Q: I am thinking of buying some new houseplants. Any suggestions?

A: For people who can’t have a dog or a cat, plants can be their pets. Indoor gardening can give plant lovers their start at all kinds of gardening. As a bonus, house plants have been shown to clean indoor air, and to be calming.

Where to get started? You can find most common kinds of house plants at garden centers and at super markets. Our local nurseries are a great source for top quality and unique plants, and helpful, knowledgeable sales people.

Your goal as a first-time plant owner, like outdoor gardening, is to get your plants to thrive. So you need to figure out how much light and water they need. Most house plants came from tropical climates, and would die outside, but love keeping you company indoors.

Different plants require different amounts of light. South sun is the harshest, and few house plants tolerate intense light. West sun can also be harsh, so plants may be placed further from a west window in summers. Most plants love sitting in an east-facing window, as this is the gentlest light.

If your new plant’s leaves seem to shrivel and turn brown at the edges, they are probably getting too much sun. Too little sun is harder to figure out. The plant usually just stagnates – it doesn’t grow new leaves or set out flowers.

Plants that require less light can do well with the fluorescent lighting found in offices, or placed further away from the light source. Philodendron, Scindapsus aureus or “pothos,” Sansevieria and some Dracenae are plants that do well in lower light.

In general, plants prefer to get extra light, rather than too little. The amount of light a plant gets, and how much it is flourishing, will determine how much water it needs.

Plants need more water when the air temperature is warm, when they are in a clay pot, when they are getting lots of light, there is good air flow around the pot, and when they are blooming.

They need less water if the plant is in a corner, with little air flow, when the plant is in a plastic pot, when it is dormant, and with lower lighting. Be careful to water your house plants slowly, and have a good tray under the pot to catch overflow.

Indoor plants need some fertilizer, but a lot less fertilizer than you think. Plants use solar energy to transform water and carbon dioxide into food. Ten elements play a major role in plant growth, but nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K) are the ones listed on the front of fertilizer containers, in proportion to each other. So fish emulsion, a natural fertilizer, will have 5-1-1 on its label, indicating it has 5 parts nitrogen to one part phosphorous and one part potassium.

There are several fertilizers on the market that are formulated just for house plants. It is important to read the label and follow the mixing directions closely. For many plants, “more” is not “better.” It is generally recommended that house plants get a bit of fertilizer in their water once a month.

The following are very popular house plants that need a bit more sun: varieties of Dracenae, a tree-like plant with pointy, striped leaves; varieties of Ficus, small trees in the fig family with small, round, dark green leaves; Chameadorea varieties, lush-looking palm plants; Chlorophytum varieties, the popular “spider” plant that send out shoots with young plants on the end.

When your new plant sends up a shoot, reaches for the sun, or sprouts a bloom, you realize it is happy, that you have helped it thrive, and your heart fills with joy every time you look at it.

The Joy of House Plants by Virginia Beatty was used as a reference for this article.
Contributed by Brook E. Mark, Colorado Master Gardener. For answers to your horticultural questions, contact the Master Gardener Help Desk at 636.8921 or CSUmg2@elpasoco.com
(A version of this article was published by The Gazette on 1/27/09.)