Category Archives: houseplants

Houseplants Facts to Know

It’s amazing how many potential pollutants can be found in a home. For most of a winter day, our homes are closed tight with no windows or doors open to let out pollutants and let fresh air circulate. Toxins such as benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene can be released from furniture upholstery, carpets, cleaning products, paint, plastics and rubber. Carbon monoxide from the incomplete burning of wood and nitrogen oxides from cigarette smoke, vehicle exhaust and smog can also be present in indoor air.

Areca palm

Then there are airborne biological pollutants. These include bacteria, viruses, animal dander and dried cat saliva, house dust and pollen. House mites, the source of one of the most powerful biological allergens grow in damp warm environments. Mold and mildew grow in moist places like central heating systems and are just one more source of indoor pollution.

Many common houseplants help fight pollution indoors. They are able to scrub significant amounts of harmful gases out of the air through the everyday processes of photosynthesis. The first list of air-filtering plants was compiled by NASA as part of a clean air study published in 1989 which researched ways to clean the air in space stations. As well as absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, as all plants do, these plants also eliminated significant amounts of benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene. Other studies added to the list of chemical pollutants and the best plants to remove them.

Pothos

NASA researchers suggest that the most efficient air cleaning occurs with at least one plant per 100 square feet. Even the microorganisms in potting soil remove some toxins. Yikes, who knew all that was going on right under our noses.

BromeliadSome of the easiest houseplants to grow are some of the best to have in the home. Just about all the potted palms are good. Also rubber plant, dracaena ‘Janet Craig’, philodendron, boston fern, ficus, peace lily, Chinese evergreen, spider plant, snake plant, pothos, English ivy and phalaenopsis orchids are high on the list of plants that fight indoor pollution.

Bromeliad species

If you have a cat of dog that you share your home with most of the above plants aren’t safe for them according to the ASPCA website. While all plants clean the air only ferns, spider plants, areca and parlor palms and phalaenopsis orchids from the above list are safe.

Other houseplants toxic for dogs and cats according to the ASPCA are asparagus fern, lilies, cyclamen, jade plant, aloe vera, azalea, begonia, ivy, mums, coleus, sago palm, kalanchoe and rubber plant. Keep your pets safe by keeping toxic plants out of reach.

There are many houseplants that are safe for cats and dogs and every plant photosynthesizes and cleans the air to some extent. Some of the common ones include African violet, aluminum plant, bromeliads, peperomia, areca palm, polka dot plant, cast iron plant, Christmas cactus, chenille plant, creeping Charlie, false aralia, Tahitian bridal veil, wandering jew, goldfish plant, piggy-back plant and the succulents, donkey’s tail and hens and chickens.

With a little planning you can clean the air in your home while keeping the pets safe.

Houseplant Confidential – Part I

Tucked on window sills and tabletops my houseplants clean the air and provide indoor beauty while the landscape outdoors is mostly resting. They are easy to keep healthy if I follow a few tips.

Spathiphyllum aka Peace Lily

A typical houseplant lives in the understory of a tropical rain forest where it gets filtered light. They’re used to warm rain and perfect drainage. We put them in pots inside our homes where they have much different conditions to contend with. Most houseplants will tolerate darker conditions if you adjust your watering to accommodate the slower growth rate.

Water just enough to keep the soil from going totally dry allowing oxygen to move back into the root zone. Let the soil in a 4-6 inch pot dry half an inch down between waterings then water with room temperature water. Don’t let the pot sit in a saucer of water or the roots will rot. If your plant is in a larger pot let the soil dry a couple inches between waterings. A moisture meter is very helpful for larger plants.

Move plants into the best light you have. Even a table lamp will provide light for a plant growing underneath. Remove dust with a moist cloth or place the entire plant under lukewarm water in the sink. Dust blocks light from getting to leaves.

Dracaena

Fertilize less often skipping December and January and starting up again with half strength fertilizer in mid-February. Houseplants are essentially dormant in winter needing fertilizer only when active growth resumes.

Don’t re-pot a plant in winter when they are slow to grow new roots. Replant when the growing season resumes in March or April. Choose a pot only two inches bigger than the old pot each time you transplant. Most plants grow happily for years in the same pot and soil with proper fertilizing and watering during the growing season.

Avoid placing plants in cold drafts near high-traffic areas such as a foyer or hallway. Ficus trees are notorious for dropping leaves when exposed to temperature changes.

Sansevieria

If you have medium to low light conditions in your house some of the best upright plants are philodendron, peace lIly, Chinese evergreen, cast-iron plant, schefflera, arboricola, ferns and palms. Hanging plants that grow well in low light are heart-shaped philodendron, pothos and grape ivy. Most of these houseplants grow naturally in low light areas of the jungle. Don’t overwater and they’ll be happy.

If you do find insects on your plants, a spray of mild insecticidal soap for houseplants usually does the trick if you do a follow up spraying a week later. Horticultural oil works well, too, by smothering insects and their eggs. If you have tiny black fungus gnats flying over the soil, you are watering too frequently. They feed on the algae growing on moist soil. Scrape off the surface, spray with insecticidal soap and let the soil dry out.

Next week: toxic and non-toxic houseplants for cats and dogs and those that clean the air.

Cool Ideas for Back-to-School Gifts

With the first day of school fast approaching parents are busy getting colored pencils, highlighters and markers for the new school year. Students need backpacks, clothes and other supplies too. Teachers are hard at work also getting their classrooms ready in addition to lesson plans. If you are thinking of getting your teacher and classroom a little back-to-school gift here are some suggestions that will do double duty as teaching moments and a thank you.

tillandsiaTillandsia mounted on driftwood

Plants are the perfect choice for a small gift. One easy-to-care plant is the tillandsia or “air plant”. A small one can be placed in a small shell or attached to a piece of driftwood and if given some light near a window and sprayed or dunked in water each week they will flower and reproduce by growing offshoots or “pups”. Turn this gift into a teaching moment to share with the rest of the class by writing out an explanation of their interesting ways.

Tillandsia like their relatives, Spanish moss and pineapple, have tiny scales on their leaves called trichomes which serve as very efficient absorption systems to gather water. They are very tolerant of drought conditions and will grow with just a spritzing of water although I like to run mine under lukewarm water to mimic the showers they might get where they normally grow on tropical tree limbs. They prefer the light from a bright window but not direct sunlight and are among the easiest of indoor plants to grow and maintain.

succulentsSmall succulents for the window sill

Another plant that would make a nice addition to the classroom is the succulent.  Succulents are easy to grow. They are very forgiving plants given different watering and light conditions. I’ve seen small ones planted in recycled boxes, old tins and hand decorated or painted clay pots. Succulents have an interesting life history that can be shared with the class, too.

A quick check of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, provides this information. In botany, succulent plants are plants that have some parts that are more thickened and fleshy in order to retain water in arid climates or soil conditions. The word “succulent’ comes from the Latin word sucus, meaning juice or sap. Succulent plants may store water in leaves, stems or roots and have the ability to thrive on limited water sources, such as mist and dew, which makes them equipped to survive in an ecosystem which contains scarce water sources. They can survive on sea coasts and dry lakes, which are exposed to high levels of dissolved salts that are deadly to many other plant species. If they can survive there they will flourish in the classroom.

spathiphyllumSpathiphyllum or Peace Lily

Another gift idea for the classroom is a small houseplant that can clean the air. The first list of air-filtering plants was compiled by NASA as part of a clean air study published in 1989 which researched ways to clean the air in space stations. As well as absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, as all plants do, these plants also eliminated significant amounts of benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene. Other studies added to the list of chemical pollutants and the best plants to remove them.

NASA researchers suggest that the most efficient air cleaning occurs with at least one plant per 100 square feet. Even the microorganisms in potting soil remove some toxins. Some of the easiest houseplants to grow are some of the best to have in the classroom. Just about all the potted palms are good. Also rubber plant, dracaena ‘Janet Craig’, philodendron, Boston fern, ficus, peace lily, Chinese evergreen, spider plant, snake plant, pathos, English ivy and phalaenopsis orchids are high on the list.

Other gift ideas that would do double duty outside the classroom in life lab would be a packet of quick maturing seeds such as lettuce, spinach or other greens. Sow the seeds thickly into nice prepared soil on the first possible school day and begin harvesting the baby greens ‘cut and come again’ style about six weeks later.

The outdoor garden boxes always need new plants to attract polinizers and 4” pots are readily available. Choose from California native plants such as salvia and yarrow. Common garden plants that attract bees and other insect pollinizers are rosemary, lavender, sweet alyssum, glorious daisy and coneflower.

Houseplants Clean the Air in Winter

 

 

spathiphyllumSpathiphyllum aka Peace LilySome of my houseplants look a little sad. They were forced to give up their regular place for the Christmas tree and table top decorations and the leaves are dusty and looking a bit droopy. Houseplants can absorb toxins from the air in your house. We spend more time indoors in the winter so that’s an important function. Let your houseplants work for you.

It’s amazing how many potential pollutants can be found in a home. For most of a winter day, our homes are closed tight with no windows or doors open to let out pollutants and let fresh air circulate. Toxins such as benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene can be released from furniture upholstery, carpets, cleaning products, paint, plastics and rubber. Carbon monoxide from the incomplete burning of wood and nitrogen oxides from cigarette smoke, vehicle exhaust and smog can also be present in indoor air.

DracaenaDracaena

Then there are airborne biological pollutants. These include bacteria, viruses, animal dander and dried cat saliva, house dust and pollen. House mites, the source of one of the most powerful biological allergens grow in damp warm environments. Mold and mildew grow in moist places like central heating systems and are just one more source of indoor pollution.

The first list of air-filtering plants was compiled by NASA as part of a clean air study published in 1989 which researched ways to clean the air in space stations. As well as absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, as all plants do, these plants also eliminated significant amounts of benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene. Other studies added to the list of chemical pollutants and the best plants to remove them.

PothosPothos

NASA researchers suggest that the most efficient air cleaning occurs with at least one plant per 100 square feet. Even the microorganisms in potting soil remove some toxins. Yikes, who knew all that was going on right under our noses.

Some of the easiest houseplants to grow are some of the best to have in the home. Just about all the potted palms are good. Also rubber plant, dracaena ‘Janet Craig’, philodendron, boston fern, ficus, peace lily, Chinese evergreen, spider plant, liriope, snake plant, pothos, English ivy and phalaenopsis orchids are high on the list.

SanseveriaSanseveria

Caring for your houseplants in winter will keep them healthy. Remove dust which blocks light from getting to leaves. I use a moist cloth as it’s too much hassle to drag them to the shower.

Water just enough to keep the soil from going totally dry. Poke your finger into the soil. As a rule of thumb, if your plant is in a 4-6? pot let the soil dry half an inch down between waterings then water thoroughly with room temperature water. Don’t let the pot sit in a saucer with water for over an hour or the roots will rot. If your plant is in an 8-12? pot let the soil dry to 1-2? down before watering and if you have a bigger specimen the soil should be dry 2-3? down before watering. Don’t panic if this takes 2-3 wks before the soil has dried sufficiently for a plant in a big pot. A moisture meter is very helpful for your larger plants.

Fertilize less often. Some houseplant growers skip fertilizing in December and January starting up again with half strength fertilizer in mid-February. Think of your houseplants as essentially dormant in winter. They need fertilizer only when active growth resumes.

Here in the Santa Cruz mountains many of us live under trees that block available light during the winter and cloudy days can further lower the amount of light your plants receive. Move plants into the best light you have. To avoid unnecessary trauma, don’t repot a plant in winter. If you’ve acquired a new plant, it’s best to put it inside the next size pot for the time being and replant it when the growing season resumes in March or April. Most plants grow happily for years in the same pot and soil with proper fertilizing during the growing season.

Plain green leafy types do best when there’s less light. Schefflera, arboricola and philodendrons like heart-leafed, selloum and split-leafed, pothos, Chinese evergreen, peace lily and ferns look good even in dreary conditions. They come from the under-story of jungles and grow naturally in low-light areas. Don’t overwater and they’ll be happy.

I’m going to get more indoor plants for my own home and choose from those that filter the air best.

Holiday Plant Safety for Pets and Small Children

pointsettia_colors.2048Throughout the year we enjoy many types of plants in the house but it’s during the winter as we spend more time inside that we really come to appreciate them. My cat, Sam Spade, likes to sit on my drafting table and look at the bird feeder in the tree outside the window. Next to the table is a houseplant that I never gave a second thought to until he started nibbling on it recently.

The plant is a Tricolor dracaena marginata and I should have checked for toxicity when I first got it. Thankfully, he didn’t become nauseous or developed any other symptoms. Now I have a beautiful poinsettia on the table and soon I’ll be getting other holiday plants such as cyclamen, paperwhite narcissus, maybe a pink jasmine wreath or one with holly, ivy and evergreens. I also like those rosemary topiaries that are trained in the shape of a Christmas tree. I have already started one of those huge showy amaryllis bulbs and have Christmas cactus in several locations. How safe are these plants for Sam?

The classic plant to decorate our homes at this time of year is the poinsettia. I pointsettia_closeup.1920used to live in Pismo Beach where this plant grows tall in the mild winter weather. In Hawaii where my sister used to live they are used as hedges. Unfortunately, it’s too cold here in the mountains for poinsettia to survive outside at night.

The poinsettia is native to Mexico. In the 1820’s President Andrew Jackson appointed Joel Roberts Poinsettia as the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. In 1828 he found a beautiful shrub with large red “flowers” growing next to a road. He took cuttings and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina. Because the leaves turn bright red around Christmas time they have been used as decorations for the holidays ever since.

Poinsettia hold up well inside either as a cut flower or a living plant. They need a bright spot in the house and the soil should be allowed to dry slightly but not completely between watering. Deprive them of either of these requirements and the lower leaves will yellow and drop. Also be sure they aren’t sitting in water at the bottom of the container. Poinsettia are brittle but if you break off a branch, sear the end of the stem with a flame and it will hold up quite well in a vase or arrangement.

Are poinsettia poisonous? Ohio State University conducted extensive research and concluded that although poinsettia sap from leaves and flowers that might give you a stomach ache if you ate them they won’t seriously hurt you. The sap may cause a rash if it comes in contact with the skin on some people. With this in mind, you should keep poinsettia plants out of the reach of curious pets and small children.

cyclamen_red_white.2048There are other pets in my household including another cat named Archer and Sherman, the Welch springer spaniel. I usually put a couple red and white cyclamen on a table in the house. Are cyclamen safe around them?

According to the Pet Poison Helpline cyclamen are mild to moderately toxic to dogs and cats if ingested but it’s the root or corm that is especially toxic if ingested in large quantities. . Keep in mind that pets and people differ in which plants are toxic and to what agree. According to Dr. Leonard Perry of the University of Vermont, it’s the corm or tuber of the cyclamen that contains triterpenoid saponins and it is unlikely that humans (including children) would eat the thickened roots and be affected.amaryllis_white

My beautiful amaryllis flower and leaves are safe but it’s the bulb which is toxic. Amaryllis contain the same alkaloid that is found in narcissus and daffodil and is the reason wild animals like deer know to leave them alone. Keep them away from pets and small children although ingesting a small amount will produce few or no symptoms.

Azalea leaves and Christmas cactus are toxic and should be kept away from pets and small children. Holly berries are toxic if eaten in large quantities. Same for mistletoe and ivy.

While serious complications aren’t like with other holiday plants it’s still best to keep them away from small children and out of your pet’s reach.

Gardening Projects and Ideas for a Rainy Day

As I looked out the window at the rain coming down I thought of all the things I should be doing in the garden. “Where does the time go”, I thought to myself. “Why did you frolic in all that sunshine last month instead of transplanting and moving plants to better spots”?  I could tell from the conversation going on in my head that I needed some inspiration so off I went to visit a local garden store. I knew I was in trouble as I explored and wanted to buy nearly every cool plant I saw. Here are some of the plants that really caught my eye.

tillandsia_on_apple_branchLast month for my birthday a friend gave me a collection of tillandsia attached to an gnarled, mossy apple branch that had fallen from a tree in her garden. There are many kinds of these bromeliads or air plants as they are sometimes called and they can be displayed in lots of ways. At the garden store, I saw miniature hanging terrariums that looked awesome with several tiny tillandsia specimens, glossy pebbles and moss bits arranged inside. The humidity inside the glass as well as the bright light from a window is just what they like.

Other tillandsia were mounted on bark, some on driftwood, some in table top terrariums and some displayed in beautiful baskets. Tillandsia, like their relatives, Spanish moss and pineapple, have tiny scales on their leaves called trichomes which serve as very efficient absorption systems to gather water. They are very tolerant of drought conditions and will grow with just a spritzing of water although I like to run mine under lukewarm water to mimic the showers they might get where they normally grow in tropical tree limbs. They prefer the light from bright window but not direct sunlight and are among the easiest of indoor plants to grow and maintain.

I’m always on the lookout for ideas for landscape plants that might be perfect in an edgeworthia_chrysanthaupcoming design. Often what is needed to complement a house or view from a window is a plant with interesting foliage color or  branching pattern and bark in the dormant season. Showy, fragrant flowers make a welcome addition to the front entry at any time of year but I found one new to me and it’s blooming now.

Tucked among other plants with soft yellow and green foliage I saw my first Edgeworthia or Chinese Paper Bush. Also called yellow daphne, this daphne relative is grown mainly for its flowers. Tubular, bright yellow flower clusters fade to creamy white. The showy display is memorable. They definitely possess that weird appeal that collectors love. In China this plant is used to make paper and medicine.

Edgeworthia chyrsantha are hardy to 10 degrees and prefer half day sun or afternoon shade during the hot summer sun. They grow to about 6 feet tall and a bit wider. The tropical looking foliage is attractive during the summer but it’s the overwhelmingly fragrant display of pendent, golden yellow flowers that will make you want to grow this shrub in your garden. I’m looking forward to planting it next to a fragrant daphne.

pittosporum_tenuifolium_Irene_PattersonAnother plant that caught my eye was an Irene Patterson pittosporum tenuifolium. With speckled frosty green leaves this shrub will really light up a dark area. It can take full sun but it’s the shady areas I have in mind. Hardy to 15-20 degrees it will survive our winters and is adaptable to most soils. I think it would look great paired with the variegated huge green and white leaves of ligularia argentea.

I was also inspired to plant up my own succulent garden after seeing the display planted in recycled wooden boxes, old tins, antique cheese boxes and weathered boots. Whatever you have on hand with a drainage hole will look   succulent_garden2great with a succulent or two planted inside. Succulents in containers can be moved out of winter frost and rain which increases the variety that can survive in our area. I have a vintage Swift’s Silverleaf pure lard tin that’s just waiting to provide a home for some new succulents.  I’m looking forward to going back to the garden store to choose just the right specimens for his special container.

It’s fun to have some gardening projects that I can do indoors. There’s lots of time to plant those new landscape plants that caught my eye on a rainy day.