Caring for Your Indoor Garden
By “Awake!” correspondent in New Zealand
THE beauty of a well-tended garden with its flaming colors and cool green contrasts is appreciated by people the world over. For today’s millions of city dwellers, however, the pleasure of growing things is likely to be limited to indoor plants. Even many outdoor gardeners, when autumn’s chill approaches, begin to look around their homes and plan an indoor garden to brighten the gray winter months.
“But what plants will grow best in my home?” you may ask. Well, that will depend primarily on what atmospheric conditions—light, temperature and humidity—your home offers. Proper soil, sufficient water and adequate feeding also are important, but these can be varied to suit the plants chosen. Fresh air, too, is important, although most plants must be protected from cold drafts if they are to prosper.
The origin of each plant will tell you much about how to deal with it. For instance, ferns grow in cool shady forests. Thus they can do well in the home even where sunlight is limited. Cacti thrive in hot, arid deserts, and so will survive even though temperatures rise and the air becomes very dry in the home.
The well-being of plants is dependent upon their receiving a proper amount of light. As a general rule flowering plants need much more light than do foliage plants. Insufficient light will cause plants to grow leggy, have weak stems and pale leaves, with few or no flowers.
Do you have in mind a north window for your garden? In such places where light is at a minimum, you might consider growing ivy or peperomia. For a touch of color you could add an African violet or two, but be careful to keep the leaves from touching the cold windowpane.
Other foliage plants that do not require a great deal of light include: bromeliads, Chinese evergreen, rubber plant, snake plant, pothos, and any of the nearly 250 varieties of philodendron. In a bright, though not necessarily sunny location, a pot or two of begonias or impatiens set among your foliage plants will add a pleasing variety of color.
On the other hand, if you have plenty of sun, your choice widens to include almost all flowering pot plants. And what a fine display coleus and other foliage plants will make for you in a sunny location!
Proper Watering and Feeding Vital
How much and how often to water a plant depends on many factors, including the size and type of plant, the soil, room temperature and humidity. Even the kind of pot in which the plant is growing is a factor. Frequently people give their plants too much water. This can kill them just as surely as will lack of water.
The simplest and most reliable way to tell if your plants need water is to poke your finger into the topsoil a half inch or so. If it feels dry, apply water generously, but do not let the pot stand in the excess. On the other hand, do not wait until the leaves become limp before watering, since by this time the plant has been weakened.
Proper drainage will lessen the danger of overwatering. To facilitate drainage, pots should have a layer of gravel or stones in their bottoms or adequate drainage holes. If they do not, the soil becomes waterlogged, the roots decay and the plants die. So make sure that the plants have good drainage, and water them only when they show need of it.
Here are some general tips: Flowering plants and those in peak growing condition need more frequent watering than do dormant ones. Plants with thin leaves generally must be watered more often than those with tough leathery leaves. Plants growing in a hot, dry room will need more watering than those in a cool room. Also, sandy soil dries out faster, and thus plants grown in it generally need to be watered more often than do those in clay soil or soil with humus. It is a good practice to loosen the topsoil frequently to aerate it.
Your plants need not only water but food as well. A complete fertilizer suitable most house plants includes nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. Commercial house-plant fertilizers contain a formula of these elements. Flowering plants should have fertilizer added as they start to bloom, and both plants in bloom and foliage plants usually do well on twice-a-month feedings. However, feeding should cease as the plants enter their dormant or rest period. And always remember to water plants before fertilizer is added, to prevent burning the tiny feeder roots.
Right Temperature and Humidity
Room temperatures that are comfortable for you will be suitable for most house plants. A few require cooler conditions than we ordinarily find in our modern heated homes, but this requirement should be determined before you purchase your plants. Humidity, on the other hand, may present a problem, especially during the winter months when heated rooms approach desertlike conditions. Both flowering and foliage plants do best when the humidity is around 50 percent or higher. Plants tend to shed their leaves when there is not enough moisture in the air around them.
One way to provide the humidity that your plants need so much is to fill a shallow tray with pebbles, add water, and then set your pots in the tray on top of the pebbles. The additional humidity that this will provide in heated rooms not only will be healthful for your plants but no doubt will benefit you and your family also. A weekly spraying with tepid water, too, will add humidity and will keep your plants’ leaves clean as well.
Prevention is your first line of defense against plant diseases and pests. Keeping plant leaves clean can aid in preventing plant disease.
Although most house-plant insects are too small to be seen, their presence is noted by the damage they do. Aphids and mites cause malformation or yellow patches on the tops of leaves. If this should occur to your plants, isolate diseased ones until you are sure that the problem has been eliminated.
If you suspect that insects are troubling your shiny-leafed plants, a good washing will often eliminate both the adult insects and their eggs. An easy and effective way to wash such a plant is to cover the top of the soil with paper. Then with your fingers straddling the stem to prevent the soil from falling out, tip the plant over and swish the entire plant in lukewarm soapy water. Rinse and set in a dim place until the leaves dry.
In advanced cases of infection a commercial spray may be needed. An aerosol pesticide is easy to use, but be sure to study the container label and follow directions closely. Spraying is wisely done out of doors. But the main thing is to prevent disease by keeping your plants healthy.
As your plants grow and prosper, the time will come when repotting will probably need to be considered. Actually flowering plants bloom best when the roots are rather pot-bound. But it is time to repot if the roots have started to grow out of the bottom of the pot and have formed a solid ball of roots. Large, well-established plants may need repotting about every second year, while rapid-growing young plants should be checked more often.
Choose a pot only a size or two larger than the old one. Either clay or plastic pots are suitable. In the event you desire to reuse a pot be sure that you wash it first. Hot sudsy water and a stiff brush will remove old soil and algae that may contain disease.
As for the soil to use, the condition or texture of potting soil usually demands greater consideration than its richness or nutrient content. For proper soil texture, a mixture of one-half loam, one-fourth sand and one-fourth peat moss or humus will satisfy most house-plant needs. Outdoor garden loam is generally too heavy for indoor plants.
Before repotting you will have to remove the plant from its old pot. It is best to do this when the soil is moist to avoid damaging the roots. A good way to get the plant out of its pot is to hold your hand on the soil, with the plant’s stem between your fingers. Then turn the pot upside down and give the bottom of the pot a sharp knock. If the soil is moist. the entire root system should come out easily.
The following is a good procedure in repotting: First, cover the bottom of the new pot with a few large pieces of broken pot or pebbles. This will provide good drainage. Add a layer of potting soil. Then place the root ball of your plant on this layer and fill up around it with more soil. Press it down firmly and water well to settle the soil around the roots.
An effective way to water a newly potted plant is to immerse the pot up to its rim in a bucket of water. The water will enter the bottom of the pot through the drainage hole and will seep up through the soil. When the topsoil is moist you can be sure that the plant is properly watered. Set the newly potted plant in a shady spot for two or three days before returning it to your indoor garden.
Propagating New Plants
There are many ways of starting new plants, such as by cuttings or slips, divisions, air layering, and, of course, seeds. The best time for taking cuttings is when the plant shows strong growth. Snip off a three- to five-inch piece from the tip of the plant. Then remove the bottom two or three leaves from the cutting, and place it in the rooting medium.
Cuttings of philodendrons, begonias, coleuses and many other soft-stemmed plants root easily in water alone. In most cases, however, plants root better in a plant medium such as peat moss or sand, or a mixture of both. Perlite and vermiculite are also excellent rooting mediums as they hold water well and are disease-free if a fresh batch is used each time.
Cuttings from woody-stemmed plants often need a little encouragement to root, and this may be supplied by means of a rooting hormone. Dip your cutting in water, then in the hormone powder, and tap the cutting to remove any excess powder. Next, poke a hole in your rooting medium to avoid scraping off the powder when placing the cutting in the soil. Finally, place the pot in a bright area, but not in the direct sun. To speed up the rooting you might try covering the cutting, pot and all, with plastic material. The idea is to hold humidity in, forming greenhouse conditions as nearly as possible.
Leaf cuttings of the wax begonia and gloxinia can be made in the following way: Make slits or cuts in the veins of the leaf in three or four places. Then lay the leaf on moist sand, with the cut side down. Next, peg the leaf down with toothpicks or small stones, and insert the stem of the leaf in the sand. New plants should arise from the cut areas.
A very successful method of propagating such plants as snake plants, bromeliads and African violets is by what is called plant divisions. This method involves separating crowns or side plantlets from the parent plant. This can be done by carefully working a sharp knife down between the main plant and plantlet, removing the plantlet with its root system intact. Then pot this new plant in good soil, water well and set it in a shady spot for a few days before adding it to your indoor garden.
Yet another method, called air layering, is most useful in producing new plants from some hardy plants, such as the rubber plant, that tend to lose their bottom leaves and present a leggy, unattractive appearance. This is what you can do:
Cut a notch in the stem, and fasten a wooden splint to brace the weakened stem. Then wrap the cut portion of the stem with moss that has been soaked in water and squeezed to remove excess moisture. Now cover the entire ball of moss with a piece of plastic, securing it at top and bottom, perhaps by a rubber band or thin wire. In time roots will develop in the moss; you will be able to see them through the plastic. When the moss is filled with roots, sever the plant just below the new root system, and pot it. It should be remembered that all newly rooted plants should be pampered along with extra moisture, less light and higher humidity until they take hold.
An indoor garden can reward one in many ways. There is the constant drama of opening buds, unfolding leaves and growth of new plants. But whether you have few or many, the success of your house plants depends to some extent on the care that you give them.