By: Jessie Keith
Happy, healthy house plants do more to improve a home’s air quality, while also offering the obvious reward of green, living beauty. Plants in the home perform better with good care, from leaves to roots. Cleaning accumulated dirt and dust from leaves, feeding, trimming, proper watering, and repotting are a few small efforts that can result in big rewards. Maintenance to reduce pests and pathogens is also essential to master if healthy indoor greenspace is a goal.
House Plant Cleaning and Pest Control
Leaves quickly accumulate dirt and dust, which dulls appearance while also reducing a plant’s ability to photosynthesize and breathe. A quick foliage wipe down or wash in the sink or bathtub can make a big difference if looks and performance.
For leaf cleaning, make a very weak soap solution by adding a drop of gentle dishwashing detergent to 1 liter of warm water. Wet a soft cloth in the solution and wring until damp. Wipe the leaves down, top and bottom, while being sure not to tear or damage the tissue. Once the leaves are clean, rinse them by either repeating the process using a damp cloth dipped in just warm water or by rinsing the leaves under a sink or handheld shower head.
Broad-leaved tropical plants may also benefit from the use of commercially available leaf-shining products, which give leaves a pretty, glossy look while not clogging stomata (leaf breathing holes).
Once your leaves have been properly washed, be sure to dust them from time-to-time with a clean dust cloth. If pests, such as aphids, mealybugs, spider mites, or whiteflies, appear, the best rule of thumb is to treat them with a safe insecticidal soap while removing and disposing of the most damaged leaves and stems. Common soil-borne pests, such as shore flies and fungus gnats, can be managed by keeping the topmost soil layer dry and watering plants from the bottom rather than the top.
Feeding and Watering House Plants
Knowing an indoor plant’s seasonal water and feeding needs can really make or break growing success. Many house plants are tropical or semi-tropical, which often means they require less food and water in the winter months (when they are growing slowly) and more in summer (when they are actively growing). Succulent indoor plants, like cacti and agave, are even more extreme in their seasonal needs because too much food and water can kill them so quickly, especially in winter.
A safe method for watering non-succulent plants is to keep soil lightly moist, never wet. Always plant in containers with efficient drainage holes, choose a well-draining potting medium, and water only as needed. If a plant’s potting soil is moist to a knuckle’s depth below the surface, don’t water. House plants also grow better if you water them from the roots rather than the tops—this is of particular concern for African violets and their relatives which dislike water on their leaves.
Many opt to take indoor plants outdoors during the warm growing months. This can really improve the growth and appearance of “house plants” for the winter months. Just be sure to give them extra care outdoors. Outdoor potted plants always require more water—often daily watering until water runs from the bottom of the pot—as well as regular feeding.
Pruning and Trimming House Plants
There are three reasons your house plants would require trimming and/or foliage removal: 1) There are dead or dying stems or leaves, 2) the plant needs to be reshaped for improved appearance, or 3) the plant is overgrown and needs to be pruned for rejuvenation.
Dead or dying stems and leaves can be a result of poor light, poor fertilization or a sign of pest and/or disease problems. If growing points show poor color and growth, improved light and fertilization with a quality fertilizer may be in order, rather than removal. Dead or dying leaves should always be removed for better health and appearance.
Plants that have become overgrown or have developed undesirable growth habits can always be pruned back to adjust for size and appearance. Just be sure to take pruned stems back to a clear node or central stem. This will ensure that new growth will return
Dividing and Repotting House Plants
It’s easy to tell when a plant has outgrown its container. It will require more water, the plant may appear too large for the pot, and the root system will become dense along the bottom holes, pot edges, and topmost soil layer. Sometimes the easiest way to check is by feeling along the pots edge for roots or checking the bottom of the pot creeping roots.
Dividing and repotting plants is easy. Start by clearing an area in preparation for a messy job, have your new, appropriately sized pots on hand for transfer, and buy plenty of quality potting mix for your plant. For general growing, Fafard Professional Potting Mix or Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Mix are both great options. Succulent house plants would do better to be planted in Fafard Cactus and Succulent Potting Mix. And, African violets and their relatives always require specialty soil for best results, such as Fafard African Violet Potting Mix.
Division is appropriate for any plant that spreads laterally in the pot. During the division process, it pays to wear good, protective gloves. Start by removing the plant from the pot, doing as little damage to the root system and top as possible. Then, using a planting knife or durable serrated knife, begin cutting the rootball in half or in quarters, depending on the plant’s size, being sure that each piece has a healthy supply of roots and shoots.
Once your plant is divided, gently tease apart any roots that are densely tangled. Then begin preparing your pot. Choose an attractive container that will easily accommodate your plant. Be sure to allow a layer of 2 to 3 inches of soil on the sides and bottom to support your new plant. Gently work the soil in around the roots, and pat it down at the top, allowing two inches of space for easy watering.
These care instructions apply to most common house plants, such as easy, air-filtering tropicals like Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata ‘Bostoniensis’), Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modestum), croton (Croton spp.), dumbcane (Dieffenbachia spp.), mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Laurentii’), and rubber plant (Ficus elastica). Follow them and you and your plants will reap the rewards.
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