Plants to Stay Home With

NanSterman

It is hard to stay home. It is hard to be away from friends and family, school, work, and routine. Yet this time can also be an opportunity to rethink what home is and how you live at home; that includes the plants that share your living space.

Indoor plants liven up the indoors. Their soft shapes and textures contrast against hard walls, counters and floors. Plants contribute earth colors like green, burgundy, and silver, as well as bold colors like red, yellow, orange, and pink. Some houseplants flower indoors; some are fragrant, and all contribute the invisible oxygen that is critical to our lives.

Most plants we grow as houseplants are native to the shady understories of warm, tropical regions of the world. They are naturally adapted to the lower light and warmer temperature conditions inside our homes. Still, like outdoor plants, indoor plants all have different water needs. Plants like prayer plants (Calathea) and African violets, need to be consistently damp.

Then, there is a large group of houseplants that originate in tropical monsoon regions of the world. According to houseplant grower and breeder Jim Booman of Booman Floral in north San Diego County, these plants are adapted to alternating wet and dry periods, which is the way most of us treat houseplants. Booman grows house plants professionally and for pleasure.

House plants are best grown in plastic or ceramic pots. These materials protect roots from desiccating in the cold months when heating systems dry out the air in our homes. Plastic pots are lightweight too, so they are easy to rearrange.

For the potting mix, look for one that is half perlite, pumice, or other “inorganic” material. These large, irregular shaped particles create large pore spaces for water to drain through easily. The other half of an ideal potting mix is compost, peat, coconut coir or other “organic” material that holds onto water. The balance of organic and inorganic medium both wets easily and drains quickly. That way, roots get the water they need, but do not get waterlogged. Dolomitic lime helps buffer the pH, which is helpful since our region’s water is high in salts.

Add slow-release fertilizer with a nutrient ratio of 15-9-12 into the potting mix. Reapply according to label directions. Then top the pot with a half-inch layer of rounded gravel, marbles, or other inert material. That helps hold in moisture. The mulch also keeps out pesky fungus gnats and curious house cats. Booman cautions against letting a pot sit in a water-filled saucer. Roots that are constantly wet eventually rot. Instead, put rocks in the saucer and set the pot on top of the rocks, out of the water.

When should you water? With these plants stick your finger a few inches down into the potting mix. When it feels dry, it is time to water. Always water pots from the top and for long enough that water runs out the hole in the bottom. That flushes salts through the potting mix and away from roots. If you water just a little bit at a time or mist your plants, you will eventually see a layer of a white crust on the top of the potting mix or the pot. That is salt buildup from the salts that are naturally in our water and it is not good for plants.

Do not be overwhelmed. Growing houseplants is pretty straightforward, even if you lose a few along the way. It has happened to the best of us. Here is a list of houseplants that do not require frequent watering, courtesy of Jim Booman:

  • Dracaena marginata
  • Wax plant (Hoya carnosa)
  • Snake plant (Sansevieria)
  • Philodendron
  • Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema)
  • Ficus
  • Lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus)

Garden expert, designer, educator, and author Nan Sterman specializes in low water, sustainable, and edible landscapes. Nan hosts, co-writes, and co-produces opens in a new windowA Growing Passion, a show that explores the power of plants in our world. Nan is also author of California Gardener’s Guide vII, Waterwise Plants for the Southwest, and Hot Colors, Dry Garden. More information is at opens in a new windowwaterwisegardener.com.