Keeping houseplants alive during Midwest winters
by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp
Houseplants have to be tough to survive our inhospitable indoor environment, which is usually too dry. Most of our indoor plants are naturally outdoor plants in the tropics and subtropics, so they can easily spend the summer outdoors. It's keeping them alive during the colder months that presents some challenges.
As resilient as houseplants are, there are a few steps we can take to ensure they'll thrive. "It's important to match the plant to the person and to the specific site in the house," says Ann E. McCulloh, curator of plant collections at the Cleveland Botanical Garden.
Houseplants are killed by kindness more than any other technique. Hold off fertilizing in the winter when growth slows. Use a water-soluble or time-release product, and always read and follow label directions.
"If I had to pick the most common mistake, it's probably overwatering," says Rosie Lerner, consumer horticulture specialist at Purdue University. Watering too often keeps the soil too wet, which displaces the air in the mix and drowns the plant's roots. Plants take up water more slowly in a dark environment, McCulloh says.
Even well-lit and window-filled interiors can't provide light at the intensity of outdoor sunlight. Most houseplants should only be watered when the top of the soil is dry to the touch. They should be set over the sink, tub or a saucer and watered thoroughly until water comes out of the bottom of the pot, then left alone and checked for dryness after two or three days.
Here are a few plant suggestions for your home:
• Snake plant or mother-in-law's tongue comes in many shapes, colors and textures, and will grow in bright sun or under a dark staircase. It's extremely drought-tolerant but can stand being wet as well. All parts of this plant are poisonous if ingested.
• Heartleaf or common Philodendron does best with evenly moist soil and is well-adapted to dim rooms with dry air. It can also tolerate weeks of neglect. This plant is poisonous if ingested.
• The ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) is fairly new on the market, but it's adapted well to indoor living, McCulloh says. A member of the aroid family, it has the look of a succulent. All parts are poisonous if ingested.
• Flowering maple has umbrella-shaped flowers in pink, red, orange, peach, yellow or white. It's a beautiful and lesser-known plant, yet it's forgiving and easy to care for. It takes light shade and moderate moisture.
For more information about related issues, visit the Angie's List guide to landscaping and lawn care.
Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp, freelance writer, author, speaker and photographer, is an Advanced Master Gardener and a national director of the Garden Writers Association. A self-proclaimed trial-and-error gardener, she also enjoys spending time with her dog, Penn, and cat, Cowgirl.