JULIE FINUCANE

My year-round houseplants have endured my benign neglect for over six months, and now that the weather has driven me back indoors, it is time to take a look and see to their needs.

Depending on the plant’s size, I start the inspection by taking each one at a time to the kitchen sink or bathtub, then remove the pot saucer or decorative container or cover that protects surfaces from water damage.

If there is a white crust the soil surface, remove the top half inch or so of soil and discard.

This is a natural buildup of salts or lime, accumulated from the water applied over time. Leach the soil by watering slowly until water runs out the drain holes in the pot, allow to rest for about a half hour, then repeat this two or three times. If you removed any soil, add a bit of fresh potting mix to replace it.

One of a plant’s greatest challenges in the indoor environment is reduced light, and the situation is easily made worse when leaves gather a film of dust. Give plants a gentle, lukewarm shower from the kitchen sprayer or bath shower if you can, and wipe down leaves with a damp cloth, looking for any insect pests while you’re at it. If you find any signs of trouble, wipe them away with a cloth or cotton ball dampened with rubbing alcohol, and follow up with a dose of insecticidal soap spray. This should kill any active pests and smother any eggs waiting to hatch.

Most plants prefer to be slightly potbound, so yours are probably fine in their current containers. However, if a plant has started to make the pot bulge, or seems crowded in the pot and is starting to develop smaller leaves, it may be time to repot. Choose a container that is no more than two inches wider than the plant is in now, and always use a good quality light potting mix, choosing your product based on volume not weight. Overwatering is the most frequent cause of houseplant failure, and a heavy, dense soil can contribute to the problem.

Now that we don’t have outdoor tasks competing for our attention, we’re even more likely to overwater houseplants. While it’s a good idea to check them weekly, water only when the soil feels dry to the touch. Poke a finger about a half inch into the soil, and if dry, pour water slowly over the soil surface until it begins to trickle out the drainage holes in the pot. After a half hour or so, pour out any water that accumulates in the saucer or decorative outer container.

Shorter days and cooler nights signal winter-flowering houseplants to start their blooming cycle. As you handle your plants, you may see oval buds forming on the leaf tips of your Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus, or a slender, dark green flower stalk emerging from the base of your moth orchid. This is an excellent time to begin a fertilizing regimen for these flowering plants and any other houseplants that are actively growing, putting on new shoots and leaves.

Choose a fertilizer formulated for flowering indoor plants or general houseplants. I find water soluble products easier to manage than spikes or granules; keeping my watering can filled with crystals mixed with water at the recommended strength. Apply at the rate suggested on the package, or, if you prefer, mix half strength and use each time you water.

Your house plants will appreciate the attention, and keep the gardening spark alight.

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