Houseplant Survival Guide
Posted: November 20, 2015
The following houseplant survival guide was developed over the years through trial and error. It includes purchasing wisely, learning the plant’s specific requirements for placement in the home, meeting its needs for light and water, and dealing with problems that may arise. Following these simple guidelines, everyone can enjoy the beauty of nature whatever the weather.
Selecting a Houseplant
Choosing plants from regions where the growing conditions best match those in your home can increase their survival rates. For example, desert plants need heat and dryness (as in homes heated by a wood or coal furnace.) Plants preferring hot and dry conditions include echeveria (Echeveria gigantea), air plants and sedums. Golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum), another easy-to-grow houseplant, also tolerates dryness. Plants native to tropical jungles thrive in low light. Snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata) often called mother-in-law’s tongue, and heartleaf philodendrons (Philodendron scandens) are low-light-tolerant tropical plants. Both are extremely easy to grow.
Other very durable houseplants:
- Heart-leaf philodendron (Philodendron scandens)
- Corn plant (Dracaena fragrans)
- Baby rubber plant (Peperomia obtusifolia)
- Cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior)
- Parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans)
- Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modestum)
- Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
- ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)
Before purchasing your plant, pay attention to its quality. Inspect the plant’s leaves carefully for blemishes, brown edges or pale or yellow lower leaves. Look at the plant’s shape and avoid a leggy or sparse specimen. Check stems and leaves for insects or disease. Examine the pot and soil – a plant with roots growing through the drainage holes will need repotting. Reject any less-than-perfect plant. Before leaving the garden center or store during winter months when temperatures are very low, wrap your new plant in newspaper or paper bags to avoid damaging it on the short run from store to car. Don’t put it in a cold trunk; place it in the front of the car and turn on the heater.
Usually houseplants need to be located close to a window to receive enough light for them to flourish. Learn your plant’s specific light needs and place sun-worshippers, like aloes, on south-facing windowsills. Place plants requiring less light, such as begonias, on east- and west-facing windowsills. African violets prefer north-facing windows. If your plants become spindly, they need more light.
Watering and Feeding
Water most houseplants when the soil surface becomes dry to the touch. Keep the soil moist enough to supply the plant’s needs without drowning the roots. When you overwater the plant, the saturated soil drives out oxygen, and the roots die. The pot must drain properly, but do not allow the drainage water to sit in a catch basin. Plants with wet feet soon look sick with yellow leaves and any existing flowers collapse. Consider repotting overwatered plants into fresh soil, first checking if the drainage hole is plugged. Ordinary tap or well water is fine for plants and generally chlorine and fluorine added to city water won’t harm them; though some houseplants may be sensitive to these chemicals. The consistent use of softened water, however, is not advisable. When applying fertilizer, follow the manufacturer’s instructions, as overfeeding may damage your plant. Don’t fertilize plants during the winter months; fertilize only when you see new growth in the spring.
Houseplants need special care in winter when short days, long nights, low relative humidity and cold drafts make growing conditions less than ideal. Most houseplants prefer a 40 to 50 percent relative humidity. Raise the humidity level by using humidifiers, grouping plants together, or placing containers on top of a pebble tray with water. Do not mist houseplants, as this will not effectively raise the relative humidity. Water them less frequently during the winter months. Keep plants away from cold drafts, radiators and hot air vents.
It is important to keep your houseplants clean to reduce the incidence of insects and diseases. Remove spent flowers and dying leaves. Wash leaves with warm water and mild soap, covering the pot to prevent soap from entering the soil. Make sure to rinse leaves thoroughly. Trim off brown leaf tips with sharp scissors.
When plants become pot bound because of extensive root development, repot the plant into a bigger container. Choose a clean pot no more than 2 inches larger in diameter than the current one. Do not use garden soil because it often leads to poor drainage, overwatering and root diseases. A good potting mix consists of a blend of three parts sphagnum peat, one part vermiculite, and one part perlite. Most commercially available peat-lite mixes are suitable. Be careful not to damage the root system when repotting. Press soil gently around the roots to avoid compacting. Allow enough space at the top of the pot for watering. Water thoroughly, drain and do not water again until needed.
Watch your new plant carefully for problems, remembering it was grown in a greenhouse and will need time to adjust. Sudden changes in temperature and light intensity, transplanting shock, over-watering and lack of light frequently cause leaves to yellow and fall. Plants under stress are weakened and more susceptible to infection. If you see insects on your plant, use a stream of water to remove them, wipe them off, or pick them off by hand. Most houseplants, however, when grown under the proper conditions, experience few disease and insect problems.
With careful choice and proper care, houseplants can thrive in almost any home; and as an added bonus they purify indoor air. Many house plants can be toxic to humans or pets if eaten, so research the plant prior to making your purchase. For more information about pests and diseases, and for chemical control options, contact your County Extension office.
Pamela T. Hubbard, Penn State Master Gardener of Monroe County