Keeping your houseplants healthy

Add color, humidity and oxygen to your home this winter

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— While the snow accumulates on the outside window sill, beautiful houseplants can share the inside window sill. The amount of light, room temperature, water, food, humidity and cleanliness all affect a plant's ability to grow and thrive.

All plants require light for photosynthesis, which creates food energy and maintains life. Without adequate light, plants will grow leggy, weak and susceptible to disease and insects. Plants will receive the most sunlight if placed near a southern-exposure window. Artificial light will produce a high light intensity with minimal amount of heat. Fluorescent tubes or grow-lights can be put on a timer, about 1 foot above the plant for 16 hours a day.

Most tropical foliage plants prefer a daytime temperature of 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit and a nighttime temperature within 10 degrees of daytime. Flowering plants will like a cooler nighttime temperature down to 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The closer a plant is to a glass window the cooler the temperature. If the plant touches the window it will freeze.

How much and how often to water a houseplant is a tricky question. There is no set rule for watering houseplants. Different environmental factors that determine the need for water are temperature, potting medium, container, sunlight exposure, maturity of the plant and humidity. For example, if your plant is in a south-facing window on a sunny Steamboat day or has become root bound, it will dry out faster. Clay pots will dry out faster than plastic pots. "Peat-lite" potting mixes drain unwanted excess water.

Overwatering will send more plants to the compost pile. Learn to feel the soil an inch deep; if it is dry the plant needs water. Watch the color of the soil, as it dries it becomes lighter and pulls away from the edges of the pot. To water, pour room-temperature water (68 degrees Fahrenheit) through the top of the pot until it comes out the drain hole in the bottom of the container. Discard any water left in the base saucer. Certain plants may require water more often, such as African Violets and ferns, while cacti and succulents need to dry out completely before watering.

Most houseplants do not require fertilizer during December and January, unless otherwise noted. Plants grown under artificial light will need fertilizer as they do not experience climate changes.

Houseplants can be found growing naturally in humid, warm, tropical conditions. We may not be able to make our homes feel like Costa Rica in November, but we can improve dry conditions with humidifiers during the winter. Group the plants together and place them on a tray of water (elevate the pots to prevent wicking). Don't mist plants as it quickly evaporates.

Insects like dry and dirty plants. Wipe dust and grime off the plant leaves as the dirt will decrease the amount of light the plant receives. Use a soft cloth dipped in warm water with a few drops of mild dishwashing soap and wipe both the upper and under surface of the leaves.

Keep your houseplants healthy and they will add color, humidity, oxygen and beauty to your home this winter.

Camille C. Fisher is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or e-mail: gardeners@co.routt.co.us.

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