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The Journal Gazette

  • Washington Post Newly repotted dracaena is steadied by a framework of bamboo canes to support the plant until it can grow more anchoring roots. The new black interior pot can be removed for correct watering.

Friday, March 03, 2017 10:01 pm

Houseplant comeback

Houseplants seem to be in vogue again, which is encouraging because they have a way of bringing the plant world into the hearts of those who need it most: urban dwellers, office workers and people generally short on terrain.

The image of these plants suffered for years simply because they were popular in the 1970s, the decade of sallow plaids, wide lapels and hairstyles that will forever remain inexcusable.

Fortunately, today’s champions of indoor plants are too young to know that dark decade, and their enthusiasm for creating indoor gardens extends to succulents, air plants and that other maligned floral relic, the terrarium.

I like all of those interior adornments, but it is the more traditional houseplants that I find particularly endearing.

In advance of the outdoor spring craziness around the corner, we should attend to our houseplants now.

Life indoors is a challenge to a plant. The principal environmental woes are rooms that are too dim and too dry. The greatest risk the human owner poses to the plant, you will read, is overwatering. This is true, but I’ve seen a lot of damage from underwatering. This, in turn, is linked to how people house such things as dracaenas, crotons, sansevierias, spider plants and the rest.

If your colleagues are like mine, they have their plants in pots that do not drain. To avoid waterlogging the roots, they tip half a cup or so once a week into the soil. This isn’t enough, and it’s not the best way to do this.

The optimum arrangement is to have the plant in a thin, plastic, well-draining pot that is then placed in an outer, more decorative cachepot that doesn’t drain. When it comes time for watering, remove the plant in its growing pot, take it to a sink and soak the soil until the water drains from the bottom. Let the pot drain for a few minutes and then return it to the cachepot.

An alternative is to have the plant in a single decorative pot that drains. It should still be carted to a sink for its root soaking and returned after draining.

By the way, the practice of placing a couple of ice cubes to melt on moth orchid roots is ill advised, in my view. Apart from the chilling effect, the cubes equate to an ounce or so of water, which isn’t enough to hydrate the growing medium of bark mix or moss. (Of those, I much prefer bark mix, which is almost impossible to overwater, though it should be changed annually.)

For houseplants generally, a good watering will last at least a week. The books tell you to water less frequently in winter, to keep the plants in a resting mode, but heated interiors tend to be woefully dry. Check the soil with your finger and water again when the top inch or so is dry.

Most houseplants are beginning to stir into life, drawn from their winter dormancy by the lengthening period of daylight. Some plants can go three or four years without repotting, but I find most benefit from an annual replenishment in advance of their spring growth spurt.

We should do this for several reasons that all come down to the fact that plants were never meant to grow in pots, even tree dwellers such as moth orchids.

After a year or two, the original light, fluffy potting mix breaks down and compacts, creating the risk of holding too much water and too little air. Fertilizer salts build up. In addition, the roots will fill the pot and need freeing. If they get too congested, they completely displace the soil. The plant cannot keep abreast of its needs for moisture and nutrient.

– Adrian Higgins, Washington Post