It is remarkable how visceral the shift to fall can be for many of us. Change is deeply felt as daylight recedes, morphing through the orangey hues of fall and pointing towards the steely shades of winter. Although the physical and emotional experience of fall sits on a wide spectrum of possibilities, it is not uncommon to hear from gardeners that the loss of lush summer greenery is, to a certain degree, mourned at this time of the year. As a measure of counter balance, many turn to "greening" their indoor environments with houseplants. This post is all about simple strategies for loving your houseplants, and getting them to love you back!
1) Figure out your gardening style. Are you a waterer or an occasional interventionist? Are you looking for plants that mostly grow on their own, or do you thrive on tending to them? Do you go away for any extended period (10 days +) in the winter? Is a jungle your idea of an awesome indoor garden, or is it tidy and tiny succulents that inspire you? These types of questions go a long way to helping you choose plants that will work with you, rather than posing a constant challenge to your nature or circumstance.
On a related theme, it is helpful to consider what you want from your houseplants: is an edible garden a focus, or perhaps some living aromatherapy or indoor air purification. Many people look for plants to soften the indoor space or keep a green reminder that summer will be back. Others are smitten with the fundamental beauty of flowering or architectural houseplants. What ever your expectation(s) for indoor plants, rest assured that many amazing selections are available to meet your vision.
Now just be sure to add the final piece: check that what ever types of plants you are drawn to match the growing conditions available in your indoor spaces (bright light, no direct sunlight, warm, cool, dry, humid etc).
2) Container selection matters a lot. *Nearly all houseplants suffer if potted in containers missing drainage holes -- and adding rocks to the bottom of containers does not make up for a lack of drainage holes! Unfortunately there are many attractive pots without drainage; the remedy is to use a standard nursery container with drainage holes as a "slip pot" tucked inside the decorative one. You can (and should) put rocks or other free draining material between the bottom of the decor container and your slip pot to be sure excess water will not build up in the soil. *The only real exceptions to the no drainage hole requirement are plants that are watered very infrequently (every few weeks of less) such as succulents.
A couple of other quick rules of thumbs for choosing pots include going with the biggest sized container that makes sense for your plant and your space (bigger = lower maintenance for watering and feeding) and also avoiding pots that have narrow necks (hard for getting plant out if repotting) or a full coating of glaze (these do not breathe much).
3) Soil matters even more. The resources for container plants to look after themselves, as they might in-ground outdoors, are considerably reduced indoors. Everything the plant requires has to be supplied by the gardener, and is generally not self replenishing. However it is easy to get houseplants on the path to a reasonable degree of self sufficiency by using a compost based soil (which, by the way, is not at all the norm at greenhouses). Compost adds nutrients but more importantly brings soil to life with a mind-boggling array of beneficial micro organisms; these are proven to confer benefits ranging from improved drought tolerance to disease resistance (an analogy would be to pro-biotics for humans). By contrast most container mixes are completely and intentionally dead, containing only peat moss, perlite, a wetting agent and possibly soluble fertilizer.
At Sage Garden we use between 20% and 100% compost in our soil mixes, depending on the plant variety (woody herbs and succulents get less and tropicals and lush green plants get more). Our favourite compost is Sea Soil, which is made from composted fish and bark, and has a wonderful texture and excellent slow release nutrient levels. We are also currently experimenting with bison manure compost and make regular use of worm castings for plants that need an extra boost (and for seed starting). Home compost, provided it is fully cured, is a gardener's best friend - but the nutrient level is less than a fish based product such as Sea Soil.
Start using a compost based soil and your indoor (and outdoor) plants will show immediate positive changes!
4) Indoor plants miss the rain. So easy, yet so easy to put off: rinsing indoor plants with fast flowing fresh water is possibly the most useful gardening "chore" you can undertake. Fresh water removes dust that inevitably builds up on plant leaves (dust reduces plants' efficiency for photosynthesis and they also just look better post shower), and also does a tremendous job of clearing away potential soft bodied pests. To avoid a big mess when rinsing plants make a simple soil protector using cardboard or an aluminum pie plate with a slit cut in it to fit easily around the trunk (holds soil in place and avoids saturation of soil from water). If you are growing any large plants that cannot easily be moved to a sink or shower just use a soft cloth and warm soapy water. Be sure to wipe the upper and lower sides of the leaves.
Rinsing plants also creates an opportunity to do a small amount of tidying in your plant area, for example picking up fallen leaves or wiping down window ledges or even the outside and inner rim of containers. These quick and easy steps pay forward big time when it comes to avoiding pest problems - the number one chagrin when it comes to houseplants.
Most plants love having fresh water on their leaves but a few do not (African Violets for example). If in doubt, Google will help!
5) Nourishment does not take a break for winter. Old habits die hard and many of us were trained to avoid feeding plants in the winter, since soluble (chemical) fertilizers can build up salts in the soil and burn roots. As a result it is very common to hear that people completely stop feeding houseplants, especially during the winter. While it is true that many plants slow down in terms of growth through the low light months, plants still require the major nutrients nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) to flourish. A guideline for winter feeding is to use half strength half as often (unless growing under lights, in which case full strength on regular schedule is recommended). Compost based organic fertilzers are recommended, as these will never burn your plants, and provide slow release nutrients plus the pro-biotic benefits mentioned in the soil section. The easiest winter feeding option is to use Jobe's Organic spikes, which only need to be applied once every three months!
Maintaining a light feeding schedule through winter makes a noticeable and significant difference to houseplant health... which is directly related to your satisfaction. Don't miss this opportunity!
So there we have it, five really easy strategies to keep your indoor plants healthy and happy this winter. If you have any questions or comments on these ideas, feel free to use the blog comments section here, our FB site or drop the garden centre.
Dave Hanson has 20+ years experience helping local gardeners find success. He has co-developed Manitoba's only all-natural full service garden centre and had the opportunity to assist thousands of gardeners along the way. Dave has also been very active as a workshop presenter, speaker and media contributor for print and broadcast, including as the CBC Radio gardening columnist. Dave brings passion, broad experience and a personal interest in getting to the heart of your gardening questions!