The best way for gardeners to cure our winter blues is with houseplants, but if you are anything like me, by January your houseplants have seen better days. I have some thoughts on siting (shared here) and on houseplants’ other needs that I will share in a future post.
The first problem with houseplants is the same problem people have outside in the garden: don’t fight the site. If you lived in an 3rd floor apartment in Manhattan and have one north facing window, you can’t grow sunlight loving plants. (I assume that no one wants ugly grow lights in their living spaces.) Conversely, if you have a greenhouse, you don’t worry about sunlight, you worry about having enough shade.
As a suburbanite with a detached garage with windows on all four sides of the house, I have a lot of choices when it comes to siting houseplants. I also grow many plants in my office window, which has a southeastern exposure. It is important to know what direction your windows face when siting your plants. I beleive that in almost all cases plants should be placed next to the window or on the windowsill. Interior rooms just don’t offer enough light.
Some of my favorite plants are cacti and succulents (aloes, agaves etc.). Generally, cacti and succulents do well in a dry environment (like one provided by central heating) so long as they have as much sunlight as you can give them. I have a small collection of various succulents in my office window and I set my outlook calendar to remind me every two weeks to water them. They are mostly able to fight through the winter until they return to their summer locations outside. Christmas “cacti” and sanseveria (rudely named mother-in-law’s tongue) have different, darker, moister, cooler needs.
I also enjoy growing orchids and have excellent luck putting them in a second story east facing window. In order to bloom, a lot of orchids need a temperature change- warmer during the day and cooler at night. As my friends will attest, my house is not a very warm one and I turn the thermostat down to 59 degrees at night– partly because I like it cool, partly for the plants. My husband is not a tremendous fan of this. I have had the same orchids for many years and have had few problems making them bloom with this regime. (Orchids in my house have other problems: more on that later.)
I also overwinter a number of plants that you don’t often think of as houseplants. Pelargoniums (what everyone else call geraniums) are excellent inside. After you have enjoyed them for the summer, dig them up and plant them in a container with good drainage. I put my geraniums in my very cool (but heated) basement window. I often have blooming geraniums all winter. As I have mentioned before, I am also overwintering foxgloves, snapdragons, gerbera daisies and a rosemary topiary. These are all doing modestly well in a south facing window, but will be much larger plants than those in my price range at the nursery next year.
I have a few houseplants that are somewhat random- a norfolk pine that was a Christmas present a few years ago, a lemon tree that has definitely seen better days but produced 1 dozen lemons in 2008 (and 6 the year before), some Jade bonsais, an overlarge bird of paradise and many african violets. These all prefer a south facing window during the winter here in Wisconsin.
Having said all this, I have to say that there is no reason to get too worked up about houseplant siting. If you don’t have a south facing window, use trial and error on your other windows- you might be surprised.
Don’t feel too much guilt about houseplants if you kill them– if you live in a New York apartment (or anywhere else for that matter) and you know you can’t take care of the beautiful orchid or lovely little cyclamen that someone gives you– enjoy it as you would a long- lasting flower arrangement. Water it once a week and then when it looks scraggly throw it out or donate it to a gardening friend.
Houseplants are a great way for us all to enjoy a bit of the outdoors when the weather makes us want to stay inside.