neglected houseplant is a sorry sight. Often dusty and relegated to a dark corner, we find excuses to ignore them and ignore the fact that plants add warmth, elegance and life to interiors.

For most of us, a few great houseplants are enough. Others have them stored to the rafters. Commonsense says not to collect more than you can handle unless you’ve a greenhouse and lots and lots of time on your hands.

If your rooms are blessed with a southwestern exposure or plenty of eastern light then the sky is the limit on your plant choices. If your rooms face north though, you’ll have to forget growing many choices. Keep in mind that the quality of sunlight changes with the seasons and that trees and buildings in close proximity can affect light conditions. Grow lights can be an option but often look clumsy and are rarely attractive.

Houseplants should be watered like other containerized plants; thoroughly and completely, and only when they need it. A plant’s soil and roots need to be saturated, with excess water well drained, not trapped. Then depending on the plant’s size, type and rate of growth, it may not be thirsty for several days or even weeks. Let the soil dry out before watering again. If necessary haul your plants outside in late spring and do any repotting followed with applications of liquid food. As the days shorten and fall approaches, cut back on watering and food to prepare plants for the dormant season indoors.

Cacti are great wherever there is at least three hours or more of direct sunlight. Their natural drought tolerance and low maintenance along with their unusual sculptural forms are a good bet in most homes. In sunny windows, try growing flowering plants like geraniums or orchids. Woody herbs like rosemary can be lifted in fall and overwintered indoors, where they will often bloom with tiny pale blue flowers.

Where light is average, stick to foliage plants and ferns. In low light rooms, look for tough as nails plants like sansevieria, other-wise-known as mother-in-law’s tongue.

Overwatered houseplants respond with brownish-yellow leaves that may look and feel soggy and withered and crispy leaves often signal lack of humidity. Provide added moisture to rooms by placing plants on a bed of wet gravel. Any surviving pests can usually be controlled with mild, soapy water and a good shower. A serious infection such as scale, can be difficult to control. It may be necessary to simply chuck the plant into the garbage before it infects other nearby plants. I once had a beautiful 8-foot ficus tree that became infected with scale, try as I might I just could not control the bug and eventually lost the tree.

Houseplants add a softness to indoor environments as little else can. Many offer their assistance by reducing carbon dioxide and restoring oxygen to their surroundings — a double bonus in the scheme of things.


Susan Woody has been a home and garden writer for more than 20 years and is a master gardener.