My Guide to Raising House Plants
When I went to the Netherlands for the first time, I was struck by the number of apartment windows filled with plants and it inspired me to bring plants into my own apartment. That was over 25 years ago.
There were a ton of early failures, and some thrived during the summer but shriveled and died during the long winter. It took me a while to realize not every plant works in every location. Some desire direct sun, while others prefer no direct sun at all.
My favorites are ferns and palms because they create a tropical vibe, but they are also among the more difficult to cultivate indoors as both are extremely sensitive to drought. Always keep in mind, however, that over-watering is by far the most common form of plant death, and it is something that can always be avoided if people would just lift the pot to judge its weight before watering. If it’s heavy, it means the plant still has plenty of water left to drink. Another favorite of mine is the Purple Passion Vine, the leaves of which are coated in purple velvet fur. And if you make Purple Passion really happy, she’ll sprout gorgeous orange flowers in the late summer. Many plants today are engineered not to produce viable seed, but Purple Passion is the easiest plant in the world to clone, Just take any cutting of a few inches or more, plant it in moist soil and she will root in a few days.
Around nine years ago I moved to Woodstock for a year, and lost most of my plants in the process, so the ones I have now are about seven years old. I did take one plant upstate with me, however, and brought her back when I returned, a Japanese Prayer Tree that I discovered as a tiny seedling 25 years ago for a few dollars. Here is how she looks today in my bedroom window (left).
The best time to buy a houseplant is in the spring. Plants love stability and despise shocks of any kind, so they prefer to stay in one place and not move around. After a year, they get comfortable and know what to expect. So the best time to re-pot your new plant, is when you first get home. Always water the plant before re-potting.
The new container should be two inches or more larger than the one the plant came in. Fill the bottom third with sphagnum moss, which will absorb amazing amounts of water. A little charcoal helps remove any toxic build-up. I pack the sides with worm castings, which is the best plant food because it doesn’t create fertilizer burn. You can also add some regular plant soil along with the worm casting. I include several tablespoons of Zeba, or similar polymer, which absorbs even more water than sphagnum moss. The roots of the plants will attach themselves to the Zeba granules as they grow and it will help prevent shock from over or under-watering. I’m trying something new this year and putting water globes into all my house plants. They advertise these as a way to leave your plants on auto-pilot for a week or two, and that might work if your plant is a cactus, but in reality, during the summer, any plant in the sun will require monitoring every few days. I love these globes, however, because they are beautiful, and also give a very clear picture of how much water your plant is drinking on a daily basis. The globes are a wonderful supplement to hand watering, but will not replace it entirely for most plants.
You’ll need to protect the stem from filling up with dirt. You can accomplish this by rubber-banding a piece of filter paper over the tip or by inserting a fabric wick into the stem. I tie a double knot in the fabric as a stopper, and leave a tail inside and outside the globe. You won’t need to water the plant again until the globe is empty, and when that happens, you should fully drench the plant again before re-inserting a full globe. I use a large screwdriver to make a hole for the globe to insert into. The tips are fragile and easily broken.
My plants are on the same scale as my art collection and my pets. Something I would never sell. But I do provide my friends with free cuttings of my Purple Passion Vine anytime they ask for one. Don’t be afraid to raise some house plants on your own, and if you follow my advice and use moss, polymers and watering globes, you can avoid the most common problems.