12. POPULAR INDOOR HOUSEPLANTS AND HOW TO CARE FOR THEM

Houseplants adorn my home from roof to floor. Besides the welcoming greenery, they soak up carbon dioxide and provide oxygen, creating healthier air quality in my home. They also remove gases emitted by paints, rugs, and furniture, absorbing toxins such as benzene and formaldehyde from the air.

In my home, I have geraniums, philodendrons, ivy and spider plants, a Christmas cactus, aloe, lemon begonia, and some I can't identify.

The potted geraniums, like some of the other plants, spend summer outdoors in a shaded area. In May, I place them in a shady part of the garden and in October, I bring them back inside.

Geraniums are my favorite annual flower to winter over as a houseplant, in part because they're so easy to care for. The first garden article I wrote in The Vermont Times many years ago was on geraniums (Pelargonium). I've had them for more than twenty years. One thing to keep an eye out for are insects like aphids and white flies. Spray with an insecticidal soap and or Neem oil if you find those critters invading your plants. If you want more geraniums simply clip off a six-inch cutting and place in water or a soilless mix. Keep them damp. They will eventually root, and you'll have more geraniums to share with your friends.

Brenda Patoine, my neighbor, and the editor of my last garden book gave me some purple Wandering Jew cuttings. These plants are easy to take care of and you can take numerous cuttings and give them to friends. You can also take cuttings from Spider plants.

For those with black thumbs, there are some tried-and-true houseplants that are hard to kill. The snake evergreen plant, Chinese evergreen, and oxalis are just some of the plants that can take lower light levels indoors, low humidity, and can stand up to neglect.

Some houseplants can be moved onto a deck or patio in summer to be enjoyed as outdoor plants. The 'Purple Shamrock Plant' is hardy to Zone 6 and produces purple leaves with pink flowers. It's easy to move onto the deck or into the garden in summer. If they get leggy or bug- and disease-infested, you simply cut the leaves back to the soil and they will re-sprout from their bulbs.

Begonias are great both as houseplants and outdoor plants. There are many to choose from; the Rex begonia is a favorite. You might also consider starting some tuberous begonias indoors in winter and move them out in summer. You can get them in shades of red, yellow, pink, and orange. Just pot them up and grow them in a sunny window until spring.

Houseplant Q&A
For those gardeners who need to keep your hands busy in winter with houseplants, check out the following Q&A.

1. What are the easiest houseplants to grow?
One of my favorites is the philodendron, which doesn't seem to stop growing no matter what as long as they’re watered. In the tropics, they grow like vines. They love to make their way down mantels and bookshelves. They need low to sunny light and medium temperatures. I let the surface dry between watering.

Let the personality of spider plants infuse your bedroom and home with fresh air. The spider plant is known as the airplane plant, so named for its ability to produce multiple "pups" on shoots that dangle out from the mother plant like aircraft. The tiny baby plants tend to suck energy from the mama plant and if they become too numerous, the mother will suffer. You can remove them easily by clipping them off where the shoot meets the baby and place them in water till, they root. During this rooting phase they don't like direct light.

Mature spider plants will grow in all kinds of light with average moisture. If leaf tips turn brown, you need to allow tap water sit for a couple days to allow chlorine and or fluoride gas to dissipate. I have never found this to be the case. Some plants are sensitive to tap water with these chemicals. Spider Plants are low-maintenance and root easily. They are best grown in containers and as hanging plants.

The iconic shape of ivy leaves has been duplicated on every household object from dishes to wallpaper and shower curtains. You can take advantage of ivy's spreading tendencies and train their vines across a small trellis, hoop, or topiary form to create a living work of art. Thriving in all light situations, the trailing vines of ivy look attractive in hanging baskets or draped over a side table. Plants do fine with little watering and will survive a week-long vacation without a hiccup.

Here are other favorites:
-Jade is a succulent that grows slowly.
-Norfolk Island pine is an easy-to-grow small pine.
-Rubber Trees grow eight foot tall. Allow them to dry out between watering. They need medium to bright light and do best in rooms where the temperature is 60 to 80 degrees.
-Peace lily needs low humidity with moist soil and low light.
-Ficus has shiny leaves and prefers dry soil in between thorough watering.
-Areca Palm or Bamboo Palm have a tropical feel. Keep the soil dry, watering just now and then. This indoor plant is easy to grow with indirect light. It grows indoors to about six feet tall.

2. Why are the leaves of my houseplants turning brown on the tips?
Dying tips is generally an indication of poor watering habits. The best way to water a houseplant is to thoroughly flush it until water runs freely out the drainage holes. Shallow watering can cause brown on the tips. Some of the tropical plants need misting as our homes may be too dry, especially in the winter. Brown tips might also indicate a buildup of salts from the use of too much fertilizer.

3. How can I keep mildew off of Begonias?
The problem is that when our homes are closed up tight during the long cold winter months, air doesn't circulate as well, and this allows mildew and mold spores to land on begonia leaves and do damage. The solution is to use a small fan to promote good air circulation, making sure not to blow the air directly on the plants. In this way, the spores will dry up and die before they come in contact with the begonias. Also, make sure not to keep your house too warm, between 60 and 70 degrees and don't overwater. The potting soil should be light, made up of sand, peat, perlite, vermiculite, and some compost.

4. Is there a way to keep poinsettias alive and thriving for the next Christmas?
Yes, but it's a lot of trouble. First, keep the plant near a bright window but out of direct sunlight, and make sure the temperature in your home is not too warm. Like begonias, poinsettias prefer cool conditions.

Make sure your poinsettias don't dry out. Most plants use a very light soilless mix. Water it daily but don't let the soil get too soggy. Around the beginning of January, add some compost. If the plant gets leggy, cut it back to five inches high. When spring arrives, remove leaves and larger branches. In early summer, trim off two to three more inches and repot in a larger container. Once the weather warms up, move it outside, water regularly and add more compost. In early fall, bring the plant inside and place in a closet or basement at night, bringing it out during the day. By the end of November, you can bring it out into a sunny spot for good and watch it turn colorful once again. Merry Christmas. This is fun activity for kids.

P.S. Poinsettia leaves are not poisonous as once feared. However, one could become ill from eating too many of the leaves. Poinsettia plants are popular during the holidays for their bright red leaves. While it is commonly touted as a toxic plant, poinsettias are only mildly toxic to dogs and cats. Mistletoe is toxic by the way. For questions about poisons, contact the Northern New England Poison Center at (800) 222-1222.

Poinsettias are one Christmas plants that can make lovely gifts; the others are Christmas cactus (my favorite) and cyclamens.

5. What can I do about mealybug and scale?
Mealybugs are very small, oval-shaped white bugs related to another houseplant pest called scale. Both thrive on a number of indoor and outdoor species, including coleus, ficus, fuchsia, begonia, ferns, ivy, and poinsettia. They feed by sucking plant sap, which weakens the plant and causes the leaves to drop along the excretion of copious amounts of sticky "honeydew," leading to the growth of sooty mold.

What you can do is to first isolate the infected plant and spray
a strong stream of water over it; this should dislodge the eggs. Swab each mealybug with cotton saturated in rubbing alcohol. Wait a couple days, then rinse the plant with water and spray with insecticidal soap.