The December solstice is happily behind us and we can now collect daylight minutes that will bring about longer days. (Yay!) As we are possibly stuck indoors for a few more months I thought I would share a few tips for houseplants. Tips I’ve gleaned partially from experience, but mostly from my library of gardening books.

Now, let’s get something straight – I’m no ‘houseplant expert’ — I do have a husband that consistently brings home stray orchids (on sale… no blooms), fragrant exotics (they want full tropical sun), and ‘interesting’ foliage plants, (poisonous, spiny, non-flowering)….

I try not to feel guilty when I kill a plant; I reverently place the hapless victim gently in the compost and silently thank it for trying to survive despite my feeble and sometimes criminal neglect. Needless to say, I really am an ‘outdoor’ plant kind of person — but for the house plants I have had success with (or perhaps they with me) here are the tips:

  1. Pests: Ed Lawrence of CBC recommends this recipe for infestations of Aphids, Whitefly, and Spider Mites: 40 parts water: 1 part liquid soap – usually dish soap. This is messy when spraying or using a soppy washcloth, so it’s recommended to apply the treatment in the bathtub (spray from underneath or wipe leaves), don’t be shy, your victim should be dripping wet. There will be insect eggs so as soon as you see new signs of crawly life — repeat!
    For ‘Scale’ use same recipe but add 8 parts rubbing alcohol (to help break down the waxy shell); leave on for 5–10 minutes. Another trick I learned was to cover the soil tightly with a bag or anything that will hold the soil in the pot, submerge upside down and gently swish – rinse with clean water after you feel every pesky bug has expired.
  2. Fertilizer: Hold off. Plants are in low light conditions and generally going dormant. Fertilizing is more appropriate in March as light increases which is also generally a better time to increase watering. (A plant in a south-facing window will only receive 10% of the light that it would get outside.) When in doubt – err on the side of under-watering because once roots have rotted… well, a plant rarely comes back from the brink.
  3. Houseplant Appearance: no need for ugliness! That crusty dusty soil in pots drives me crazy. If you haven’t re-potted in ages or never plan to then add an inch of fresh black potting soil to regenerate, then cover with Sphagnum moss — or use pine needles or tiny pine cones to make a pretty ‘mulch’ — use pebble & shell collections around the stems of any plant, even marbles or glass beads (and all of these suggestions have the added benefit of discouraging pets from using it as a toilet or naughty guests using the pots as an ashtray.) Thrift stores have a selection of individual and ornate saucers and plates — there is no excuse for yogurt container lids to catch water overflow. Glass microwave trays (also available in thrift shops) have little nubbly ‘feet’ to keep a larger pot lifted off the floor preventing stains or mould from building up between a porous terra cotta or ceramic pot and hardwood floors/carpeting (also the clear glass makes it nearly invisible and lifting it off direct floor contact looks classy).

I do realize there are a few seasonally pertinent tips I’ve not addressed such as getting a reluctant Christmas Cactus to bloom, asking an Amaryllis for more flowers or making a post-holiday Poinsettia look like a living creature… I refer you back to my earlier comment about being a ‘houseplant expert’. All these things seem like a lot of work for dubious results — recycle, re-gift, compost, and if you must persist in these endeavors — look online. Much has been written, many steps are required and I will be saving my hopes and energy for Spring.

P.S. Keep an eye out here http://hcgn.ca/seedy/ for ‘Seedy Sunday’ (usually in February) — last year was a fabulous success with free seeds, seminars, and professionals to chat with, plus a number of interesting accessories to purchase.