WHEN I THINK ABOUT all the different aspects of garden centers I realize that tropical plants are one of my favorite categories. I am using the broader term of tropical plants but specifically tropical plants that have been hardened off to be able to withstand the living conditions inside of a building. House plants aren’t naturally able to thrive in that much darkness. The temperatures that we keep our homes and offices are great temperatures for tropical plants and the pests that come along with them.
A plant can be hardened off to take conditions that are not natural to the plants native habitat. With our regular outdoor gardening plants you can put a plant we think of as a part shade plant like camelias or Japanese maples in way more sun or even full sun and they will eventually get accustomed to the sunlight. You may have to watch the plant go through a couple rough summers during the process but it will eventually thrive there. I have seen plants that I’ve experimented with this change of conditions take on a totally different look and growth habit.
I have seven different varieties of Japanese maples in my yard and all of them are parked in the full sun except one lace leafed variety that I felt like would not be able to take that much light, really it’s the heat that spooked me. My full sun maples are more vibrant in the spring when the foliage is showing up again after winter and in the fall when they put on their great show just before they get naked for the winter rest. My Sea Foam white camelias have been hardening off to full sunlight for three years. At first the leaves were bleached looking for the first two summers, kinda scared me, but now on their third year they seem to be coming in to their own. The plants are thriving and the leaves are a nice, dark green and loaded with buds and a few blooms. I’m definitely getting more blooms than those camelias that are getting more shade.
It takes time and patience and it takes remembering that it is an experiment and all experiments do not always go the way you might expect. My point in all this is houseplants that are seemingly available everywhere we go these days from the lumber stores to the grocery stores are completely changed from their natural ways to a plant that is barely recognizable as their former selves into plants that can sit in an interior room of your house or office with very little care and look just like the day you brought them home.
As a garden center owner the reason I consider houseplants one of my favorite categories is they sell well in every month of the year and they make the place look great. This month is especially a great month to sell houseplants. As we are stuck in our homes during these dreary, bleak and short days we begin to notice what houseplants we don’t have enough of because we like to nurture anything. I’ve always said houseplants are man’s second best friend. I have to admit it’s going to be hard to beat out dogs as man’s number one best friend.
Houseplants are like pets in a way, I’ve known people who have kept their houseplants for longer than dogs will live. I’ve known people who talk or sing to their leafy friends. They need to be taken care of like pets but the benefit over them being animal pets is they won’t have to be kenneled or fed while you leave them at home for long periods of time. You will never have to clean up after them while they are being trained to tell you when they need to go outside to fertilize your grass. You can name them but you probably won’t have a big funeral for them when they finally go.
It just amazes me what a difference it makes when Mimi brings home a new addition to our houseplant family. House plants are wonderful for making quite a statement mixed into your interior design. They can really finish a look that is lacking.
WHEN I WAS A United States Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica in 1988 my project was to help small farmers get started in the cultivation of houseplant starter plants. We would take young cuttings or babies and quickly get them to these huge areas that had been heavily shaded with acres and acres of dark shade cloth. In the tropical climate of Central America plant roots grow really fast and the people who work in these areas work really fast so you can imagine how many millions of tropical plant babies we packed and shipped to Miami to be finished off for sale throughout the United States and Canada.
When the little plants show up in Miami they are rooted cuttings without soil on their roots to cut way down on the cost of shipping. Those plants are distributed all over Florida where the climate is just right. They will be planted into the appropriate size pots and grown to selling size under extremely shady conditions. When the plants reach their standard wholesale selling size, meaning the plants are big enough to be of value and the roots have reached the sides of the pot, they will be listed on a wholesale availability list and sent out to anyone north of them who seeks tropical plants. That includes Europe.
When us garden centers get our availabilities, usually weekly, we place our order based on the season and what has sold well for us in the past and, of course, we have to always try out something new if there is a plant we don’t recognize and we can see a way to use it in an interior application. When our orders are received by the wholesalers they gather the plants and get them to their shipping area so the plants can be individually sleeved and boxed to insure their safety from box chunking transporters. We are charged for the sleeves and the boxes on top of shipping which often gets up to 45%.
We have to be careful when we think we are looking at a six inch pot of English Ivy for $3. By the time they get all the extra charges we usually pay more than double the original price. That six inch pot of English Ivy just went up to $7 cost to us. Because of the sky high price of shipping we used to drive our 18 wheeler down to Miami to pick up our own stuff. We did that in the 70s and the 80s and through the 90s then everything changed. We began to have to go to multiple stops to get everything because the houseplant industry got so big that certain growers specialized in certain plants instead of trying to grow a little of a lot of varieties. They realized it would be better for them to just stick with the plant they are best at growing.
We were making stops at 10 to 15 places, making those trips not cost effective anymore. By the time you add up the fuel, hotel and food our driver required and you repair a broken down truck on the road a few times it just wasn’t worth it. Now we just wait for the truck to arrive, pay the shipping costs to the driver, get the boxes unloaded from the truck, get the boxes open as quickly as possible and get those sleeves off each pot since those plants have been packed on that dark, cold truck for nearly a week. Those plants are thirsty and need to see some light that day so no matter how busy we are helping customers we have to break off a certain amount of people to make all that happen. That crew will line the plants out in groups and get each of the plants priced and watered before they can be displayed.
We try to display our houseplants in the type light the plant requires to give our customers some way to compare the light they have to offer to the light in which the plants are displayed. We keep charts around listing the plants we have for high, medium and low light. These charts will show which plants are pet or child safe, many plants are poisonous to different degrees when ingested. All of that can be googled when in doubt.
We initiate the plants with a good soaking at first to aid in their recovery from their long road trip they endured but we generally keep them on the dry side after that. Like I said these plants have been hardened off to almost unrecognizable versions of themselves as far as their habits and needs. It’s almost like they are artificial plants compared to growing plants outside.
The watering needs of houseplants are completely different from “real” plants. They really just need you to leave them alone for the most part. With the lack of direct sun on the plants and the exposed soil and the mild temperatures in our buildings the plants are hardly taking up much water. That is why overwatering is the number one cause of houseplant problems. You will water these plants so infrequently it’ll make you believe you are doing something wrong. I’m talking like once every 10 days you should check the top four inches of the soil to see if they need any water added. If the soil feels dry enough then water the stew out of them by putting them in you sink or bathtub and water the plants at least three times and let the water drain out the bottom of the pots for an hour or so before you put them back into their decorative pots or back to where they belong. They will drain out some water and could leave a mark on the table or mantle where they live so make sure you get a saucer to go with the plant when you buy it.
I think houseplants should be fertilized every third watering as long as you are soaking them good when you water them to leach those salts from the fertilizers out of the soil, otherwise salt can build up and cause other problems.
If you have chosen a place in your house where there is not an air duct blowing directly on the plant or a draft from a door frequently used during the winter months and you practice those water and fertilizer rules of thumb you should have great luck with having these new pets in your house. There might be insect issues along the way but that can be dealt with preemptively using practices that make the environment and the plant less desirable to the pests. Or there are natural pesticides that can be used once a problem is identified. Pests aren’t usually a big issue on houseplants when done correctly.
THE TRUCKS THAT come our way with houseplants are sold to us by the cubic inch so it is best we figure out how to best fill every bit of airspace in our area of the truck. we usually fill those spaces with plants we sell in great numbers like Kimberly Queen ferns and hibiscus and mandevilla and macho ferns. We can never have enough of those tropical plants on our floor so filling a truck with those plants makes a lot of sense. Those are the plants that don’t do well indoors but we sell them like they are going out of style so if it is the right season (no fear of frost) we will have them shoehorned into every nook and cranny that we have.
Hopefully you’ve stuck your toe into the houseplant world. It’s really a whole other way to garden and they really can turn into pets and in some cases they can be good friends. They can make your rooms look better. They don’t complain too much and they are very affordable money wise and time wise. They might just make the best pets you ever tried. I would even suggest that when your college student starts to get that pet itch like so often happens, get them to your favorite garden center and buy them the coolest looking houseplant they want, no matter the cost. I promise you you will save tons of money in the long run and it might save you the part that inevitably comes later when there is a change of apartment or a change of mind and you wind up with that pet whether you want it or not.
If they can keep the houseplant alive and well after two years then they are probably good candidates for a pet. The real hope is they will either have graduated and they can do whatever they want to do or they will have matured enough to know that having a pet is sometimes a 15 year endeavor that can get in the way of road trips and some other spontaneous ideas that come up around this time of people’s lives.
We are keeping our houseplant greenhouse full year-round now because we are seeing there isn’t a season that customers aren’t looking for that perfect addition to their lives.