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The Cure for the Common House Plant (and, Why You Should Own a Rain Barrel)

Posted on June 13, 2016


by Heather Skrypnyk

As summer season is upon us, it’s a good time to think about your inside garden. A common question most people have is, “How do I keep my house plants alive?” or, “Why is my house plant dying?”

There are a few quick checks to make before looking deeper.

Do you feed your plant?

Plants bought from nurseries and greenhouse are potted in what the industry calls ‘soilless media.’ Soilless media is composed of mainly peat moss and aggregates, which lack the nutrients plants need in the long term. Greenhouse production benefits from using soilless media because it is almost pH neutral and can be altered via fertilizing for a plant’s specific nutritional needs. Once the plant leaves its monitored environment to make its way to your home, these added nutrients are quickly used up by the plant, and leached out of the soilless media with watering.

Fertilizer doesn’t imply synthetic: there are organic based fertilizers made from seaweed, animal manure, animal processing, as well as mineral and plant extractions that are available at local, quality plant retailers.

Check to see what nutrients your houseplants require and add a fertilizer that works well with these needs, and then set up a fertilizer schedule to feed your plant throughout the year.

Is there drainage?

As much as plants need water, they also require oxygen. This means a plant in a pot without drainage is much more likely to suffocate. Soil aeration is important because it provides gas exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide for roots and microbes to survive in soil. When a plant has proper drainage, the action of watering creates a vacuum that pulls oxygen into the soil from above as water drains out below.

You’re less likely to overwater your plants if you use a potting soil that has drainage within. Drainage is added to potting mixtures in forms like perlite, vermiculite, stones and peat. Adding organic matter such as compost also helps create important air exchange tunnels as microorganisms die and organic matter breaks down (and composts).

Is there salt buildup?

Often seen in older houseplants is salt buildup. Salt enters the soil through the addition of chemical fertilizers and the tap water we use to water with. A salt buildup can lead to ‘burning’ of the plant’s roots, and is seen in a crisping and browning of the edges of leaves as salt pulls moisture out of the plants and into the soil. A white crystallized salt buildup on pots and soil may also be seen in your houseplant.

Flushing the soil is easiest cure and can be done over a kitchen sink. Just water the plant with two to three times the volume of the pot and allow the water to drain out fully. And wipe crystallization off of the pots.

But… salt buildup can be reduced by encouraging proper drainage, using organic based fertilizer and watering your plants with rainwater whenever possible. Rainwater is healthy for your plants and will not burn them with hard minerals and residues. You can purchase a retro-fitted rain barrel from FortWhyte Alive’s Nature Shop any day of the week.

If you add fertilizer, drainage, and flush out salt buildup using rainwater, it’s easy to have and maintain green plants without a green thumb!

Be sure to check out the exciting events and workshops happening at FortWhyte Farms this summer!