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Sage Garden Blog

Houseplant helper

Houseplants are a natural joy for humans. Intuitively it makes sense to soften constructed spaces with the natural textures of living plants, something we all identify with. Humans are drawn to beauty, particularly when inspired by nature. In fact, much research has been conducted in the fields of evolutionary psychology, architecture, medicine and other disciplines investigating just how humans respond to green spaces, including simple houseplants. NASA famously identified houseplants that were shown to actively purify indoor air. This research was focused on ways to reduce pollutants for space travelers subject to high VOC and other unhealthy chemical-emitting situations (this research was done in the 1980’s and the plants identified were typical houseplants of the time. Many plants beyond those listed by NASA are beneficial). Other examples of concrete benefits of houseplants include improved outcomes for post-surgical hospital patients, reduced stress for students, improved air quality in office spaces and more.

1. Rinse plants regularly (once per 4-6 weeks) under fast flowing fresh water. This removes dust, strengthens the stems and keeps pests off. Smaller plants can be rinsed in a kitchen or laundry sink. Larger plants can be showered! Try to rinse tops and undersides of the foliage. This task is easy and cheap - and is the most important “chore” required for happy indoor plants.For the cold climate gardener, houseplants have a special benefit: they are symbols of hope. Keeping some living, vital greenery around through the long haul of winter has a potent buoying effect, reminding us that summer can and will return. With expectations like that, it is no wonder people feel miserable when houseplants suffer. This article offers 5 easy, all organic strategies to keep houseplants thriving.

2. Repot using a quality, composty soil. Healthy soil will allow your plants to uptake nutrients according to their needs, as opposed to your plant care schedule (or lack of one!). Many studies have demonstrated that compost based organic soils also provide protection against disease and pests, and facilitate sturdy growth. Houseplants can be top-dressed with compost once or twice through winter, or fertilized monthly with a liquid compost fertilizer.

3. Pinch back growing tips regularly. Leafy plants such as Mints should be cut back up to 50% every 4-6 weeks. On woody plants such as Rosemary, focus on pruning just the stem tips. Dead head the blooms on flowering plants, cutting back the flowering stalk where leafy growth starts. Always use sharp scissors and prune at the intersections of stems and leafy growth (internodes).

4. Avoid hot dry air. Deflect the flow of air from heat vents away from your plants. Place a pebble tray under the pots (1” of small rocks set on the saucer that the pot sits on) - this will create extra humidity right around your plants, and once set up there is nothing to remember to do! You can find attractive pebbles at craft and pet shops. Dry air is the number one challenge for indoor plants.

5. Space your plants out. While dry air is a problem, insufficient air flow can also be a concern. If growing many plants under lights (or grouped near that one great south window!) set up a small fan to keep air circulating. This will reduce the chance of disease and has been proven to promote stronger, healthier stems.

In addition to the the above recommendations, keep in mind that there is a spectrum of “ease of care” for indoor plants. Some, such as succulents can go weeks without water and tolerate a variety of light conditions. These are truly neglect-able! Others require attention 1-2 times per week - a good deep watering and a little pruning to keep them vigorous in the short day season. Choose plants that suit your lifestyle, and match plant care requirements to your growing environment.

As a general rule, most indoor plants appreciate a contrast between spring/summer and fall/winter care. Over winter, water less frequently and reduce fertilizing by 50% or more (especially when using a rich composty soil). Plants from zones 5-9 appreciate cooler windows, such as bay windows, patio doors or foyer windows. Zones 10 -Tropical always appreciate warmer locations.

Finally, use grow lights (T5 & full spectrum CFL’s are inexpensive, easy to set up and don’t require a lot of room) if you are interested in keeping up the productivity on edibles. This is the only way to grow annual herbs such as basil, cilantro and dill (start fresh seeds for these in fall). Woody perennial herbs such as thyme and oregano can be brought in from the summer garden; again, these will be much more productive under lights. Indeed, even tomatoes and other summer veggies can be produced under lights through winter, so let your creativity and imagination guide your indoor gardening dreams. 

© 1996 - 2015 Dave Hanson, Sage Garden

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