Marianne Binetti

Marianne Binetti: Grow (and keep) houseplants

Want to breathe easier? Add some houseplants to your indoor rooms. Living plants take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen and many varieties add the benefit of removing pollutants from the air as the produce oxygen.

Here’s the primer on healthy houseplants:

Which houseplants are toughest to kill?

Old favorites such as dumb cane (dieffenbachia) pathos, parlor palms and snake plant (sanseveria) adapt to the low light and low humidity of indoor rooms. A great tip is to notice which green plants survive in public spaces such as the dark corners of waiting rooms or in the windows of office buildings. Those are the houseplants that will also survive in homes.

Which houseplants are the most difficult to grow?

Over the years I get the most complaints about weeping figs that drop leaves, gardenias that become infested with mites and jade plants that turn soft and floppy. (Most often jade plants droop from too much water and not enough light.)

What does it mean if the tips of the leaves on a houseplant turn brown or black and die off?

Leaf tips die back from too much water (don’t let the roots sit in drainage water) not enough sunlight, too low of humidity or too much fertilizer. In other words there are many reasons but over watering is the most common.

What if only the older or lower leaves of a houseplant fall off?

Leaf drop, especially on older plants, can signal not enough water, not enough sunlight, compacted soil or a plant that has grown too large for its pot. Repotting is the solution that can solve many of these problems.

What causes a sticky substance to form on the leaves of houseplants?

That would be residue from insects. Aphids, mites, scale and white fly all leave a sticky film on their host plant. (Think of this film as insect manure.) Hand washing each leaf with a mild soap and water helps destroy many of these insects but eggs will hatch and the colony will reappear if you don’t continue with the soap and water treatment every few weeks. Consider adding infested houseplants to the compost pile.

What causes the leaves on my houseplants to turn yellow or pale in color?

Mites are most often the culprit as these tiny invaders suck the juice from the foliage and multiply quickly on stressed out houseplants that are too dry. Lack of fertilizer, underwatering and indoor air pollution will also turn foliage pale.

What if entire leaves are missing or chewed off and the plant has no insects and has never been outdoors?

Blame your cat or dog.

Why do flower buds form and then never open and drop off?

Bud blast occurs when potted plants throw a fit because you let them dry out or move them away from their light source just as they are about to give birth to new flowers. An infestation of mites, thrips or white fly will also cause buds to fall as many plants refuse to bloom when under attack by insect invaders.

Which houseplant produces the most flowers with the least amount of problems?

I give my vote to the humble African violet. All they need is a bright window, and moist soil and they will bloom on and off all year long. You can group several blooming African violets onto a tray for a centerpiece, display a collection lined up on a windowsill or set a potted violet into a basket or bowl with other houseplants to create a living dish garden. You must keep the soil moist but not wet.

Bloom inducing tip: When you boil an egg, use the cool, salt-free water to water your African violets. The calcium that leaches into the cooking water from the egg shell will encourage blooms on African violets.

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