Help your houseplants achieve greatness

We enjoyed a few sunny days this past week. In the late afternoons I noticed a very hopeful sign: the daylight hours are getting noticeably longer! Few things give a gardener's spirit such a huge lift. We can sense that with the lengthening days comes the rebirth of the gardening season that brings so much joy, and work. But we'll gladly endure the physical aspects of our avocation in order to reap the rewards.

It seems natural to me that as this cycle of growth begins again we look to the group of plants that has sustained much of our winter interest in gardening, our houseplants. You most likely won't be seeing many obvious changes at this time, such as new leaves growing, but be assured, they are beginning. Deep down, at the bottom of its container, your tropical foliage plant is beginning to stir. Roots are starting to lengthen and actively seek un-mined areas of nutrients within the confines of its pot. It needs this food to start producing the energy needed to break out of its winter-long doldrums and to flush out with new growth. This is perhaps the most eventful time in the life of a houseplant. It is our job as indoor gardeners to see that all is ready for our plant to achieve greatness.

Around mid-February I begin to check all our indoor plants for signs of roots protruding from the drain holes. It's amazing how many times there are new, thick, fuzzy root tips poking through. If so, I continue to the next step in determining whether the plant needs to be up-potted or if it will be happy in its present home for another season. I put my hand over the top of the pot, sliding the stem(s) of the plant between my fingers, gently turn it upside down and tap the edge of the container gently against a hard surface like a countertop, and ease the root ball out. If it is a mass of twining roots, with little or no soil visible, I am inclined to provide a new residence with more room for growth. I temper my decision by knowing which plants enjoy and benefit from being pot-bound, but I usually err on the side of going to the next-larger pot at this time of year.

The container and potting soil you choose to use will be in part determined by your knowledge of your plant's needs. Those that enjoy drying somewhat between waterings will benefit from living in porous materials like unglazed clay pots. Those that enjoy more moist environs thrive in less-permeable containers, such as plastic. Most houseplants should only be shifted to a larger pot in order to avoid the possibility that its new soil will stay too wet after watering. If your plant is in a 4-inch pot, go up to a 5-inch and save that 6-incher for next year. Very fast-growing, large plants are the exception to this rule.

A good potting soil will be pathogen-free and will drain well, yet retain moisture, and be full of the materials your plants need to thrive. Use rich, humus-laden soils for fast growers and coarser, grittier soils for your succulent collection. Tailor the soil to your plant's needs with the addition of the appropriate additives you can find at any good nursery or garden center. Sand, perlite and vermiculite are all valuable additions that will boost any general potting soil.

After an initial watering to settle your plant into its new home, it is time to add fertilizer to its environment. You can make a super fertilizer by combining fish emulsion with liquefied seaweed. This organic approach has been very successful in providing many of the nutrients missing from artificial soil mixes. There are many other suitable, pre-blended organic fertilizers that will suit specialty plants like orchids and cacti. Your plants will enjoy light, frequent feedings throughout the growing season.

Stan Mapolski, aka The Rogue Gardener, can be heard from 9-10 a.m. Saturday mornings on KMED 1440 AM and seen in periodic gardening segments for KTVL Channel 10 News. Reach him at

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