Now that gardening is focused on the indoor garden, it’s time to take a look at your houseplants and see if they need any help to be their best this winter. Houseplants can help give us joy and hope of greener times when winter is just too dreary. They can also purify the air in the house, which is crucial this time of year when we don’t get fresh air through open windows. Since they do so much for us, here are some tips and benefits to give them the best treatment:
Room to Grow: The growth of plants can be stunted if they are in a small container. The roots will fill up the pot and have nowhere to go, and as a result the plant doesn’t grow very much and if it’s a flowering plant it may stop flowering. By just going up to a slightly larger pot (about 2″ wider in diameter) the roots have room to move and the plant will, as a result, start to get larger. Below you can see an example of this. These two Madagascar palms were the same size about a month ago. The one to the left was put in a larger pot and in a month it has almost doubled in size while the one to the right has pretty much stayed the same. A general rule of thumb is to transplant your plants once a year, though there are some slower growing plants such as cactus that may be able to go several years between transplants.
Babies! We all love babies, especially plant babies! Many houseplants can be divided to make multiple plants which can be placed in other areas of the home or given to friends or family. Every year we encounter at least one houseplant that had been divided and given to a family member that they’ve had for many years, sometimes 30-40 years! It’s a very special gift to receive from someone and people cherish these plants. I personally was given a spider plant on my wedding day that had come from a friend’s plant that had been given to her on her wedding day about 30 years earlier! It is a very special gift that I treasure. The other benefit of dividing houseplants is that there comes a point where you just can’t handle putting the plant in a larger, heavier pot. Dividing them allows them to stay in the same pot or even a smaller one.
Disease Prevention: A common problem with houseplants is over-watering which leads to disease and root rot. This can occur in a few ways, the most obvious is that the plant is being watered too frequently. However, it can also occur because the soil that was used to plant the pot is not a potting soil but a soil meant to be in the ground. These types of soil, compost or loam don’t allow water to drain and instead hold onto the water too long, which can cause root rot. Another common problem is having a pot with no drainage. In this case the water just sits in the pot and in the soil so even if you aren’t watering frequently, the plant can be over watered. A common occurrence when a plant is being over watered is that it will start to exhibit signs that we commonly associate with under watering (such as wilting) which of course leads to giving the plant MORE water. This can happen when the roots rot and are no longer feeding water to the plant. When transplanting a plant you can look at roots, get rid of any waterlogged or diseased soil, trim back any roots that have rotted and then get the roots into some fresh soil.
Increased Nutrition: Roots have the job of finding water and nutrients for a plant. After being in the same soil for awhile, the roots will have depleted all of the nutrients in the soil. Additionally, the root system can get so large that it displaces the soil so you are left with just a knot of roots (check out the photo below). Even if you’re fertilizing, with no soil to hold onto the fertilizer, the plant isn’t getting the benefit of it and as a result can develop nutritional deficiencies. Another benefit to transplanting these days is that there are many new organic potting soils that have come onto the market that are enhanced with soil additives such as bat guano, earthworm castings and beneficial microbes that add a tremendous amount of nutrition while still keeping the soil light and airy enough for containers (such as this soil from Fox Farm). This type of soil give plants a more complete nutrition that will add to the health and well being of the plant.
Better and less frequent watering: As mentioned above and seen in the photo, the roots of a plant can essentially take over the pot so little to no soil is left which is what we refer to as being root bound. As a result, when you water, the water runs right through the container since there is no soil to absorb it. The plant then needs to be watered quite frequently in order to keep it alive. A few ways to tell if your plant is root bound is if you start to see the roots above the edge of the pot or coming out the drainage hole, you have to water very frequently or the plant’s growth has been stunted or the plant isn’t flowering. Giving the plant some new space filled with fresh soil will help you reduce the amount you’ll need to water, plus the roots will be able to do their job to seek out and absorb the water and nutrients it needs.