Friday, April 1, 2011

Add Houseplants To Spring Cleaning

Winter is tough on plants. Even though they don’t really go dormant – just slow down – the arrival of shorter, cloudier days influences their growing conditions and affects their health. Heating systems go on, the air gets drier, light quality and quantity is reduced, cold drafts may occur and insects - which can explode in numbers under these favorable conditions - can invade with a vengeance. By the time this dreary season comes to an end, your houseplants will look like they’ve seen better days, especially if you haven’t paid much attention to them during this period.

So now that spring - the perfect time to catch up on all the plant maintenance - is finally here, what can you do to get your greenery back in tiptop shape? Let’s take a look below at three ways to help your plants look and feel better.

1) Get Out The Rubber Ducky

It doesn’t take long for a plant’s leaves to be coated with a layer of dust, grease, oil or any other airborne particle, making them unattractive and dull. The type of residue and the amount that gathers depends on where your potted beauty is situated.

A dirty plant is an unhappy plant. Dirty leaves can’t absorb as much light as clean ones. Inadequate light diminishes the ability to photosynthesize (your plant’s way to feed itself). This causes stress. Substances that accumulate on the leaves can also clog up the plant’s breathing pores, which can also disrupt optimal growth. And cause stress.

Dust on outdoor plants is washed away by the rain and insects are kept in check by being blown away by the wind. Since those beneficial elements of Mother Nature are not available indoors, it’s up to us to meet those needs for our houseplants.

Give them a shower: If it’s too cold to take it outdoors and hose it down, lug your plant into your bathroom shower and wash away the grime with a gentle spray of lukewarm water. (Smaller plants can be washed under running water from a faucet or showered with the side spray in the kitchen sink) Rinse the entire plant, paying particular attention to the underside of leaves where pests harbor. When you’re done, let your plant sit in the bathtub for awhile to enjoy the humidity, then tip it over to dump out any water that may have accumulated in the drainage tray. Note: If you’re concerned about the soil, cover it with aluminum foil to keep it from becoming overly saturated (and from ending up in your bathtub).

Sponge Away the Dirt: Dip a soft sponge or cloth in lukewarm water, squeeze out the excess and wipe the top and bottom of the leaves. This method is useful for plants that are too big to lug into the shower and if you prefer to clean your plants without moving them from their spot. To speed up the process, try using two sponges simultaneously – one underneath the leaf and one on top. Remember to be very gentle; over-cleaning can remove important cells and damage your plant’s health.

Dunk Them: For smaller plants, place aluminum foil or plastic wrap over the soil, support the plant and its medium by placing your fingers over the base of the plant (soil level), turn it upside down, dunk the foliage in a bucket of water and swish the leaves back and forth. You can add ½ teaspoon of mild dish soap to each liter of water for extra cleaning power or insecticidal soap to guarantee that there’s no leaf burn. Never use soaps that contain degreasing compounds that may damage the leaves of delicate plants.

Squirt Away: Pick up a cheap plastic mister, fill it up with a mild soap solution and spray your plants to your heart’s content whenever you’re in the mood. You can add mild dishwashing liquid or insecticidal soap plus some rubbing alcohol to the mix to keep insects at bay. This method can discourage pests and reduce dust on leaves but not totally eliminate them. I’d recommend using this as a valuable supplement to one of the steps above.

Brush It Off: Fuzzy-leaved plants such as African Violets are sensitive to touch and don’t care very much for showers. Washing their leaves with water can be hazardous to them so use a soft paintbrush instead to gently dust away built-up residue. Place your hand under a delicate leaf to support it and gently brush from the base of the leaf to its tip. Note: This method is also handy with Cacti.

Tidy Up The Pot: You’ve put in a lot of effort into getting your houseplant to shine so why not go the distance and tidy up that pot? Wipe down the container with a damp cloth to remove dust and grime. If there is a substantial residue buildup (this applies mostly to clay pots), you may have to remove the plant and do a thorough cleaning with a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water. If you’re planning to move your plant into a new or larger container in the near future, just wipe the exterior of the present container in the meantime and do the thorough cleaning when it’s empty.

How often you clean your plants depends on where you live, your growing conditions and how quickly dust accumulates in your home. A minimum of two or three times a year is reasonable, although the best way to determine the cleaning schedule is by checking the condition of your plant. If the leaves look dirty, it’s time to clean – even if it’s every month. Always shower, clean or mist early in the day so the plants have a chance to dry before nightfall. Leaving a plant wet at night can encourage fungi and disease.

A clean plant is a healthy plant. And a healthy plant is not as susceptible to pest infestations and disease. So don’t forget to add your houseplants to your list of spring cleaning.

2) Spruce It Up, Prune It Off

If you haven’t paid attention to your plants during the winter months, chances are there are dead, dying or damaged leaves hanging around, on or under the plants and even decomposing on the top soil. In addition there are spent blooms lurking way past their expiration date. Tidy up - this is just as important to a houseplant as anything else. Removing dead foliage and exhausted blooms allows the plant to concentrate its energy on new growth.

Get up close and personal with your plant, examine it and start grooming! Trim off brown edges and leaf tips with a pair of sharp scissors; remove fallen leaves and flowers from the surface of the soil; pinch off shriveled flowers; cut off unhealthy foliage to promote new growth; remove dead stems. Even yellow leaves should not be exempt from the grooming equation since they will never turn green again. All these steps are taken for sanitary as well as aesthetical reasons. Clean, healthy foliage and proper maintenance keep your plants attractive and minimize chances of disease.

Certain plants like the Poinsettia, Hibiscus & Azalea will benefit from being cut back. Pruning a Poinsettia, for example, to about 6 – 8 inches in height encourages vigorous new growth and branching; it will also keep plants bushy and compact. Make sure that the flowering period is over for plants that bloom before you start hacking off parts. As an added bonus, you can propagate new plants with some of the cuttings.

3) Fine-Tune The Light

The most important environmental factor for growing healthy houseplants is light. And surprising as it may seem, houseplants can be killed with too much light as easily as they can with too little. A south window may sound like the ideal position for the winter but - left unfiltered - that bright, direct sun in the midst of summer can be lethal to plants that cannot handle that much intensity.

During the winter, due to the sun’s angle and shorter, cloudier days, light is less intense. For this reason many plants can be moved into southern locations or closer to windows. But come late spring, those houseplants that were fine near a south or west-facing window can now get scorched by the intense sun.

Signs of too much light can include bleaching of leaf and flower colour, leaves curling down and away from the light rather than stretching towards it, pale yellow or white spots from being exposed directly to the sun and leaf burn from the intensity. The growth can be compact and the plant may wilt during the day due to rapid water loss. Yellowish-brown patches develop on some leaves and flowering may be inhibited on plants such as poinsettias and orchids. Other flowering plants may not bloom at all, and for those that do manage to pop up a few buds, they may drop without opening, or the flowers may be too small or short-lived if they do open.

Washed-out, limp and clearly in distress, your plant that prefers shadier corners will scream for mercy if you leave it sizzling in the midday sun. Unless you rescue it from its red-hot location, it’ll burn to a crisp and end up in the trash. A sheer curtain offers some protection by filtering the light but it does not always do the trick. Some plants may have to be moved away from the brightest, hottest locations but remain within the same room. Others may need to change locations entirely. For example, a plant that didn’t mind the southern sun in the winter may prefer the gentler early morning rays shining through an eastern window. This isn’t to promote fear of sunshine. Even newly-bought plants whose tags advise you to keep them out of the sun will benefit from an hour or two of direct light each day. The sun is an indoor plant’s friend as long as it’s not at sizzling levels.

Your houseplants are some of the hardest working residents in your home, carrying on their responsibilities silently around the clock, month after month, day after day. In appreciation for the many types of toxins they remove from your environment daily, why not treat them to a day at the ‘houseplant spa’. Wash them, trim them and adjust their light level appropriately. They’ll thank you by working even harder!

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