THE INDOOR GARDENER : Tips on Keeping Houseplants Healthy, Happy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Rapp is a Los Angeles free-lance writer who, as "Mr. Mother Earth," has written several best-selling books on indoor gardening

Houseplants make a beautiful, and inexpensive, decorative accent, adding color and warmth to virtually any room in your home or apartment. Not only that, houseplants help purify the air round you, adding a health benefit as well. And the best news is: Anybody can grow houseplants. You are just as capable of having a lush, verdant indoor "plant-ation" as a certified botanist, as long as you're willing to devote the barest amount of time to seeing that your plants get the proper amount of light, water, humidity, food and love.

Here are 26 tips that I guarantee will help keep your houseplants happy and healthy for years to come:

BUYING A PLANT

1--Be sure you buy an indoor plant. Over the past couple of hundred years, professional horticulturists and just plain plant fanciers have discovered and isolated, mostly through trial and error, the plants that will thrive in a pot in your house or apartment. The best way to ensure the plant you buy is a certified "indoor plant" is to shop at a reputable nursery, garden center or flower shop where you can put your trust in the staff. Plants sold at supermarkets and discount stores are most likely indoor plants, especially if they're potted in clay or terra-cotta containers.

2--If you travel a lot or if you're just too busy to devote a lot of time to plant care, stick to a hassle-free plant. Among the best are philodendron, pothos, Chinese evergreen, dracaena, cactus, spathiphyllum, palms, ficus, dieffenbachia or sanseveiria. These plants need only northern or eastern sunlight, water when their soil is dry, a weekly misting and a monthly feeding. Flowering plants, delicate, fern-like plants and plants with gaudy foliage usually will not survive indoors without ideal growing conditions and lots of TLC.

3--Know the name of the plant you're buying and what kind of growing conditions it requires. For instance, there are only a few plants that will do well in dark corners, such as those listed above. If you haven't got a bright sunny spot, stay away from flowering plants and plants with colorful leaves. Tell your plant purveyor about the light conditions where you want to put your plant. He or she will advise you which plants will be best suited to those conditions.

PROPER WATERING

4--Be a cautious waterer--don't overdo it. More plants die from overwatering than any other cause. A good general rule is water your plants only when their soil is dry to the touch.

5--Water your plants with water at room temperature. Water that's too hot or too cold can shock the plant's delicate root system.

6--Cover the top of the soil with a thin layer of purified charcoal. This will filter out any impurities in the water and will help freshen the air.

7--Make sure there is a drainage hole in the bottom of your plant's container. If you want to repot a plant to a container with no drainage hole, be sure to put a layer of pebbles on the bottom of the container to collect excess water before adding potting mix. Wet roots rot and the plant will die.

8--Transplant your plants from plastic to terra-cotta pots. The terra-cotta, or clay, pots are porous and they "breathe," ensuring more oxygen for the roots and allowing excess water to escape, thus helping to avoid overwatering.

KEEP UP THE HUMIDITY

9--If possible, keep an inexpensive humidifier in every room where you have lots of plants. Dry heat in winter and air conditioning in summer rob much of the humidity from our houses and apartments, and tropical plants need humidity to ensure maximum health. Come to think of it, so do we.

10--Spray your plants with a fine mist of water every day. A daily misting helps keep them clean and will go a long way toward preventing brown tips.

11--For extra humidity, group your plants together if it's aesthetically pleasing. Plants "transpire," giving off humidity for each other to absorb.

12--Keep your plants on a "dry well." This can be a saucer or tray filled first with pebbles and then with water. The water will evaporate upward and keep the humidity level higher around the plant. You'll have to add water to the well a couple of times a week.

KEEP YOUR PLANTS WELL FED

13--Feed your plants regularly. Use a good liquid houseplant food once a week during the spring and summer and once a month during the fall and winter.

14--Don't feed your plants "table scraps." Some plants might benefit from coffee grounds, egg shells, etc., but others will suffer, so it's best to stick to the commercial houseplant foods.

15--Never feed a sick plant. No matter what the plant may be suffering from--overwatering, underwatering, not enough light, not enough humidity, whatever--while nursing it back to health don't add any chemical matter to the soil. This can weaken the already struggling root system.

GENERAL TIPS

16--Rotate your plants so that each side gets equal exposure to the sun. This keeps the plants from leaning in one direction or another.

17--Keep your plants clean. Don't polish the leaves with oil or mayonnaise--this clogs the breathing cells and may kill the plant. Simply sponge the leaves with a solution of one part dish-soap to 20 parts water and then spray off with clear water.

18--Water your African violets from below. Watering them directly into the soil can rot the crown. Instead, as soon as the soil begins to dry out, place your violet in about an inch of water in a saucer or bowl. The violet will "drink" the water through the holes in the bottom of the pot. It's a good idea to add a couple of drops of liquid plant food to the water.

19--To get poinsettias to "re-bloom": Prune them back when the red bracts (flowers) fall off in late winter or early spring, nurture them in a bright spot through spring and summer, then starting in mid-October give them 12 hours of darkness (as in a closet) every night for about 8 weeks until the red bracts reappear.

20--During the summer, take your more temperamental plants outside and put them in a sheltered, shady spot. There they'll experience ideal growing conditions for a couple of months. They may have a little trouble readjusting when you bring them back indoors, but they'll benefit from the vacation.

21--Check your plants regularly for pests--mealybug, scale, aphids, whitefly, etc. Keep a bottle of organic insecticidal soap on hand. Early detection is your best hope to control the pests.

22--Use only store-bought, sterilized potting mix for your houseplants. Garden soil is too thick. Houseplants need a nice, airy soil, and who knows what pests lurk in ordinary loam?

23--Prune or cut back your hanging and vining plants frequently. This process encourages new and bushier growth. Creeping Charley and wandering Jew are among the more common plants that should be cut back as soon as they begin to turn brown and straggly.

24--If your plant just sits there doing nothing, and you want it to grow, repot it. Transplanting is a much-feared operation, but there's no need to be afraid. Just get a new pot two inches larger in diameter than the old one; fill it halfway with fresh potting mix; remove the plant from its old pot and set it in the new one; add soil until the plant is snug in the new pot; water thoroughly.

25--Rake the top of your plants' soil every couple of months with a fork or the little indoor gardening tool made for that purpose. Aerating the soil in this manner keeps the soil loose and prevents it from caking. Plants need air to get to the root system to do their best.

26--Play music for your plants and talk to them. Don't scoff. I knew a botanist who did an experiment: He put three sets of identical plants into three separate rooms with identical growing conditions. In the first room he played only rock music and the plants thrived; in the second room he played only classical music and the plants thrived. In the third room he played only the news and the plants died.

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