Basic Care
Once plants have settled into your home, attention to watering and a few other routine jobs keep them in good shape.
Watering. The one word to describe how to water is thoroughly. Use tepid water and supply enough so excess flows through the soil and out from the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot. But don't let the plant stand in water collected in the drip saucer for more than a few minutes. Instead, dump the water from the saucer, or if the saucer is large and awkward to maneuver, use a turkey baster to suck up water from the saucer.
How frequently you water depends on the plant and conditions in your home, including temperature and humidity. Some plants, notably ferns, do best when the soil is kept evenly moist. For other plants, such as cacti and succulents, the soil should dry thoroughly between waterings. But most houseplants fall in a third category: They do best when the soil dries slightly between waterings. With these plants, allow the soil to dry 1/2 to 2 in. below the surface before watering again. Precision is impossible here; the specific plant and the size of the container have a significant bearing on timing. Often you can tell when a plant is thirsty?the leaves lose their sheen just before they wilt.
Fertilizing. "Fertilizing falls into the less-is-more category," explains Gardner. He says people have a tendency to overfertilize plants. But too much fertilizer does more harm than good. After all, plants make their own "food," with the help of the sun. Fertilizer primarily promotes growth.
Use a fertilizer labeled for houseplants, and apply it at half strength, suggests Gardner. As a guideline, fertilize regularly in spring and summer, when plants are actively growing and can make most use of the added nutrients. Cut back in fall, when growth slows, and stop fertilizing once daylight-savings time ends. And, to prevent root burn, make sure to always moisten the soil before adding fertilizer.
Grooming. Dusting leaves does more than show off plants. "Dust buildup encourages insects, and it also filters the light that reaches leaves," says Brown. Especially in winter in northern climates, plants need all the light they can get to manufacture food. "Wash leaves individually with a soft cloth moistened with tepid water," Gardner advises. (Clean plants with feltlike leaves, such as African violets, by dusting them with a small, soft artist's paintbrush.)
Do not use commercial leaf-shine products because they create a sticky surface that collects more dust and dirt. Also, "They make the leaves appear too shiny and unnatural," Gardner says.
While you're grooming, check for insects. Mealybugs that appear as white cottony spots are apt to be your worst problem. Use insecticidal soap or, if that's not handy, daub each bug with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol. Rinse with tepid water. This same technique also works on other immobile plant pests, such as scale insects.
Spider mites, another common houseplant pest, spin fine webs on the underside of leaves. Spray them with insecticidal soap. It may take repeated applications to eliminate them.
Remember, start with plants that fit with the conditions in your home, and then provide commonsense care. Don't push your plants to grow, just enjoy them. Oh, and check your thumb?it just turned green.
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