On our kitchen windowsill sits a small, barrel cactus with four stubby shoots that look more like fat noses. At only 3 inches tall, one might think she’s not much of a houseplant, but she’s my buddy. She keeps watch as I chop veggies, make smoothies and wash dishes.
Why am I talking about a little cactus plant? Since mid-March, most of us have been living an isolated existence, mostly in our homes. So I thought it was high time to feature houseplants.
It’s been quite an up and down year, thanks mostly to COVID-19. If you’d like add a little joy to your life, adopt a houseplant or two. Plants are not only attractive, they are good for our health: We breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, right? Well, plants do the opposite: breathe in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. This is a win-win relationship.
As for our mental health, our brains are wired to respond positively to the color green. Studies show that scenes containing green and blue remind us of nature — which means walking at Fossil Beach, in Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park, or in your own neighborhood is an important part of self-care.
By the same token, bringing a touch of green inside — a fern, spider plant or Christmas cactus — gives you something to dote on, besides cleaning your fridge for the nth time. (If you haven’t cleaned out your garage yet, what are you waiting for, a pandemic?)
Indoor plants also improve concentration and productivity by some 15%, and reduce stress levels. Who doesn’t want that? Fortunately, keeping a houseplant healthy and happy is easy, even if you’ve never raised a plant before. Plants grow best when we pay attention to them. Fortunately, the needs of plants are fairly simple: When you offer the right amount of light, water and food, you can’t go wrong. Here are a three houseplant basics:
LIGHT MY WAY
All plants need light, but the amount varies, depending on where the plant originally came from. For example, indoor plants native to the jungle have evolved to thrive on the filtered light that sifts through the dense forest canopy.
On the other hand, desert plants, such as my kitchen buddy, are sun-worshippers. In their natural world, cacti are bathed in direct sunlight all day long, so they are engineered to tolerate sunny conditions.
So try your best to match the light conditions in your home to the plants that will thrive there. Unobstructed, south-facing windows are perfect for desert dwellers, but not so great for light-sensitive plants such as ferns, philodendrons, and orchids. In bright light, these plants may develop scorched leaves.
Generally speaking, windows facing east and west receive partial sun and work well for plants such as dieffenbachia (dumb cane), dracaena (dragon tree) and ficus (fig tree).
Darker locations that face north are best for low-light plants such as snake plant, English ivy, cast iron plant and ferns.
Of course, as seasons change, you might need to modify the light a plant receives by moving them to a different window, by installing shear curtains to reduce sunlight or by adding fluorescent lights. This is especially during our winters when day length dwindles. Here’s how to assess whether a plant is getting too much or too little light.
Too little light: The plant dramatically leans toward the light. The lower and/or interior leaves on the plants simply fall off, or leaves curl upward. New growth is much smaller than original leaves and may have less color. Plants grow spindly with elongated stems. Flowering plants stop producing blooms.
Too much light: The plant develops brown or sunburned spots on its leaves. Leaves begin to yellow and fall off. Plants with colorful foliage will begin to fade. The entire plant looks scorched.
All plants require water, but again, it depends on the plant. Desert natives can get by with minimal moisture, while some tropical plants wilt dramatically if they go without water for just a couple days. Species that prefer dry conditions such as sansevieria (snake plants), pony-tail palm, cactus, succulents and ZZ plant (Zanzibar gem).
Pots also affect soil moisture. Terra cotta pots, for example, are porous and allow soil moisture to evaporate, while the soil in plastic pots dries out more slowly.
Water whenever the soil feels dry to the touch. Apply lukewarm water until it runs out of the drainage holes of the pot. Then, allow the soil to dry before you water again. Overwatering is probably the number one cause of early houseplant death.
Signs of too much water: Stems rot where they touch the soil. Fungus grows on the soil surface. Water stands in the drip tray. Young and old leaves fall off at the same time.
Signs of too little water: Leaves and stems wilt and shrivel. Lower leaves curl and yellow. Some leaves become translucent. Flowers or leaves drop prematurely.
Many store-bought houseplants are potted in soil that contains slow-release fertilizer. Eventually, you’ll need to feed your houseplants in one of three ways:
1. Sprinkle a dry, slow-release houseplant fertilizer over the surface of the soil.
2. Add a dilute solution of liquid houseplant fertilizer every time you water.
3. Water with a very dilute solution of compost tea (organic method).
Two excellent books about houseplants:
“How Not to Kill Your Houseplant: Survival Tips for the Horticulturally Challenged,” by Veronica Peerless, and “How to Houseplant: A Beginner’s Guide to Making and Keeping Plant Friends,” by Heather Rodino.
Indoor plants are enjoying a spike in popularity. With COVID-19 creating so much anxiety, some doctors are literally prescribing houseplants.
A lot of studies also suggest that taking care of plants can reduce feelings of loneliness and depression — something that is prevalent right now. Caring for plants provides a sense of purpose for many people, Plus, it’s rewarding to see the plant you’ve cared for thrive. Besides, plants don’t care if you’re having a bad hair day.
Though my cactus buddy in the kitchen might have something to say about that.