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Caring for House Plants

For kids, caring for house plants is a good first step in taking responsibility for another living being ... if they are not yet responsible enough to look after a plant, don't get them a bunny!

Caring for house plants is a little bit different to caring for plants outside in the garden. The basic needs of plants are the same whether indoors or outdoors, but because indoor plants live in a completely different environment (an unnatural one!) they are completely dependent on us - their human carers - to ensure their needs are met.

So it is a good idea to know what their needs are!

Plants (like humans and animals) need the five basic needs met to survive and thrive. These needs are for water, food, warmth, air and light. The basic idea of house plant care is to ensure those needs are met more or less correctly for each individual plant.

You'll know whether you are getting it right, because the plants will begin to wilt, look somewhat sad and even die if you completely neglect some of their needs!

Let's look at these basic needs and find out how best to care for house plants.

Caring for House Plants by Providing Water

All plants need water or they will die. But more plants are killed by over-watering than by lack of water! How much water they will need depends on the time of year, the type of plant, and the environment.

How to check whether a plant needs watering:
Knock against the side of the pot with your knuckles. If it sounds hollow, water, if it sounds like a dull thud, don't water.

As a general guide:

  • Plants will need watering 1-3 times per week during the spring and summer months (the growing period) and 1-3 times per month during the winter.
  • Plants with large, fleshy leaves and succulents require less water than plants with small, thin leaves.
  • Plants in smaller pots will need watering more frequently than those in larger pots.

With a few exceptions (eg African Violet) water the house plants from the top, filling to the brim and letting the water drain through. After about half an hour, go back and empty the drip saucer or tray so that the plant is not stood in a wet puddle!

Caring for House Plants by Providing Food

For house plants adding some form of fertiliser is even more important than for garden plants. The food in the potting compost after re-potting runs out within about 2 months, which means that to care for house plants properly involves feeding them after this time.

Minerals will usually be indicated by their abbreviations as follows:
Nitrogen = N
Phosphates = P2O5
Potash = K2O

Plants will need feeding during the growing and flowering season which for most plants is March to October. And exception to this are winter flowering plants (eg the Christmas Cactus). Feeding them during the dormant stage can result in ‘forcing' them and ending up with spindly, weak growth. Plants need their beauty sleep just as much as we do!

Most feeds contain a mixture of nitrogen (needed to make leaves), phosphates (needed for making roots) and potash (needed to produce flowers). The most effective way of feeding them is to add liquid fertiliser to the water when watering.

Caring for House Plants by Providing Warmth

There is a mistaken idea that because many house plants originate from the tropics, that they will like hot room temperatures. Actually, they don't. That is, not unless they have equally high amounts of light and humidity as found in the tropics!

Plants are generally less concerned about general temperature, and more unsettled by large temperature fluctuation. Ideally house plants like to live in steady temperatures below 23C.

Ideal temperatures for proper house plant care range between 7C to 23C for most types of plants, while the more tender don't like temperatures below 15C.

Since most of our houses are centrally heated, there is a greater chance of the plants getting too hot than too cold. If you don't have double glazing, it might be an idea to move plants off the window sills at night during the winter.

Caring for House Plants by Providing Air

House plants need fresh air just like any other living organism. They will appreciate you opening the window and letting some fresh air in and accumulated fumes (eg from gas appliances or open fires) out - providing there is not too much of a draught and the temperature difference between outside and inside is not too great.

Good care of house plants also means ensuring there is sufficient moisture in the air ... excepting desert plants such as cacti! Most natural plant habitats don't include dry central heating!

The requirement for humidity in the air can be resolved by creating a micro-climate for the plant which will not impact on the rest of the room.

Ways to increase the humidity in the air around the plant include

  • keeping the plant in the bathroom or kitchen, where the air contains more moisture due to steam,
  • filling the outer container of the pot with vermiculite or similar and keeping that evenly moist (creates a micro-climate around the plant),
  • placing the plant pot on a saucer of pebbles and keeping the water level just below that of the pot.

Other ways to help satisfy the plants need for moisture around the leaves are to occasionally spray water on the leaves, wipe the leaves with a damp sponge or pop the plants outside to enjoy a bit of warm summer rain. We sometimes give our plants a nice shower with tepid water in the bath tub!

Caring for House Plants by Providing Light

Finally caring for house plants also includes providing adequate light for the type of plant. Again, different plants have different requirements, but as a general guide

Generally the darker the leaves, the less light is needed. The more colourful the plant, the more light and direct sunshine is needed.
  • Ferns can withstand the shadiest of positions - perfect for north-facing bathrooms with small windows and not much light.
  • Dark-leaved plants don't need direct sunlight and can live quite happily in north-facing rooms.
  • Plants with flowers and variegated leaves need some direct sunlight. A sunny windowsill is perfect but they may need some protection from the sun during the middle of the summer.
  • Cacti and succulents love the sun and want as much of it as they can get!

If all this sounds a bit complicated and involved, don't despair. Chances are that you are already caring for house plants in your keep perfectly well. As long as the plants seem happy and are thriving, keep doing whatever you are doing!

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