By Marissa L. Tomasic for New England Nurseries
January’s cold temperatures and short days ask us to spend more time indoors bringing opportunity to observe, plan and dream. Houseplants can be a wonderful addition to an indoor space, allowing us to enjoy living green foliage and bright colorful blooms throughout the dark winter months. Keeping plants in your home or indoor workplace not only adds living beauty to your indoor environment, but also provides many health benefits. Indoor air generally contains far more pollutants than outdoor air and these pollutants can aggravate allergies, asthma, anxiety, or even cause new illness. All plants absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen but some effectively eliminate significant amounts of benzene, formaldehyde and/or trichloroethylene from the air. The best plants for cleaning the air are Dwarf Date Palm, Areca Palm, Boston Fern, English Ivy, Spider Plant, Peace Lily, Chinese Evergreen, Bamboo Palm, Mother-In-Law’s-Tongue, Philodendron, Golden Pothos, Rubber Plant (Ficus), and Dendrobium and Phalaenopsis Orchids.
There is an undeniable mood boosting effect of being surrounded by plants. Think about the grasses, flowers and trees that surround us at a park or on a hike and how central they are to our enjoyment. NASA scientist B.C. Wolverton said it perfectly: “Since man’s existence on Earth depends upon a life support system involving an intricate relationship with plants and their associated microorganisms, it should be obvious that when he attempts to isolate himself in tightly sealed buildings away from this ecological system, problems will arise… The answer to these problems is obvious. If man is to move into closed environments, on Earth or in space, he must take along nature’s life support system.”
With a bit of guidance, you can easily and successfully keep an indoor garden in your home or office. Paying attention to light exposure, watering, and pests & diseases will give you an advantageous start for successful houseplant care. Understanding light categories can help you determine which plants will thrive in your indoor space. There are five basic categories:
Full Sun: Any location that is within 2 feet of a south-facing window that will receive 5 hours of direct sun falls into this category. Very few plants other than cacti will survive a setting like this in summer, but many plants that prefer bright light will flourish in these locations in the winter months. This includes Geranium, Poinsettia, Aloe and Cacti.
Some Direct Sun: East and west facing windows will provide bright light but less than 5 hours a day of direct sun. Some protection from summer sun is needed in these locations, but for the remainder of the year it is an ideal exposure level for many flowering and some foliage plants, such as Azalea, Begonia, Coleus, Jade Plant, Cyclamen, Fuchsia, Gardenia, Amaryllis and Christmas Cactus.
Bright Indirect Light: This category is defined as any location within 5 feet of any window that receives direct sun – exposure includes plentiful light but no direct sun. The majority of foliage plants do best in this light category, including most Ferns, most Palms, most Orchids, Peace Lily and African Violets.
Partial Shade: Several foliage plants will adapt to partial shade, defined as any location from 5 to 8 feet from a sunny window, or any area near a sunless window. Plants that are best suited for this level of light include Pothos and Philodendron.
Shade: Poorly lit areas far from windows provide adequate lighting to very few plant varieties – Chinese Evergreen and the Cast Iron Plant are among those who can survive in low light.
Of course the available light in your indoor space can always be supplemented with artificial light sources. The air purifying and beautifying attributes of plants can be especially important in a windowless office, for example, but no plant can survive without any light. Standard fluorescents produces adequate light for foliage plants if left on for 12 to 14 hours a day. Incandescent bulbs help provide the type of light plants need for flowering; however they also give off drying heat which can damage plants if the light source is close to the plant. Come by the Nursery or give us a call if you’d like additional information on artificial lighting.
Temperature and humidity also affect plant health. Avoid placing plants near radiators, drafty windows or on top of appliances. Winter air in New England is dry, and the heated air in our homes is even dryer, whereas most plants thrive at a 50% humidity level. The simplest way to provide additional humidity for plants is to place their pots in shallow trays filled with pebbles or gravel – add just enough water to the tray so the bottom of the pot is above the water line, and be sure to refill the water as it evaporates.
Dusting your plants with a damp cloth helps to keep insects at bay and also keeps leaf surfaces clear of dust so that they can photosynthesize all available light and so the pores on the leaf surfaces can “breathe”. If you notice bugs, eggs or webs on your plant while dusting, be sure to sterilize the cloth before using it on other plants – a 1:10 bleach solution or a run through the hot water cycle in a washing machine should do the trick.
Insects can be most easily controlled with a regular application of horticultural oil or insecticidal soap. Insect infestations can otherwise be addressed with a number of topical or systemic pesticides – give us call or stop by if you need a hand in addressing an insect problem. Preventative measures for insect control also include proper watering and fertilizer application. Here at the Nursery we can help you to select a fertilizer that meets the needs of your particular plant. Most houseplants that are in an active stage of growth should be fertilized every two weeks, however be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure you do not overfeed. Do not fertilize plants that are weak from insects, disease or environmental stresses as this will exacerbate their condition and provide no benefit. Fix the plants main problem and resume a feeding schedule once health is re-established.
Even a stroll through a greenhouse can boost spirits and drive away the winter doldrums. Stop by the Nursery anytime to enjoy the warmth and beauty of our Greenhouse. Browse our library to read up on houseplants, landscape gardening, organic gardening, gardening for children and native plants. Chat with our staff to learn from experienced gardeners and horticulturalists. And remember: “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” – Frank Lloyd Wright
Editor’s Note: New England Nurseries is a Bedford-based garden center