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Hardy houseplants for brown thumbs

This article was originally published on December 4, 2013 and expired on January 4, 2014. It is provided here for archival purposes and may contain dated information.

News source/writer: Richard Hentschel, 630-584-6166, hentsche@illinois.edu


URBANA, Ill. - Winter can be deadly for houseplants, not because we left them outside to perish, but because we brought them in, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"Our homes have very low levels of humidity and a lot less light than those houseplants got outdoors," explained Richard Hentschel. "Depending on where they sit inside, winter drafts can also influence how well they do.

"Ideally, houseplants should be brought in before the furnace starts to run so they can slowly get used to the lower levels of humidity. By early to mid-winter, there is usually some yellowing of foliage and dropping of leaves that have browned. This is a natural reaction to a change of environment," he said.

Another big consideration is to not overwater because many houseplants quit actively growing for the winter months, and it is easy to overwater and cause root rots.

"There are some houseplants that perform better indoors with less light, less water, and lower humidity," Hentschel said.

There are several houseplants, or families of houseplants, that are worth trying if you have not had good luck growing houseplants in the home.

Dieffenbachia, commonly known as dumbcane (because of numbness in the mouth if it is eaten) will tolerate low light levels and periods without water in case you forget once in a while to check. Another medium to larger houseplant is Sansevieria, which goes by the common name of snake plant.

Sansevierias are very tough, can live with very low light, and can remain fairly dry for long periods. Besides the tall-bladed plants, there are also shorter versions that can easily fit on window sills.

"If Sansevieria is overwatered, it tolerates overly wet soils while the pot dries out," Hentschel said. "One very neat and compact plant to consider is Peperomia. The leaves can be deeply textured or shiny and smooth and even variegated, and the plant grows with a nice mound of foliage.

"Aglaonemas, known as arrowheads, is another large family of tropicals that are tolerant of low light levels and humidity. They come in shades of green and with a variety of variegated leaves," he added.

If you think you are one of those "brown thumb gardeners," what can you do to get that green thumb?

Water well enough to see it collect in the saucer below, and then after 5 to 10 minutes, drain away any excess. If you can use the same soil mix in all the pots, watering will be more consistent, Hentschel suggested.

"Another consideration is to use the same kind of container," he said. "Clay pots are much more forgiving if you overwater as the clay is more porous. If you find yourself watering all the time, perhaps a non-porous pot made out of plastic or a glazed ceramic pot will not allow the soil to dry out as fast.

"Remember that most houseplants are not going to be actively growing in the darker days of winter so do not expect great things. Keeping the foliage clean by rinsing in the sink, or larger plants in the shower, will let them use the lower levels of light to the best advantage."

There are many more houseplants to consider, and a visit to your favorite greenhouse will provide you with lots of choices. If you find you are good at growing a particular plant, then consider more of those from the same family and call it a collection to impress the neighbors.

Source: Richard Hentschel, Extension Educator, Horticulture, hentsche@illinois.edu

Pull date: January 4, 2014

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