The basics of house plant care – water, light and temperature

November 21, 2015 at 11:56 am

House plant care

You have just brought home a newly acquired flower, you put it in a carefully chosen place and start to enjoy the sight of it. Unfortunately, after a few weeks this beautiful sight starts to transform into a less pleasant one. The leaves are yellowing and falling, the stem starts to bend. “Uhm”, you think, “it is probably too dry, plants like water.” You start to water it more frequently, but to no end, the flower continues to go downhill. You can vaguely remember reading somewhere that too much sun can cause the leaves to scorch and even the plant to dry out. It is summer, the sun is beating down – so you move the flower somewhere a little darker. Another week or two go by… and you end up throwing the plant’s remains into the bin.

The sequence of events depicted above happens to a lot of people, it has also happened to me many times. 🙂 After an event like that, the first thing which can come to your mind may be a kind of standard statement such as: “I don’t have green fingers.” Of course, it is to no avail, but often we try to console ourselves or… to hide the real cause of our failures in growing plants, namely our lack of knowledge.

You are wrong if you think that you need to devote a lot of time and have to read piles of books to gain the basic knowledge that will help you succeed in your home floriculture. As a matter of fact, all you need is to be acquainted with a couple of simple rules and a bit of common sense. Are you ready to devote a few minutes to this and no longer have to throw away wilted flowers? It will only take you as much time as it takes to read this post to the end. 🙂

Let us start with the most important thing. House plants, like all living things, will develop well only in the specific conditions that they are truly adapted to. So, the main rule which you have to follow reads: “provide your plants with conditions such as they have in their natural environment, and they will grow perfectly well”. Simple? On the one hand “no”, because a house and a pot will never be a substitute for forest or desert with all the related atmospheric phenomena. On the other hand “yes”, because flowers that you can find at garden centres are mainly those whose natural environment in many ways resembles the one we can guarantee at home (like for example the temperature).

The first rule points towards certain practical tips. The first basic one is this: “always remember the name of the flower which you have bought.” Thanks to that you will be able to find information (e.g. on the Internet or in a book) concerning its basic needs. Another, even better way is to think quickly about the conditions you are able to ensure and only then to select the flowers, which normally exist in similar conditions. For example, if you are often out, or go on week-long business trips, then choose plants that do not need regular or frequent watering.  Or, if your flat gets very little sunlight or tends to be dark, buy flowers that do not need intensive light. By complying with the above advice, you will be taking your first step towards enjoying the pleasures of living surrounded by robust healthy plants, in other words you will giving yourself a good chance of being successful.

One thing you have to remember is that plants in the home will always need at least some of your attention. A house will never be a natural environment for your flowers. It never rains at home, the quantity of soil in a pot is limited and there are also insufficient adequate biological processes taking place in it to keep it properly fertilised. It is you who have to balance these adverse factors in the home. And again, before you go to the shop, decide how much time and energy you want to devote to the care of your plants. If you have a lot of chores, and flowers are not a particularly great passion of yours, choose species which are simple to grow and which do not need any special care. There is a whole bunch of species like this and I can assure you that you will easily be able to find some that not only will not give rise to any difficulties, but will also distinguish themselves with exceptional beauty. There are a lot of websites on the Internet which will tell you which species are particularly recommended for people who do not have enough time or willingness to take care of their plants. And of course you can always consult the shop assistant in the garden centre as to which flower would be appropriate for you.

As I have written above, however, there are no plants which will not require you to devote at least a small amount of your time to them. Every plant needs a few factors necessary for life: oxygen, carbon dioxide, suitable light, appropriately moisturised soil and proper temperature. You do not have to worry about oxygen and carbon dioxide, there are enough of these gases in the air. You have to keep an eye on the other three. Let us begin by looking at the simplest of these.

Temperature

The vast majority of house plants available on market come from mild or warm climate zones. Thanks to that they are able to dwell in our warm homes and do not need regular changes in temperatures. So, if you limit your choice to the most popular species, the question of temperature will not be a problem to you. You will only have to avoid having the windows wide open if there are plants nearby. And even if you do happen to do this, most of them will do fine as long as the fall in temperature is only temporary (assuming, of course, it does not fall below 0°C).

Some species of flowers have special needs as far as temperature is concerned. And it is not only about its level but also about having suitable periodical changes, which are needed by the plants to be able to go through their whole life cycle. Many such species of plants need for example a few weeks’ or months’ period of reduced temperature as it happens in their natural environment in winter. Without a period like that, they will not be able to flower (vernalization). If it is not possible for you to guarantee a cooler but light room for them in winter, the best you can do is just not to buy them.

Light

For proper development plants need an appropriate source of light, preferably natural sunlight. Without it flowers die in rather a short time. Inside a plant, light energy is transformed by the photosynthesis process into sugars, which are then stored, used as a building material or changed into energy in the cellular respiration process.

How much light should a plant be guaranteed? Of course it depends on the species and on how much light it has in its natural environment.

In many handbooks you can come across lists of flowers classified according to specific light conditions, for example shady places, semi-shady ones, sunny etc. In my view classifications like that can be misleading. Trying to comply with them I repeatedly lost a plant or made it stop growing. The thing is that if you learn that there are plants which need strong light and that there are ones for which a semi-shady place is enough, then you can come to the conclusion, as I did in the past, that plants which are said to thrive in shady places will do well in a dark corner a couple of metres from a window.

The lighter, the better

After years of growing different flowers I have come to the following simple conclusion: “the more light the better”. Whatever happens, plants kept indoors have much worse lighting conditions than those out in the open, so the photophilous ones have to be placed on a windowsill and the “shadowphilous” do well there too. Well, maybe only certain specific species would start to yellow on a very sunny windowsill. I have written “maybe” because I have not experienced problems like that – even in the case of ferns that are often characterised as plants that prefer shadow. On the contrary, my nephrolepis started to sprout masses of new bushy leaves after being relocated from a shady corner onto a well lit windowsill, although it was barely surviving until then.

To sum up – always choose a place near to the window for your plants. Forget places more than 2 metres away, unless you have really big windows at home which pass a lot of light and unless a plant you want to place at such a distance is one of the least demanding kinds. Do not worry too much that the sun can harm your plant – just remember to check the moisture of the soil in the pot more frequently in the summer in the case of plants which have lesser light requirements. After all, you can always move the plant to a less well lit place, if at some time you come to the conclusion that the sun is harming it. Most often, however, it is the insufficiency of light rather than its excess that is the problem in the home.

Please note, that I am writing about my experiences from the point of view of a person living in the northern temperate zone (Europe/Poland). It is possible that in countries with a much warmer climate, that plants that do not like direct sunlight should not stand on a windowsill directly in the sun. If you live in a climate like that, do not hesitate to share your thoughts on this in the comments under the article.

Using artificial light

If your plant is in a dark place and you cannot or do not want to move it closer to a window, then you can always think about artificial lighting for it. However, it is worth remembering here that common home bulbs or fluorescent lights are not an ideal solution because they do not have the best characteristics as far as the plant’s requirements are concerned. Badly chosen bulbs will not allow the plant to grow nicely. The best solution is buying special bulbs for plants. Bulbs like these emit light having wavelengths which are appropriate for ideal plant growth. Of course, you should remember that the plants should be lit long enough and on a regular basis. Preferably, just turn on the light in the morning and turn it off for the night. If you do not want to have to remember to switch it on and off every day, you can buy a programmable timer. A device like this is not very expensive (15$-30$, February 2016) and makes our life very much easier by doing this chore for us.

Water

Plants need water for all their key life activities. They require it to generate energy in the process of photosynthesis, to carry out the biochemical processes of cell building, and also to cool themselves down. Therefore you must guarantee suitable moisturizing for every plant. Because the vast majority of plants take their water through their roots, the moisturizing is done by watering the soil in which the plants grow. However, as I mentioned above, a plant needs suitable moisturizing. This means that there can be neither too much water nor too little. What the words “too much” and “too little” mean depends of course on the given species, therefore as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it is always worth knowing what the name of the flower we have bought is.

Excess water

Many troubles in growing house plants result from incorrect watering. I have often heard the opinion that a plant has wilted because “the soil was too dry”. People know that plants need watering, let alone the fact that for many of them, growing plants is above all associated with watering. This is probably the reason why so many flowers do not die due to drought but due to excessive watering. Remember, a lot of plants can tolerate a short period of drought much better than overabundant watering. When the soil in a pot is permanently wet then oxygen cannot reach roots and the result is the emergence of the process of decay. Rotten roots stop functioning and the plant starts to shrivel and die. A visible effect of this very often resembles the one caused by drought – leaves yellow and fall. This sometimes leads the owner of a plant to water it even more frequently, which only makes the situation worse. Plants that are especially vulnerable to overwatering are those whose natural environment is dry. I am referring to plants such as cactii and other succulents.

Of course there are flowers (e.g. ferns), for which overwatering is rarely a threat and for which the really destructive factor is drought. You should obviously water flowers like that often enough for the soil to always be moist. There are not, however, too many house plants that need a permanently wet substratum.

Preparing a pot

It is worth mentioning one thing more here. In the natural environment rain permeates into the deeper layers of the ground after some time. Thanks to that the roots of a plant are not continually submerged in wet marshy soil (of course I am ignoring swampy environments here). In a pot an excess of water is not able to soak into anything and that causes an additional risk factor of excess water in the soil. For the excess water to be able to drain, only use pots with a hole in the bottom. In addition, always put about a 3 cm layer of small rocks at the bottom of a pot before planting a flower (the easiest thing you can do is just to buy a bag of so called expanded clay pebbles which you will find in any garden centre). Only after that put soil in the pot. This means the roots of the plant will not stay too long in the water, which after flowing out of the pot will be in a saucer. Finally, if the water in the saucer is still there after about 30 minutes – pour it out.

Expanded clay pebbles

Expanded clay pebbles

Watering

The simplest way to water potted flowers is with normal tap water at room temperature. This is enough for most plants. However, if you live in a region with very particular water characteristics (e.g. it is very hard), then you should buy flowers which will not be adversely affected by it (it is best to ask the shop assistant or just find the relevant information on the Internet).

All right, but how can you recognize if a particular flower needs watering or if you should wait a few days longer? I will reveal a rule to you which I have been following for many years with success:

  • If a plant needs a permanently moist substratum (like fern) – only water it when you can feel that the soil it stands in is a little moist, but you can easily feel the moisture.
  • If a plant cannot stay in a moist substratum long (like succulents) – only water it when the soil is bone-dry.
  • In other cases (or if you do not know a particular plant’s needs) – water it when the substratum moisture is hardly detectable or almost dry.

And finally, keep watering a plant until you can see water flowing out into the saucer. After about 30 minutes pour any remaining water out of the saucer.

I hope all the above tips will help you avoid the basic mistakes made when growing house plants. Or maybe you would like to share some of your experiences or add something to what I have written? Feel free to leave a comment 🙂

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Łukasz Dumiszewski

A computer scientist who likes house plants and who once wanted to be a writer. A blogger who writes about his experiences in growing house plants by using the benefits of computer science. 😉

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