Deb Babcock: Understand what makes houseplants healthy

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Deb Babcock

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

Find more gardening columns here.

Most of us know that our houseplants need air, water, sun and soil nutrients. But many of us give little thought to how the plant uses those elements to create foliage, color, blooms or root growth. By understanding what it takes to make your plants happy and healthy, you can nurture them to create beautiful, long-lasting greenery.

The leaves of your plant are where life-sustaining food is made. When sunlight reaches the chlorophyll in the leaves, a process called photosynthesis converts the nutrients from the soil into a form the plant can digest. The leaves also take in carbon dioxide from the air through its pores and expel oxygen and water vapor in a process called transpiration. This keeps the plant perky and fresh, and it’s why it’s important to keep your houseplant leaves free of dust and dirt.

That’s also why it’s important to not crowd your houseplants into a small space. Plants that are densely packed have a difficult time competing for sunlight and gaining enough air circulation to breathe and eat. It’s also a good environment for plant pests to proliferate.

Sunlight also is important for obtaining the color you desire in plant foliage. This is especially true with variegated foliage and plants with colored foliage such as the purple leaves of some begonias or the striped leaves of the spider plant. These plants often need more light, but not direct light, which can scorch the paler areas. For best results, place these plants in bright, but indirect or filtered, light.

Roots of your plants take on several duties vital to plant growth. The root hairs draw water and nutrients from the soil into the plant. You’ll find root hairs close to the surface of the soil as well as at the outermost edges of the root system, often peeking through the drainage hole in your pot. When a plant is repotted, the fragile root hairs can be easily damaged, making it difficult for the plant to draw water and nutrients up to its leaves where they are converted to a usable form.

Roots also provide an anchor for your plants, especially for tall, top-heavy foliage. The main roots hold the plant upright and play a role in transporting water and nutrients up to the leaves.

The potting soil you use should be easy for tiny roots to grow through while being firm enough to anchor your plant. When repotting a plant, carefully place the roots into fresh potting soil in a sanitized pot just slightly larger than the root mass.

The stem of your plant is the highway that nutrients and water taken by roots from the soil travel to the leaves. Stems also support the leaves, branches, flowers and fruit as well as serve as a food storage center.

By knowing the job of each part of your plant, you can take steps to ensure that your plants achieve the healthy growth you desire.

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Routt County Extension Service office in Routt County. If you have questions, call 970-879-0825.

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