Loving Houseplants

by Betsy Thorsteinson

Betsy Thorsteinson is retired from the Manitoba Museum where she worked for 43 years as an artist designing and fabricating dioramas. Her work can also be seen at other institutions in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario.

These plants enjoy the summer on my front porch and are moved inside for the winter

The first houseplant I grew that I remember was a flax plant I sprouted from seeds in Red River Cereal. I must have been very young, but since then there hasn’t been a time in my life that I haven’t had companion plants. Some First Nations call plants “Standing People”, and I have always enjoyed the company of these special people.

When a professor in Finland hooked up a microphone and computer to the roots of a plant on her office desk, the plant’s root activity produced audible sounds. While she and the plant were alone, the roots clicked merrily away, but when another person entered her office the clicking stopped. She couldn’t explain it, but perhaps it showed that plants are more aware of their surroundings than most of us give them credit for, and appreciate your attention. I like to give them the most welcoming environment in my house as I can provide. As well as their company they give me oxygen and clean the air I breathe.     Link to article – people who believe plants can talk

So here are a few things I do to keep them happy.

An east bay window is perfect for growing orchids. This one is obstructed so I am using extra clamp-on led lighting

Light

Close observation through the seasons will tell you what light each of your windows provides for your plants. I move my plants around to see where the are the happiest. But if your plants are not getting enough light, you might want to use supplemental lighting, especially in our dark winter months, or grow them entirely under lights. I would suggest using LED lights as they use the least amount of energy and last a long time. The internet has information on which lights to use, as they have a range of intensities: the ones with low kelvin are warmer, and good for flowering, and the higher ranges (more like sunlight and cooler) are good for growth. The ones I use are sort of a happy medium at 4100 K.

These orchids are grown under T8 fluorescent light to supplement the north light coming from windows but you could use led light tubes for even better energy savings

In some windows, I supplement lighting with clamp-on light fixtures, or strings of LED lights, the ones used for under-counter lighting. You can of course buy lighting units specifically for plants. My supplemental lighting is only used in the winter, as in the spring and summer there is an abundance of light for my house plants when they’re on summer vacation in my garden, in my screen porch, or in an unheated north porch.

Pests

When you keep plants for a long time (in my case, about 60 years) it’s inevitable that you’ll attract some unwelcome insects. Once they’re in the house I only use soap or alcohol to control them. A healthy plant will tolerate some insects, as they have been coexisting with them for millions of years.

Before bringing my plants in from the garden or patio, I dip their leaves in a pail of soapy water, to deter unwanted insects. I also check them for slugs hiding in drainage holes etc. To stop slugs, I cover the holes with a piece of fine plastic netting, the kind you get from bags of sweet potatoes or fruit. If your plants are on the ground or on a table outside you can also discourage slugs by winding spun copper from pot scrubbers around the pots or the legs of the table.

Be careful if you buy plants from commercial establishments. They often use chemical controls to suppress insects and the pests will rebound with vigour in your home environment. Quarantining new plants for two weeks is a good idea, but it’s not always possible. I’ve had two incidents over the years when a purchase brought in a pest I couldn’t control and I had to stop growing the host plants. One was a black aphid that loved ferns and the other one was a nasty mite that causes pits in the leaves of phalaenopsis.

The worst problem pest I occasionally get now are thrips. They love flowers, and are small enough to get in through a screen window, in my case from Virginia Creeper or Grape vines growing close to a window. They also spread viruses. All I use to get rid of them is an old art paint brush and 70% Isopropyl Alcohol, or soapy water. I buy the alcohol at my local pharmacy.

A continuing pest is scale. The males actually fly as part of their life cycle, but mostly they stealthily crawl about on leaves. I have a pretty relaxed attitude to this insect, as I have lived with them in the house for many years. I just wipe them off with soapy water and a cloth. You just have to be vigilant.

Potting and Feeding

I have used many potting mixes over the years, usually modifying them to suit the plant. There are specialty mixes on the market now, so it’s much easier to give plants what they need. I also make my own mixes but I’m trying to eliminate peat moss. The wetlands from which commercial harvesters get peat and sphagnum moss do a better job of sequestering carbon than forests, and are habitats for rare orchids and other plants. We need to keep that carbon in the ground to slow climate change. Any mix I make now uses coir, the outer husk of coconuts that is shredded and packaged commercially. Coir has environmental impacts also, but I have decided they are less than peat. You can do your own research and make your own choice.

I also mostly use organic fertilizers. Artificial fertilizers are a greater source of greenhouse gases than airplane flights.   Link here

Lately I’ve been top dressing my house plants with Sea Soil. It works like magic and I highly recommend it. It is sold at some local nurseries. I’ve used it on my plants when I put them outside for the summer, and this fall I’ve put it on my heavy feeders (blooming plants) to help them over the winter. It seems to be working well. You can get Sea Soil mix for containers, and I’ve started using it for some indoor plants in various mixes with good results. It’s not sterilized soil so you may find some unwanted seedlings growing in it.

Sea Soil is made from fish biproducts and composted together with biproducts of the forestry industry. There is a new business in Manitoba that is creating a similar product. I haven’t tried it yet but it might give the same results.  Link here 

These dwarf pomegranates have been growing in the same pots for 30 years. They spent the summer outside in my garden. Here I have top dressed them with sea soil for the winter.

A good rule I follow is to underpot rather than overpot, so the top dressing works well. Trees actually seem to do better in smaller pots. If a plant is root bound, you’ll have to repot eventually, but I find it’s best to keep house plants a little cramped, as most of them die of overwatering, not underwatering.

Often when I repot, the plants go into the same pot with some fresh soil, and maybe a little pruning of the roots. I’ve grown the same geraniums in the same pots for about 50 years. They’re cut down and kept cool over the winter in our basement under fluorescent lights, with very little water. In the spring I shake off some of the soil, add new soil and they spend the spring, summer and fall blooming on my front steps.

Orchids are pretty tough plants, but when they don’t like your conditions they will tell you by refusing to flower, and then proceeding to die slowly. They don’t thrive in old potting mix and should be repotted every two years or so. The time to repot is when you see new growth in the roots. The main rule with orchids is watching the roots: new healthy root growth usually means a happy orchid.

This Cattleya orchid is at the right time for repotting. Notice the vigorous new root growth.

I’ve always been surrounded with plants, and I’ve tried to keep them happy. This is not always possible of course, and I’ve had many casualties, but creating a winter garden in my home has always brought me joy. There are plants growing in my house that I have received from friends, some of whom are no longer here, but these are reminders of past good times. The giving and receiving of plants is one of life’s little pleasures.