February 13, 2008  
Houseplants Deserve a Valentine

Loving care of your houseplants will reward you with radiant blossoms, shiny healthy foliage, and beautiful, luxuriant growth. They deserve a valentine at least once a year. More is better, here.  

This is a time of year when your houseplants would really appreciate a little extra attention. I assume they’ve been inside since before the first frost of the fall/winter season, that is, if they had the pleasure of summering out of doors.

  Repotting line

    As days begin to lengthen noticeably, check your houseplants to see which needs repotting. This is an important step in their care. The object is to separate the root or soil ball from the pot as neatly as possible. Holding the pot firmly in one hand and straddling the main stem between the middle and ring fingers of the other hand and inverting the pot usually accomplish this. The entire soil mass should slide out into the hand straddling the stem. A hint or two here might make this task easier: Tap the sides of the pot gently, rap the rim sharply against a table, or insert a very thin bladed knife and run it around the edge of the pot. If the soil at the surface is especially loose, you might also cover it with a sheet of paper or aluminum foil to keep it together.

    Once in your hand, look closely at the root mass and see if it is twisting or twirling around the base or growing out of the drainage hole. Either case indicates the plants roots are seeking more room to grow and will benefit from a larger pot. Select a new pot that is one size larger, usually a pot whose diameter is an inch or two wider. Too large a pot and your plant will spend most of its upcoming future growing roots rather than providing healthy top growth.

    Good sterile potting soil and a shallow layer of drainage material at the bottom of the pot are essential. I like to add a piece of screen or mesh over the drainage hole to keep soil from washing out of it. Top the drainage material with a layer of the fresh soil, tease out the twisting roots and insert the root/soil mass, press gently into the awaiting soil, then add potting mix into the sides of the pot and gently tamp down. Try to keep the soil firmly tamped down and the level of the top of the root ball at the same level as it was in the old container. This way new roots will form and grow into the awaiting soil and not hit air pockets, which can dry them out and cause damage to the plant. Transplanting or examining root masses from large pots can be easier if two people work together.

    All of your plants may not need repotting, but you will have already given them their first Valentine’s Day hug and kiss.

  Cleaning line

    Take each plant from its usual location to a table again, and spend a few minutes with each, one on one. Remove any dead, dying or withered leaves with a sharp cutting tool or a clean razor blade. If you need, put on the magnifiers and examine each plant carefully for dust. Dust interferes with photosynthesis and transpiration; dust serves as a matrix for certain insect pests and it might hide their presence. A spray bottle of warm water with a teaspoon of mild soap added to it works wonders at dislodging many of these and cleans the plant, too. Don’t forget the undersides of the leaves.

    Smooth leaved plants can be wiped with a damp cloth or sponge. They can even be rinsed in a gentle shower of tepid water. To do this, simply encase the plant’s pot in a plastic bag and use a twist tie or piece of string to secure it around the stem. This will keep the soil from washing out of the pot or splashing around. Wipe the leaves dry immediately if you have hard water to prevent mineral spots.

    Plants with fuzzy (hirsute) leaves like African violets or piggyback plants should not be subjected to getting wet indoors. Use a soft dry cloth or soft brush to clean the leaves while gently supporting them from beneath. Turn the leaves over to clean the undersides. There. You’ve just shown your houseplants that more than the floor or furniture needs an occasional cleaning. Valentine hugs and kisses again. Your plants will reward you in return with their own gifts of affection.

  Inspection for Pests line

    Plants back again on the table for the one on one. Close inspection using the magnifiers if necessary. There are five small animal pests that you need to be watchful for. All of them are imported into the house from outside. They might come from your own back yard, or a local nursery or shop. They are easily brought inside if you aren’t very diligent. The five are aphid, scale, whitefly, mealy bug and spider mite. I mentioned above that dust might camouflage the presence of some of these. Spider mites leave a very fine web that can easily be mistaken for dust, especially if the leaves are dusty to begin with. All of these five will take advantage of the dust by using it to hide. They are there to suck juices from your plants and survive and propagate. Close examination and frequent cleanings and showers can arrest the spread of plant feeding pests. Get to know what these pests look like and the best ways to control them. Stopping insect feeding damage and eradicating future threats are powerful valentine hugs and kisses.

  Fertilizing line

    My guess is that some of your houseplants are showing new growth. Any that are now actively waking from the short days of winter and putting out signs of increasing vigor, I would suggest fertilizing. Use half the recommended strength once a month. By May you can progress to full strength and follow fertilizer label directions. Another valentine hug and kiss for your loved ones.

  Propagation line

    Tall or leggy houseplants like Dracaena (dragon tree, corn plant), Dieffenbachia (dumb cane), and Ficus elastica (rubber plant), for example, can be shortened and brought down to more manageable size after a period of air layering. This propagation technique that will provide a new plant after a few months where each pruning cut will take place. New plants? Who doesn’t want a new plant? For neighbor, friend or valentine.

  and Finally line

    Your other treasured companions may be longing for more company. They are social, you know. None of them grows in isolation. If you have the space, it’s a wonderful idea to increase their numbers by beginning to root cuttings of your favorites. The increase in humidity in the general vicinity, what with all of them giving off moisture to evaporation, will be appreciated and help their performance as well.

  Happy Valentine’s Day

From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on February 13, 2008

© 2008 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.