Tips for buying and keeping a houseplant

Story and Photography by Lisa Eldred Steinkopf

When fall arrives and there are fewer garden chores, you may be wondering what to do now. If you miss taking care of plants, purchase a houseplant to get your green fix inside. Houseplants not only add some green, but some believe that houseplants may improve your mood. 

Dieffenbachia has beautiful foliage and is a good medium-light plant.

Don’t run out and buy the first plant you see, though. First determine the best plant for the desired location. Do you have a bright room with several windows or a room that doesn’t receive any direct sunlight? Choosing the right plant for the spot is the key to success. In addition to the amount of light a plant requires, you need to know the plant’s mature size to make sure it won’t outgrow your space. 

Chinese evergreens (Aglaonema) are beautiful, easy houseplants. They are great for medium-light situations.

How do you determine the amount of light you have to offer a prospective plant roommate? Is its potential location facing north, south, east, or west? Is sunlight blocked by trees, awnings, or adjacent buildings? An east-facing window supports many plants, as it provides morning light – a soft, medium light level. A north-facing window usually only provides enough light for non-flowering plants; opt for dark, large-leaved plants, such as Dieffenbachia and Philodendron. Another option is a plant that is newer to the market, but relatively easy to find – the ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia). These sturdy plants have shiny green leaves and are drought tolerant because of their fleshy roots. If you’ve killed your share of houseplants, this one may be for you. Do not overwater it, as that is the biggest killer of this plant (and many other plants).

Pothos are easy to care for and don’t require much light, with the exception of variegated varieties. If they don’t receive enough the light, they will revert to all green.

A spot with southern exposure provides the most light, giving you many options, including cacti and succulents. But this is a harsh, bright light that can burn plants such as African violets (Saintpaulia), Begonia, and ferns. If you have a specific plant in mind that requires a low-light location, but you only have a south-facing area, a sheer curtain will provide enough protection to prevent burning. West-facing locations can also support a wide variety of plants. 

Visit a locally owned garden center near you to find healthy, well-maintained houseplants.

If you want a vining plant that will do well in low light, consider the heart-leafed philodendron (P. hederaceum) or pothos (Epipremnum spp.). 

African violets have a reputation as “grandma plants,” but they can’t be beat for their flowering power. Place them in a medium-light location, such as an east-facing window, and they will bloom almost constantly.

If you have an east- or west-facing window, consider flowering plants such as peace lily (Spathiphyllum), African violet, or a Phalaenopsis orchid. An eastern exposure is also perfect for ferns and begonias.

ZZ plant is one of the easiest-to-care-for houseplants.
These Calathea are healthy and beautiful. They are great plants for spots that receive only low to medium light. They do prefer a bit more humidity, so place them on pebble trays with water.

After you’ve done a bit of research and have a list of potential plants it’s time to go shopping. Before purchasing a plant, examine it to make sure it is healthy and free of any pests or disease issues. Check under the leaves, in the axils (where the leaf meets the stem), and along the stems. Do you see anything moving? Are there any holes in the leaves? If you see white cottony patches on the plant, it may be infested with mealybugs. Brown or white bumps on the plant that shouldn’t be there could indicate a scale infestation. Are there yellow or brown leaves? If so the plant may have been over- or underwatered. If you see symptoms of any potential problems, look for a different plant. It is important to start out your plant parenthood with a healthy, pest-free plant. If it is cold outside, make sure your plant is wrapped in a paper sleeve before leaving the store to protect it from the elements.

Look closely at the plant you are buying. If you see white cottony material in the axils of the leaves or on the leaves, such as pictured here, move on. These are mealybugs.
Don’t buy a plant if you see brown bumps on the leaves and/or stems, which may be scale, as seen on this fern.

Odds are, your plant will be in the ubiquitous green or black plastic nursery pot and you’ll more than likely prefer something more attractive. It’s perfectly fine to move the plant into two different containers, just make sure the new container is approximately the same size; you don’t want to move it to a larger container until it is actively growing in the spring. However, if it appears to be rootbound and needs water more than once a week, go ahead and use a larger container, but water it carefully throughout the winter. Your new plant won’t need any fertilizing until you see new growth in the spring.

Enjoy your plant this winter and if it doesn’t look as good by the time spring arrives, it is okay to put it on the compost pile. Don’t feel guilty – there is always next fall.

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