Categorized | Opinion

Let’s talk houseplants

By Margie Densford

Houseplants

Houseplants

My definition of a ‘houseplant’ is a plant that lives inside twelve months out of the year. The other part-time residents I call tropicals, because these over-winter inside and go back outside when temperatures heat up. Having plants in your home can do everything from make you healthier to lift your spirits. Many houseplants will happily flourish in whatever environment your house has to offer. All you have to do is match your preferences with their needs.

Since we spend half if not more of our lives indoors, we should take whatever measures possible to make it a healthy space. As part of the photosynthesis process plants absorb carbon dioxide, which we emit and then as a bonus they also give off fresh oxygen, which we breathe. So just having a few plants inside will increase the oxygen level. They also add moisture to the air. I found that plants put out 97% of the moisture they take in back in the air. Houseplants are also on duty removing the bulk of the pollutants in our home atmosphere. Dry air and toxins are not good for our beauty regiments, ladies!

Now as far as making us happy and healthy, Kansas State University’s research showed that surgical patients with plants in their rooms recovered quicker than those patients with no plants. Now that’s scientific! I’d venture to say it raised their spirits, too, but that’s just my opinion. I know I always smile when I go by a plant with a new sprout or bloom. Ok so I might even say, “Well, hello there.” It’s always a pleasant surprise.

I also discovered in a study by The Royal College of Agriculture in England that students taught in classrooms with plants showed more attentiveness and even better attendance rates than those without. It’s funny, but the longer I taught school the more plants I brought into the classroom. My last year at Lucy Elementary I had a room full of plants. I must say those students were the best kids I’d ever had the privilege of teaching…even if I did say that every year.

Before you purchase any houseplant, do your homework, so you’ll know what a healthy specimen of your desired plant should look like. Look for roots that are white and not coming out of the pot. Check under the leaves for any white speck that could be insects or their eggs, and also examine the plant for spider webbing which can also indicate infestation. Bug-ridden or diseased plants are like a virus and could spread to all your other healthy plants. If you do get home and discover insects on your plant, just wash it from top to bottom and under the leaves with a little soapy dishwater (1 part Joy to 9 parts warm water). This is where an ounce of prevention comes in handy.

As far as my track record, I wasn’t always successful growing plants in my house until I discovered the right plants for the right rooms. For a dark corner of my living room I got a ZZ plant or Zamioculcas zamiifolia I saw growing quite well in a school conference room with no natural light and very little attention. I’m not exaggerating when I say you can’t kill this plant. It has survived for several years while being extremely neglected from time to time. Another extremely low maintenance houseplant is the lucky bamboo or Dracaena sanderiana. Besides also tolerating low light it grows in water. Now that’s what I call easy care. A couple of plants that trail in pots or hanging baskets and do well in artificial light only are the spider plant and pothos. They both come in a variegated variety, which will lighten up a dark corner of any room.

Rooms with lots of windows lend themselves to flowering, easy-care plants like begonias, geraniums, African violets, oxalis and the larger anthurium and peace lily. Don’t forget the many varieties of cactus that thrive in bright, warm light. All of these plants are forgiving and will usually bounce back if neglected for a short time.

Plants talk to us through their leaves, blooms, and roots. The leaves seem to become limp and pale when they’re thirsty. Blooms and new growth will become scarce and sometime mal-formed or smaller when they need fertilizer or repotting. Root-bound plants usually have their roots growing out of the bottom of its container and put out distorted growth or no growth at all. Sometimes when you repot these plants it looks like the roots have absorbed all the soil and all that is left in the pot are roots.

I try to stay on a schedule and check and water where needed every Monday. Again, you must know your plants and their moisture and nutrition requirements. Some like their soil to stay consistently moist while others like to dry out completely between watering. Watering too often or not enough can be disastrous.

Some plants do better with only half-strength amounts of liquid fertilizer, so again, do some research. I fertilize with a balanced fertilizer every couple of weeks and taper off during the winter months to let the plants rest. Three numbers are listed on the package of all fertilizers like 7-7-7. They refer to the percentage of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the fertilizer. Nitrogen promotes green, leafy growth, phosphorus encourages flowering and root growth, and potassium is necessary for stem strength and stress tolerance. In general, foliage houseplants appreciate fertilizers high in nitrogen while flowering plants respond best to those with higher phosphorus. I must confess, however, before I retired and had less time I used fertilizer spikes that only had to be replaced every 6 months or so.

If I want a plant to continue to grow, I repot it usually in the spring. If, on the other hand, it’s as big as I can accommodate, I leave it in the same pot and sometimes just trim the roots.

Not only do you need to match plants to their atmosphere but maintenance to the amount of time you can dedicate to it. Plants represent living, growing if not colorful gifts our creator has given us to enjoy. I decorate my home with houseplants as some people use decorative bowl, antiques or other chotskies. Take an inventory of your time, space and light, then make a wish-list, do some research, and choose a good balance.

January garden tips:

1. Work on your vegetable garden plan and remember to rotate your plants from last year.

2. Look through seed catalogues and online sites for heat and drought tolerant plants as well as disease and mildew resistant ones.

3. Sharpen and oil garden tools.

4. Feed birds suet, nuts, and fruit along with birdseed. Black oil sunflower seeds have the most calories and help keep the birds warm.

5. Place an electric deicer in at least one of your birdbaths.

Garden opportunities:

•Jan. 9 (Wed. 12 p.m.)  Brown Bag Lunch & Learn-Pruning Basics with certified arborist Chris O’Bryan at Memphis Botanic Garden.

•Jan. 10, 17, 31, Feb. 14 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) Small Garden Design Classes with Tom Pellett at Memphis Botanic Garden-MBG members $75 /non-members $100-Pre-payment due Jan.7.

•Jan. 19 and 26 (10 a.m.-12 p.m.) Dixon Design Series-Gardening School with Dale Skaggs. Registration required- $40 Dixon members/$50 non-members.

Margie Densford is a Master Gardener, a member of the Millington City Beautiful Commission, and a member of The Garden Club of Rosemark, a member of the National and Tennessee Federation of Garden Clubs.

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