Houseplant Husbandry Cultivating Your Inner Green Thumb

Still a few paychecks shy of that country cottage? Cubicles got you down? If that's the case, you might consider bringing a little whiff of the outdoors inside with some lush, green houseplants.

"But wait," you say. "I can't keep a miniature cactus alive - plants die when I so much as look at them." If you think a well-watered green thumb is a prerequisite for cultivating a private indoor garden, think again, because while some plants are temperamental and best left to professionals, there are plenty of nearly bulletproof varieties that even the most absent-minded caretaker can manage. All it takes is a little know-how and a modicum of commitment, and soon you'll be reveling in your own little slice of nature twelve months a year. Whether you're planning on turning your living room into a fully landscaped floral wonderland, or simply considering a few plants for your bedroom window, with a little help and some sound advice, you'll be repotting and pruning in no time.

Know Your Plant

The first thing you need to understand is that plants are designed to grow outside. This may seem obvious, but bear in mind that when you bring plants into your New York City apartment, they're like fish out of water. Also consider the wisdom of Madelyn Simon, an interior landscaper based in Manhattan who's been in the business for 25 years: "Houseplants can only survive between 50 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit," she says. "That means they are actually tropical plants."

But don't let that intimidate you - just respect the fact that your tropical guests are relying on you as their sole provider of what they would normally get from Mother Nature, so you're going to have to simulate their natural environs to a degree.

So where do you begin? According to David Protell, president of Manhattan's Chelsea Garden Center - an indoor and outdoor landscaping firm and plant retailer - the key to thriving houseplants is the quality of the plants and their suitability to your space. "You have to shed the so-called "black thumb" stigma, and realize that if you do your homework and really choose the right plant for your environment, it will do fine," he advises.

So how does one choose the right plant? Start by assessing your space. How much sun do you get? How much humidity? Fresh air? Note which direction your windows face, then tally how many hours a day they get sunlight - direct and indirect. Don't despair if you don't get much sun - there are plenty of plants that prefer shade - but the better the match, the healthier your plants will be.

In other words, work with your apartment's conditions, not against them. Gather as much information as you can about your space and write it down. Next, assess yourself. What's your skill level? How much work are you prepared to do? Do you travel often and need plant species that can stand some neglect? Do you want a plant that will never need pruning, or one you can shape into a bust of Big Bird? There are plants to match virtually every level of commitment, but it's important to know where you stand.

The Good, the Bad"¦and the Sickly

Now you're ready to begin shopping. Note that plants dislike change and tend to go into shock when relocated. They usually bounce back after a few days, but the added stress of extreme weather can be deadly to recent immigrants to your abode - so choose mild weather for your shopping expeditions (spring and fall are best). Now pick a reputable dealer and bring along your list of environmental factors. Don't be shy about asking for advice. Any good plant retailer will know which plants are best suited to your environs, and you might as well ask about it before you've fallen in love with something you can't possibly keep. Don't see anything you like? Keep looking. Check out online nurseries, which generally provide detailed information about ideal conditions for their plants. There are literally thousands of species to choose from, and eventually you'll find something perfect for your space.

Once you've decided on the species you want, look for the healthiest specimens. New growth is generally a good indicator. With flowering plants, like orchids, look for unopened buds to get the maximum bloom time. Protell offers these additional tips: "Carefully inspect the plant for insects and signs of disease. Avoid anything "˜bleached-looking.' Look for plants with deep, dark green foliage, because that's the best sign that they've been properly acclimated to make a smooth transition to your home. And just generally watch for a healthy, vigorous appearance."

Once you've made your choices, make sure to ask about watering regimens - how much and how often, whether to mist or not, how often to fertilize etc., and write it all down. Next, pick out the proper containers and supplies. Again, it's wise to consult the pros on this. Different kinds of containers absorb more or less water and insulate in different ways. Most plants are sold in cheap plastic containers - which are in fact the best choice for certain plants. Others fare better in terracotta etc. Find out what works best for your plants, and buy accordingly. (Even if your plants are a plastic-loving variety, you can simply rest the plastic containers inside other kinds of pots if you choose.) And while you're shopping, don't forget to pick up a few basics, like potting soil and gravel, a good liquid fertilizer, and a watering can and mister.

Once you've brought your plants home, observe them carefully to see what makes them happy; then stick with it. Don't be afraid to move plants closer or further from windows when you're starting out. Go ahead and fiddle with how much or how often you water if need be. Every plant/home combination is different, and you'll probably have to fine-tune your regimen at the start for optimum performance. And beware that what thrills your philodendrons could be disastrous for your cacti - treat every plant as an individual.

A River Runs Through It

That said, there are some golden, near-universal rules for plant maintenance. If you only follow one suggestion, make it this one: When in doubt, under-water. Most plants will take a while to die of thirst, but a single over-watering can literally drown most plants by choking off the air roots need and causing root rot. Use drip trays underneath plants and pour off excess water that plants haven't absorbed after half an hour. Also note that watering too often can be just as bad as watering too heavily - most plants need to dry out somewhat between waterings. (There are exceptions, but find out before you start dousing.) Note also that most plants have a dormant phase (usually in the winter) during which they need much less water than when they're growing.

Of course, that's just the tip of the iceberg. According to Donald Robertson of Town and Gardens, Ltd. - a Manhattan interior and exterior landscaping firm that often works for co-ops and condos - an aspiring urban interior gardener should use the following checklist: "First, feel the soil every time you water to see if you really need a watering - and let it slide if you don't. You might even get a water meter, because often you just can't tell by looking at the surface. Second, pick a [watering] day and stick to it! It's important to get into the habit. Third, inspect the whole plant regularly - if problems develop - like pests - it's easy to correct them if you catch them early. But if you don't notice until you've got an infestation"¦then you're in trouble. And last, don't move plants outside if they're indoor plants. Plants don't like sudden changes. People think this is a special treat for their plants, but often you just end up shocking them, freezing them, or scorching them in the sun. Pick one spot and let them adjust to it."

Little Shop of Horrors

So what happens if you follow all these instructions, and you're still having problems? Some basic troubleshooting tips: If leaves are turning brown and dry, you're probably under-watering. Try heavier drenchings or more frequent waterings. Got pests? Try Robertson's advice: "For soft-bodied bugs like aphids, wash them off the plant with a product called Safer Soap. If it's a hard-bodied insect like a scale, you have to use something called summer oil to suffocate them."

If plants are getting "leggy" with long stems and few leaves, they probably need more sun. If the lower leaves are turning yellow, you're probably over-watering. Water less often or less heavily, and make sure you've got decent drainage. If this progresses to root rot, you'll have to remove the plant from the pot, cut off the rotten roots, and repot. Likewise, if the plant seems generally disease-free but has suddenly begun to droop, you may also need to repot. Check to see if it's pot-bound (roots have nowhere left to spread and may be sticking out the bottom). Some plants like to be pot-bound, but others outgrow their pots and begin ailing. If this happens, you'll need to repot. Start by lining a slightly larger pot with some gravel or rocks for drainage and a layer of the appropriate soil. (A much larger pot can get waterlogged and cause root rot.) Now soak the plant, and gently slide it - complete with its soil - from the pot, attempting to keep it all in one solid clump if possible. Try not to damage the roots as you maneuver. Place the plant in the larger pot and fill in the sides with soil, packing it down. You should be golden for another year or two at least.

Plants Into Perpetuity

If you decide that indoor gardening is for you, it might be helpful to pick up a couple of books on the topic to have on hand. Well-illustrated books are best, of course; good photos and diagrams can be enormously helpful to even an experienced gardener. And if you get into trouble despite your best efforts, the New York Botanical Garden offers free advice at

pltinfo@nybg.org.

Don't be discouraged if it takes a little trial and error to get into the swing of houseplant husbandry. Like all living things, plants do die - even under the best supervision, and everyone loses a few, especially at first. But by following these guidelines, you should be well on your way to your own private oasis full of happy, healthy plants.

Alex Wolf is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

For a sidebar story on types of hardy urban plants, click here.

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