Houseplant rehab

March is a good time to assess location and care

Trowel-Error-MAR17

Houseplants decrease our stress levels, bring greenery and hope into our space, scrub toxins from the air and generally liven up the place. They deserve some TLC in return.

March is the time to start fertilizing houseplants again, especially as new growth appears. As always, remove spent blooms and dead leaves to keep the plant looking fresh and encourage it to grow and/or bloom.

It’s also a good time to take a good look at all of your indoor plants to assess what they might need as spring draws near.

Location, location, location: How well are your plants faring where they’ve been sitting all winter? Are they getting enough light? Are they getting blasted with cold air every time you let the dog out or in? Are they in the path of hot, dry air from a heat register? If they’re in a window, are they getting a draft, or are their leaves touching a cold windowpane? Few of us have unlimited space for houseplants (or anything else), but there is probably room for reshuffling if you have a plant in your kitchen window that really might be happier under the grow light in the den. And that kitchen window space might be perfect for the plant you couldn’t resist and just brought home.

Watch for watering woes: Overwatering, leading to root rot, is the leading cause of plant death. The general rule is, if the soil feels dry ¼ to ½ inch below the surface, if the container itself feels lightweight and if it sounds hollow when you tap on it, it probably could use a drink. Water the soil until the water runs out the drainage hole(s) of the pot, but never let the plant sit in water. Some plants benefit from a humidity tray, which basically means the container sits on (not in) gravel with water regularly added to the gravel. I water most of my plants weekly, but I have a couple of aloe plants that don’t need water that often and a money tree that gets watered twice a week. It depends on the plant variety, the container (clay is more forgiving of overwatering than plastic) and, of course, drainage. (If you have a plant in one of those beautiful containers with no drainage holes, see the info below on repotting.)

Pest patrol: Do you see anything crawling on the leaves or soil? Any bumps or webbing? Gently tap the plant over a piece of white paper and see if anything icky falls off. An affirmative answer to any of the above indicates the need for insecticidal soap. Get a variety made for houseplants, or you can find recipes from reliable online sources using things like olive oil, baking soda and dish soap.

Then, of course, is the question: To repot, or not?

Some plant varieties like to be a little pot-bound. Or they hate being repotted. Or both. Other plants outgrow their containers and readily move on. In any case, the new pot should be no more than 2 inches bigger in diameter than the old pot so that the roots don’t have to reach far for water and nutrients. (After all, said roots have just been plunked into a new pot with new soil and may be a little disoriented. Wouldn’t you be?)

Even if space or size is not a factor, a plant might need a bit of freshening up. I did this last spring with two crotons, both grown as cuttings from a plant my dad gave me just before he died in 1994. One of the plants was sadly listing to starboard. The other looked fine but had begun emitting a mushroomy smell when watered, warning me of a fungus. I carefully removed both from their pots, loosened the roots and cleared away any chunked-up soil, then re-settled them in the same containers with fresh soil mixed with peat and perlite to improve drainage. When transplant shock set in a few days later, and both plants drooped horribly, I panicked . . . but they both perked up and were their usual stalwart selves within two or three weeks.

Repotting is best done (some say it should only be done) between April 15 and July 15 in order to reduce transplant shock and give the plant time to grow new roots before fall. So you might want to wait a few weeks for this phase of Operation Houseplant Rehab.

I would also wait until early June, or until nighttime temperatures remain above 60, before moving any houseplants outside. They’re probably just as eager for spring as you are, but they’re tropical beings and haven’t been toughened by weeks of dodging snowplows and shuffling across icy parking lots as you have. Go ahead and baby your plants – the returns are big.

First appeared in the March 2017 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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