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Houseplants 101

Many people from college students to senior citizens, not to mention preschoolers, enjoy having a plant to care for in their living space.  Whether this is a tender flowering tropical, or the hard to kill rubber plant (Ficus elastica), houseplants maintain a sense of balance with the world.

Looking after the houseplant may be a challenge though to those who are at the start of the learning curve on how to grow beautiful plants.  Challenges can be avoided if a few simple steps are taken.

Light:  All plants need light of some sort, but many can tolerate a variety of conditions. Very hot window areas that are in direct sun all year round is not required, but very dark dusty corners are not healthy for the plant either. Most grow well in indirect, bright light such as a sunny room, or near a window.  Even in the best conditions though, some plants will need more light, particularly in the middle of winter. Low light levels can cause leaves to turn yellow, or the plant in general to get very straggly with pale stems and leaves that are spread far apart. Remedy this problem by adding artificial light from a lamp. Note that special bulbs are not really needed unless you are growing prize specimens for show.

Water: This is the demise of most houseplants. People tend to over-water and drown the roots, or they forget to water and dehydrate the roots.  For best results the soil should be slightly damp after watering with no puddles on top.  Let the top inch or two, depending on the pot size, dry out before adding more water.  If possible, water well and let the excess water drain into the saucer.  Empty the saucer promptly. New water bulbs are on the market, but they are really just for small pots and have some definite problems that beginners do not need!

Soil:  The right soil mix is essential to good growth.  Commercial mixes are made with aerating materials and fertilizers and should be used over garden soil. Garden soil can contain many harmful bacteria that are fine outside, plus it is much denser, which leads to drainage problems. Some plants like cactus, African violets and orchids, need special soils and drainage, so it is wise to research this before buying them.

Pot: From a commercial side, stunning plants are meant to sell quickly, and they look bigger and better in small pots.  Plants that are meant to grow for more than a month or two will benefit from being repotted as soon as you get home.  Pick a pot that is one size up from the store one, or even bigger if you think the plant will look better.  Tall plants particularly look lanky if the pot is too small, so include some aesthetics with your choice as well.  The material for the pot is up to you, but make sure that you have a hole for drainage in the pot. Using simple pots with drainage, and putting them into larger more ornamental pots with no hole, will accommodate the function, or use a deep saucer to catch the drips.  Small plants may do better on a bed of gravel with a wick system to allow the right amount of water to be delivered to the pot.  
With these basics under your belt, you will be able to enjoy your houseplant and gain confidence that you can indeed have a green thumb, even in an apartment.

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