Indoor plants could use some attention – or less attention – this time of year

January 9, 2013 

The second week of January is when gardeners take note of their often-ignored houseplants. This year the beauty and health benefits of indoor plants is a top trend for 2013 as health and wellness surpasses prestige and luxury as the reason consumers decide to part with their disposable income.

Those green stalks of lucky bamboo that were such a hit with the 20-something crowd have now spread to include all ages and all types of indoor plants. The only problem – how to keep them alive after you get them home? Readers frequently write me about their houseplant woes. Read my answers below for some common questions and complaints:

Question: I would like to try growing an indoor orchid plant as a co-worker informed me that orchids can be grown by people like me with what I call a “black thumb.” I should tell you I have killed other houseplants but really love orchids because they remind me of Hawaii. What type of orchid is easiest to grow in an office environment?

Answer: You can’t fail with Phalaenopsis. New varieties are easier to grow and much easier to find now that grocery stores, home stores and discount retailers are offering potted orchids as well as your local greenhouse. Buy a Phalaenopsis or moth orchid that is in bloom but still has many buds. Do not over water. Root rot is the most common way to kill a potted orchid.

In our cloudy climate, many orchids need water only once a week. Just make sure the plant does not sit in drainage water. Some orchid growers suggest you water orchids by placing a few ice cubes on top of the bark chips that surround the orchid roots once a week. Phalaenopsis orchids love filtered light. Keep them out of direct sun — again not a problem in Western Washington.

Another tip is do not fertilize your potted orchid when it is blooming. Too much fertilizer can cause the orchid to drop its already formed buds. Wait until summer when the orchid goes dormant to feed your orchid plant.

An office is a great place to grow Phalaenopsis orchids because they prefer warm daytime temperatures warmer than 70 degrees but low night temps cooler than 60 degrees — perfect for any location that turns the heat way down at night. Buy a budded orchid plant in January and you can easily enjoy fresh blooms until April.

I think your black thumb is turning green already.

Q: I have a dark corner in my condominium living room and have tried to grow various houseplants to fill up the space and add some life. I am giving up on growing a ficus tree after watching the second one drop leaves and die. What tall indoor plant do you suggest for a corner with no windows? A: Sounds like you need a lady in your life – the graceful lady palm that is. Lady palms, or Rhapis excelsa, come in more than 100 named varieties but all do extremely well in low light — something the British found out in the 18th century when these palm trees graced every proper Victorian parlor.

Lady palms are a slow grower with thin stems. The soil should be kept just barely moist, but allowed to dry out a bit during the winter months. Slow growth means it does not need much fertilizer so use a liquid plant food diluted to half strength in the summer months only.

Now here’s a design tip to turn this lady into a diva. Use a low voltage spot light hidden on the ground behind your palm tree to “up-light” the graceful fronds from below. Delicate shadows will be cast onto the wall for an inexpensive alternative to wall paper.

Q: Help! I inherited a large and beautiful jade plant. It is now dying. It was happy all summer and then a few months ago started to drop leaves. It is near a bright window, and I water it once a week. Should I repot the plant?

A: Help is on the way! Do not repot your jade, just stop watering. This succulent plant needs very little water in the winter when days become shorter. In our climate, potted jade plants thrive on a cupful of water once a month from October through March.

Some indoor gardeners insist they don’t water their jade plants at all during the winter, but I find if you water once a month, you can prevent the foliage from shriveling. Jade plants enjoy spending the summer outdoors on a patio, but check the plant carefully for cottony-white mealy bugs before you bring it back indoors. A cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol is an effective treatment for mealy bugs on any houseplant. — R.S., Maple Valley — D.S., Tacoma — P.P., email Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of several books. For gardening questions, write to her at P.O. Box 872, Enumclaw, WA 98022. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a personal reply. She also can be reached at binettigarden.com.

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