I’M SNOWED IN! I’m writing these words during the Valentine’s weekend. Mother Nature’s Valentine’s gift to Mississippi was snow and ice. Snow can be fun, but ice is a curse word for the nurseryman. Greenhouses can’t bear the weight ice creates. Pipes break. Inventory gets damaged. Power outages don’t help much, either, when you're running over 20 heaters to keep the stock alive.
For homeowners, it’s no better. We look out our windows the morning after one of these awful storms to see how much dam- age was inflicted under the weight of ice and long periods of below freezing temperatures. Some of the damage that occurs from a winter blast won’t show up until deeper in the year. The damage can sometimes come in the form of split trunks and stems that may affect blooming for years to come. We will just have to take that punch on the nose… it’s gardening in Mississippi.
I have said it before, and I will say it again, we live in one of the best weather pockets in the country. When our weather is acting right in the early spring and late fall, take a look at the rest of the country’s weather. I honestly don’t know how some of those places can get anything done with their relatively short growing seasons. We never run out of water. No wildfires are breathing down our necks, and we generally don’t get beat up too badly from the hurricanes that our neighbors to the south of us have to do the dance with.
This is the perfect weekend to think about houseplants, since they are just about all we can actually get our hands on at the moment, as far as gardening goes. Houseplants are one of the many things that have had a resurgence from the pandemic. People are certainly home more often than before, and I think people feel the need to nurture anything they can right now. Houseplants are the perfect, second best, man’s best friend. They are very quiet. They don’t shed very much and are relatively inexpensive. Houseplants offer a great alternative to art or furniture to deco- rate a space. Houseplants’ foliage can be bright and colorful with many leaf shapes and texture choices to fit any design scheme. Often, the pot chosen to hold the plant can also be a major part of the room’s decor.
There’s something therapeutic about bringing in some green from outdoors to brighten up our homes and workspaces. There is a houseplant that will work in just about any situation, so no matter how small or dimly lit your space may be, there is a ‘pet’ for you.
The main thing to remember when adding houseplants to your long list of things you care for, is moderation. All plants need water, food and sunlight. Houseplants need all that, but in moderation, which makes them the easiest thing you’ll ever have to nurture. If you will con- sider where tropical plants come from, and remember that your goal is to imitate that environment as closely as possible, you will have a better idea about what is needed to make them feel at home.
In their native habitat, most of these plants grow in dark understories with strong, filtered light. In the tropics, rain comes sporadically, but heavily, with lots of time between showers. As a result, plants’ roots get time to dry out sufficiently between rains. They get life sustaining food from their extremely nutrient rich soil, made from years and years of plant material composting itself back into the forest floor.
GROWERS OF houseplants to be sold in the American market make it even easier for us to imitate the plant’s native habitat. They place starter plants under very heavy shade cloth in order to ‘harden off’ the plants to the darkness they will endure in most of our homes and workspaces. Part of my job as a Peace Corps volunteer was to figure the logistics of how to transport plants from the deep jungle to the market- place. Once they made it to the local market, they could then be shipped on to Miami, where they can be loaded and trucked to every garden center, big box store and grocery store in the world. It’s a gigantic business that is only getting bigger because of changing trends in our gardening needs.
There are low light, medium light and high light houseplants, but I have found that with enough time they can all get used to the amount of light you have to offer as long as you can achieve moderation with watering and nutrients. Most people tend to over water and over fertilize their new pets. In a darker environment this will cause the plants to weaken and have problems like dropping their leaves or the development of brown margins on their leaves. When you see these things begin to happen you should back off of the watering. They just can’t take up much water when their new home is run at the temperatures most people keep their thermostats on. A rule of thumb for watering is once every one or two weeks, with a little misting every once in a while to make them feel like they are getting the kind of misting they would have gotten in their native habitat. A few easy tips to remember are:
• Turn your houseplants a little bit every couple of weeks so each side gets plenty light.
• Wipe off the leaves with a damp cloth once a month to prevent too much build-up of regular household dust which could cause problems related to light.
• Use a water-soluble fertilizer once a month to replace those nutrients that get leached out during the watering process. I like to use Osmocote in the soil as a back- up to the water-soluble fertilizer.
• Keep a spray bottle of natural insecticidal soap handy in the case of an insect invasion.
• Air movement is important to the health of houseplants, although they do not like being placed directly under an air vent.
•Appoint one person to be the waterer of the plants at home or at the office. It’s much easier to get accustomed to a new plant’s watering patterns once they settle into their new environment. Moderation, moderation, moderation. A short list of the easiest and my favorite houseplants:
Sansevieria (also known as Mother in Law’s Tongue) You’ll see where it got its name when you see one.
Ponytail Palm Rubber tree (in the Ficus family, which is code word for easy!)
Dieffenbachias come in so many variations with their incredible leaves, my favorite is one called Camouflage.
My favorites… Orchids
THESE ARE ALL great houseplants, and there are so many more to brighten up your world, year-round. Choosing your new plants can be a fun outing. Go to your local garden center and choose a coordinating pot as your plant’s new home. The pot can go with your interior decor or it can have its own whimsical twist. If you plan to plant directly into your new pot, make sure the pot drains and you have figured out a saucer, so the plant doesn’t miss the litter box. Or choose a cachepot with no drain hole as a clever sleeve situation to hide its plastic nursery pot.
Shopping around all the garden centers around town will give you a chance to see a wide variety of tropical plants. We all buy from south Florida, but we all buy differently. You are likely to find a real treasure at one of the many nurseries on the Northside. Allow a staff member to show you around. They will likely know where a gem may be hiding. They can also talk you through any necessary steps to keeping your new plant happy as well a how to have a successful oasis in your home with your newly adopted “pets.”