Houseplants & Succulents For Dummies
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Once you know what makes houseplants happy, growing them is a snap. If you start with one of the 10 easy houseplants I suggest and then follow the guidelines and tips in this Cheat Sheet, you’ll have a green thumb before you know it. You can then join the large and growing clan of dedicated houseplant lovers, and you may even decide to branch out with more difficult plants or crafts, such as creating your own corsage. Good luck and welcome to the club!

The ten easy houseplants anyone can grow

Most of the houseplants in this book aren’t difficult to grow, but the ten in this chapter are the easiest to care for. In fact, they can take a beating and hang on even in some of the most difficult growing situations.

Aloe Vera (Common Aloe)

Justly popular, this handsome, carefree plant fills its pot with fleshy light green leaves that are lightly marked or dotted in white. Snap one off if you happen to accidentally burn yourself while cooking and immediately swab the spot. The gel inside the leaves is very soothing. These plants grow about 1 to 2 feet (0.3 to 0.6 meters) tall, depending on their pot size.

Chlorophytum Comosum (Spider Plant)

I’d venture to guess this is the number one plant for college dormitories. Because taking care of plants isn’t usually a high priority for students, you get a good idea of the plant’s durability.

The spider plant gets its common name from all the “spidery” offshoots or babies it produces. It’s most often grown in a hanging basket, which allows the offshoots to dangle. It requires little care and grows 1 to 2 feet (0.3 to 0.6 m) tall and wide.

Dieffenbachia Seguine (Dumb Cane)

Also known as Dieffenbachia amoena, dumb cane is one of the most popular large houseplants. One of its primary attractions is undoubtedly its large patterned leaves.

Dumb cane is a fast grower that’s not fussy. It can grow to 5 feet (1.5 meter) and makes a strong statement in any indoor garden. It does well in bright diffused light and moderate humidity.

Dracaena Fragrans (Corn Plant)

Several species in the genus Dracaena are widely available and easy to grow. The corn plant’s leaves resemble — you guessed it — corn, and these plants are frequently sold as stalks with side branches. It has either solid green or variegated (striped) leaves.

Echinopsis Oxygona (Easter Lily Cactus)

Many, if not most, cacti are easy to grow as long as you plant them in well-drained media and don’t overwater them. This quick-growing cactus has large (8-inch/20-centimeter) funnel-shaped white to pink blooms that flower at night. They’re fragrant and gorgeous. The plant can grow as large as 2 feet (60 cm) across and 1 foot (30 cm) tall.

Ficus Elastica (Rubber Plant)

The rubber plant is undemanding for humidity and comfortable in average household temperatures, which makes it an easy-breezy houseplant. If you break one of the thick leaves, you can see the white latex-like sap that gives this plant its common name. You can find rubber plants with solid dark green leaves or variegated leaves with white markings. Both are handsome plants.

Hedera Helix (English Ivy)

English ivy’s aggressive growth can make it a real pest in outdoor gardens, but you can easily control it in indoor containers by cutting it back whenever you want. It’s a great plant for containers and hanging baskets, with leaves that vary tremendously in size, shape, and coloration

Nephrolepis Exaltata (Boston Fern)

Another name for Boston fern is sword fern. It’s the fern you commonly see in hanging baskets on porches throughout the United States during the summer. No fern is tougher than this one! When it moves from its summer outdoor growing area to an indoor space with lower humidity, some of its leaves may turn yellow and drop, but that doesn’t mean it’s down for the count. Its height and spread can grow to 2 feet (60 cm) or even larger as it matures.

Sansevieria (Snake Plant)

I don’t believe there’s another houseplant that can take as much abuse as this one. Snake plant can handle strong light or survive low-light conditions. It’s drought-tolerant, and its leaves come in many different color combinations and heights. It seems like the only way you can kill it is by overwatering it.

Scindapsus (Pothos)

The many names of this group of houseplants can be confusing. Sometimes they’re called scindapsus or philodendron, but most commonly they go by pothos. The leaves are heart-shaped, and the stems sprawl, which means you can train them up a post or let them wander off on their own. These plants work well in both pots and hanging baskets. The leaves come in a variety of shades and patterns, from plain green, to green and white, to golden. Pothos is at home in most indoor garden settings.

The yin and yang of growing houseplants

Growing houseplants in your home isn’t as difficult as you may think. The main thing to keep in mind is that all the cultural aspects of growing houseplants are interrelated. Here are some examples:

  • If the humidity is low (less than 50 percent), your plants will require more frequent watering. Very dry air can also encourage certain bugs, especially mites.
  • If your potting mix contains a higher percentage of well-draining material, like perlite or sand, your plants will require more frequent watering than if the mix contains more material that’s water-retentive, such as coir (coconut fiber), peat moss, or bark.
  • Plants receiving more light grow more quickly and require more frequent watering and fertilizing.
  • Plants in porous pots (like terra cotta containers) require more frequent watering than those planted in nonporous pots (like plastic or ceramic containers).
  • Plants from arid areas (such as cacti and succulents) planted in well-draining potting material require less frequent watering than tropical plants (like ferns), which require more moisture and flourish in more water-retentive media.
  • Healthy plants are generally less susceptible to diseases and insects. Conversely, diseased or insect-infested plants are slower growing.
  • If you’re growing plants in a windowsill, remember that the light intensity and angle changes throughout the seasons. A southern-facing window may be just right for most of your foliage plants during the winter, but it may be too bright during the summer. You may need to move the plants to a less-bright exposure, like an eastern-facing window.

20 tips to keep your houseplants thriving

Here are some pointers to help you succeed as a houseplant parent:

  • Keep the leaves clean. Wash them with warm, sudsy water. This will not only keep your plants looking more attractive but will prevent insect invasions and improve the leaves’ ability to absorb light and produce food for the plant.
  • Remove damaged and diseased leaves. Dead or dying leaves detract from the plant’s beauty and can be a point of infection.
  • If you have a favorite plant, reproduce it by taking cuttings from it. That way, if you lose it, you have a backup.
  • Repot your plants when they become overgrown. If they’re pot-bound, they’re more difficult to water adequately, and their growth will be stunted.
  • Don’t be afraid to cut or prune back rangy growth. This just makes the plant bushier and easier to manage.
  • Carefully check the tops and undersides of the leaves for insect or disease damage every day. It’s much easier to address these problems when you catch them early.
  • If you’re growing plants in a windowsill where they’re receiving most of their light from one direction, rotate their pots by 25 degrees every few days so they will grow in a more uniform manner and not be lopsided.
  •  Cut back or stop fertilizing in the winter, because most tropical plants slow down or stop growing during the cool, darker days of winter.
  • Make sure the pots you’re using have holes in the bottom so excess water drains out. Otherwise, you can waterlog your plants, and this can cause root rot. Use waterproof platters to catch the overflow water. Be sure to empty these platters after you water.
  • As hard as it is to do, sometimes the best remedy for a badly diseased or insect-infested plant is to ditch it. A plant in bad condition is very hard to revive and can be a “Typhoid Mary,” infecting your healthy plants.
  • If you don’t have enough natural light to grow plants adequately, consider some of the efficient artificial light sources that are available. LEDs are probably your best bet.
  • Once you’ve decided on a favorite plant group, check out the respective plant society website or Facebook page for more information. This is also a great way to make long-distance plant friends who are as enthusiastic about these plants as you are.
  • Don’t water your plants with water from a water softener system because it often contains salts that are harmful to plants. Use regular tap water or distilled water.
  • Water your plants with warm water. Frigid water can shock the roots of tropical plants.
  • Water your plants in the morning or early afternoon. That way, they’ll go into the evening with dry leaves. Wet leaves can cause various diseases.
  • When the potting material becomes excessively dry, it can be difficult to wet thoroughly. The water tends to go down through the potting mix near to the walls of the pot without penetrating the mix in the center. One way to get better results is to use warm (around 70°F [21°C]) water, which soaks into the potting mix better. Watering a couple times in row helps, and adding a drop of liquid dish detergent to the sprinkling can makes the water “wetter” (it reduces the surface tension of the water).
  • If your houseplants are in flower, you can extend their blooming period by placing them in a cool (around 65°F [18°C]) spot out of direct sunlight.
  • If you aren’t confident that you’re watering your plants correctly, consider using self-watering pots. They take the guesswork out of watering and are a great way to keep your plants watered when you’re away from home for a few days.
  • Start small. Just add a few plants at a time to your collection until you’re familiar with their requirements. Everyone has successes and failures!
  • Visit your closest botanical garden, conservatory, and specialty plant shop to get ideas about which plants may work for you. These are great places to ask questions of the experts.

Designing your container with thriller, filler, and spiller components

Sometimes it’s fun to combine several houseplants to create a mini garden in a container. The process of putting together plant combinations can be a bit intimidating, but it really doesn’t need to be. Some of the most successful container combinations include these three components:

  • Thriller: A thriller is your focal point plant and frequently adds height to the design. This plant is usually the most dramatic one.
  • Filler: A filler is usually a plant that adds some mass or body to the houseplant arrangement.
  • Spiller: A spiller is a weeping or cascading plant that hangs over the edge of the pot.

You can use this same concept for flower arrangements.

After designing your plant creation, you have the option to add a bit of whimsy, like butterfly stakes or figurines.

In the figure, you can see an arrangement of containers in my home that’s a good example of a combination planting.

arrangement showing example of combination planting
Photo by Steven A. Frowine

English-metric conversion tables

Many houseplant information sources, especially those outside the U.S., use metric rather than English measures for length, width, weight, volume, and temperature, so it’s handy to use this chart to convert to the measures you’re most familiar with.

English-metric conversion table
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About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Steven A. Frowine is a noted professional horticulturist and a longtime avid gardener and communicator. He has co-authored many titles in the For Dummies gardening collection, including Orchids For Dummies and Gardening Basics For Dummies.

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