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Growing Houseplants

Posted: December 8, 2011

As gardeners, we often receive plants or give plants for the holidays. Poinsettias, cyclamen, and Christmas cactus are among the most popular plants given, however, other houseplants are easy to find this time of year. Here are some tips to growing your holiday plants and keeping them alive well after the packages and decorations have been put away.

Growing houseplants can be an easy proposition if all, or most, requirements are met.  Knowing what kind of environment you can offer your plant is a good first step.  Before entering a greenhouse, study the areas you wish to grow plants.  What kind of sunlight is the area getting?  Is it near a window and what direction does that window face – north, south, east or west?  Are there any air vents where heat or air conditioning will be blowing?  What kind of heat do you have?  Is it wood stove, electric, or gas?  You need to know the answers to all these questions before selecting your plants. 

Note the environment that the plants are now growing.   Be aware of the kind of care the plant is getting before you purchase it.  For instance, if it is a plant that requires high light conditions, such as a croton, and is living in a low light situation in a store, when you get it home it will probably drop many leaves.  You will be nursing it back to health for quite a long while.  Likewise, if you take a low-light plant, growing in a florescent light situation, take it home, and put it in a window that is getting all day sun, it will likely have leaf burn and lose those leaves.

Take notice as to the watering conditions of the plant.  Too dry too frequently can cause much stress to the plant, allowing insect and disease problems to take over, as well as leaf drop.  Too wet can cause rotting of the roots.

After you have taken much care in selecting the healthy plant that is appropriate for your growing conditions, be sure you protect it when leaving the greenhouse or store.  Wrap the plant in paper or plastic bags, and be sure to transport it in the front of the car that is heated, not the trunk. Don’t make lots of stops after purchasing your plants. Just short distances in low temperatures can cause severe damage or death to a houseplant. 

In my experience, watering has often been the object of blame when it comes to plant fatality.  Too much water or too little water can cause stress or even death.  It’s best to grow the plant in a container that has good drainage.  Place a saucer underneath the container so the water runs through.  After 15 minutes, dump the excess water out of the saucer.  If the soil medium continues to be wet for a long period of time, the roots of the plants will rot. 

Just as important is not allowing the plant to dry out.  If the soil medium is dry to the touch, it’s time to water.  A good rule of thumb is to check the plants twice a week.  If it is dry, water it, if it isn’t, let it alone until next time.  It is good to get your watering on a schedule like every Wednesday and Saturday.  That way the plant is not forgotten.  Plant care then becomes habit. 

Humidity is important to a plant’s survival.  Dry heat from a wood stove can be deadly to a houseplant.  To create more humidity for a houseplant, group plants together or put a humidity tray under them.  Misting plants has very little effect.  Locate your houseplant in a room that has good ventilation, but not drafty.

During the plant’s active growing time, typically March through September, fertilize every two to four weeks.  Use a well-balanced fertilizer.  A typical analysis of a fertilizer is 10-10-10 or 20-20-20.  The analysis tells you the percentage of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that is in the fertilizer. 

Keep your poinsettia away from cold and drafty places. Hot spots, such as by a fireplace, near a heater, or above appliances are areas that you should avoid. Poinsettias like the sun, so lots of light is a must for the plant's health and survival. Near a window that is not drafty is the best location for your plant.

When purchasing plants around the holidays, often the plants have foil or paper on for festive color.  Keep this on for a short period of time. This can provide a location for water to sit, allowing roots to rot.  Often used around the holidays are baskets or other containers to set the plant in.  These work great for decorative purposes, just be sure you are keeping a close eye on the water that can lay at the bottom of the container.

Keep an eye out for insect infestation. Whiteflies, spider mites, mealy bugs and aphids are common insect problems. Scout the plant frequently, and if any are detected, spray with an insecticidal soap. More than one application is normally necessary to control these insects. Be sure to read the label on the bottle before applying.