University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

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Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont

Are you new to houseplants?  Or do all the ones you seem to try and grow end up dead?  By following some key principles in choosing houseplants and their care, you should be able to have them live, if not thrive.

Begin with the right choice when buying plants. Pay attention to the labels when buying plants, which should indicate a plant's light needs. If you don't have much or any direct sunlight, choose plants requiring or tolerating lower light. Examples of the latter include the peace lily (nice white flowers too), Chinese evergreen, pothos vine, and snake plant. There are several selections of each of these to choose from. These also tolerate the lower humidity usually found indoors in winter.

If you really want plants with high light needs, but can't provide this, you often can make up for this with artificial lights. If room lights are on much of the day or night, this may be sufficient. Or you can buy special plant lights with just the right wavelengths plants need.

Just as good, though, is a set of fluorescent tubes you can hang in a fixture over the plants. These also are good for smaller plants such as African violets. You even can operate lights from a timer for 14-18 hours a day.  Keep them at least six inches above the highest leaves, easily done on adjustable plant stands or hanging in fixtures from chains or cord.

If you already have plants, and they are straggly, perhaps they need more light.  Just don't move a plant from no direct light right to a sunny window, as the leaves may burn (discolor, turning brown on the edges).

Houseplants usually grow better with more humidity than is normally found indoors in our dry northern winters.  Ideal for many of these tropical plants is 50 to 60 percent relative humidity. Many indoor spaces in winter struggle to get to 15 percent. Using a humidifier may bring this up to 30 percent or more. Placing plants on a tray of pebbles, kept moist, also will help. You can mist water on leaves with a sprayer, just watch out for spraying furniture, electronics and books.

Cacti and succulents (plants with fleshy leaves) often take the dry indoors fine, if you can also provide the bright light that they usually require.  Just make sure and don't overwater these.

Proper watering is the most important key to success with houseplants. Don't overwater. If in doubt, don't water. Under-watering is usually better than over-watering. But don't forget to water.  I often let my plants begin to wilt before I water.  Make sure pots have holes in the bottom for drainage. Place a saucer underneath to keep water off furniture. But make sure water doesn't stand in the saucer, which keeps the soil saturated. Leaves yellowing and falling off, or plants wilted while the soil is wet, are signs that they may be getting too much water.

Try to avoid getting water on leaves, especially those of African Violets.  Watch the temperature of your water as well.  Often in colder months, the water may come out of the tap quite cold.  Use just mildly warm or lukewarm water to avoid shocking the plant roots, possibly even causing damage to them.

Temperature usually is not an issue, as most rooms stay warm (65-75 degrees). Just keep plants away from drafts (near doors, leaky windows) that can chill them, or away from heat sources (furnace vents, wood stoves) that can dry them out too quickly.

Don't forget to fertilize, especially if plants are growing.  I often find plants may grow more in winter, getting more light with no leaves on trees and snow to reflect the light. If you see increased growth and flowering then, fertilize.  Or, if leaves are uniformly and generally becoming yellow, they may need more fertilizer. Most indoor plant fertilizers will work, just follow label directions for use.

Finally, watch out for pests and diseases.  This begins when buying the plants, so you don't buy an unexpected problem to deal with.  Look for small dots crawling (aphids), webbing on undersides of leaves (mites), hard brown small bumps (scales), or white cottony masses (mealybugs). If you find these, take your plants to the shower with you and give them a good forceful rinse. This is probably good every couple weeks anyway, to help prevent pests, and to keep dust off the plants.

Another solution, if plants are small, is to turn them over, holding your hand on the soil to keep it and plant in the pot. Then swish the leaves around in a pail or sink of mildly soapy water. Too strong, and the soap will take the surface off the leaves.  There are, of course, pesticides you can buy and use as well.  Just make sure and follow all label directions and precautions if using such products in homes and look for least toxic, organic or plant-based ones.

Provide the correct light for your houseplants, increase the humidity, don't forget to fertilize and check for pests, and above all, don't overwater.   Follow these steps and you'll be well on the way to having healthy houseplants.

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