University of Illinois Extension

Hardy Houseplants for Brown Thumbs

Houseplant Picture

Winter can be deadly for houseplants, not because we left them outside to perish, but because we brought them in, said Richard Hentschel, U of I Extension horticulturist.

“Our homes have very low levels of humidity and a lot less light than those houseplants got outdoors,” explained Hentschel. “Depending on where they sit inside, winter drafts can also influence how well they do.

“Ideally, your houseplants were brought in before the furnace started to run so they could slowly get used to the lower levels of humidity. By early to mid- winter there is usually some yellowing of foliage and dropping of leaves that have browned. This is a natural reaction to a change of environment.”

Another big change for us is to not overwater as many of our houseplants quit actively growing for the winter months, and it is easy to overwater and cause root rots.

There are some houseplants that perform better indoors with less light, water and lower humidity. There are several houseplants or families of houseplants that are worth trying if you have not had good luck growing houseplants in the home.

Dieffenbachia, commonly known as dumbcane (because of the numbness in the mouth if eaten) will tolerate low light levels and periods without water in case you forget once in a while to check. Another medium to larger houseplant is Sansevieria that goes by the common name of snake plant. Sansevierias are very tough, can live with very low light and can remain pretty dry for long periods. Besides the tall-bladed plants there are also shorter versions that can easily fit on window sills.

“If Sansevieria is overwatered, it tolerates overly wet soils while the pot dries out,” he said. “One very neat and compact plant to consider is Peperomia. The leaves can be deeply textured or shiny and smooth and even variegated and the plant grows with a nice mound of foliage.

“Aglaonemas, known as Arrowheads, is another large family of tropicals that are tolerant of low light levels and humidity. They come in shades of green and with a variety of variegated leaves.” If you think you are one of those “brown thumb gardeners,” here are some things you can do to get that thumb greener.

Water well enough to see it collect in the saucer below and then after five to 10 minutes drain away any excess. If you can use the same soil mix in all the pots, watering will be more consistent.

“Another consideration is to use the same kind of container,” Hentschel said. “Clay pots are much more forgiving if you overwater as the clay is more porous. If you find yourself watering all the time, perhaps a non-porous pot out of plastic or a glazed ceramic pot will not let the soil dry out as fast.

“Remember most houseplants are not going to be actively growing in the darker days of winter so do not expect great things. Keeping the foliage clean by rinsing in the sink, or larger plants in the shower, will let them use the lower levels of light to the best advantage.”

There are many more houseplants to consider and a visit to your favorite greenhouse will provide you with several choices. If you find you are good at growing a particular plant, then consider more of those from the same family.

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