Houseplant Primer

Mar 11, 2018

The challenges of caring for houseplants are often underestimated, and the successes rarely celebrated. A flower garden is easily visible to passersby, who may stop to discuss it and compliment you on your green thumb. Indoors, however, our efforts (sometimes, thankfully) go unseen.


Houseplant care can be likened to gardening in an exotic climate, one that can be deceptively inhospitable to plant life. Indoor growing conditions, such as light, humidity and temperature, are often significantly different from those outside. While this environment protects us and our plants from harsh outdoor weather, houseplants usually find it less than comfortable.


A large majority of the houseplants at nurseries are species that originated in tropical climates. As such, they prefer warm, slightly humid environments with medium to high levels of light.


Light is the most common challenge for houseplant growers. On average, indoor light is only two percent as bright as outdoor sunlight, and often less. Our eyes are astoundingly adept at adjusting to changes in light levels; plant leaves much less so. With some exceptions, houseplants want to be as close to a sunny window as possible.


Most people keep their homes within a healthy temperature range for many houseplants. Home heating and air conditioning often dries out the air, however, causing plants to lose moisture more quickly than they would in their native climates. If your plant is near a heater or drafty area, check the soil frequently for dryness.


Misting plants with a spray bottle is a common tactic to fight dehydration, yet it is not very effective. If a houseplant seems to be struggling, place it on a shallow tray of gravel filled with water. As the water evaporates, it will provide a nice aura of moisture that your plant will love. Alternately, you can run a humidifier in your home, helping all of your green friends at the same time.


Container gardening poses unique challenges, and houseplant care is no different. Houseplant soil often develops a whitish crust, the residue of salts from fertilizers and tap water. This buildup will eventually adversely affect your plant, but you can prevent it by thorough watering. Let the water flow from the bottom of the pot, then discard the excess. This procedure will help flush the unwanted salts and keep your soil clean and healthy.


If you are anxious about keeping a houseplant alive, I recommend Zamioculcas, also called Zanzibar gem or ZZ plant. This houseplant is one of the easiest to care for that I have ever encountered. It has a unique appearance, resembling a tall, green feather. It grows in low light and with little water, which makes it ideal for people who have challenging home environments. The roots of these amazing plants are actually succulent rhizomes that divide within their pots, eventually creating more plants.


Another easily managed houseplant is Beaucarnea recurvata, the ponytail palm. It starts with incredibly dainty sprouts but can grow into an enormous, bulbous tree. Don't worry; the palm is very slow growing. It requires moderate to bright light but is drought tolerant. The ponytail palm grows so well that it received the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.


If you are an accomplished houseplant grower, you may be interested in a challenge. Trachyandra is not easy to find and a bit fussy to care for, but it is an excellent conversation piece. Native to Africa, this odd specimen grows from a bulb and appears as several green corkscrews sprouting from the soil. Every time I see one of these fascinating plants I am reminded of the incredible diversity and unexpected beauty of the plant world.


Indoor gardening presents some hurdles, but the rewards are many: cleaner air in your home, the feeling of nature around you, and the knowledge that you helped something grow. Napa County Master Gardeners can help you with any questions you have and help make your home verdant inside and out.


We usually source our accompanying pictures from the anonymous web.  Lately, however, we have noticed the disclaimer on every photo that it may be subject to copyright.  Thus, we have begun to tag our photos with the (source of the photo.)


Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.