Deb Babcock: Care for your sick houseplants

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Deb Babcock

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

Find more gardening columns here.

— If your houseplants are looking a little sickly lately, maybe it’s time to perk them up with some new soil, a larger pot, some trimming or other care.

The first step is to carefully check the plant and the pot it is sitting in. If you notice any pests on the leaves or stem or crawling in the soil, isolate the plant immediately and treat it. Different pests and diseases require different treatments. Some problems can be eliminated simply by gently washing the leaves or spraying a solution of dishwashing detergent and water onto the plant and soil. Other problems require an insecticide; if that requires you to discard the soil, wash the roots off and replant in a sterilized container with new potting soil.

Leggy and spindly plants often just need to be pruned. If they are looking really bad, cut them back to just above the bud node on the main stem. If it’s looking really, really bad, it might be time to discard the entire plant and stop into your local garden center or flower shop for a new one.

As you’re looking at your plant, be sure to check under the pot. If roots are growing out of the drainage hole, it’s time to replant in a slightly larger pot. Get one that is only an inch or so larger than the current pot so that water and nutrients don’t drain away from the roots because there is too much soil in the pot.

When you lift the plant out of the pot, check it to see if the roots are growing in a circle around the stem. If they are tightly wound around the root ball, it eventually could choke off the plant’s main stem and kill it. If so, you’ll need to gently pull the roots away and let them spread out a little more. If the roots are woody and tough to spread apart with your fingers, you may need to use a knife or scissors to cut them apart.

Whatever kind of pot you replant your houseplant in, be sure it has a drainage hole at the bottom. One of the surest ways to ruin a houseplant is to let the roots sit in water for extended lengths of time. They eventually will rot and kill your plant.

If your pot is made of clay or another porous material, know that it will need to be watered more frequently since evaporation will occur more quickly, especially in our dry climate and warm winter homes.

Another way to ensure that your plants stay healthy is to give them enough space so that air can flow around and through the foliage.

And if your house is dusty (and whose isn’t out here in the West?), occasionally wipe off or spritz the leaves to wash away the dust. Use water, not oily polishes, since those tend to clog the pores of the plant making it hard for the plant to breathe. The only plants you don’t want to wash or spritz the foliage on are hairy-leaved plants such as African violet.

If your plants have been in the same soil for two to three years or more, chances are the soil needs freshening. If you see a crust of white on the top, the soil needs to be flushed of salts that accumulate from the fertilizers we use or possibly from your water. To do this, set the pot in a sink or tub and completely soak it, then let all the water drain away. You might consider scraping away the top 2 to 3 inches of soil and replacing that with some fresh soil to the top of the pot also.

It’s so nice to have plants in the house during these monochromatic winter months. They add a touch of fresh color, aroma and a bit of garden life to our living area. Take care of your houseplants, and they’ll give you many years of pleasure.

Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the Routt County Cooperative Extension Office. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.

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