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Deep Roots

With attention and care, houseplants can thrive for years and become as comforting as old friends.


When Judith Handelsman visits her mother in New York, she sees another family member--a ficus she saved from the trash more than 25 years ago. The Laguna Beach author and lecturer has fond memories of the plant, which she said helped her through a difficult period in her life.

"At the time, I lived in New York City, but really wanted to live in the country," said Handelsman, who is author of "Growing Myself: A Spiritual Journey Through Gardening" (Plume, 1997, $10.95).

"I put the tree in my house, where it took up one-third of the living room, hung a hammock underneath and encircled the area with small plants," she said. "Even though it was snowing outside, I would sit in the hammock in my little paradise."

It was in the hammock underneath her ficus that Handelsman came to terms with a failing marriage and an eventual difficult divorce.

"I was in the process of a lot of grieving and confusion--it was like my life had blown up in my face," she said. "I would lie there under the hammock, swing and be quiet, and the tree really became a companion for me. Under the ficus, I felt safe and nurtured. I might have been taking care of the ficus, but it was also taking care of me. My goal is to someday move it to my home in Southern California and plant it in my yard."

Though we may not think about it, houseplants can become an integral part of a home. And some serve as a constant reminder of happy or even difficult times.

Florist Pat Gosnell has only good memories of the peace lily she bought 10 years ago.

"It's like an old friend," said Gosnell, who runs Regal Flowers in Orange. "I feel like it's done a lot for me all these years by cleaning the air and faithfully producing pretty white flowers."

Though she bought the plant originally for the living room, Gosnell moved it into her bedroom where it stands today at 3 1/2 feet tall and 3 feet wide.

She admits she has neglected to water it on occasion, but said her peace lily is understanding and always readily springs back.

"If I've forgotten to water it, I just leave it in a container with a half-inch of water all day. It drinks as much as it wants and perks right up," she said. "When I get home, I pour the excess water out."

Laguna Beach gardener Lawrence Walters has had a schefflera since 1976. He feels such a connection with the plant that he intuitively knows when to water and feed it.

"The plant is like a dear friend to me," he said. "I've lived throughout Long Beach and Laguna Beach and have carried it with me to many homes. It gets a very special honored place in every house I live in."

Since Walters bought the schefflera, it has quadrupled in size and he's had to repot it three times.

Getting plants to thrive for years is not that difficult, said Handelsman. "We tend not to give plants the same respect we give animals, but they're living, growing beings as well. They just need some care. Plants respond well to attention and intention."

Most important: Find a

place where the plant likes the light exposure. A plant is happy in a location if the existing growth is strong and not damaged or yellow, and there is new, healthy-looking, green growth.

If you can't find a bright enough area in your home, add supplemental lighting. But don't give plants too much light. Most will cook in bright sunlight coming through glass, especially from a western or southern exposure. Protect plants that sit near windows by hanging blinds, shutters or sheer curtains.

Proper watering is another key. Few actions lead to a plant's demise faster than dehydration or drowning. Most plants like to dry out somewhat before being watered again, but there are a few that prefer constant moisture. Check the watering requirements of each plant.

Moisture meters are useful for determining when a plant needs a drink. Pay attention, and you'll eventually know when the plant is thirsty by looking at it.

Houseplants grow best when given a light dose of fertilizer regularly. Liquid fertilizers often work well because you can keep them next to the sink and easily add them to the watering can.

Many plants will grow in the same pot for years, but repotting often makes them thrive. Depending on how root-bound the plant is, put it in a container that is 2 to 4 inches larger than the one it's in. Repotting is best done in spring, although many plants also do well when repotted in fall.

* "Growing Myself: A Spiritual Journey Through Gardening" (Plume, $10.95) and "The Spiritual Gardening" audio teaching tapes ($18.95), both by Judith Handelsman, are available through Sounds True, (800) 333-9185.

* Regal Flowers, 658 N. Tustin, Orange, (714) 532-2518.

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