How To Keep Your Houseplants Happy

by Petra Walker, 21/10/2007

Heat and the lack of it:
Do your plants thrive all summer, to become brown shriveled heaps in the winter? This could be due to heat, or lack of it. In winter, we have two problems for plants – firstly, our under-floor heating will slowly, but surely, cook the roots of any house plant placed directly on the floor. It will also dry out the potting mixture very quickly, resulting in our poor, heat-exhausted plant literally dying of thirst! What can you do about it? It’s simple - raise the plant off the floor slightly! You can buy small Korean tables in the markets, which are perfect for this or have plant stands with legs. 

The second problem plants face in our apartments is when we literally shut them out in the cold at night by closing the curtains while they stay on the window ledge. Any plant finding itself between a heavy drape and a window is put under tremendous stress, leaving it looking less then its best by the morning. Well, let’s face it, would you look a million dollars if you’d spent the night without your warm comforter?

However, the most common reason for houseplant failure in the first week is that we have literally bought it at the wrong time. These carefully nurtured plants have been looked after in a warm glass house, taken to the shop and then either we buy them in the dead of winter (gosh it’s cold!) and carry them home with no protection or we sit them in a hot car for hours in summer while we finish our shopping. I think I might throw my flowers if someone did that to me too!

We all know about the changing humidity levels in Korea. That’s why we have humidifiers for the winter and moisturize our skin heavily. So, give your plants a facial too! Place a small tray of decorative pebbles below the pot to catch excess water. Keep it topped up in winter to provide greater humidity for the leaves, allowing them to keep more of the moisture they take up from the soil. Some plants will also respond well to a light misting of water in the morning, but don’t do this at night or to plants with fleshy hairy leaves or the water may not evaporate from their leaves leaving the plant in danger of rotting.

Too much is just as stressful as too little! While you don’t want your plants to be living in dust, most will object to sitting with their feet permanently in water too. In general, let the top 1 cm of the pot dry out before watering again. Some plants, such as the “Mother-in-law’s tongue” pictured here, are more tolerant than others to sporadic dosing with water.  Where you put the water can also affect the plant’s health - in general if the plant looks like it is growing from a bulb or a corm (there is a roundish lump under the soil) water the plant from below to avoid rotting.

So, now you’re all experts!

No? It is easy to find out more about the plant you have bought, or plan to buy - an easy way to check on what it likes is to search on the web. Googling “spider plant” for example will instantly come up with several sites which describe the conditions the plant likes as well as those they hate. If you haven’t managed to identify it watch the plant carefully in the location you have placed it. If it is looking happy, then keep it there! If not, change one thing at a time (light levels, watering, etc) to see what effect that has on your plant.

Finally, if it really doesn’t like how you’ve looked after it and it is curling up its toes, then there is only one thing to do with it… put it out of its misery and throw it out, otherwise it’ll only make you feel guilty every time you see it and that was not why you bought your lovely plant in the first place, now was it?

Petra Walker is a Garden Designer and Tutor from the UK. She has exhibited at Chelsea Flower Show and BBC Gardeners World and was a judge two years running at the Blenheim Palace Flower Show.

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