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Indoor Gardens — in 8 Easy Steps

Adding greenery to your home is an easy way to beat the winter blues

Interior of a home lush with plants

Warm up your home with colorful blooms. — Photo by Jessica Antola

En español | When winter's shortened daylight threatens to get me down, I turn to my indoor gardens for a lift.

See also: 6 ways to feel happier, be healthier.

The sunporch of my New Jersey home becomes a tropical getaway in January; the bromeliads, flowering maple, bird of paradise, camellia, and Boston fern are leafy reminders that spring will soon return. Small plants like hoya, prayer plant, and mistletoe fig in the kitchen window thrive in the humidity that rises from the sink. An assortment of moisture-loving ferns have found happy homes in the bathroom.

Wonderfully convenient indoor gardens can be as ambitious or as simple as you desire.

Lately it seems that everyone who can is growing vegetables outdoors. But what to do when the growing season draws to a close and you've plucked the last butternut squash from the backyard patch or community garden?

Bring your enthusiasm indoors!

Likewise, apartment and condo dwellers should make a preemptive strike against the gray days ahead by devising a green space they can enjoy all year-round. You might not get the same cardio workout you would from digging, planting, and weeding outdoors, but all aspects of gardening pay unique benefits. Tending plants soothes our souls, lowers blood pressure, and may even extend life.

Wonderfully convenient, indoor gardens can be as ambitious or simple as you desire — or your home can accommodate. Fans of what I call the Tarzan style have rooms filled with big-leafed philodendrons, Norfolk Island pines, dieffenbachias, and dracaenas. In a smaller space with a sunny window, a jewel-box garden with miniature begonias and African violets in exquisite glazed pottery can make a colorful statement. Or invigorate your dwelling with a "decorator plant" such as a Kentia palm, Chinese evergreen, or spathiphyllum.

Some of you are saying, "But I have a black thumb when it comes to houseplants." I hear that even from experienced outdoor gardeners. Find the right plant for the right place and give it TLC, then admire your bright-green thumb. Here are some home-tested tactics for a successful indoor garden.

Next: The eight steps. >>

1. The light stuff

East- and west-facing windows (with west being a bit warmer) are perfect for plants like African violets, which do not like to get colder than 65° F. Ivy and asparagus fern prefer the cooler east window. Plants with large leaves to absorb the most light — schefflera, aspidistra, Chinese evergreen, dieffenbachia — will appreciate a bright, unobstructed north window. If that spot is a little too shady, augment the light artificially.

I moved an easy chair near a palm at a north-facing window and placed the floor lamp next to it. When I sit to read a magazine, the plant enjoys some extra light as well.

One more hint: Give plants a quarter turn every so often to keep them growing symmetrically.

Adding a little bit of water every day leads to root rot — probably the greatest killer of potted plants.

2. Soil mastery

I don't use garden soil for potted plants. It's too dense and heavy, and lacks open spaces for oxygen. Potted plants need great drainage, and air for their roots. I don't use prepared mixes, either. They tend to decompose and squeeze out oxygen. Instead I make my own "soil-less" planting medium from humus (my choice is coir — recycled shredded coconut hulls) and perlite (small white chunks of exploded volcanic glass).

Use four parts humus to one part perlite for most plants; more perlite for cacti, less for jungle plants. If you have to buy a bagged medium, look for African violet mix, which tends to have better drainage.

(Note: The terms potting soil and planting medium are used interchangeably.)

The importance of drainage cannot be overstated. An old notion was to fill the bottom quarter of the pot with crocking — broken clay potsherds. But if your medium has good drainage already, the only reason for a piece of crockery, or some pebbles, would be to keep the soil from washing out of or clogging the holes. One concave potsherd over the single hole in a clay pot (or some pebbles for a plastic one) should do the trick.

3. Water works

"Experts" often recommend watering once a week. Wrong. You cannot impose a schedule on a plant, so water plants when they need it. That depends on soil, container type, indoor heat source (forced air is the worst), the weather (whether it's cloudy or sunny), and a host of other factors. Feel the surface of the potting soil. If it feels cool or damp, let the plant alone. If the surface feels dry (or, in a large container, if the top half-inch of medium is dry), water. Soon you will be able to judge this condition by sight. (Inexpensive commercial moisture meters are also helpful.)

Don't fuss over your plants too much. Adding a little bit of water every day leads to root rot — probably the greatest killer of potted plants. Except in a few cases, indoor plants want more water less frequently. Pour the water slowly on the soil until it thoroughly moistens the medium and seeps out the drainage holes. If the saucer beneath the pot fills with water, do your best to empty that. Then wait until the soil feels dry again, which could be in a few days or weeks.

If you see tiny black flies called fungus gnats around your plants, you are overwatering. The insects' larvae eat decaying matter in the soil. To nip gnats, water less often.

Next: How to feed your houseplants. >>

4. Maximum moisture

The air in the average home in winter holds about as much moisture as the Sahara Desert. That might be okay for cacti from arid regions. But many foliage and flowering potted plants originated in equatorial rain forests; they therefore want high humidity.

Clustering plants together will raise the relative humidity in their neighborhood. Consider adding a humidifier to the room or — with forced-air heat — a whole-house humidifier (for you and your plants).

An easy way to add moisture to the air is to place pots on trays filled with pebbles. When I water the plants, I water the trays as well. The pebbles increase the surface area from which moisture can evaporate, and they keep the pots from sitting directly in water.

The air in the average home in winter holds about as much moisture as the Sahara Desert.

5. Going to pots

If a plant is drying out faster than it used to, or if roots are poking out of the drainage hole, it might be time to repot. Move the plant to a container one size larger — from a 4-inch pot to a 5-inch one, for example. A pot that's too big (overpotting ) can yield soil that stays too wet, resulting in root rot.

Plants like to live in porous terra-cotta clay pots, which allow oxygen to reach the roots. But clay pots and the medium within them dry out faster than plastic or glazed ceramic ones. If you're frequently away from home, go with plastic. A variety of handsome plastic pots are on the market now, even biodegradable ones.

Containers must have drainage holes. If you want a decorative jardiniere that does not have a hole, plant in a plastic pot first; then slip that into the fancy container. Put some marbles or gravel and perhaps some aquarium charcoal in the bottom of the outer pot: This elevates the inner plastic container in case water collects in its bottom.

6. Diet time

Houseplants need to eat, but in the dead of winter, when they are not actively growing, I put mine on a diet and curtail feeding from as early as September until February, when new growth starts to appear. When I do feed them, I always halve the manufacturer's recommended rate.

Regarding plant foods: Every container of fertilizer — organic or not — will give three numbers in a ratio, for nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Leafy foliage plants want N to be the highest number. Flowering plants want more P. Potassium (K) encourages root growth and general health. Choose different plant foods for different plants, or select a balanced product with equal amounts of the three elements.

Next: How to keep bugs at bay. >>

7. Bug out

Plants are semidormant in winter, but pests are not. If your plants are healthy, insects should not pose much of a problem. Plants under stress may be attacked. If bugs show up, isolate the plant, if possible.

Prevention is best: Examine plants before you buy them. Look for mottled foliage and tiny bits of debris beneath the leaves. Shiny brown bumps on the stems or leaves are scale insects. Cottony masses are mealybugs. You also might find tiny whiteflies, which flutter when plants are disturbed.

Don't freak out if one plant fails — I can honestly say I've learned something from every plant I've killed.

I always try the least toxic cure for any problem first, and never use chemicals as preventives. If you can, take the plant to the sink, then spray and wash its leaves, above and below, with plain water. The washing dislodges bugs when there is an infestation. For larger plants, share a shower with your leafy friend. If critters persist, a drop of dishwashing detergent in a spray bottle of water should be the next step. Mealybugs? Dip an artist's paintbrush in rubbing alcohol and touch the cottony masses to kill them off. As for whiteflies, carefully hold a vacuum cleaner extension over the plants, shake them, then suck up the critters as they fly into the air.

Good air circulation helps plants stay healthy, as they would outdoors. I've been leaving the ceiling fan on low through the winter, and it seems to have reduced the pests considerably. Houseplants also appreciate a drop in temperature at night, so turn down the thermostat; plants are green in more ways than one.

8. Enjoy

Who can say if a single gorgeous potted plant will satisfy your new passion — or whether, like me, you'll find it hard to grow just one. In any event, be smart and buy only what you feel will brighten your days. And don't freak out if one plant fails — I can honestly say I've learned something from every plant I've killed. Soon you and your houseplants will "click." You'll figure out their rhythms and what makes them happy.

You might even want to spread the good fortune and pass along some plants to friends. Nearly any houseplant can be propagated. Your plants are the only treasured collectibles in your home that can be reproduced. Good luck doing that with a Hummel figurine or pewter beer stein.

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Ken Druse is the author of more than a dozen gardening books and host of the "Real Dirt" radio show and podcast. His most recent book is Planthropology: The Myths, Mysteries, and Miracles of My Garden Favorites.

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