By Dr. Ioana Popescu
Associate Professor of Biology
Plants are at the base of the food chain and feed almost everything; they are the main air purifiers, taking in CO2 that is poisonous for most living organisms and using it to produce sugar, while also splitting water (a very difficult chemical reaction). They then use the energy released through this hydrolysis reaction to release O2, the life-supporting gas all us aerobes rely on to survive. Life on Earth could not be possible in the absence of plants, even though we may consider some of them weeds.
Keeping plants indoors brings the outdoors to us. Studies suggest that just looking at a picture of plants or the outdoors helps sick patients recover more quickly.
Now that we’ve seen the forest, let’s talk about the trees: how to keep plants alive in your home or office. So what to do to keep your green “buddy” alive, healthy and “happy” in order to help you stay alive, healthy and happy? First remember that plants are alive, which means they need some attention. Plants need light, water, air moisture and temperature control. For these environmental factors, find out the tolerance range of these parameters relative to the species you are considering ‘adopting.’
Light – Natural light is best, but when necessary, fluorescent (blue, cooler) lights will do; they are better than the incandescent (hotter) lights. Most indoor ornamentals are tropical understory weeds and are usually tolerant of limited indoor lighting. Some species are indeed more finicky and prefer an east or north exposure as opposed to west and south (for example, African Violets).
Water – the amount of water will vary according to the species, and to the other conditions in your house: light, humidity, temperature, or even whether the pot is plastic or clay (clay pots ‘breathe’ and lose more water). My suggestion: start with watering one to three times a week according to plant species, monitor how “happy” the plant looks and decide from there to water more or less often. One rule of thumb would be to allow the topsoil to get dry between watering. The roots are alive too, and they need to “breathe;” if you overwater they will suffocate! Another idea when considering your plant’s water needs is to use “rested water.” After you empty your watering can refill it and have it ready for the next watering. This way there will be less chlorine and the water will be the same temperature as the plant & soil.
Air moisture – This is not a problem in summer, but is sometimes a problem in the winter due to our forced air heating systems. You might consider a humidifier for you as well as for your plants, or add a larger saucer and some pebbles underneath the pot. Keep the pebbles partially underwater, and they will add to the evaporation area and improve air moisture around your plant.
Temperature – Most indoor ornamentals do not tolerate frost, or sometimes even temperatures below 50° F, but occasionally the reason your indoor ornamentals do not do so well in your home is that they need a colder location than the one you are offering. Such species include cyclamens and poinsettias.
When you are growing a plant that does not bloom for a while, consider a fertilizer or a potting soil containing slow-release fertilizers.
Enjoy your green buddies!