Deb Babcock: Watering your houseplants properly

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Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

Probably the biggest mistake we make with houseplants is over-watering them. Although different plants have different watering requirements, most plants do best when the soil dries out between waterings. The exception to this includes African violets, caladium, zebra plants and Boston fern, all of which cannot tolerate dry soil. To be safest, check the instructions that came with your plant, or contact the nursery where it was purchased to see if it has particular watering requirements.

Watering your houseplants shouldn't occur on a set schedule, such as every Thursday. The plants should only be watered only when the soil has dried sufficiently, and this will depend upon where the plant is located, how warm and humid the room is, the type of plant, its stage of growth, and the time of year. Higher temperatures, drier environments and greater amounts of light will cause a plant soil to dry out more quickly than when in other conditions.

If the plant is in an unglazed clay pot, water will evaporate faster than plants in glazed ceramic, glass or metal pots. Large planters generally need less frequent watering than small containers. Plants that have outgrown their pot and are root-bound also will need more frequent watering (and probably should be repotted as soon as possible).

During these short winter days, plants are more dormant and use less water. To check whether your plant needs water, stick your finger an inch or two into the soil, or use a plant meter to gauge moisture in the soil. If it's moist, wait a couple of days and check again before watering.

When we overwater plants, we don't allow oxygen to penetrate the soil to the roots, where it is needed to produce a healthy plant. When the roots of your plant constantly are sitting in wet soil, they cannot breathe properly. Over-watering also can cause problems with houseplant pests that flourish in continuously moist soil.

When you water, use tepid, room temperature water, not ice-cold water. Avoid softened water, because it contains salts which can harm your plant. Pour water from the top of the plant until it begins flowing through the drainage hole. Then, discard the excess water.

If you're going on vacation for more than a week and don't have someone to stop by and water your plants, here's a tip from the HGTV Web site:

- Give your plants a thorough soaking before you leave.

- Create a self-watering system for individual plants using a plastic container with a lid. Poke a hole in the lid, and fill the container with water. Secure the lid to the container. Insert the exposed wick into the drainage hole in the bottom of the planter. Set the planter on top of the container. The wick will pull the water from the plastic container up to the soil. A plant can go for a week this way without being watered.

- For groups of plants, create a wicking system using the same principle on a larger scale. Place an absorbent towel on top of a dish-drying rack next to a sink. Allow the towel to hang over the counter into the sink. Place the plants on the towel, and fill the sink with water.

Simply put, to produce healthy houseplants, water only when they need it.

Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825

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