4 Important Elements of Houseplant Care
Considering the natural lighting of your home is a great place to start when buying indoor plants. Each window will offer different lighting and a plant that will thrive in one window may suffer in another. Knowing the direction each window faces before you set foot in a plant shop will keep you from buying the first plant that catches your eye!
North-facing windows never see the sun’s rays and widows with obstructing views of the sky can make some rooms uninhabitable. Low light tolerant plants can survive in a room where a book can be read with the lights off. In these rooms, plants shouldn’t be placed more than four feet away from a window. If a plant is suffering from lack of light it will begin to lean towards the nearest light source, becoming leggy and unhealthy. Plants that will tolerate low light conditions include; Dracaena trifasciata “snake plant,” Zamioculcas zamiifolia “zz,” and Aglaonema “Chinese evergreen.”
East-facing windows provide mellow morning sun, while southern windows offer bright reflective light throughout the day. Chalathea, Maranta “prayer plants,” and most ferns will thrive in east-facing windows. South-facing windows are beneficial for almost all indoor plants as they provide the most reflective light throughout the day and are best for sustaining large houseplants. A great rule of thumb, when placing plants that need bright indirect light, is making sure the plant can “see the sky.”
Cacti and succulents prefer a hot west-facing window that gets plenty of afternoon sun. While this window can be great for a wide range of indoor plants, be careful not to put sensitive plants directly in the sun’s rays. Philodendrons, ferns, and other plants can scorch if they are placed directly in a west-facing window.
Feeling the soil before you water, and watering thoroughly is key! During the spring and summer your tropical plants and ferns will likely need water weekly, but be sure to always check the soil first! Check for moisture by feeling an inch down into the soil for tropical plants, a half-inch for ferns, and for cacti and succulents the soil should be completely dry all the way through before watering. If your plant is moist to the touch, refrain from watering and check it again the following week.
When you do water, water thoroughly making sure to cover the entire surface area. Water until the pot drains. You can do this twice if the plant is in a porous pot and is placed outside to drain. Pots should always have drainage and a tray to capture excess water if watered indoors. This keeps the plant’s roots from sitting in standing water which will cause rot. If you do have a pot without drainage, it is best to nest the nursery pot of the plant into the container rather than transplanting.
Pests are usually a sign that a plant is experiencing stress from lack of light or improper watering. Plants, like people, need to be in good health to ward off infections.
The most common houseplant pests include mealybugs, spider mites, fungus gnats, aphids, thrips and scale. Treatments can be very effective as long as the bugs are detected quickly. Many of these pests are extremely vigilant and are hard to defeat once they have spread.
Checking for pests weekly can save you from having to treat your entire collection of houseplants for weeks due to an undetected pest! When watering, take extra time to look the plant over for any possible infection. Knowing a few of their favorite hiding spots will give you the ability to check quickly and prevent large outbreaks. The most common forms of treatment include foliar spray and systemic mixes. It is best to use organic sprays and solutions. Systemic mixes (usually powder) can be added straight to the soil and watered in. This treatment boosts the plant’s defenses as it is absorbed through the roots and makes the plant itself lethal to unwanted guests.
Mealybug is a fuzzy white insect that leaches nutrients from the plant’s leaves, stems, and any nook and cranny it can fit itself into. Dabbing the insect with a cotton swab soaked in rubbing alcohol is the best form of topical treatment. Treat mealy every three days for nine days, and be sure to give your plant a good rinse so alcohol isn’t left on the leaves or stems. After the mealy has cleared up, be sure to check the plant for any new outbreaks over the next several weeks.
Spider mites are a lot smaller and can spread very quickly if not stopped early enough. You can usually find them hiding in small webbing on the underside of leaves, down the leaf’s center or midrib, and between petioles (where the leaf and stem meet). The infected plant should be treated twice a week for 3 to 4 weeks. These bugs can be taken care of with an organic foliar spray specifically for spider mites, or systemic treatment. This pest is common among Scheffleras and Calatheas.
Fungus gnats are tiny flies that favor damp soil. The larva of this pest is the real predator as it feeds on roots beneath the soil. To kill the larvae make sure to let the infected plant’s soil dry several inches deep. Larvae cannot survive without moisture. To get rid of the pesky files, set a small sticky trap on the surface of the soil. By allowing the soil to dry and using a sticky trap the files should dissipate in roughly 2 weeks.
Aphids normally appear on the plant’s leaves and stems. These bugs come in a variety of different colors including green, white, yellow, and black. Aphids reproduce quickly and can infest your plant within a few days. Spray these pests with insecticidal soap, or hose off the foliage until the bugs are dislodged.
Scale is a hard-bodied insect that sucks sap from the veins and stems of the plant. Due to its protective shell, this bug is relatively hard to kill. Like most pests, if caught early enough the infected plant can recover quickly. These bugs can be removed with a soft brush or by hand. Systemic treatment can aid in the defense as long as the infestation is minor. These pests are persistent, so check your plant for several weeks after removal for any new outbreak.
Thrips like fungus gnats are the most damaging to plants while in the larva phase. These larvae, however, favor the foliage of the plant. Monstera deliciosa and various philodendrons are the most susceptible, leaving the leaves blotchy and discolored. Use insecticidal soap weekly until the larvae are gone. The discoloration is permanent and any scarred leaves should be pruned.
Up-potting and fertilizing are important practices in maintaining the health and longevity of indoor plants. A plant will need to be repotted or “up-potted” when the roots have begun to press around the sides of the pot or grow out the drainage hole in the bottom. To replant, lightly tease the roots, and plant into a pot roughly two inches wider in diameter and depth to prevent root rot. Organic potting soil is great for most houseplants, but if you are replanting cacti or succulents be sure to use a well-draining cactus mix.
Fertilizing your indoor plants can make a huge difference in the spring and summer. Use an organic fertilizer with an NPK of 3-3-3 or below. Generally, cacti and succulents will not need fertilizer, but if the plant is in a bright west-facing window and the soil is drying quickly, it would be happy to receive an extra boost. You can fertilize these plants with a fertilizer specific to cacti and succulents, or further dilute the one you use for tropical plants.
Knowing these important basics will help you choose the right house plant for your living space, while giving you the confidence to care for and recognize possible health issues. While these houseplant basics will set you up for success, researching further will help you master care for specific plant varieties. We recommend checking out these additional links for more information.