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Getting the Inside Story on Houseplants


Magazines, books and television promote the glory of outdoor gardening, but, hey, what about houseplants?

For many green thumbs with little or no outside space, indoor gardening is the only way to show their true colors.

Most people have at least one indoor plant, with the popularity of houseplants surging in recent years, says Gary Matsuoka, president of Laguna Hills Nursery in Lake Forest.

"We're selling a lot more houseplants than ever before," he says. "I think there's two reasons for this: Growers are finally introducing some exciting varieties, and newer houses have higher ceilings and a lot more light than older homes, which makes growing houseplants much easier."

Newer homes also tend to have less outdoor space.

Marceil McDaniel began growing houseplants, such as ficus, draceana and peace lily, when she moved into her Orange condo a year ago.

"I thought I would create a gorgeous plant oasis on my deck outside, but it's so small and noisy out there that I decided to decorate my indoors with plants," she says.

Besides beautifying the indoors, houseplants do the critical task of cleaning indoor air, says Patricia Gosnell, owner of Regal Flowers in Orange.

"One of my favorite plants is peace lily [spathiphyllum]," she says. "Not only is it beautiful, it's at the top of the list of plants that do a good job recycling carbon dioxide and removing other harmful chemicals from the air."

Other good choices for cleaning air, which were discovered by NASA during research designed to create a breathable environment for lunar moon bases, include: Boston fern, ficus alii, Draceana 'Janet Craig,' Draceana fragrans 'Massangeana,' rubber plant, bamboo palm and umbrella plant.


To raise thriving indoor plants, keep the following suggestions in mind:

* Lighting. Houseplants must have the right amount of light to grow well. In general they require bright light, but not direct sun, which will usually burn plant leaves.

Some plants can take less sun than others. It's important to know how much sun each plant needs.

* Water. "One of the biggest mistakes people make is to over water their houseplants or let them sit in water," says Gosnell.

"Most houseplants should be watered no more than once a week and allowed to completely drain before you put them back in their saucers or pots. If they're allowed to sit in water, root rot will set in and they'll die," she says.

Gosnell suggests watering plants in plastic pots by submerging them in water until the top of the plant stops bubbling. Then remove and drain thoroughly in a sink or bathtub.

After watering garden baskets, carefully tip them over and drain excess water. With large plants that can't be moved easily, use a turkey baster to remove excess water that remains in the saucer.

* Soil. After awhile your houseplant soil will get a buildup of harmful salts found in the water. Rinse salt from the soil by placing your plants in the rain or in your shower. Not only does this leach the soil, it also cleans the plant leaves. To avoid salt buildup in sensitive plants such as palms, use distilled water.

* Humidity. Thanks to air-conditioning and heating, indoor air is very dry, but houseplants need some humidity to do well. Provide moisture by misting plants on a daily basis with a spray bottle.

You can also provide moist conditions by placing pebbles in plant saucers and filling the saucers halfway with water. Place the plants on top of the pebbles, making sure that the water doesn't touch the bottom of the pot.

Or you can group plants, which causes them to create their own moist microclimate.

* Fertilize. Overfeeding can be dangerous because it burns roots and damages plants. It's best to feed the plants with an all-purpose, indoor water-soluble fertilizer at a reduced strength two to six times a year.

* Air circulation. Open a nearby window to give them air, but don't subject plants to drafts or place them in front of air-conditioning or heating vents.

* Outdoors. When the weather is mild, take plants outdoors for a time, which can invigorate them, especially after a long, stuffy winter indoors.

Make sure to put them in an area protected from wind and sun, such as near a fence or under eaves. Some plants can even live outdoors in summer and come in for the winter like giant bird of paradise, schefflera, some palms, some ferns, ivy, kalanchoe and spider plant.

* Pests. Houseplants fall victim to a few pests, including spider mites, mealybugs, scale and aphids. These pests can do a great deal of damage in a short amount of time. At the first sign of trouble, remove affected plants and treat them with an ultra-fine horticultural oil.

* Health. Choose healthy plants in the first place. When buying houseplants, lift up the leaves and check underneath for pests.

Don't buy plants that have yellow, wilted or curling leaves.

Also avoid leggy plants, which means they haven't been exposed to enough light and are weak. And stay away from plants that are loose in their containers, which indicates root rot.

* Repotting. "The biggest mistake customers make is to take a houseplant home and transplant it into a bigger container," says Matsuoka. "Leave the plant in its original container for at least six months while it gets used to its new home. If you don't like the container, place it inside a pot of your choice."

Re-pot when a plant has become root-bound. You'll know this has happened when the roots start growing out of the bottom of the pot or when water instantly runs through.

Re-pot in a container that is no more than 2 inches larger than the original. If the pot is too large, when you water, the moisture will stay in the new soil area and leave the root ball dry.

* Pruning. Although houseplants don't need much pruning, you do need to remove yellowing leaves occasionally. Gosnell says to do so with your fingers, because metal scissors will cause the cut area to brown.

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