Caring for House Plants: The Top 5 Tips

Caring for House Plants: The Top 5 Tips

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Jane is the Guardian’s gardening editor and presenter of ‘On The Ledge’ – a podcast about indoor gardening. She is also author of The Allotment Keeper’s Handbook. Today, Jane tells us her top five tips to take care of your house plants…

Caring for House Plants
The Top 5 Tips

Trim

Like lipstick on your teeth, the odd yellow leaf can ruin the sleek effect of healthy house plants. Lots of plants will gradually lose a few of their lower (or outer, in the case of plants that grow in a rosette shape) leaves – they slowly turn yellow then drop. This is no cause for concern, provided it doesn’t speed up into a rapid leaf loss that can signal something more serious. Browning leaf tips is often a sign that humidity is too low, while brown patches can indicate too little watering. Cut away any browning or yellowing outer or lower leaves at the base, but make sure you leave plenty of healthy leaves behind.

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Where climbers or trailers such as rosary vine, pothos vine and wax plant (Hoya carnosa) are straying outside their limits, snip stems back to just above a pair of leaves. With some plants, you can be more brutal, but bear in mind, while some house plants will resprout from a hard prune, others won’t, so think before you snip, and if in doubt, don’t prune. Dracaenas are good specimens to consider for a severe haircut – if yours becomes leggy, you can simply saw through the trunk wherever you fancy, and eventually it will regrow either on one or both sides of the stem.

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Glossy leaves like this benefit from a gentle clean with a damp cloth.

Clean

Glossy-leaved plants such as the Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa), dracaenas and palms can be instantly spruced up by dusting their leaves. This isn’t just for your benefit, either – dust-covered leaves block the pores (known as stomata) in plant leaves, limiting plants’ ability to breathe, and can also stop light from reaching the surface of the leaf.

Take a damp, soft cloth (an old t shirt is perfect) in one hand and rub the surface of each leaf very gently while holding the leaf flat in your other hand. You’ll be amazed how much dirt comes off! There are leaf shine products on the market but these really aren’t worth buying.

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If you fancy a quicker solution, you can give your plants a shower – take them into the bathroom and gently spray the leaves with warm water from the shower head and allow to drip dry before replacing in their pot. While you’re at it, give the outer pot a clean; nothing ruins the look of house plants more than a dirty pot.

Take care with hairy-leaved plants such as Streptocarpus and African violets as these don’t like having water splashed on their leaves, and you obviously can’t use the old t-shirt technique on spiky cacti either. For these plants, just take a clean soft paintbrush or old but clean makeup brush and gently work in the direction of the hairs, removing any dust lodged there.

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Hairy-leaved plants such as this Primulina ‘Chastity’ can be cleaned with a soft brush.

Re-Pot

If formerly healthy plants are looking wan and sickly, it may be that it’s time to repot. Check by removing the plant carefully from its pot and checking the roots – if they are thick and matted around the root ball, and the plant seems to need watering continuously, you need to upgrade the plant’s accommodation. Don’t assume you are being kind to plants by putting them straight into a much larger pot – the opposite is true. By upgrading a plant to a pot that’s way too big, you end up creating a sump of soil not held together by roots: excess water tends to gather here, which can drown the plant. Instead choose a pot that is around 1-2cm bigger all the way around.

SEE MORE: Allotment Dreaming – My Journey into Gardening

Use specialist houseplant compost if you can, although many indoor plants do just fine in multipurpose compost, especially if you add a little grit or perlite. More specialist plants such as orchids, cacti and succulents and carnivorous plants have their own special needs, so seek out specially formulated composts for these plants.

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Add a top dressing of grit to help retain moisture and deter fungus gnats.

Re-Package

One of the joys of houseplants is you can completely change their look just by grouping them together differently, or changing the outer container – known in the business as a cachepot, which just means a pot without a hole. If in doubt, my rule is that every plant looks good in a plain white cachepot: a whole array of different plants situated together, united by a single pot colour can look really effective.

Also think about the surface of the soil: bare compost can attract fungus gnats, an annoying little fly whose larvae feed on the roots of houseplants. Mulching with pebbles, grit, slivers of slate or even something quirky such as marbles or aquarium gravel or beads in zany colours can look great, as well as deterring fungus gnats and helping to lock in moisture.

Buying new pots can be expensive, but be inventive – you can pick up old casserole dishes, chamberpots and the like from charity shops and junk shops and repurpose them as cachepots. One of my best planters is a trough made from an old metal toolbox I picked up in a junk shop for £1.

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This spends the summer on my patio table, filled with edibles and bedding, then gets replanted with houseplants and comes inside for winter.

Feed

Feeding is one thing many people forget when it comes to houseplants, and yet these plants are totally dependent on us – new compost only contains a few weeks or months of nutrients, so once this has run out it is vital to replace this regularly. If your plant isn’t flowering when it should or looks a bit peaky yet it is not potbound, lack of nutrients could well be the answer.

Click here to see more indoor gardening inspiration from Jane Perrone

There is a dizzying array of options for houseplant fertilisers, including sticks you place into the soil around a plant, liquids you can add to water, liquids applied neat or sprayed onto leaves, granules and tablets added to the soil and drip feeding mechanisms that stick into the soil. Find one that works to you, and follow the instructions religiously, applying only during the active growing season – plants can suffer just as much from too much fertiliser as too little. As someone who aims to garden organically both inside and out, I try to avoid fertilisers made from synthetic chemicals –  instead I use a feed based on seaweed, such as Maxicrop organic flower and houseplant fertiliser https://www.ebay.co.uk/p/?iid=282346105555&&&adgroupid=33676502101&rlsatarget=pla-270397403443&abcId=893836&adtype=pla&merchantid=115136998&poi=&googleloc=9046205&device=c&campaignid=707291931&crdt=0&chn=ps.

Find out more about Jane Perrone and her podcast on indoor gardening, On The Ledge, at janeperrone.com. On The Ledge is on Garden Tags as @OnTheLedgepodcast.

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