(Originally published in the December, 2011 edition of the Bayview Bylines, edited by Mandy Skala)

Many gardeners won’t admit it, but we look forward to the colder temperatures and darkening days of late fall and early winter. We have spent the spring, summer and early fall laboring mightily in the vegetable garden and the perennial borders, and, frankly, we could use a break! After a week or two, though, the horticultural virus that infects us resurges, and we relapse into gardening mania.

But, at this time of year, what’s a gardener to do? Turn to houseplants, of course!

My Aunt Opal was a gardener extraordinaire. She was born and raised in Murdo, South Dakota where temperatures ranged from extremes of 100+ in July to -30 in January. Technically, she gardened in Zone 4, but with a 40 mph wind in January, there wasn’t a lot to pick between Murdo and the Arctic Circle. This didn’t stop or even slow down Opal. Not only did she raise prize winning gladiolas (which she tenderly dug up in the fall and carefully stored over the winter) and a vegetable garden that fed the whole family, but she also was the most consummate indoor gardener I’ve ever known. Fussy – begonias, gloxinias, African violets, cacti and succulents – or easy – spider plants, polka dot plant, etc. – you name it, she grew it and grew it well.

My own collection of houseplants was acquired more by accident than intention. I believe that I’ve only actually purchased one plant – a Thanksgiving cactus from Lowes last year. The rest of my indoor garden was given to me by friends and family. While I have a number of Christmas cacti (Schlumbergera), I also have orchid cacti (Epiphyllum oxypetalum), African violets (Saintpaulia ionantha), aloe vera and one lone monstera (Monstera deliciosa). Like Opal’s, my indoor garden contains both prima donnas and peasants, but they all have three simple requirements that must be met if I want them to thrive.

Let me stop a moment to emphasize how important it is to know your plant! Never assume that an unfamiliar plant can be treated like all the others in your house. Look the plant up online or in a good gardening book and make note of its special needs. You might also want to be sure you know what plant it is! I was once given a plant by a dear lady who told me it was “some kind of Christmas cactus.” She warned me not to expect much of it since it had never bloomed for her. I kept that plant for at least five years because the lady had passed away and keeping the plant was like keeping a little piece of her, but I was on the verge of throwing it out (along with a similar plant that I’d acquired along the way) when, lo and behold, one spring day it bloomed! And I realized, at last, that my mystery plant wasn’t a Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) at all but, rather, an orchid cactus (Epiphyllum oxypetalum).

Water – More houseplants have been killed by drowning than by dehydration. In fact, most plants will recover more quickly from occasional under watering than from continual over watering. So, how do you know when your plants need water? Use your eyes and your fingers. Look at the soil in the pot around the plant. If it looks dry, poke your finger into the soil up to the first joint of our index finger. If the soil feels as dry as it looks – water your plant. For those of you with plants like African violets, don’t let them sit in a pool of water! Put pebbles in the pot tray to lift the bottom of the pot above the surface of any run off. This keeps the plant’s roots from rotting in the excess water and provides some additional humidity around the plant.

Light – No plant can thrive without light of some kind (unless you’re growing mushrooms in the closet!), but different plants have different light requirements. For example, spider plants can live on artificial light alone, African violets need indirect light, and Christmas cacti can take a stronger southern exposure (at least here in the frozen north). Many houseplants will do better with some supplemental lighting. Even a table lamp with a full spectrum compact fluorescent would work, but, remember, plants need rest, too! 24/7 light is a no-no!

Soil – Soils should be suited to the individual needs of the plant. Good all purpose potting soil will do for most plants, but some houseplants like orchids and cacti have special requirements. Some useful additions to typical potting soil include compost or worm castings for nutrients, sharp sand or Perlite for drainage and sphagnum or peat moss for water retention. Be careful when feeding houseplants. The temptation is just as great to over feed as to over water and can be just as deadly. Most plants, unless they are very heavy feeders, don’t need to be fed more than once a month.

Temperature – A final requirement we don’t usually pay much attention to is temperature. The temperature of the average American home (68-72 degrees) can be too warm for many house plants. Flowering plants, especially, need a drop in night time temperatures of 5-8 degrees to continue opening buds. So, if you’re having trouble with a plant that won’t bloom for you no matter what you do, try lowering your thermostat at night. You might get more flowers, and you’ll certainly get a lower home heating bill!

I don’t have the instinctual gift for gardening my Aunt Opal had. All I know I’ve gained through reading, hard work and, sadly, a lot of dead plants along the way. Still, I am not discouraged. Success, especially with houseplants, may not come easy for me, but, when it does, it is very sweet. I hope Aunt Opal would be proud.

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