House Plants

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William Davidson

Choosing House Plants

House plants are acquired in a number of ways: many as the result of making a definite purchase, others are bought on the spur of the moment, some are grown from cuttings offered by a friend or arrive as gifts. When choosing a plant for yourself it is possible to take into account the all-important aspect of home conditions, but with gifts all that can be hoped for is that the donor has made some allowance for the sort of conditions that the plant is likely to meet in its new home, as there is not much joy to be had from introducing tender plants to cold conditions that are going to be totally alien to

Quality plants may be a little more expensive, but they are usually the better buy in the long run. The general tidyness of the plant - clean pot, clean leaves, absence of pests and diseases, and growth that is neatly tied in position - will be an indication that the grower of that particular plant had its well-being in mind, and you can rest assured that it will give more satisfaction than the cheaper plant that has an untidy and uncared-for look. The place of purchase is also worthy of consideration, the warm shop or greenhouse that offers plants some protection from the elements will have better produce than the retailer who markets his plants from the pavement outside his shop.

General Care of House Plants

On paying for his plant almost every purchaser will ask the inevitable question "How do I look after it'?' If only the supplier could be exactingly precise and give the ideal needs for all his various plants in the way of temperature, light, feeding and. in particular, the precise amount of water required. If only he could then he would save us all a great deal of trouble.

Light. Many of the plants we can be reasonably specific about, but the majority must be covered by more general advice. And in this respect room conditions that are light, airy and reasonably warm [minimum temperature 13°C (55"F)] will offer plants a much better chance of prospering than conditions that are wet and cold, or hot and dry. In fact, the worst possible conditions are a combination of high temperature and dry atmosphere, because not only are pests more prevalent then but the plants' resistance is much lower. To alleviate the effects of a dry atmosphere some way must be found of increasing the humidity; this can be helped by plunging the plant pots to their rims in moist peal or standing them on a layer of gravel which is kept moist.

Good light should not necessarily be interpreted as exposure to direct sunlight, as the majority of indoor plants will be adversely affected if stood in direct sunlight for long periods. The sunny windowsill is fine

Two ways of increasing humidity: left, plunging the pot in peat; right, standing the pot on moist gravel in winter when the heat of the sun is less intense, but most plants will suffer as a result of strong summer sun beating down on them. Plants with variegated or highly coloured foliage, such as the croton, will require lighter positions than plants with purely green foliage. Here again, however, we have exceptions as most of the marantas and calatheas have colourful foliage but it is essential that they are not exposed to direct sunlight.

Rooms with small windows offering poor light would also be ill suited to all but the toughest of indoor plants, such as the green-leaved Philodendron scandens and Rhoicissus rhomboidea. Should there be no alternative to badly lit conditions then it is better to forget about plants and think of other ways of improving the appearance of the home surroundings.

Watering. How much, how often, from the top, from the bottom of the pot, hard or soft water, in the morning or the evening? These are only some of the questions that are asked on the difficult subject of proper watering. All sorts of devices are available for assisting the novice when it comes to watering, but few of them compare with putting a finger in the compost to test whether it is wet or dry. The most important advice concerning watering is to warn the wielder of the watering can that more plants die as a result of over-watering than ever die as a result of drying out, so it is advisable to err on the side of dry rather than wet conditions. When the compost is permanently sodden then the roots in the pot become inactive and in time rot and die. However, once again there are exceptions, such as cyperus and azalea, that will quickly decline if the compost dries out for any length of time.

Plants may be watered from the top or the bottom; it makes little difference provided the compost is 14 thoroughly saturated each time the pot is watered.

Small amounts of water do little more than moisten the top inch of compost and merely serve to tantalize rather than water the plant. With the flowering plants such as saintpaulia it is important that water is kept off the leaves and flowers; the flowers in particular will develop brown patches and die off rapidly should they become

When contemplating going on holiday the collection of indoor plants can be something of a problem. Neighbours and friends are often apprehensive about the prospect of caring for someone else's treasured plants; and the apprehension is often justified when the returning holidaymaker finds that his prize collection has been reduced to a mass of dead and dying leaves. When leaving plants for someone else to care for give

being sprayed over with water

them precise instructions concerning the amount of water and fertilizer required by each plant. The neighbour can then take on the onerous task with a little more confidence! For short absences the plants can be placed on a bed of wet sand in a basin.

Despite the damage that may be caused to flowering plants, the majority of foliage plants will benefit from being regularly sprayed over with a fine mist spray -a treatment that will also help to combat the dry conditions prevailing in centrally heated rooms. Wherever possible, when watering or spraying, it will be advisable to use rain water, as hard tap water is less suitable and will leave a lime deposit on the leaves. Not everyone has facilities for collecting rain water, but all is not lost as hard tap water can be softened by immersing a small hessian sack of peat in a bucket or tub of water. Chemically softened water should never be used for plants.

Cleaning and General Hygiene

Indoors it is inevitable that plant leaves will become dust covered and much less attractive if something is not done to keep them clean. There are many different types of leaf-cleaning agents on sale which may be sprayed on to the leaves or applied with a sponge or damp cloth, but not all of them are suitable for all plants. Therefore, care must be exercised when using these products for the first time to ensure that plants are not susceptible to whatever the concoction may be. For example, some of the spray-on leaf cleaners will damage many plants if applied during periods of low temperature. And, surprisingly, the kentia palms and aspidistras, both of which have leaves that would seem to be as tough as those of any indoor plant, are especially vulnerable to damage. So it would seem sensible that any new leaf-cleaning product should be tried on part of the plant in the first instance and left for a week or so to see what reaction there may be. Overdoing the leaf cleaning only gives plants an unnaturally glossy appearance so it is better to use a sponge moistened in water most of the time and to treat plants with specialized leaf cleansers only occasionally. Soft new leaves should never be handled as they bruise very easily until they stiffen up.

All indoor plants should be cleaned over and generally tidied up periodically as it is inevitable, no matter how competent the grower, that brown leaves will appear. These do nothing for the appearance of the plant, so have them off and put them in the bin! Untidy plant growth can, of course, be tied into place at any time but we are often asked to advise on the best time for pruning indoor plants. For the vast majority of purely foliage plants any time is a good time - healthy plants come to very little harm as a result of having a few odd branches trimmed off to improve their appearance.

Plants with gloss)' foliage look are regularly washed

Pests and Diseases

Sickly plants, like sickly people, are much more prone to disease and general maladies than are healthy ones. So it is important to make every effort to maintain plants in the best possible condition, and not to hang on to them for too long when they do show signs of deterioration. Either remove sick plants to an isolation area away from other plants or, better still, be courageous and dispose of them when they begin to show obvious signs of severe ill health.

Rather than wait for the pests to arrive and then treat them, it is often wise to give a precautionary treatment with a general insecticide that will keep the majority of pests under control. This is certainly sensible in respect of the minute red spider mite that is seldom detected before the plant is suffering considerably as a result of its presence. For indoor plants the spray-on type of insecticide is the most effective and the easiest to handle. When applying it take the precaution of wearing rubber gloves and treat the plants out of doors on a still warm day. The plants should be left out in the shade until the insecticide has dried before they are brought indoors again. An essential requirement when applying insecticides in liquid form is to ensure that the plant is thoroughly saturated on both sides of the leaf - soaking the undersides of the leaves is really much more important than wetting the top sides.

Red spider mite is especially prevalent on ivies but is likely to affect all plants in hot, dry conditions. It occurs mainly on the underside of the leaves and is almost invisible without the aid of a lens but can be detected as it causes the leaves to take on a very dry appearance and to become brown around their edges.

Greenfly (Aphid), the familiar garden pest, usually attacks the soft new growth of the plant and is not difficult to eliminate.

Mealy bug is a powdery white insect that wraps its young in a cottonwool-like substance and is usually found in such places as the twining growth of stephanotis, amongst the overlapping leaves of aglaonema. or tucked into the angle of leaf and stem on other plants. The best way of controlling it is to apply methylated spirits with a soft brush directly on to the

Whiiefly is one of the most persistent pests, and is usually found on the undersides of leaves of many plants, pelargoniums in particular. Some recent insecticides are claimed by their manufacturers to kill whitefly; total elimination is not easy but persistent spraying of the undersides of leaves will maintain a reasonable measure of control. If only a few plants of modest size are affected then they can be placed in a sealed polythene bag for twenty-four hours. This will kill the mature fly but the treatment must be repeated to catch any hatching from £ggs.

Scale insects are brown or flesh coloured and cling to leaves and stems like miniature limpets as they slowly suck the life out of the plant. They can be eradicated by being wiped off with a sponge that has been soaked in malathion insecticide. Be sure to wear rubber gloves while doing this.

Compost and Potting

If the whispered comment 'What about potting?' is anything to go by, then one almost feels that there must be some sort of mystique about the simple operation of transferring a plant from one size pot to another slightly larger one. Perhaps there is something rather special about it when you only have one or two plants. However, a few simple rules are all that are required to do this successfully.

Pot only healthy plants, never sick ones.

Pot on into a pot only slightly larger than the one the plant is currently growing in.

For preference, potting should be carried out in late spring or early summer.

Use a properly prepared compost made for the job and not something dug up from the garden.

Pots. Clay pots will need a few pieces of broken pot (crocks) in the bottom to prevent the solitary drainage hole becoming blocked with compost. But, as is more likely these days, when using plastic pots there is no need for crocks in the bottom as plastic pots are amply supplied with drainage holes.

Method. The new pot should allow for about I in (2-5 cm) of new compost all the w.ay round the root ball and the same in the bottom. Except in a few isolated cases the new compost should be of a peaty nature, and a mixture of two parts of John Innes potting compost No. 2 and one part of sphagnum peat will usually give

the desired results. After potting, water the compost thoroughly then keep on the dry side to give the new roots a chance to get on the move. If plants are properly potted in late spring then there should be no need to feed the plant until early the following spring when the new season's growth begins to develop. Every second year is frequent enough to pot on plants that have been growing indoors, but it is often wise to pot larger plants that seem to be overgrown almost as soon as they are acquired. With some plants, such as sparmannia and strelitzia, which grow very vigorously it may eventually become necessary to trim the roots in order to keep them within the bounds of a 10-in (25-cm) pot. One very simple way of doing this is to water the plant well before removing it from its pot and, with a strong sharp knife, to cut away completely the lower section of the root system. Using the same pot, put crocks in the bottom, fresh compost on top of the crocks (an amount equivalent to the depth cut from the plant) and simply set the plant on top of the new compost. If this operation is carried out in early summer the plants will quickly root into the new mixture, gaining a new lease of life and seldom batting an eyelid in spite of the apparent harshness of the treatment.

For strong-rooting plants that are likely to be in their pots for some length of time it is essential that the potting compost should have some body in it. In this respect the John Innes mixtures cannot be bettered, but these will vary considerably from one producer to the next and it may be necessary to add peat to the mixture if it seems to be too thin - that is if it trickles through the hand like sand.

Tie plant is removed from its present pot and is placed in the space created by the removal of the smaller pot. The compost is firmed with the fingers

Hydroculture -Growing Plants without Soil

For those who want it, home gardening can now take advantage of a new method of growing plants which has been developed from hydroponics - the science of growing plants in water with fertilizers added.

To grow plants in this way the procedure at the moment is to start by sowing seed or propagating cuttings in compost in the conventional manner, and then to convert the plants to hydroponic culture (hydroculture) when they are established. In time the amateur grower will be able to convert his own plants, but at the moment it is done by the nurseryman in warm glasshouses on specially constructed benches.

When converting plants every vestige of soil is washed from the roots and the plant is then placed in a net pot in the bottom of which there is a shallow layer of Hydroleca. While the plant is held centrally in the pot the remaining space is filled with more Hydroleca, there being no need to ram or push the material into position. (Leca is a specially prepared granule that is used in the making of lightweight concrete, while Hydroleca is a special grade that is intended solely for use in hydroculture. The special grade is a smaller and more uniform pebble about the size of a shelled hazelnut, and is especially useful for its capillary action which is a necessary requirement for growing plants in water successfully.)

It takes about one month to convert the average indoor plant from soil growing to water growing and a further six to eight weeks for it to become reasonably established before being dispatched to the retailer. Prior to dispatch the net pot is placed in a watertight outer container, which should not be much larger than the net pot unless a number of plants are being grouped in the same outer container, as with office planters for example.

The outer container should have a water level indicator and a filler tube (see diagram overleaf). Water for replenishing the container can be poured over the Hydroleca or down the filler tube, but it is important when adding fertilizer that this should go down the filler tube only and be washed in - this will ensure that it finds its way directly into the water at the bottom of the container. When feeding plants, only specially manufactured fertilizers designed solely for use in hydroculture should be used, as the nutrients of such fertilizers are slowly released into the water only as they are required. Indiscriminate feeding can cause considerable damage to the plants' roots.

Growing plants in clay granules, water and specially developed fertilizers is a much cleaner and more attractive way of presenting them, and it offers a new dimension in indoor plant growing. It is important that the directions for feeding plants and maintaining water 17

Tie plant is removed from its present pot and is placed in the space created by the removal of the smaller pot. The compost is firmed with the fingers

Hydroculture plants are grown in clay granules in special

These pots are also embedded in the granules (Hydroleca) which fill the rest of the space in the outer container levels are adhered to, otherwise they will require exactly the same consideration as more conventionally grown plants. Temperatures will have to be maintained as advised for individual needs of particular plants and they must be kept out of draughts and away from radiators. Pests and diseases will still have to be watched for and treated with the appropriate insecticide, or whatever. Plants with glossy leaves will have to be cleaned periodically. Aerial roots that grow from the stems of plants belonging to the aroid family should be directed into the Hydroleca when they are long enough.

In all probability, the accuracy with which water requirements can be gauged is the greatest benefit hydroculture gives to the average house-plant grower. For, provided the indicator operates satisfactorily, there should be no problem with regard to the amount of water required. Containers will usually go for some three weeks between each water-filling operation and this will clearly be a tremendous advantage when holidays are contemplated. No further need to cajole neighbours and friends to take on the onerous task of caring for one's treasures! However, it must be remembered that, although plants may not need water during such an absence, there will still be a need for the provision of adequate temperatures should such absences occur during the colder parts of the year.

For the experimentally minded amateur the big question is almost sure to be 'What sort of plants can I hope to grow successfully in water'? And the answer, in relation to house plants, is that almost anything can be attempted and that many plants grow better than they do in the conventional potting compost. One paradox is the grape ivy, Rhoicissus rhomboidea, which does not seem to take kindly to water culture, yet grows like the proverbial weed in compost. Even sansevierias and many of the cacti appear to revel when introduced to hydroculture, and all the plants belonging to the Araceae family grow with obvious indications that they are content with the change.

Effective Display

The simple placement of a single dracaena or monstera can, in many situations, be much more impressive and eye catching than a clutter of smaller plants bundled together in no particular style. This is probably never more true than when a large plant of nephrolepis fern is seen in all its majesty on top of a pedestal support.

But this is not to say that all indoor plants are the better for standing in solitary splendour; far from it, the majority will look better and will very often fare much better when they have a few companions around them. In short, the proximity of other plants not only improves their overall appearance but also improves their performance. There is no shortage of suitable containers in which plants can be grouped, and should the economics of the situation be a problem then one of the most suitable of containers is an old baking tin. In this, half a dozen plants can be grouped together to achieve a very pleasing effect. The humble plant container can then be camouflaged by a piece of material or a timber surround.

It is an advantage when using containers of this type to place a 2-in (5-cm) layer of wet sand or gravel in the bottom on which the plant pots can rest. By keeping the sand or gravel moist it will be found that the plants will grow very much better and watering of the compost in the plant pot will be needed much less frequently. On the other hand, plant pots should never be allowed to stand in water for any length of time. A further word of warning on this subject is to recommend that no plant container, be it pot, trough or whatever, should be placed directly on the furniture - a cork mat put under it will prevent moisture damaging furniture.

With most plant arrangements it is very much better to leave plants in their individual pots as this will allow ' each one to be watered according to its individual requirements and will also offer the advantage of being able to rearrange the plants with much more ease.

Nevertheless I would hesitate to suggest that plants should be moved around too frequently, as they are usually better left in the same position once they have settled and are growing well.

If the unpotting and free planting in compost is an essential requirement of the plant arrangement then it is advisable that plants with similar needs should be put together; this will mean leaving the odd plant, sansevieria for example, in its pot for individual watering. Watering is an important consideration with these mixed plantings, especially so if the container used has no drainage holes in the base to allow surplus water to drain away. The best policy is to exercise restraint and to err on the dry side.


To produce the millions of house plants that are offered for sale annually the grower employs many different methods of propagation - some of which require such a degree of skill that only specialist growers undertake the task. But, for every plant that requires the skill of the specialist, there are scores that can be raised with reasonable success in little more than average conditions.

Many of our indoor plants may be raised from seed (monsteras, bromeliads and saintpaulias for example), but the majority are increased vegetatively by taking leaf or stem cuttings, while a few are propagated by dividing the root system. Some of the dracaenas. D. massangeana in particular, can be increased from stout stems that would seem quite unsuitable for propagation purposes.

When growing plants from seed only the best quality seeds should be used. John Innes potting compost No. I is a good medium on which to sow the seed and since most seed will germinate better in warm conditions a sheet of glass should be placed over the seedbox or pan to retain moisture. When a small number of plants are required only a very thin sowing of seed is needed and the seedlings should be evenly spaced in a seedbox as soon as they are large enough to handle without damaging them. Thereafter they are potted on into larger pots as required.

With any form of propagation that the indoor gardener may attempt, one of the prime requirements is that the compost, the pots, the boxes, the knife used for cutting and everything associated with the operation must be scrupulously clean. Furthermore, the plants used as a source of cuttings must be healthy and the pieces removed for use as cuttings must be the best pieces and not miserable little bits that will, in fact, have precious little chance of succeeding. Fresh sphagnum peat with a little sharp sand will provide a suitable compost for rooting the cuttings.

For the propagation of most plants excessive heat is not needed, but a steady temperature in the region of 18°C (65°F) will help considerably. In this respect a small propagating unit which has a heating element incorporated in the bottom to keep the compost warm will increase the chance of success. A small heated propagator of this kind can give a tremendous amount of pleasure and the close atmosphere of the unit will reduce transpiration to the minimum and help plants to root much more quickly. Good rooting is also aided by the use of a rooting powder or liquid. A makeshift propagator can be made simply by placing the plant pot and cuttings in a polythene bag and sealing it to prevent escape of air. Given the foregoing conditions it is possible to experiment with all sorts of plant propagation, and quite frequently the success achieved is surprising.

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