easily damaged with frequent contact, it is essential that they are situated outwith the reach of children and pets.

Many households only have window sills to display their houseplants – in this situation, small individual flowering plants are the best option. In general, choose plants that have succulent/fleshy leaves as these will tolerate heat and direct sunlight. Commonly available examples of these are: kalanchoes, begonias, azaleas and, for those who prefer a non-flowering option, the many varieties of succulents provide a great range of choice.

For warm, humid areas such as the bathroom, ferns, peace lilies and ficus plants, which would usually require frequent misting, are perfect choices. Central heating can be a problem for many houseplants which require cooler, more humid conditions. However, there are some which will thrive with constant, year-round heat such as cacti, dracaena, buzy lizzies and pelargoniums. For the cooler areas of the house, such as an unheated conservatory – opt for plants such as aspidistra, cyclamen, ivy and fatsias.

Important points to consider when buying houseplants:

  • Location: choose a plant which will flourish in the conditions provided.
  • Care required: consider how much time you are willing or able to devote to the plants. Choose something low-maintenance if you are not green-fingered.
  • Condition of plant: look for fresh healthy foliage and flowers.
  • Grouping: plants are best kept in individual pots. Group plants with similar care requirements together.
  • Treat the label instructions as a guide only, which may need to be adjusted depending on conditions. Always ask staff for advice.

Having selected the right plant for the right location, with minimal care and attention, it will provide years of pleasure to your household.

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