Growing Plants Indoors

If you have notions about growing plants indoors you need to make a few adjustments to what you'd normally do outdoors.

| December/January 1993

  • growing plants indoors - begonias, geraniums, lamb's ear, aloe vera
    Growing plants indoors adds a welcome color to your house in the winter. From left to right: begonias, geraniums, lamb's ear, and aloe vera.
  • growing plants indoors - Swedish Ivy
    Swedish ivy (right), also known as creeping Charlie, is an easy keeper with shiny leaves.
  • growing plants indoors - tree ivy, maranta
    Tow of the more popular houseplants are tree ivy (left) and maranta (right).

  • growing plants indoors - begonias, geraniums, lamb's ear, aloe vera
  • growing plants indoors - Swedish Ivy
  • growing plants indoors - tree ivy, maranta
Houseplants and I had a less than auspicious introduction. During the first winter I spent in Alaska, I was desperate for something green and cheerful. When I spotted a display of African violets at the grocery store, I happily slipped a pot into my shopping cart. But it didn't cheer me up for long; its death was quick and upsetting. Despite that dreary beginning, I've kept trying. I'd always enjoyed success with outdoor gardening and I wasn't going to let a little plant in a pot defeat me. Over the years, I've had quite a few more failures growing plants indoors — but some spectacular successes too.

Today, half a dozen plants thrive on my windowsill, and they give me no end of pleasure during the bleak months of winter. After years of experience, I've learned that the keys to success are three: don't overwater; don't let plants get root-bound in their pots; and find out ahead of time whether plants are fussy when it comes to growing indoors. How can you tell which plants are easy keepers? In my experience, any plant that easily roots from a cutting is equally easy to maintain as a houseplant.

Rooting a cutting is incredibly simple, considering the reward. All you need is a four to six inch piece snipped from fresh, new growth. Strip the leaves from the bottom two or three joints, leaving two to four leaves at the top. Coat the stem with a root promoter (Rootone is my preference). Then fill a pot with potting mix, poke a hole down the center (use the handle of a wooden spoon to make perfect holes), gently push the cutting far enough into the hole to cover the joints, and firmly press the mix down around it. Place the pot away from full sunlight and keep the potting mix evenly moist until your new plant starts to grow.

Good commercial potting mix can be hard to find, but I prefer it to garden soil because there's no chance it will introduce a pest or disease. When I purchase potting soil, I look for a broken bag so I can see and feel what I'm getting. Good soil is light and loose and holds water well. If your garden has loamy soil (see "How to Improve Your Garden's Soil") you can use this loam for houseplants if you first sterilize it in the oven. Spread the soil in a thin layer in a shallow baking pan and place it in a 200°F oven for one-half hour — don't expect it to smell like fresh baked bread.

How Much Is Enough?


Houseplants can thrive for a long while on the meager nutrients in potting soil. Overfertilizing can cause a potted plant to grow rapidly and become root-bound. Fertilizers can also burn roots and kill the plant. As a rule, young plants don't need any fertilizer; older plants benefit from occasional light fertilizing. Just how often you need to fertilize a houseplant depends on what you're growing and on the time of year. Most plants put on new growth during warm months. Unless a plant is in bloom, don't fertilize it during winter or you'll disrupt its natural growth pattern.

Manure tea and compost work wonders for outdoor gardens but aren't quite so wonderful indoors. Manure tea may cause potting soil to smell unpleasant (diminishing any cheer they were spreading), and compost is too bulky to be practical as a fertilizer for pots. Any store that carries houseplants carries potted plant fertilizers, many of them organic. Read labels to choose which fertilizer best suits the type of plant you're growing, and follow the directions to the letter or you may do more harm than good.

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