GIMME SHELTER- Houseplant CPR: Water, sun, and kill the bugs

Gary Hess
Horticulturist and grower, Ivy Nursery


Q: I can't keep a houseplant healthy to save my life. What should I do to prevent future massacres of these potted beauties?

A: If you suspect an indoor plant is dying and you see some spots on the leaves, it might be a good idea to get out your magnifying glass. If you notice what looks like speckling on the top side of the leaf, turn the leaf over and you might find that the sucking mouth parts of tiny spider mites are piercing all the way through the leaf! Spider mites are a very common pest for houseplants and one that many people aren't aware of because they're hard to see with the human eye. 

Believe it or not, insects are a big problem for indoor plants.  Without rain to wash them away or predators to devour them, many parasites have a veritable climate-controlled feast awaiting them inside your house. 

Mealy bugs are another common indoor bug to watch out for, but unlike spider mites, they're highly visible. If you see white or light-brown cottony masses in the crotches of the plant that keep building up and getting larger, chances are you have mealy bugs. Fortunately, these mounds of bugs are easy to wipe out without harming the plant. A little alcohol on a Q-tip rubbed into the cottony masses will dry them right up. Be warned, though– the mealy bugs will probably return, because the larvae are very hard to kill off.

To prevent such unwanted scenarios, it's best to take your plants outside on pleasant days and hose them down to simulate rain. About twice a year, I actually spray my plants with Fantastic cleaner, leave it on for two minutes, and then hose them down with good pressure. Nowadays, they make organic sprays that act as a preventive for both insects and disease. 

While plant maintenance usually depends on the size and type of plant, there are some general guidelines to follow when it comes to ensuring your plant has ample access to essentials like sun and water. I generally water my plants about once a week, but give a pretty good watering when I do. Certain plants, however, require much more or much less water.  African violets, for example, should be watered two or three times a week. Additionally, I like to fertilize my plants about once every seven to ten waterings.

Be conscientious about where you place plants– try to avoid bright sunlight or gusts of air. As summer approaches, the sunlight is going to intensify, so anything right by a window will take the sun even harder. Certain plants are very touchy to drafts from open windows or forced-air heating. If you notice a plant dropping leaves it may very well be in a drafty spot.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Finally, always ask the people you buy the plant from how they recommend you care for it. They should be able to give you detailed advice on everything from whether it's a shade-loving or full-sun plant to whether it needs to be watered once a month or twice a week.