Saturday, May 7, 2011


I will be the first to admit that I have far more enthusiasm for plants than knowledge. My mother has always surrounded herself with house plants, and her mother did the same. So in every apartment I've had, I've always kept at least a couple of plants. Some have thrived, and some I've killed. Fairbanks is certainly the most difficult place I've ever tried to keep plants, even houseplants.
I'm also the unofficial "plant person" at work. We have lots and lots of plants around the library, and I'm the caretaker. So I've got a lot of plants which, through trial and error, I've been keeping alive for a while now. And I figured I should share some of what I've learned since so many people I know complain that they won't keep plants because they kill them.
1.Figure out the light source for your plants. For most houseplants, a south-facing window is best. The library is north-facing, but this seems to work out well enough for the plants in the wintertime because the windows are big, and the artificial lights are on for enough of the day that they get enough light. There are even plants in rooms on campus below ground, so it's possible to keep plants alive without any natural light.
2.It's much easier to over-water than to under-water plants. I've come up with a system of counting seconds for how long I water each plant at the library so that they don't get too much--the violets get 5-6 seconds, Elmer the tree gets 15 seconds, etc--and we only water them once a week. When plants are over-watered, the leaves get yellow before they shrivel and die. If a plant is under watered, the leaves start to wilt before they shrivel and die. Also, the plant might kill off part of a leaf rather than the whole leaf so parts will get brown while the rest looks healthy.
3.When in doubt, under-water. It's much easier to save a plant at the wilted stage than it is to save one that's got yellowed leaves. Actually, with one vine plant at home, I let it get slightly wilted before I water it because it seems to prefer that.
4.Plants need far less water in the winter. Even indoors they have natural cycles and those need to be respected. If you're even slightly observant, the plants will let you know when they need more water because of new growth. Even then, start giving them a bit more water slowly. With my counting, I generally only add one more second of time to each plant and observe it for a week. If it needs a bit more water next time, it'll let me know.
5.Rotate the plants. They all naturally start leaning toward the light (outside, time lapses show that plants will follow the direction of the sun) and houseplants are in danger of permanently tilting to one side if you leave them in any direction for too long. So rotate them once in a while. This will also help them grow stronger, since they have to change direction and that takes a bit more root stability.
6.Breathe on your plants. I took a botany class years ago and the professor said that this actually works. Like rotating plants, a little bit of wind helps them grow stronger. Also, the carbon dioxide from your breath is, obviously, what makes them grow. I don't talk to the plants, but I do blow on them when I'm watering them, and when I'm pulling off dead leaves.
7.When you water, observe the plant. Some plants love to get misted and have a bit of moisture on their leaves. Others, like violets and squash, hate water on the leaves and will actually get weird diseases and spots if the leaves get watered too much. But there's a very simple test for which plants like water on the leaves: if it balls up and rolls off the leaves, that plant doesn't like having water on its leaves. Those plants are best to water from the bottom up if possible. For the violets at work, they're all in plastic trays so I pour the water into those rather than the pots. The violets suck the water up the way they would from the ground.
8.Start small, and start with something easy. Don't get an orchid for your first plant, because they are notoriously difficult! Get something like chives, which are both an herb and a weed. In a lot of places, they'll take over your yard. And they don't mind shade, so if you don't have a very sunny place to put them, they'll do all right out of direct sunlight. Peppermint is another good one. Again, planted outside it will take over your yard and requires very little effort as a houseplant. If you prefer flowers, I've never gone wrong with violets and they're quite pretty. Mine has even endured a rather vigorous chewing by a curious kitten, and then being knocked off the table. (Thankfully, he now leaves the plants alone.) But the plant put out flowers several weeks later, to my amazement. It's a hardy little thing. Christmas cacti are another good flowering plant. Just don't make the mistake my friend did--he said, "It's a cactus, it doesn't need to be watered every month." I got to it too late, he'd already killed it. They are succulents, and they will die if they're not watered often enough. I keep mine on the same schedule for watering as all the rest of my plants.
9.Try to get a schedule for the plants. Friday is plant watering day at work, which means that it's also watering day at home. It's much easier to remember that way (and I get a nice little break at work to do something I very much enjoy).
The symbiotic relationships between plants and living beings is very cool. Not only do they provide us with fresh oxygen, they also clean the toxins out of our houses. (If you're very concerned about that, there are lists online of the best plants to clean toxins out of the air--just google "best plants to remove toxins".) They also keep down allergens. So really, I can't think of any good reasons NOT to have plants in your home when they do so much for you.

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