Caring for Houseplants

hand steadying a houseplant

You don't need a large yard to grow plants—in fact, you don't need a yard at all. Houseplants add life and ambiance that cannot be equaled by any other home furnishing.

Just like your landscape plants, your indoor plants need a little TLC as well.

Houseplants will do fine if the temperature is between 65 and 75 degrees. Plants left in temperatures lower than 50 degrees for a long period of time may suffer permanent damage. Keep plants away from hot or cold spots, such as the television and heating or cooling vents.

Houseplant Containers

Just as there are countless houseplants, there are plenty of container types. The standard choices are plastic or clay pots, ceramic planters, or baskets with plastic liners. Plastic pots are often the most economical, while glazed ceramic pots and metal urns can give an upscale look. Some plants, like African violets, can be grown in special pots that provide constant moisture to the plant’s roots.

Be sure your container provides adequate drainage. You can easily drill drainage holes or use a plastic liner pot inside of a decorative pot. Be sure to use plant saucers to protect furniture from any overflow when you water, but never let your plant sit in water. Finally, don’t overlook creative containers like galvanized buckets, decorative tins, and even tea cups.

Hanging Baskets

Looking for an easy way to brighten up your home? Hanging baskets add color and interest, and bring plants to eye level. There are many types of hanging containers available, including lined wire baskets, plastic containers, and even terracotta pots. For your hanging baskets, use a well-drained media and water as needed. Baskets outside will require more frequent watering.

Your plant choices are practically endless. Cascading plants are used most often, but can be combined with other plants, expanding your options. Narrow-leaved bromeliads or ferns are good choices. Bright, cheery annuals like trailing vinca and ivy geraniums do well in the sun, while coleus, wax begonias, and impatiens prefer the shade.

Lighting

Indoor plants don’t always get as much light as they’d like, and plant lights can be an easy way to help them out. Incandescent and fluorescent bulbs alone aren’t a great source of light for plants. Plants need light in both red and blue wavelengths to grow properly, and there are different options to provide this combination. Using incandescent and fluorescent lights together is one choice. Or you can purchase special grow lights that provide the necessary wavelengths. To mimic the sun, light your plants during the day, rather than at night. Keep them an appropriate distance from whatever kind of light of your choosing. And remember to keep your lights clean—a layer of dust can really reduce their effectiveness.

Learn more by reading "How to Build a Plant Lighting System."

Plants That Grow in Low Light

If you don't want to invest in extra lighting, there are several plants that require very little light, making them perfect for those gloomy corners of your home that could use a little greenery.

Medium-light plants like the African violet and Boston fern do well indoors near a window. Low-light plants such as philodendrons thrive on very little natural light or even on artificial light. Other great low-light options include Chinese evergreen, cast-iron plant, golden pothos, and peace lily.

These plants are low maintenance and easy to grow. Of course, light is not the only need plants have, so don't just stick yours in a corner and forget about it. Water your indoor plants when the soil is dry to the touch—it'll be less often than you think.

Watering and Fertilizing

How you water and fertilize your houseplants depends on a lot of factors, including the container type and plant species. With most plants, it’s best to let the upper inch of soil dry between waterings.

When your plant does need water, make sure to water it thoroughly. Apply room-temperature water until it runs out of the bottom of the pot. Be sure not to let the pot stand in water.

Most indoor plants grow fairly slowly, so they won’t require much fertilizer. Fertilize them every few months with a complete fertilizer. You can buy it in many forms—just follow the label instructions.

Salt Build-up

Salts are naturally found in fertilizers, potting mixes, and even tap water. An accumulation of salts from chemically "softened" water can cause damage. Over time, salts can build up and leave crusty white deposits on the soil surface or on the pots. But more importantly, excess salts can create toxic conditions in the soil, damaging roots, causing the leaf tips to turn brown, or even causing the plant to die.

To be completely safe, it's best to use bottled drinking water to avoid salt build-up. If you do use tap water, prevent salt build-up by drenching your plants periodically. Take the plants to the sink or bathtub and add water to the potting mix until it comes out the bottom of the pot. This will help leach some of the salts from the potting mix. Or you can repot your plants in fresh potting mix.

Repotting Your Houseplants

When actively growing houseplants outgrow their containers, it's time for repotting.

You'll need some sterile potting mix and a pot or container that's a few inches larger than the old one. Slide the plant out of its old pot and inspect the roots. If they're tangled or circling, use your fingers to loosen them. Put some potting mix in the bottom of the new pot, and position the plant so that the soil line is one inch below the edge. Add more potting mix around the rootball, pressing lightly on the soil to eliminate any large air pockets. Finally, water the plant well.

Plants that aren't rootbound can also benefit from repotting. Just use the original container instead of a larger one, and swap out the old potting media for fresh.

You can see the process, step by step, in our photo tutorial on Flickr: How to Repot Indoor Plants.

Pest Control

Even when plants are kept inside, diseases and insects can affect them. When you purchase plants, carefully examine them to be sure they're free of pests. After bringing a plant home, isolate it for at least a month before placing it with other plants.

Every now and again, take your indoor plants outside and spray them with a forceful stream of room-temperature water, making sure you spray under the leaves. This action will remove many insects before they have a chance to become established on your plants.

Many indoor insect pest problems can be controlled with insecticidal soap products, available from your local garden center. Make sure you properly identify the problem before you attempt a control. Many disease and insect problems can sometimes be easy to confuse.

Bathing

Along with other items in your house, indoor plants get dusty, too. Giving your houseplants a gentle bath not only keeps them attractive, it also removes aphids and other pests. Regular, weekly cleanings will control pests. Plants with hairy leaves like African violets shouldn't get wet, while the foliage of most other houseplants can be wiped with a moist soft cloth.

Caring for Houseplants While Away

Potted plant on windowsillWhen you travel for vacation or a business trip, it's nice to have someone check on your plants every few days.

But even if you can't find a plant-sitter, you can still be worry-free when you leave town. There are self-watering wicks, which go into a container of water on one end, and into the soil of the plant on the other, drawing up as much water as your plant needs. There are also fully automated watering systems, although these may be expensive.

You can create a greenhouse effect, by placing a plastic bag over the plant, helping it retain moisture. Just be sure the plastic doesn't touch the plant, and keep it out of direct light. If you're going to be gone for a while, you can put the plant, container and all, outside in the ground. Add mulch to help conserve water.