What’s Up With My Houseplant?

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Troubleshooting common problems in the off season

Images of houseplants abound on social media outlets today. We’re encouraged to have conservatory corners, living walls and plants hanging from our ceilings en masse. But achieving that indoor green look is sometimes easier said than done. To help you succeed, we’ve compiled a list of the top mistakes plant lovers of all skill levels often make.

Bad Lighting
This may be the number one issue plant collectors face. Every plant has to be grown in the right location in your home or it is a waste of time and money. Low light means no direct light should reach your plant. A low-light plant has to live a few feet away from a direct light source and can survive in mostly artificial light. A high light plant needs at least three hours of direct sun daily.

A Too-Small Pot
New plants should be transplanted into fresh pots that are at least two inches larger than their current pot’s diameter. It’s also a good idea to repot with new potting soil. If the plant hasn’t had proper care then problems are less likely to develop with a root and leaf washing and new soil. A pot with a drainage hole is best. Cover the drainage hole with a stone to prevent soil from washing out the bottom. When your plant starts to look top heavy or there is no more room in the pot, you need to transplant it again. As a rule, transplant in spring when the growing season is beginning again.

Improper Watering
Most folks have a tendency to overwater house plants, especially in the winter. It’s a good schedule to check on your plants weekly by using your finger. If the soil feels damp to your touch an inch deep into the pot, you are probably fine and can skip the chore this week. If it’s dry to the touch, time to water. Don’t attempt to trick your plant by leaving water in the saucer for it to water itself later. Plants sitting in water often get rotten roots. Also, to know how much to water, it’s helpful to know where your plant originated. For example, a tropical plant will be used to drowning rains with periods of dry spells but desert plants—such as cacti, succulents and euphorbias—need less water.

Lack of Nourishment
If you don’t transplant your plant and give it new potting soil regularly, you can be sure it will need some supplemental feeding. Grow sticks are easy; just add to the pot and they are time-released. I use a small amount of compost (one cup per 18-inch diameter pot) on top of my houseplants just like my garden plants. Concentrated liquid fertilizers are an easy choice and go a long way. I also have found my fiddle leaf fig performs much better on a weekly diluted concentrated fig food.

Overlooking Pests
Mealybugs, whiteflies and spider mites are the most common intruders. Mealybugs look fuzzy and leave a shiny sap on the surface of the plant. Whiteflies fly around the plant when you disturb it. Both mealybugs and whiteflies can be treated by washing the plant thoroughly with an insecticidal soap—either homemade (4 cups of water, 1 tsp of dish soap) or store bought. Wash all parts of the plant in the shower, from the tops and bottom of leaves to the stems and stalks. It wouldn’t hurt to get new potting soil as that could also be infested. Spider mites make a web and will quickly kill a plant. If you have a particularly bad pest problem, neem oil is effective, but I would be cautious using it inside and it has an unpleasant odor.

Misting the Wrong Plants
There is no cookie cutter answer here so again, do your research. Tropical houseplants may love misting. If you have a fern in your master bathroom and it gets misted when you shower, adding more mist may be overkill and it may suffer from rot. Plants with fuzzy leaves, such as African violets, hate misting. The incredibly popular fiddle leaf fig also is not a misting fan. Neither is your jade plant.

Not Enough Humidity
Leaf curling, yellowing and brown edges on leaves can all indicate a lack-of-humidity problem. How can you fix this if your plant isn’t a mist lover? Make a humidity tray! Place a saucer or baking sheet filled with stones and water underneath your struggling plant. As the water evaporates into the air the plant receives additional humidity. Just like we get drier skin in winter your plants may like a humidifier in the room too. Grouping your plants for display in your home also increases humidity levels as the plants transpire into the air.

Temperature Trouble
Move your houseplants away from large windows and doors that are not only cold to the touch but also drafty. Also keep them away from your fireplace and heat vents. You may find you need to move your plants to a different room of your house to help keep them well. During the winter, wipe their leaves top and bottom with a damp paper towel if they get dusty. This will help them photosynthesize better in that season’s lower light.

Forgetting to Share
When you really get the passionate about plants, you’ll want to have more of them! A lot of house plants should be divided when transplanting. Some sprout easily from cuttings placed in water, such as Swedish ivy (Plectranthus australis), for example. Others like to be stuck into continuously damp soil to grow new roots. Do the research and figure out what your plants need. You’ll know you are a bona fide plant lady (or gentleman) when you have house plants you are propagating and caring for on every surface possible in your home as well as sharing “plant babies” with your friends.

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