Buy the House Plant That Suits the Space

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House plant management is a topic that can send out ripples of apprehension. There are those who cheerfully tend to their gardens but who absolutely refuse to share their home with a house plant. Too much trouble, they say, what with the watering, fertilizing and such. And then the darn thing may not even survive the winter. With poor management, that may be true, but the fact is, under the right conditions most house plants will thrive with a minimum of care.

All plants need the right amounts of light, water and food, but as long as their basic needs are met, they are surprisingly adaptable to local conditions. One Christmas cactus that I know, for example, blooms on schedule every year even though it is kept in temperatures cooler than the experts suggest – 5 degrees C (42 degrees F).

Probably the most important question involving house plants is that of choice. Before buying any plant, take a hard, calculating look at the home you are going to provide for it.

Shop for a house plant the way you would for a piece of furniture or art. You are unlikely to purchase a tall urn suitable for a hallway if there is no place to display it, and you wouldn’t buy a painting for a wall where the lighting is so dim you can’t see it.

Similarly, plants should be chosen for the space they will occupy, bearing in mind proximity to light, and the sources of heat and droughts. It is also useful to know the temperature of the room at most times. Rooms kept on the cool side, (maybe around 16 degrees C) are usually better than hot, dry rooms.

Light, however, is the most important factor. As a rule, flowering plants need more light to bloom than do foliage plants, to look their best. (Some foliage plants, in fact, will suffer leaf burn in lighting that is barely sufficient to keep a begonia on hold.) Before buying an expensive house plant, decide first on the location. It is not likely you are prepared to cut a new window out of a wall to give light to a hibiscus, for instance, so buy a plant that will grow in the light already available.

Is there a window nearby? Is the light diffused by a curtain? Does the window look out on to tall buildings? Does it face north? If the answer to the last three questions is yes, some type of foliage plant is a wiser choice than a flowering plant, the final decision being a matter of taste and of the size of the area.

Of course, almost any area can be illuminated to provide adequate lighting for a flowering plant, but it would be wise to check out the cost of such a venture before buying.

In downtown Toronto, where high buildings often crowd out the light, the biggest demand is for foliage plants that can adapt to low-light conditions. In the suburbs and the country, there may be too much light for some foliage plants. I knew of a dieffenbachia that had got by with its downtown east window location but which had a dreadful time adjusting to a new house in the suburbs. In one location, its colors faded; in another, the leaves were scorched by the sun. The right spot was eventually found – well back from any window.

Remember, too, that light intensity changes during the year. If light intensity is measured in November or December (using a photographer’s light meter) the reading will be considerably lower than in February and March.

In the same way, a south-facing window will give light for a greater part of the day than will one facing north. In the winter, plants should not be placed right at the window because of the danger of cold damage; a few feet away, light levels will be considerably lower.

Once the quality and intensity of light in a particular area is known, then consider the choice of plant. Obviously, low-light areas will require those plants that can best get by in low-light conditions – mainly foliage plants, and not those that have brightly colored or variegated leaves, which need a better quality of light to bring out their best colors.

In high-density areas, most houses do best with foliage plants; flowering plants are best left to areas where the quality of light is better. However, flower-lovers are likely to ignore that sort of suggestion. How could one get through the winter without begonias and African violets, hibiscus and geraniums, to mention just a few? A greenhouse does a beautiful job of solving the light problem, and of getting geraniums to bloom continuously, but those who don’t have access to one should consider supplementing natural light with artificial lighting. A begonia that’s barely making it through the winter on natural light, for instance, can come to life in a hurry. There are special growing lights available, but even regular use of an ordinary light bulb will get results.