House plants require right conditions, perfect place

You can find house plants almost anywhere ... in public buildings, in tiny pots on windowsills, in impressive indoor gardens in office buildings, in inviting displays in garden stores and perhaps even in your home.

While the charm of houseplants may be universal, millions die needlessly every year. If this has been your experience, don't assume it is because you lack a green thumb. More likely, it is because the plant is not in the right place or in the right conditions.

Although many plants thrive on loving neglect, they do need some care, and each variety has its own particular requirements. Conditions that one plant likes will kill another. Learning about your plant and its special needs will help you achieve success.

One of the most important factors for a houseplant to thrive is the right light. Plants vary quite a lot in this. For example, when I lived in Seattle and had my African violets in a west-facing window, they loved it — I had 20 varieties blooming at the same time. But in the Rogue Valley I have had to come to terms with the fact that my house does not have the right conditions for African violets — so they have all been put up for adoption to homes with windows that provide the proper light. I now have plants that like lower levels of light, such as philodendrons, sanseveria, pathos and dracaena.

While overwatering undoubtedly kills more houseplants than anything else, we often neglect to consider humidity levels. Not only is the Rogue Valley a rather arid place, central heating in winter makes it even worse. Most plants would be happy living in the moist air of a brightly lit laundry room. But because that isn't a practical solution, we can find other ways to provide humidity.

Grouping plants together helps keep the air moist around the leaves. Setting a glass of water in the group helps provide humidity, too. Another technique is to put the pots on a tray of pebbles. Keep the pebbles moist, and let the evaporation process make your plants healthy.

For large pots, double-potting helps. By this I mean putting the pot holding the plant inside of another (perhaps decorative) pot, and fill the space between with moss or pebbles, which are kept moist. Utilize space in the kitchen or bathroom — two of the most humid areas of the house — if you can provide enough light there.

Another tip for keeping your plants happy is to remember to re-pot them every year or two. They will respond well to the fresh soil, and it gives you a chance to inspect the roots to see whether your plant is becoming root-bound. Trimming the roots is energizing to most plants; however, do not use this technique on succulents or cacti.

Growers of houseplants often forget that houseplants need a rest period, just like plants growing outdoors. This rest period is often from November through February. During this time, give no fertilizer and cut back on the light and water. Then, in February, re-pot your plants, and they will be ready for another season of growth.

The tips given here are general and will not apply to every plant you have. I strongly encourage you to learn more about your plant, and the ideal conditions for it, and come as close as you can to providing them.

Three books I have found to be very useful are Sunset's "House Plants," "The Essential Guide to House Plants," by George Seddon, and "The House Plant Expert," by Dr. D.G. Hessayon.

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at

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