Houseplants 101 from PlantXChange

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I tried to be a good plant mom for years. Plants kept dying until I went to a PlantXChange event and learned about light, water, and soil from houseplant pros. I learned that my peace lily wasn’t dying, it was just a dramatic plant that wilted at the slightest sign of dryness. Not only did I get my peace lily to bloom by watering it properly and giving it the right amount of light, but I even propagated some cuttings for friends. 

PlantXChange is an organization dedicated to sharing plants throughout New York communities, educating plant parents on sustainability and plant care, and aims to create gardening spaces that are accessible to all.

In partnership with Bluedot Living Brooklyn, PlantXChange has shared its Planting 101 Guide on caring for houseplants. 

Light

Providing your plant with the appropriate amount of light is the single most important factor for plant health. Houseplants come from all over the world, and their indigenous environments impact their light requirements. Our members can help you choose the right plant for your home. When you don't have a lot of natural sunlight, you can still have happy plants at home with artificial grow lights. 

Plants that are low light tolerant: Ferns, Peace Lily, ZZ Plant, Snake Plant

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Plants that like bright indirect sun: Monstera, Philodendron, Pothos, Hoya

Plants that thrive in direct sun: Cacti, Succulents, Herbs

Watering

How frequently you should water your plant depends on several factors. Plants that receive a lot of light will need more water than plants that are in lower light conditions. During warmer months when plants are growing faster and temperatures are higher, you may need to water your plant more frequently than in the winter. It will also depend on the water retentivity of your soil mix and the humidity conditions.

Succulents, which have adapted to droughts in their natural environment, can store water in their thick leaves and prefer drying out completely inbetween waterings. However, plants from tropical rainforests are used to constant rainfall and will prefer moister conditions. 

Prefers evenly moist soil: Ferns, Peace Lily, Calathea

Can partially dry between waterings: Monstera, Philodendron, Pothos

Should fully dry between waterings: Cacti, Succulents, Snake Plant, ZZ Plant

Soil Composition

A good soil mix balances water retention and drainage. If the soil retains more water than the plant needs, the damp, stale environment can lead to root rot and fungal diseases. To prevent root rot, it's important to avoid watering your plant too frequently and use a soil mix that promotes enough drainage and aeration. It's also important that plants are in pots of the appropriate size relative to their roots. 

For plants that prefer moister environments, you can use a soil mix with higher water retention. For plants that like to dry out between waterings, you can add more components that promote drainage.

High Water Retention

Peat Moss: Peat moss is the most common material in commercial potting soil. However, we recommend limiting your use of peat moss, because of its impact on the environment. It is considered a non-renewable resource since it is harvested from peat bogs which take thousands of years to form. Peatlands also act as huge carbon sinks and emit significant amounts of CO2 when harvested.

Sphagnum Moss: Sphagnum moss and peat moss are different forms of the same plant. Sphagnum moss is the living moss on the surface, and peat moss is the decaying material underneath. However, sphagnum moss is renewable. Like peat moss, it is highly absorbent, and it also has good aeration. 

Coconut Coir: Coconut coir is another highly absorbent material that is considered more sustainable than peat moss. It is a natural fiber that comes from the husks of coconuts and is a waste product from the coconut harvesting process. 

Medium Water Retention

Bark Chips: Bark chips promote aeration through their large size, but they can also retain moisture. 

Clay Pebbles: Also known as LECA, these clay pebbles promote aeration while also retaining some water. LECA is often used on its own to grow plants in a semi-hydroponic manner, or it can be mixed into soil. 

Activated Charcoal: Activated (aka horticultural) charcoal can retain excess water and nutrients. It also has anti-microbial properties and can absorb impurities to help protect plant roots from fungal and bacterial growth. 

Low Water Retention

Perlite: Perlite is a type of volcanic glass that expands considerably when heated at high temperatures. The expanded form is what is commonly found in soil mixes, as its airy structure promotes drainage and prevents soil compaction.

Sand: Sand does not retain any water, and is a useful amendment for adding weight to the soil mix while also increasing drainage. Sand is most common in soil mixes for cacti and succulents.  

Temperature & Humidity

For most houseplants, regular indoor temperatures and humidity levels are sufficient. If the temperature is comfortable for you, it should be comfortable for your plants. However, you should keep plants away from cold drafty windows and radiators. 

​Tropical houseplants will thrive with higher humidity, but they are adaptable and maintaining adequate soil moisture can help offset lower humidity conditions. The best way to increase the humidity is with a humidifier, which can be useful in the winter since indoor heating often makes the air more dry. 

Pests

Unfortunately, there are a variety of pests that can plague houseplants. Preventative tactics and early detection are key to managing infestations. Some common houseplant pests are spider mites, scales, thrips, mealybugs, and fungus gnats.  

Many pests can be killed by spraying the plant with a simple diluted soapy water solution. Neem oil is another natural pesticide, but some are put off by its pungent smell. Another option is to introduce beneficial insects, which are insects that prey on houseplant pests. 

​While watering your plants, you should also inspect them for any signs of pests, such as unusual changes in leaf color or texture. Keeping a close eye on your plants can help you detect pests early. It is also a good practice to occasionally shower your plants and spray down leaves with water. This helps remove dust and prevents infestations from taking hold.

Propagation

Plant propagation is the process of making new plants using existing plants. PlantXChange relies on plant propagation to generate new plants for distribution at our events. 

There are several ways to propagate plants, and which methods you can use depends on the plant. Vining plants, like Pothos, Philodendrons, and Monsteras are some of the easiest to propagate by taking a stem cutting. Other plants, like Calatheas or Peace Lilies, can be propagated by division. Some plants may also only be propagated by seed. ​

At PlantXChange events, members offer guidance on how to propagate specific plants.

Once you’ve become a houseplant master, you can propagate and donate any spare plants to PlantXChange to keep their mission alive. 

Every third Sunday of the month PlantXChange has a meeting. This month it will be March 17 from 11:00 a.m. – 01:00 p.m at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center.

The April 21st annual field day festival is from 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.

More information is available on the PlantXChange Instagram.


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1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for the helpful info! Perhaps in the future you could post info on other plants, like aloe,orchid and pony-tail palm ?

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