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Houseplant How-To | Winter 2015 Out Here Magazine

By T.L. Dew

The days draw shorter and colder but a gardener’s passion for growing does not dim during the winter season.

In fact, tending a healthy crop of houseplants may be just the diversion you need to keep your thumb green, but growing plants indoors can be tricky.

Begin by choosing a disease-free, bug-free plant that can adapt to the conditions in your house, says Lisa Rayburn, an extension agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service in Onslow County.

“We always encourage people to pick the plant that suits the environment they have,’’ Rayburn says.

For example, houses that are heavily air conditioned or heated are typically dry and pose a challenge for growing tropical plants. Tropical plants adapt better to an area that has high relative humidity in the air, but a dry house, however, is a good place to grow cactus.

“For the new plant owners, it is a matter of finding what is the best room in the house that may provide the best conditions that plant is looking for,” Rayburn says.

Plants needing a lot of light should be placed within 4 feet of a large window that faces south, east, or west, Rayburn says. For medium light, stay within 4-8 feet of a south, east, or west window. Every couple days give the pot a quarter turn to evenly distribute the light; otherwise the plant will bend toward the light.

As a general rule, the diameter of the pot should be about one-third of the height of the plant from the soil to the top of the foliage.

Avoid buying a pot without a hole in the bottom unless you plan to drill the hole yourself because the water should move through the soil and drip out the bottom.

When you buy a pot with a saucer underneath it, never leave water standing in the saucer. Tip it out, Rayburn says.

“Anytime the root ball of the plant has standing water you develop a saturated zone in the bottom of the pot and that leads to root rot and plant stress,” Rayburn says.

Also, misting plants is not effective. In fact, it can lead to plant disease.

If you are trying to raise the relative humidity near plants, cluster the potted plants together on a table so their canopies create a microclimate. To increase relative humidity put saucers of water around the plants, but not under them.

Determining how often to water depends on the plant, the pot, the growing conditions, time of year, and the overall environment, Rayburn says.

Plants getting more light and higher intensity light need more water than plants receiving less light during shorter days.

Meaning, you should water more in the spring and summer and less in the winter. The same goes for fertilizing houseplants.

Rayburn sees a lot of people make the mistake of overwatering their plants and using too much fertilizer.

Plants require fertilizer during active growth periods, primarily in the spring, summer and fall, but not as much during winter months.

“Normally, the label is going to tell you to apply X amount of fertilizer monthly,” she says. “You are safe to divide that and apply half or even a third on the label rate.”

If the plants are fast-growing, they may need to be repotted annually. Other plants may need repotting every two or three years.

When repotting, use clean potting mix. Do not use soil from your garden.

“Your garden soil is not high performance enough to keep it alive,” she says.

And, finally, to improve your chances of enjoying healthy plants all winter long, Rayburn recommends three of the easiest plants to maintain: pothos, snake plant, and spider plant.

“Those are three you will see surviving,” she says, “even in college dorm rooms.”