Published on 11/09/06

Don't give a plant to a 'brown thumb'

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

Giving a plant to someone without a green thumb can be like giving a pet to someone who isn't an animal lover.

"How long potted plants remain attractive depends on the care you give them," said Jim Crawford, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension coordinator in Jefferson County.

Crawford says the keys to successfully growing plants lie in how much water and light you give them.

"Large plants in small containers dry out quickly," he said. "And the low humidity from the central heat in most homes increases soil drying."

Keep soil moist

To make sure your potted plants don't dry out, he suggests checking the soil daily and watering the plant if the soil feels dry to the touch.

"You don't just check the soil surface," he said. "Often the surface will feel dry when the soil around the roots is still moist."

Push about an inch of your finger into the soil. If it feels moist, don't water the plant, he said.

Over-watering can promote diseases

Overwatering can be just as damaging to houseplants as underwatering.

"Root diseases can develop anytime the roots are stressed with too much fertilizer, root wounding and poorly drained soil," Crawford said.

Signs of root diseases include plants wilting, the death of individual branches and the yellowing of lower leaves.

Crawford says there's a "fine line between too little and too much water" when it comes to houseplants.

"As a rule, the longer the soil stays wet, the greater the likelihood of developing root rot," he said.

He recommends using the amount of water it takes to cause some water to drain from the pot's bottom.

During the holiday season, houseplant pots are often decorated with colorful foil. Poke a hole in the foil on the bottom of the pot to ensure the plant can drain, he said.

"After you make a hole, place the pot on a saucer to keep excess water off your furniture," he said.

Discard water that collects in the saucer. "Don't reuse that water or let the plant wick it up," Crawford said. "This can restrict root growth, causing poor plant performance."

Let the sunshine in

The other key to healthy indoor plants is making sure they get enough sunlight.

"Most plants need high levels of indirect light," he said. "Usually, the brighter the better."

Signs of insufficient light include loss of foliage, weak appearance and spindly, stretched branches.

Sudden temperature changes are also harmful to houseplants.

"Avoid fast temperature changes by keeping plants away from doors and heating or air-conditioning vents," Crawford said.

It's not just energy wise to turn your household thermostat down during winter months. It's good for your houseplants, too.

"Turning down the temperature at night to between 60 and 65 degrees can actually prolong the life of flowering plants," he said.

Flowering and foliage plants can make great holiday gifts. Just make sure the recipient is a plant lover, or your gift may be short-lived.

Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.