BEAUTIFUL PLANTS FOR ALL PLACES
Getting The Warmth Right
Once you have decided where to put your plants in terms of light, you must consider the best situation in terms of temperature. Fortunately most plants will survive a fairly wide range although none take kindly to sudden changes.
When so many houseplants come from hot climates you might expect central heating to be a blessing. However most tropical plants are used to the steamy heat of rain forests not the dehydrated air that result from central heating. In fact central heating has probably killed more plants than unheated homes ever did in the past.
This means that unless you are going to restrict yourself to cacti and succulents which regard a dry atmosphere as the norm, it's vital to re-introduce humidity. You don't have to buy an expensive humidifier to achieve this end. You can stand pots in a trough or bowl of pebbles, and water the pebbles so that as the water evaporates it will rise as steam around the plants. Or you can simply stand a bowl of water near a plant. In addition , you can spray the leaves with a fine mist of water each day.
Surprisingly even with central heating it's still possible for plants to suffer from cold if they are left on the windowsill during winter. This is because unless the window is double glazed when the outside temperature drops, the temperature of the glass drops correspondingly. Any leaves touching it curl up and die. This is rarely enough to kill the plant but badly browned leaves look very unsightly. So either draw the curtains behind the plant, or move the plant right into the room. Whatever you do don't give plants a treat by standing them on the radiator shelf, because they will get so hot and dry, they will shrivel up. Only if a radiator shelf is really deep can you risk a plant in this situation.
Plants to avoid in centrally heated rooms are the very ones to seek for rooms that lack it.
Most of the ferns as well as requiring high humidity prefer a cool temperature during the winner. Of course cool doesn't mean cold the majority like a minimum temperature of 100C(500F)-including the Ladder Fern that most people buy. But Asparagus earn the delicate kind used in wedding bouquets will survive temperatures as low as 40C(400F); and Maidenhair Fern require a minimum of 70C(450F). One fern worth making a special note of is Holly fern. This will put up with temperatures of 40C(400F), but more important because it's such a rare attribute, it will put up with draughty situations too. It could be ideal for halls full of doors that the wind whistles beneath but don't expect a conventional looking fern. Although it's as gracefully shaped as its relatives its non-feathery fronds are made up of pairs of glossy green leaflets which gives it a more substantial look.
Palms aren't able to tolerate cold and need a minimum temperature of 100C(500F), as does the Swiss Cheese Plant and the Umbrella Plant and the Umbrella Plant. But there are several plants which will withstand 70C (450F). These include the climbing Grape Ivy and the Spider plant or that is the theory because in practice they have been known to survive a slight degree of frost, as has the Wandering Jew. As for the aspidistra and the Rubber Plant they are both prepared to put up with 40C(400f). The aspidistra will even put up with draughts too.
Without trees take unkindly to central heating and would be happier in homes that don't have it. The bay tree for instance loathes a winter of warmth and dryness and would much prefer cool or cold surroundings. What it would really like is a temperature of 1-60C (34-420F) although it might just survive in the humidity of a centrally-heated home if the humidity problems were sorted out.
The Silky Oak likes to be cool but not cold during winter. It prefers somewhere being greedy for sunshine during the summer the miniature orange tree demands a cool winter too with a temperature around 100C (500F).
Other trees can survive fairly low temperatures happily. The minimum for both the House Lime and the Weeping Fig is 70C(450F).
A Common Bloomer
Contrary to popular belief most winter flowering pot plants dislike a high temperature. This is why so many Christmas presents bite the dust sometimes as soon as New Year's Day the poinsettia has shed all its leaves so the flower like bracts sprout forlornly from the top of bare stems.
But at least poinsettia likes a warm temperature anything between 16-180C (60-650F) provided it's steady and there are no draughts. The African violet prefers a constant 160C (600F) though it can survive 130C (550F). And the cyclamen although it will become very miserable if the temperature rises above 180C (650F) likes a minimum of about 130C (550F).
So don't worry if you can't provide luxury conditions. Some of the most beautiful winter bloomers will bless you or Spartan conditions, with a temperature of 7-100C (45-500F). These include the azalea the cineraria (with its masses of colorful daisy shaped flowers). the Kaffir lily and the primula. They will all show their gratitude by flowering more prolifically. And the Busy Lizzie because it needs a cool winter temperature to give it a rest from flowering so abundantly throughout the rest of the year.
Tender Loving Care
More pot plants are killed by misguided kindness than by neglect. In summer they get put on window sills when they may cringe from direct sunlight; in winter they get stuck on radiator shelves, where the compost dries out and the roots get roasted. Throughout the year they will probably get over watered. This can be disastrous because roots get their oxygen from tiny pockets of air in the soil and over zealous watering washes them away.
When to water depends on various factors: the type of plant the plant's growth rate the temperature the humidity even the size of pot makes a difference. But although there is no easy theoretical answer, in practice it's generally just a matter of feeling the surface compost and if it's dry to the touch the plant needs watering. In summer you will find this means watering frequently, perhaps as much as two or three times a week because the plant will be transpiring in the higher temperatures. But in winter except in centrally heated homes which create a summer all year round you may only need to water once a fortnight once a month or less in the case of cacti. Always use water t room temperature: ideally rainwater or tap water that has been boiled to soften it.
It's no good giving a plant a dribble of water. This will only wet the surface of the compost while the rest eventually dries out completely, and starves the roots of the moisture they require. You need to pour on enough water to fill the gap between the surface of the compost and the rim of the pot. Then when the surplus water has drained through to the to the saucer or holder, empty it so the plant doesn't get wet feet. If there is no surplus water the plant must be thirstier than you realized, and you will need to repeat the watering process.
To Feed Or Not To Feed
When you buy a plant from a nursery do ask about its diet. It ill probably have got used to a liquid fertilizer and will feel very aggrieved if the supply dries up. This doesn't mean it will do anything as drastic as die but if you want a really healthy looking plant it's best to pay attention to its nutrition.
Plants vary considerably in their needs. Some like the bromeliads and cacti require next to no food. But most others, if freshly potted in spring, will need feeding once a fortnight between mid summer and autumn the period of their most vigorous growth. There is no need to feed plants during the winter while they are resting.
Over feeding like over watering can kill a plant. Be sure to use liquid fertilizer only in the strength and frequency recommended by the manufacturers. Before applying ensure the compost is moist as dry roots are very easily damaged.
Although wispy roots pushing through the bottom of the pot doesn't necessarily mean a plant needs re-potting, it's usually a fairly good indication. The best time for roots are beginning to get active and will quickly work their way into the new compost you give them. But don't leap the plant straight from a small pot into a big one; work your way up the potting sequence from a 12 cm (5in) pot to a 18cm (7in) pot or a 18cm (7in) pot to a 25cm (10in) pot after which time it's ready to move into a tub. If you are using a plastic pot it won't need any help with drainage because the bottom will be punctured with a number of small holes. But if you are using a traditional clay pot, which has the advantage of looking nicer and staying moist it important to cover the single hole in the bottom with a layer of crocks.
Position the plant centrally in its new pot making sure the surface compost is 1-4cm (1/2-1 1/2 in) from its rim, to allow enough space for watering. The depth you allow will depend on the size of the plant and pot. Fill in the sides with good new compost firming it in with your fingers water it once and then place it somewhere warm but slightly shaded to recover.
Going On Holiday
In summer if you have a garden find a shady area and plant your houseplants in the earth while still in their pots watering them first if the weather is dry. Ideally dig the holes slightly deeper than the pots to leave an air space. This will prevent pests and excess moisture entering through the drainage hole.
If you only have a patio or terrace group the plants together in a shady spot preferably against a wall or fence to lessen the chance of their being blown over. In this case as there is no surrounding soil to keep pots moist, surrounding soil to keep the pot moist, give the plants a through soaking before you put them out by immersing the entire pot in a bucket of water until bubbles of air stop coming to the surface.
If you have no great outdoors at all however and no friendly neighbor to come in and look after plants they can fend for themselves with a few precautions. Move them away from the windowsills, and group them together in the coolest and least sunny room in the house being sure to draw back the curtains so they get a good light. Leave hall and room doors open so fresh air can circulate. Then water the plants well and set about evolving a way of watering them in your absence.
Most garden centers sell extra absorbent matting to stand pots on. It works by capillary action, and allows the roots to draw up water as and when they need it. But if you forget to buy the matting in time you can create a version of your own by covering the bottom of a washing up bowl with a dishcloth in 1cm (1/4in) of water. For longer periods you can cover the bottom of the bowl with broken crocks instead and pack crumpled pieces of damp newspaper between the pots. And for even longer periods you can fill the bowl with water range the pots around it and then place one end of a woolen thread or strip of lint through the soil of each individual pot with the other ends extending into the water.
There is very little you can do for plants that have to be left alone during the winter. They certainly don't need a good water quite the contrary because if there's a frost a wet soil-ball freezes quicker than a dry one. So give them just enough water to moisten the soil and of course move them well away from the window. If you are seriously worried about the risk of frost provided you leave the upper leaves protruding you can try wrapping the pots in thick newspaper or blankets. When you arrive back home do introduce your plants to increased temperatures gradually don't rush them into a heated room thinking what they need is a really good warm up.