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How to Care for Indoor Plants through the Winter

One average-size plant can help purify up to 100 cubic feet of air

As many of you are aware, plants give off oxygen while absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They are wonderful air purifiers—one average-size plant can help purify up to 100 cubic feet of air. It seems obvious that the more plants you have in your home, the cleaner your air will be. This is a better idea for those of you in the northern climates. Winter means sealing your house against the cold and drafts of the brutal winter winds. The air can get a little stale, so several, well-placed, houseplants can really help. There are, also, the psychological benefits of being surrounded by living houseplants. They can have a relaxing effect on people, and provide you a chance to keep exercising your 'green thumb'. Depending on the variety you pick, they can add to the overall décor of your home. Many plants have multi-colored leaves and some even produce flowers while indoors. Your interior environment can be aesthetically pleasing while providing a comfortable, relaxed feeling. It will require some thought on your part to choose plants that will fit the location that you select for them.

The only indestructible indoor plant is a fake one

The only indestructible indoor plant is a fake one. All others require varying degrees of care. Some that are relatively maintenance-free are Aloes, Cactus, Spider Plants, Pothos, and Dracaenas. Unless you are very experienced with indoor plants, you may wish to avoid any requiring special growing conditions such as African Violets and Orchids. All plants need light to survive. Some plants that can endure low light, such as from a north window, are Chinese Evergreens, Sansevieria (also called Snake Plant or Mother-In-Law's Tongue) and Heartleaf Philodendron. I can, personally, attest to the fact that the majority of the plants named so far will survive in extreme conditions. I sometimes think that I have conditioned my plants to survive in cave-like conditions. I am actually afraid to move them into better growing conditions for fear they may not know how to survive in the 'normal' world of light and adequate water supplies. 

Most plants that you purchase have a small tag that gives the light and watering requirements, so it is advisable to follow the directions. The Arizona Cooperative Extension Service has a good website to help pick indoor plants. A useful feature of their site is their use of common names for the plants, instead of the unpronounceable Latin names. The site has a comprehensive list of plants and the type of environment that is best suited for them to survive. Unfortunately, they don't list 'cave-like' as one of the choices, so I guess I will have to retrain my plants to allow them to live in a 'better' world. Too much or too little water is the number one factor that accounts for the majority of losses with plants – whether in the yard or in the home. This is the area where I realized that I was making several mistakes. In most potted plants, the roots are growing in the bottom 2/3 of the pot. If I were feeling guilty about the care my plants were receiving and paid serious attention to them, I would water them at least once a week. That may have been too much, as the top dries out much faster than the root zone. The best way to check is to poke your finger into the pot about 2” or up to your second knuckle. If the soil feels moist, do not water, but check again in a couple of days. If you prefer not to get your fingers dirty, there are fancy moisture meters available, but they are about $50. Personally, I would rather get my fingers a little dirty – it reminds me of working in my garden. 

Some other factors that can affect moisture loss are the type of growing medium or soil that the plant is growing in, the type of pot used, or the amount of sunlight the plant receives. If you water when the soil on top is dry, you will probably over-water the plant. When you do water, supply enough so that it runs out of the bottom – assuming the pot has a drainage hole at the bottom. It is always best to use a pot that has a drainage hole in the bottom to allow water to pass through the soil. There are two good reasons for this: to ensure the root zone receives enough water, and to allow excess salts (from fertilizers) and other minerals to pass through the soil. You should also be sure to not let the plant sit in the water that runs out. This practice allows the excess salts and other minerals, which were just washed out of the soil, to be re-absorbed. Pour off the excess water from the collection dish. If you do want to use a fancier pot that does not have a drainage hole, then place a smaller pot with a drainage hole, into the larger pot. This will allow the water to flow through the soil and allow you to use a more decorative pot. By the way, if you cannot poke your finger an inch or so into the pot, then it is either really dry or it is root-bound and should be re-potted into a larger pot.

Feed your indoor plants similar to the way you fertilize your outdoor plants.

Feeding your indoor plants is similar to the way outdoor plant and lawn fertilization works. The general rule is to fertilize every two weeks, from March to September. Let the plants rest during the winter and do not fertilize them, unless they have unique requirements that dictate feeding at this time of year. Most indoor plants are imported from the tropics and need plenty of humidity. A humidifier is a good way to increase the relative humidity for the plants. Another way to increase the relative humidity is to set the plant in a tray with a layer of gravel in which an even level of water is maintained below the top of the gravel. As the water evaporates, it will provide an increase in the relative humidity. Misting has not proven to be adequate in increasing the relative humidity for the plants, but it doesn't hurt to do it. It is better to mist the plants in the morning so they have a chance to dry before dark. This is the same reason that it is best not to water your outdoor plants or lawn at night. Many diseases perpetuate during the cool, dark hours of nighttime. Adding available moisture at that time increases the potential for disease development. Living plants definitely improve your physical and mental indoor environment. If you choose them carefully and give them a little TLC, they will provide years of enjoyment and provide you with a chance to keep your gardening skills honed.

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