Episode 106: ten commandments for houseplant care
Jane: Hello and welcome to On the Ledge Podcast! I'm your host Jane Perrone, currently sitting with a very hot head, because I've been wearing my riding hat to break it in. I know, it's a weird old world I live in. We're continuing our theme of houseplants for beginners this week, airing ten commandments for houseplant beginners, or, well, any growers to be quite honest. Supplied to us by Judy Feldstein of www.houseplant411.com. And I'll be answering a question about watering and fungus gnats.
Jane: A shout-out to @NicknamK would wrote me a really lovely 5-star review on Apple podcasts in the last week or so. They wrote "This is the podcast equivalent of a warm sunny day, sitting in the shade with a glass of iced lemonade, and watching the bees buzz among some clover while listening to Ella Fitzgerald. Soothing and refreshing, with a touch of understated humour, and sadly rarer in occurrence than I want it to be." Nick, it's a weekly podcast. I don't think I can stretch to daily instalments, but I do appreciate your desire for more episodes. All I can suggest is if you are willing to pay $5 a month, then you can upgrade to a Patreon subscriber and get access to An Extra Leaf, my bonus episodes, which come roughly twice a month. But thank you for your lovely review anyway! I feel very, very honoured to be mentioned in the same breath as Ella Fitzgerald, that absolute towering figure of music, and I'm very, very delighted by your review, so thank you very much for leaving a review for On the Ledge. It really means a lot to hear these lovely things about the show.
Thank you also to Beverly, who emailed to say how much she appreciates the amount of time that I give to musical interludes and the care I take to credit the musicians. And that's a really nice compliment thank you. I do spend a lot of time looking for the right music for the show and making sure that I credit the creative commons licenced music that I use and it's really important to me that the music is exactly right for the show, so thank you for your comments on that. And if you love any of the tracks that you hear on On the Ledge, do go and look at the show notes where you will be able to find those tracks and hear more from the artist whose work I air in the show.
And thanks also to Randall who got in touch on the email, that's
And a reminder that this is the last episode of August. Sniff! Yes, I know it's tragic. There will not be any more episodes after this one until September 6^th^because I am taking a little hiatus to catch my breath, regroup, adjust my headphones, and generally get ready for what's going to be a very, very exciting next few months on On the Ledge. There's some exciting things coming up which I can't tell you about yet but I know you're going to absolutely love them. Do check the show notes for details of the things that are already confirmed, which is my appearance at the Houseplant Festival at the Garden Museum in September and also BCSS Cactus World Live in September also, all those details are in the show notes, and I would love to see you there. And I put out An Extra Leaf episode, that's my bonus podcast for Patreon subscribers of $5 a month or more, and I'm going to be putting out another one, or two, during the hiatus, which will be about the results of my air layering project, which is very exciting, and also something on the caladiums I've been growing.
I wanted just to run a small segment of the interview that is in the most recent Extra Leaf (Extra Leaf 31) because I thought you would absolutely love to hear this. It's from Ursula Sutcliffe, who runs a houseplant shop in Bradford in the UK called Plant One On Me. And here's Ursula talking about how the shop has impacted on her daughter who has autism.
"I have a 14 year old daughter who's autistic, and very creative, very artistic, but socially is always going to struggle and it was always in the back of my mind, it was something that always worried me. And once the shop presented itself to me I thought 'This is a space that she will feel relaxed in,' and my hope is that she can work in there, bits that suit her, and that maybe she's going to learn to run a business and she doesn't even realize that she's learning. And I've watched her, we used to call her Lily Potter a few weeks ago because we had to set her up, like, a little station under the stairs, just in case it was too much for her. Now, she's writing her first book that's set in a plant shop, she's saying hello to customers as they walk in, she's making cups of tea. We've seen a massive difference in her. Before the summer holidays came her teachersphoned me to say they've actually seen a massive improvement in her confidence since we opened the shop."
Jane: Now if that doesn't warm the cuckolds of your heart, I don't know what will. Yes, plants are amazing and I'm so delighted to hear that Ursula's daughter is feeling the positive effects of being surrounded by plants. If you want to hear the whole of the interview with Ursula, do become a Patreon subscriber if you're not already, details in the show notes on how to do that.
Jane: And now it's time to turn to our ten commandments for houseplant growers. When you first start out as a houseplant aficionado, you really have to take baby steps and learn as you go, but it is good to have some basic instructions to follow. And this is where Judy's ten commandments come in. So, without further ado, let's hear commandment number one. Can you guess what it's going to be? I think you probably can, but over to Judy to reveal all.
Judy: The first commandment is don't overwater. Most house plants die from overwatering, so I tell someone when in doubt, don't water. Plant soil must dry out from water or the roots rot and die. And the fatter the leaves of the plant, the less often the plant needs to be watered because water is stored in the leaves. So, don't overwater is number one.
Jane: That thing about the leaf fatness is inspired because that's very true. That is very true and it's something that once you get to know plants you just instinctively look at the leaves and think 'Oh yeah, that doesn't need so much water,' but when you're starting out, that's not obvious is it, that's just something that you pick up along the way. But that's really, really true and yeah, I do think people think that they're being kind by constantly drenching a plant.
Jane: But unfortunately, we both see those succulents that have been filled up with so much water that they've just basically burst, which is horrendous. Ok, what's number two?
Judy: So, number two is don't over-fertilize. So, it's better to starve your houseplants with too little plant food, than to force feed them with too much because what happens is, the excess fertilizer builds up in the soil, it burns the roots, and this is the main reason why people's plants get ugly brown tips. So, I talk to people who say, 'Well I fertilize my plant every week and it's still looking terrible.' It's because most plants only need to be fertilized when they're actively growing, and even then, I recommend that people dilute the fertilizer to one-half the recommended strength, and that prevents the ugly brown tips on their plants.
Jane: I guess it's like humans, in that we could all eat 50 cream cakes a week, you know, but if we want to be healthy, we probably need to cut back that little bit and have the right amount regularly during the growing season. And that's a good point about the growing season as well because, you know, if you go in excess, then through the winter period where plants are resting, they're not going to be happy either. OK, so that's number two, what's number three?
Judy: Number three is don't rush to repot your plant. So, people have to avoid the urge to move plants to larger pots, because most plants like to be a little root bound. This allows the soil to dry out faster and prevents the root rot we talked about before. And when you do repot a plant, if it's in a six-inch pot, it needs to go to the next size, which is an eight-inch pot. People often go from a six-inch pot to a ten-inch pot and then wonder, they're watering the same as before, but now the plant is dying and it's because they don't realize that when you move it to a much larger pot, it takes longer for the soil to dry out, and you don't need to water as often.
Jane: I think the advice to go one pot size up can be confusing because, really, who knows off by heart what plant pot sizes are, you know? I guess I always kind of say, well if you can just about stick your finger between the two pots if they're nestled together -- the existing pot and the new pot -- that's probably about right. You don't want to go to a massive pot that's going to overwhelm the plant.
Judy: Right yeah, that's a great way to do it. Yeah, I never thought about that. But that's excellent. You know I always tell people well just take out a little tape measure and measure your pot across the top, and if it says six inches than you go to the eight-inch pot. If it says four inches, then you go to the six-inch pot. But your way sounds perfect too, yeah.
Jane: Well as I say I always look at the bottom of pots and see these numbers written on and think 'I don't know, between imperial and metric and trying to figure out the measurements, I'm lost. So, I just usually do it by eye, but at least you can kind of get a sense of when the pot's the right size. Ok so that's a good one. What about though Judy when you buy a new plant and you have a suspicion that it's been planted in the wrong kind of mix? For example, you might buy a cactus and you're thinking the potting mix looks very water-logged. Is that a time when possibly repotting straightaway is sensible but maybe staying in the same size pot?
Judy: Well, you know, I usually tell people that they should wait at least 6 weeks before repotting, but what you're saying is a good point, because many times when you buy a plant, especially from these big box stores like Walmart or, I don't know, Lowe's, I'm not sure what stores you have over there in England. The person who takes care of the plants waters them constantly, and the soil is water-logged, when you bring the plant home. If that's true, then I would do what you recommend. I'd take it out of the pot, get rid of all the wet soil, and repot it, in the same size pot in fresh dry soil.
Jane: I think that's probably my number one question that I get, you know, is the succulent that's rotting away, that is the number one question right now with all these succulents being sold all over the place not in garden centres and not necessarily with very good advice attached. And it's a bit sad to see the succulent that ends up as a mush, a pile of mush at the bottom of a pot.
Judy: Yeah...you know what I tell people about succulents if they have an overwatering problem is they can take it out of the pot, get rid of all of the wet soil, and let it lay out bare root for like 24 to 48 hours, and that doesn't hurt the plant and allows the roots to dry out, and then when you put it back in the soil it does much better.
Jane: That's a really good point, I've certainly got an aeonium plant that I've got out, it's been laying on the sides with just roots for like weeks and it's fine, it'll be fine.
Judy: Right! And it's fine.
Jane: And people can't quite believe that but that's how tough these plants are. I've lost count now Judy, are we on number four yet?
Judy: We're on number four yes. And number four is the quality of the water people use. So, people should avoid using water that has too much salt, or other chemicals like chlorine and fluoride in it. Never, ever use water that has passed through a water softener because it's much too salty, and it'll burn the roots again and cause brown tips on the plant.
Jane: For me that's the gold standard for watering, is rain water if I can possibly get hold of it.
Judy: But you know people nowadays are a little lazy, you know they work all day, they have to come home and do all kinds of things, and they sometimes don't want to spend the time to collect rainwater.
Jane: Or if you live in an apartment I suppose, and you don't have access to it either is the other issue I guess.
Judy: Right, and like where we live -- we live in Phoenix, Arizona -- and if I collected rainwater here, it would attract mosquitos, and then we're going to have this huge mosquito problem, so I don't even collect rainwater because of that.
Jane: Right. Tell me number five, we're almost halfway through, what's number five?
Judy: Number five is I recommend that people prune their plants aggressively.
Jane: Oh, that's an interesting one!
Judy: A lot of people are afraid to do that. So suddenly it's too late and they have this straggly Pothos plant that has you know seven foot runners that are bare, and then they say 'Oh it's so ugly what do I do?' and the answer is, you know, if you keep pruning your plants, especially your vines, that will make them bush out along the entire length of the stem, and you'll always have a nice whole looking plant. But if you wait too long, and then you've got this six-foot empty vine, you're going to have to cut it all the way back, almost to the soil level, in order to get it to look good again. So, if you consistently prune, your plants will look a lot better.
Jane: See, I think that's just your way of making sure that all your friends have lots of cuttings of your favourite plants to give you.
Judy: Yes, that's true, that's true!
Jane: Yes, generosity has benefits for the parent plant as well. I like that. That's a very good point. Because otherwise you end up with one long straggly stem which is not a great look on any plant is it, but it also encourages generosity of giving cuttings which I think is a good thing.
Jane: We'll be back with the second five in the Ten Commandments in a bit but now it's time for Question of the Week, and this one comes from Maggie, who says first of all that she loves the show. Thank you, Maggie that is by the way the way to start your question because it really does make me feel good inside before I even come to think about whether I can answer your question. So, what does Maggie want to know? Well she's been listening to, she started listening at number one, and she's making her way through all the podcasts, and she's come up to episode 19 on fungus gnats, and in that episode, if you remember, we talk about the various causes of fungus gnats, or things that will encourage a fungus gnat infestation and one of them is overwatering. And Maggie says that she's had some fungus gnat issues, nothing unmanageable at the moment. I guess one person's manageable fungus gnat infestation is somebody else's living nightmare. Some people have a real thing about having anything floating about in their house. I'm not particularly bothered but yeah I can understand for some people, even a singly fungus gnat adult flying around is unacceptable. So yeah it's a problem that you need to deal with at some point because even if you're not that bothered by the flies, eventually they will keep on breeding and get to the point where every single one of yours will be finding themselves wreathed in fungus gnats constantly, which is not a pleasant experience.
Maggie says, "I've often heard and read that proper watering needs to be thorough to where the water comes out the drainage holes. I water very slowly so the water isn't gushing out the holes. I let the soil completely dry out between waterings and use a moisture meter when in doubt. Sometimes I wonder if I'm watering too much." Well I would say Maggie to start with, if you are doing what you say you're doing, letting the soil dry out and indeed using a moisture meter to check that, I'd be very surprised if you are overwatering. Anyway, you go on to say that your condo is pretty cool, usually 18 to 21 Celsius. She helpfully translates to 65 to 70 Fahrenheit, which is, thank you for that translation because, as listeners will know, I am terrible at translating Celsius to Fahrenheit, in fact if somebody wants to email a little conversion chart that I can print out and stick somewhere please do, because you will be my number one fan forever. Anyway, Maggie says,
"Could I be watering too much at a time, given the climate? The specific plant I'm thinking about is my seven-and-a-half-foot Dracaena that only gets medium to indirect light from about 7 to 11, and then from 5 to 7, due to reflections off buildings. Although my condo faces east, I live downtown, and the buildings don't give me as much sunlight as possible, so all the plants in my living room are in the same boat. Any thoughts?"
Well first of all Maggie, I think you've made a great start here in that you clearly know your stuff. You know that the buildings around you are blocking out some of the light that you're getting, should be getting but aren't getting, and you're also, you know the temperature and you know when the plant is getting light, so this is all really useful stuff to know. And the one thing you don't mention in your post is what makes you think that your watering regime is wrong? Are you looking at that Dracaena and finding that the plants losing leaves, they're going yellow and falling more quickly than they should do, limp leaves, not very good growth? All those would be signs that you're overwatering. If your plants are showing none of those signs, then I think you're probably doing fine. It sounds like you're doing everything right. As we discovered in episode 105, Dracaena's are super tough, and they'll be fine in the light that you've got there. The amount of light that you've got and the hours of light you're getting should be fine for that plant. If you let the water go into the plant and your waiting until it's drying out a bit until you water again then I think you're probably doing fine.
In terms of the fungus gnat infestation, let's be clear here, overwatering can exacerbate a fungus gnat problem, however, overwatering is not the cause of a fungus gnat infestation. So just because you're watering your plants a bit too much doesn't mean that fungus gnats will suddenly appear and go nuts where they didn't exist anywhere before. Most of us have got a few fungus gnat larvae kicking around. What will happen though is if the plant is overwatered and has too much water around the roots that will just encourage a few more fungus gnats than you'd be seeing otherwise. Likewise, totally drying out your plants will not fully get rid of a fungus gnat problem, and you'll find that they will come back because this is an amazingly successful little creature and it finds its way around most of the attempts to foil them that we have come up with. And that's why in the fungus gnat episode, I suggest using nematode worms because that is a really reliable and safe way to get rid of the problem. I do, probably, an annual fungus gnat drench with the nematode worms and that way I will keep a lid on the population. I'm realizing that I'm not going to totally cure the problem because obviously there's new pots of soil coming into the house on new plants and so there's always going to be a bit of a vicious circle going on. Try not to worry though Maggie, I think your plants will be fine. If you keep your watering regime as it is then I suspect your fungus gnat population will probably remain fairly stable probably peaking in the spring and the autumn. If they're proving really troublesome then do give nematode worms a look if you can. There are many other suggested treatments for fungus gnats, but that's the one, generally, that I recommend because it is completely safe, and the other thing about it, is that the nematode worms can persist in the soil for quite a long time and keep tackling new infestations as they come along, so they are quite a long-lived treatment.
The other thing you can do Maggie if you're worried about water not coming out the bottom, is with plants that you're able to move, take them to a shower tray or bath or sink and allow the water to run through thoroughly before you put them back in their pots once they've drained off. That way you know they're not going to be water logged because you've allowed the water to drain away, but they've also had a really good soaking. I hope that's helped Maggie and do keep listening to and enjoying the rest of the episodes. You've got a long way to go, I suspect, unless you've been listening madly, but it's really good to hear that you've been enjoying the show.
And if you've got a question for On The Ledge, I'm coming back with a Q&A in one of my episodes in September, so do drop me a line and ask a question. I will do my very best to get you an answer.
Jane: Right, are you ready for commandment six? Here we go!
Judy: No direct sun. You know plants like bright indirect light, but there are very, very few plants that you can put in the direct sun indoors without having their leaves burn.
Jane: So, what are the exceptions to that rule, what are the things that we can put in, if we've got a really bright sunny spot?\ Judy: Oh, let's see you could put a geranium. It's amazing how well geraniums grow indoors in the direct sun. You could put a little yucca plant, or an aloe, there are some cacti plants that you can put into the direct sun, but as far as your usual run-of-the-mill indoor plants like Dieffenbachias or Dracaenas, or Pothos plants, or ivies, they really, really don't like the direct sun.
Jane: They're just going to get cooked, aren't they? Which is very, very sad.
Judy: Yeah, very fast, yes.
Jane: Ok, and number seven.
Judy: Location, location, location. You can have the same exact plant in an area that gets bright indirect light and is nice and warm and that plant is also in another part of your home that's in much lower light and it's a much cooler area, and you cannot water them the exact amount on the same day. So, if the plant is in a bright indirect spot that's warm, you may water it every week. The same plant in an area that's cool in much lower light, may only need to be watered every other week. So, it's not a good idea to say 'It's Saturday morning and I'm going to go water all my plants' because that doesn't work.
Jane: Yeah, lots of people do have that kind of strict regime. As a more of a fly-by-night kind of character, I tend to kind of see things needing it, needing water, and deliver it, which hopefully works quite well, but you're right. If you're too strict with the 'It's Saturday, it's time to water all the houseplants' then you can land yourself in all kinds of grief. Ok, we're on number eight.
Judy: Examine your plants frequently because it's much easier to prevent a bug infestation or a disease than to treat either one. So, every time you go to water, look at your plant, you know, turn the leaves over, see if there are these little unwanted critters growing where they shouldn't be growing. See if there are some kind of spots on your plants that shouldn't be there. That's an indication of leaf spot disease or something else like that. And that way that you can start treatment immediately before it's too late and the disease or the bugs have overtaken your entire plant.
Jane: Yeah this is so true. It's so tragic when that happens, when you suddenly see the plants completely gone downhill and you just haven't noticed. And it's easy to do that when they're sort of tucked away somewhere you don't look very often as well, I find. But yeah that's great advice. I guess it's getting over, particularly when you start off with houseplants, that kind of plant blindness. People don't look very closely at plants, they might just glance at it and think 'Oh it's fine,' but they haven't checked the underside of the leaves or looked closely to see those little aphids that are reproducing at an alarming rate, so yeah that's a great one.
Judy: Exactly. The other one's very simple. Know whether or not your plant is poisonous, and if it is, keep it out of the reach of your cats your dogs and your children, especially. There are a lot of plants that are poisonous, and people don't realize it, and then suddenly their dog is munching on something and they've got a problem.
Jane: It's amazing how common that is, and I guess people are shocked by how many quite poisonous plants are sold widely as house plants. I think people assume that they're all completely safe, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. There are so many plants that are pretty deadly to us, or our pets, or both, which is not good. I don't have, my kids and dog don't do any houseplant nibbling, so I'm lucky in that respect, but you've got to be careful, you've got to be careful.
Jane: My attitude now is sort of education, not that my kids would be eating houseplants anyway, but in my garden, I try and sort of educate and say you know, 'This plant, don't touch it.' But yeah, you don't want to be messing around with that and discovering too late your precious pussy cat, or whatever, has eaten something and taken ill, and it does happen a lot, so that's a really good one. You don't want that kind of heartbreak in your life, I suspect. Was that number ten or was that number nine? I've lost...
Judy: Well there's just one more, one more left, and that is that you should think twice before asking your friends and relatives to care for your plants while you're away on vacation because what often happens is they kill them with kindness. So, you know, if you're going away for a week, you certainly don't need someone to look at your plants. If you're going away for two weeks, you probably don't need anyone. You should, you know, place them in a low light area where there won't need much water and they won't dry out as quickly as usual. Water them well before you leave, and when you come back, if they're a little droopy, they'll perk up after you water them. But many times, friends are so kind they come over constantly, they water the plants constantly, and by the time you get home the plants are dead.
Jane: Yes, that's a familiar story and you're right I tend to, mine tend to gather in the shower basin in one bathroom and in the bath in the other bathroom.
Jane: And just hang out there doing their own thing for a couple of weeks, and they're usually absolutely fine. In fact, it's always quite annoying when you come back and you're like oh my that's flowered and that's put out some new leaves in my absence, you know life goes on, which is I guess a good thing but sometimes it's a bit kind of like you don't need me, but that's a good thing I guess.
Judy: Right, exactly!
Jane: That's it for episode 106, I'll be back on September the 6^th^with a new episode, in the meantime, do go and hang out in the Houseplant Fans of On The Ledge Facebook group, where you'll find lots of other people ready and willing to plug the podcast gap with chat about plants. And let me leave you by wishing you a week of foliage, flowers, and a distinct absence of fungus gnats. Bye!
Jane: The music you heard in this episode was Roll Jordan Roll by the Joy Drops, A Man Approaches with Bowed Sitar by Samuel Corwin, and Water in the Creekby Josh Woodward. All tracks licensed under Creative Commons. See my show notes at www.janeperrone.comfor details.
I continue the theme of houseplants for beginners this week, as Judy Feldstein of Houseplant411.com presents her ten commandments for houseplant care. I also answer a question about watering habits and fungus gnats.
If you’re interested in the brown jug plant, suggested by listener Randall as another super-tough plant suitable for beginners. Its Latin name is Synadenium grantii and it’s very easy to growm but it’s a member of the Euphorbia clan so be aware of its toxic sap.
This week’s guest
Judy Feldstein ran her own interior plantscaping business in the US from 1975 to 2007. Now she offers houseplant growers advice on her website, Houseplant411.com, and she’s also the author of two books: Don’t Feed Me To Your Cat: A Guide to Poisonous Houseplants, and the recently published Don't Talk to Me I'll Grow Better: A Guide to Easy Care Houseplants.
Judy’s ten commandments of houseplant care
When in doubt, don’t water! The fatter the leaves of the plant, the less often it needs to be watered
Don’t overfertilise. It’s better to underfeed your plants than overfeed them, as excess nutrients build up on the soil. Plants only need to be fed when they are actively growing.
Don’t rush to repot your plant. Being slightly potbound can help the plant’s soil dry out quicker and prevent root rot. When you do repot, only increase the pot size by a small amount.
Avoid water with too many mineral salts in it, including water from a water softener: rainwater is ideal, or you can use water from an RO unit.
Prune your plants. If you keep cutting back plants, especially vines, that will make them bush out rather than stay straggly. And it also means you have cuttings to give away!
No direct sun. There are few plants you can put in direct sun without having their leaves burned, but the exceptions include some succulents and cacti such as Aloes, and Pelargoniums.
Location. Location. Location. The same species of plant will need different watering regimes if one specimen is in a warm bright spot and the other is cool and more shady. In other words, don’t impose a really strict watering regime where you only water on a set day of the week. Instead, be aware of your plants’ needs by checking the soil.
Examine your plants regularly. It’s easier to treat a pest infestation or disease when it’s newly developed than it is when the plant is close to collapse.
Know whether or not your plant is poisonous. A lot of common houseplants are poisonous, so make sure you know if any of yours are not safe for pets, children or yourself.
Think twice before asking friends and relatives to take care of your plants while you are away. They often kill them with kindness. If you are going away for a week, your plants will be fine without you! Longer than that, you can move them to a low light area and group them together to keep them happy: more sensitive plants can go onto a damp towel in the bath or shower.
Question of the week
Maggie wanted to know whether her watering techniques were helping or hindering her battle against fungus gnats. Do go and have a listen to my fungus gnat episode if you haven’t already: overwatering can exacerbate a gnat infestation, but is not its cause. Fungus gnats will still manage to live even if you let your soil dry out between waterings. The safest and most efficient way to deal with gnats is to use nematode worms.
DATES FOR YOUR DIARY
Join me at Lullingstone Castle in Kent in the UK on September 21 and 22 2019 for Cactusworld Live where I’ll be doing a live recording of On The Ledge and holding a listener meetup: there will be a giveaway of OTL merch, too, for one lucky listener, so don’t miss out!
The following weekend I’ll be at the Garden Museum on Sunday September 29 for their Houseplant Festival: I’ll be helping out with the houseplant clinic, and there’s also the chance to take part in workshops and browse an awesome range of stalls from some of my favourite houseplant shops!
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This week's show featured the tracks Roll Jordan Roll by the Joy Drops, A Man Approaches with Bowed Sitar by Samuel Corwin and Water in the Creek by Josh Woodward . Ad music is by the Heftone Banjo Orchestra with Whistling Rufus. All tracks licensed under Creative Commons.
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