Houseplants Are More Than Just Green Things
by Marjorie Dorfman

Do plants croak and die before your very eyes? Are you convinced that none can ever live in your presence? Well, read on for some help and a few laughs as well.

I would rather have roses on my table than rubies on my wrist.
– not Elizabeth Taylor

Whenever I think about plants, my thoughts always run to my mother’s dear friend, Natalie, whose house in The Bronx was literally overrun with houseplants, shrubbery and trees. They so covered the exterior that the house could not even be seen from the street until one was actually on the steps looking upward. Only from that angle did a little bit of red roof peek through the green. She always said that she liked the idea that people didn’t know she was there. It gave her a sense of seclusion and privacy and made her feel like Greta Garbo when she wanted to be alone. The plants inside overran the house as well. There was so much growth over, around and underneath everything that I was never quite sure where the windows began and the walls ended.

I don’t think that most people can grow plants as effectively as my mother’s eccentric friend. If you, dear reader, are anything like me, plants seem to die in your presence without warning or even provisions for a proper burial. They just keel over, take a deep breath and die before you can even apologize for whatever you said that upset them so much. Alas, it’s more likely that death was caused by something you did or didn’t do, making either train of thought a source of perpetual guilt. I hate to see living things die. As the owner of a black and blue thumb, I can promise you that if I can keep plants alive most of the time, anyone can.

The key to growing healthy plants is to remember that they have feelings, just like you and me. Sometimes they feel sunny, shady, lusty, misty, crummy, unwanted and even unloved. Treat them like favored pets and they will love you back (without a visit to a vet or the litterbox!). Name your plants. This bonds them to you and "drink, Maxine, drink", goes a lot further than just pouring water down a pot. Don’t buy or sell your plants on their birthdays as this will cause severe separation anxiety. Avoid mentioning above a whisper the names of holidays and celebrations that contain green words or ideas (St. Patrick’s Day, Christmas and most golfing expeditions, just to mention a few.) This way they won’t feel in competition with other green things.

All kidding aside, before buying a plant, decide where it will go in your home. Don’t listen to that little voice in your head that tells you will find a place for it once you get it through the door. (That only works for items purchased in yard sales and flea markets.) Ask yourself if it will decorate a window, fill an empty corner or serve as a centerpiece. Many people are afraid to buy larger plants because of the cost, design considerations or high maintenance. Mourning the loss of a large plant or tree might be more significant than the demise of some tiny sprig, but the care involved really isn’t any different. Certainly the larger plants are more dramatic, but some of the small ones can vie for the Academy Awards as well. (There are no small plants, only small planters.) The Ficas family is a very popular larger variety and includes the Rubber Plant , Weeping Fig and The Umbrella Tree or schefflera, which comes in many sizes, some reaching as high as six to eight feet.

A large potted tree adds life to a room and in general takes the focus away from its less attractive features. Larger plants can also improve the air quality inside the home, filtering pollutants, adding humidity and filling the room with a fresh aroma. The dracaena is one of the easiest larger plants to care for. It comes in many varieties, but the larger ones are called false palms because of their arching tree-like appearance. As a general rule, each type of plant has its own care requirements regarding light and water. Generally, trees require bright sun and don’t do well in the shade. Palms prefer shade and dracaenas fall somewhere in between.

Plants beautify even unattractive homes as long as they are properly taken care of. Here are a few simple rules to keep in mind. First of all, dump dying houseplants instead of just wishing it wasn’t so and thinking there must be something you could do to save them. (Just remember how far that attitude got you with your last spouse!) Grow up and face the fact that a yellowing leaf will never turn green again and a faded flower will never revive. If a plant looks dead, it probably wants to be. Leaf bypasses and stem transplants are not yet health care options to improve the quality of life within the plant kingdom. Say goodbye, farewell and adieu. Also, chuck all dusty flower arrangements. Nothing lasts forever. Use those fake greens sparingly for the truth shall always set something loose, if not free, like a falsy floating upstream. Never place artificial flowers in glass containers at eye level. If you want to pretend they’re alive, you must make a conscious effort to foster the illusion. Otherwise, do yourself a favor and find another fantasy!

Living with plants, children and pets can put both a damper on and/or add to any fantasy, (particularly one involving peace and quiet). Larger plants usually sit directly on the floor, which can make symbiotic co-existence a problem at times. If your cat, dog or child enjoys digging in the dirt, place a thin layer of pebbles on the surface, but nothing heavy enough to interfere with air circulation. (Your child may still grow up to become a gossip columnist looking for dirt, but it’s worth a try.) This procedure may fend off infantile, canine and feline treasure seekers, and then again, it may not.

More plants die from too much watering than any other cause. This is partially because an over-watered plant sends out no signals of distress as in the case of a dry plant whose leaves will droop. Generally, the warmer the room, the more often your plants will need water. Always use room temperature water and apply it thoroughly. Watering a plant just a little each time will moisten only the top part of the soil, leaving the rest of the plant as dry as a bone. Use discarded vase water to water plants if it is available. It may look and even smell a bit yucky, but it is good for plants and is equivalent to adding peas, spinach or broccoli to a human diet. Rainwater is also good for houseplants. Just pretend you’re Gene Kelly. (Talk about another fantasy.) Dance with a bucket outside your home or yard during the next rainstorm in your area. You may end up with more than a bucket of rainwater— maybe even a new friend or two!

To provide nutrients that your plants need for good growth, use any complete, all-purpose, houseplant fertilizer. Long acting ones can cause problems and should be avoided. Dilute fertilizer to a weaker strength than that recommended by the manufacturer. Never try to make up for a missed feeding by using a stronger solution. After watering, over-feeding is the largest cause of houseplant death. Don’t feed a plant when the soil is dry. Water it first and above all, remember that fertilizer is food, not medicine and should never be given to a plant that is ailing or nesting.

In closing, consider your plants as silent companions in your home. They may not pay rent, but they do "sing for their supper" by enhancing surroundings with their beauty and their grace. They don’t talk back and they are grateful for every drop of water you give them. They don’t need a college education and they never gossip. Make them part of an indoor jungle all your own. Let others in, if you dare. Be careful not to go too far, like my mother’s friend. If all else fails and they die, the jungle fantasy need not be abandoned. Rent some tigers and run and hide!

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2002