Garden Nerd Series: Tropical Houseplants

The Garden Nerd series will look at gardening issues in New Westminster. Suggestions for topics, guest submissions, and questions are all welcome. We’ll try and address it all! You can find other posts, as they are added, by clicking here. Today’s post is written by regular contributor Jen Arbo. 

About four months ago, Ross and I murdered a houseplant through neglect, although truth be told the blame should really be placed on me for in our house, it is I who reigns as House Plant Caregiver while Ross rules the outside world. It is my firm belief that all houses need at least one air cleaning plant per room. Since we had purchased Rob the Rubber Plant at a local garden store with a replacement guarantee,  I insisted we take it back to the store and take them up on it. It was a $35 plant! I was fairly insistent that it simply must be diseased since there is no way I could have possibly neglected a houseplant. Seems I was wrong.

We bundled up the sad, sad, leaf-losing Rubber Plant and made our way to the garden store where an employee, Wendy, who specialized in the “tropicals” section, came and assessed our plant. She stuck one finger into the plant and deemed it “so unbelievably parched it’s amazing it lasted as long as it did.” Embarrassed, I asked for her to explain what we had done wrong and suggest a replacement plant. She was only too happy to oblige. 

The most important factor is that we didn’t water it correctly. By sheer luck, my collection of dieffenbachia, oxalis, ficus, and snake plant have happily survived and even thrived by having some water dumped unceremoniously into their repective receptacles once a week, and have even survived periods of starvation where I forgot. Rob the Rubber Plant, however, needed actual assessment of its watering needs. Wendy suggested we stick a finger into the pot, at least a few inches in and in more than one place, too. If it comes out dry, it needs water. She also suggested we do that at least twice a week. Also, rather than just dump in a cup of water, s l o w l y trickle water around the edges of the pot. This will encourage the roots to stretch to reach the water and will also ensure that the water reaches the roots by soil saturation (thereby picking up nutrients in the soil) and doesn’t slip straight through the root ball and hit the bottom of the pot, where it evaporates, unused.

Next, we had purchased this plant, and a fancy looking ceramic pot, and had re-potted it into some less than stellar potting soil. While we scored points for selecting a pot with decent drainage – another huge factor in the life of your tropical houseplant – we had elected to use a random mix of the dregs of a few different bags of nutrient deficient dirt – outdoor potting soil, seed starter mix, some top soil, and some cactus mix – rather than buck up and buy a bag of appropriate indoor potting soil. Some houseplants, like cacti or orchids, require even more specialized soil, so ask at the place where you are buying your plant if you don’t know what type of soil it needs. 

Lastly, we had doomed poor Rob the Rubber Plant by casting it to a dark corner of the room. From an interior design perspective, it made sense to have a happy little plant in that particular corner, but by not providing the plant with ample light, we had effectively signed its death certificate the first day we put it in the corner beside the desk. Not only did Wendy suggest we acquire a plant stand to raise the plant up so that it could actually get light around the desk’s shadow, she also suggested that we try a plant that required a bit less light. 

We selected a Lemon Lime Dracaena (the one in this link is similar, but ours has a sightly longer leaf shape and colour). These are considered “no-fail” houseplants that require a lower level of light than our poor Rubber Plant. Because we purchased this plant in the dead of winter, Wendy also suggested we leave it in its plastic pot, rather than pot it into the ceramic pot we had for it, to avoid shocking the roots, until summer. 

Well, it’s been about four months, and I am happy to report that our Dracaena (“Fred”)  is alive and well. It has some brown tips on the lower leaves, but I have been told by a number of experts that this is a part of the plant’s natural life cycle and is considered “leaf-death” as long as it sticks to the lower levels of plants and that it’s okay for me to snip this part off with scissors. We raised up the Dracaena onto a filing cabinet, so it’s getting ample light while it happily cleans our air. And Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I stick a finger into four random places of the pot and assess whether water is required. So far, so good. Wendy would be proud.

2 Replies to “Garden Nerd Series: Tropical Houseplants”

  1. This is great info Jen … two out of three houseplants made it this last round, but neither is in great shape. We made a number of mistakes with not providing enough drainage, light or appropriate watering! I’ll have to try that no-kill plant you recommended next … Though I do have two small pots of herbs grown from seed that seem to be doing just fine in my kitchen window.

  2. cacti are the way to go, truly.

    I have killed 8 tropicals in the last two months alone! moving into a new house and not so knowlegable about environmental factors did them in.
    When placing the plants in a spot with appropriate light, remember to notice where the heat vents are, too. Those were the first to go (sniff).
    Also, some tropicals enjoy “fresh, airy atmosphere”. This is NOT the same as being by an open window, as a draft will kill quicker than anything! There went 3 more.
    And of course, the #1 killer of all houseplants is incorrect watering. In my case, too much. I managed to save my last plants from root rot, but now I am battling a tremendous case of fungus gnats, and not too sure I’m gonna win.
    Good luck from Fraser South!

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