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Garden Q&A: How to easily care for houseplants indoors

A rabbit's-foot fern growing on a cork branch alongside a miniature orchid and a piece of Peperomia. Look ma, no soil!

Q: I’ve become enamored with plants these past few years, but am still fairly new to growing any indoors. Do you have suggestions for easy-care, rewarding types?

A: As the outdoor gardening frenzy slows with the approaching dormant season, and with this being National Indoor Plants Week, now’s a great time to think about indoor greening.

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In general, plant groups that have become wildly popular of late are enjoying a resurgence for a reason – not only are they attractive, but they’re comparatively easy to grow and propagate. They include aroids, hoyas, succulents, begonias, and ficus. Many are grown for foliage interest rather than flowers, since blooming plants often need brighter light levels than most houseplants receive (unless you supplement with artificial light).

I can share a sampler of tropicals I have success with, but keep in mind that easy-care for one person might be challenging for another because of our different indoor conditions and levels of devotion to plant care. Just like with outdoor plants, a key to having prospering plants is “right plant, right place” by matching the plant’s preferences to the conditions available. You have more wiggle-room when growing indoors for adjusting the conditions to suit the plant, since you can manipulate lighting, humidity and temperature, but how much effort you want to put into pampering is up to you. (I coddle some of mine but give “benign neglect” to others.)

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Hoya and their Dischidia cousins have done well for me with minimal attention and their semi-succulent leaves make them forgiving of underwatering and lower humidity. Some Hoya blush a lovely red if their leaves get brighter light. These are trailers/climbers, so need space to sprawl.

Episica, relatives of African violets, can be borderline weedy in their vigor (they grow runners like strawberries) if kept happy with moderate humidity, avoiding chills and given good drainage. They have vibrant flowers but are worth it for foliage beauty alone.

Haworthia and the unrelated Sansevieria have taken the brunt of my plant neglect for years and valiantly keep going. I underwater, repot and fertilize rarely, and they put up with lower light than other succulents prefer. They are diverse groups with varied leaf aesthetics, and the “bird’s nest” Sansevieria types stay short and take up relatively little space. Both form “pups” (offsets) that can be shared or kept to develop a large clump.

If you love ferns but find them too sensitive, try Rabbit’s-foot types. Their furry rhizomes ramble around or spill over a basket edge and they don’t faint if you are a little late with watering.

Q: This is the first summer I’ve been able to put houseplants outside, and they loved it. What should I keep in mind before bringing them back in as it gets cooler?

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A: Now is a good time to start thinking about transitioning our tropical companions back to indoor life for the winter. How much chill they tolerate depends on the species, but just about all of them will need to be in by Halloween.

Begin by inspecting for pests so you can treat them prior to bringing the plants in. Aphids, mites, thrips, mealybugs, scale and whitefly are typical hitchhikers, and could be lurking under foliage, on stems, or even among the roots. Sometimes a good foliage hose-down with water is sufficient, and it’ll help clean off air pollution and pollen residue if the plants weren’t being rained on.

Soil inhabitants like springtails and pill bugs may have set up residence in the potting mix, but are harmless because they eat fungal growth and organic debris. If tree frogs or toads live in your yard, don’t be surprised if one has begun to nestle itself into your larger containers as our nights get colder. On several occasions I’ve had a startled toad pop out of a pot I was watering on a porch, or a gray tree frog hanging out amid houseplant foliage well after I’ve brought the plants back in.

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Any plant reveling in the higher humidity, brighter light and better air circulation of the great outdoors can sulk a bit when brought back in, so that’s somewhat unavoidable. Still, maintaining a humid environment when heaters start drying out the air, plus giving plants the light levels they prefer, either with natural or artificial light, will lessen this culture shock.

Grow lights can boost plant performance for any type of plant and can make the adjustment less stressful for those that want brighter light than our winter sun provides. Some leaf shed can still be expected, but the new leaves that form while the plant is inside will be better-adapted to the new light levels.

Greatly reduce or cease fertilization entirely, and make sure you’re monitoring the plant’s watering carefully so you don’t overdo it. Water usage by the plant slows in winter in response to less active growth and reduced photosynthesis. If you use saucers under your pots, promptly empty them after watering so they don’t remain full and over-saturate the potting mix by seeping back up into the container through the drain holes.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Extension” to send questions and photos.


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