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How to keep houseplants alive

Carolyn Lindell Special to the American-Statesman
Melissa Hagen is the houseplant manager at Tillery Street Plant Co. She teaches a Houseplants 101 workshop. [Carolyn Lindell For American-Statesman]

How about a happy hour for folks who want happy houseplants?

That’s what occurred when about 60 people gathered at a downtown live music venue and bar recently to find out how to succeed with indoor plants.

The free Houseplants 101 workshop was put on by Tillery Street Plant Co. and East Austin Succulents (which share space on Tillery Street) on a Sunday evening at the Mohawk on Red River Street. That venue might be more associated with music acts, but on this night at the Mohawk’s outdoor area, a variety of plants such as peace lilies and succulents took center stage while audience members enjoyed beer, mixed drinks and food items.

Presenter Melissa Hagen, houseplant manager at the Tillery Street garden center, was joined by Chase Howell, of East Austin Succulents, who added information pertaining to succulents.

Hagen said some classes are conducted at the garden center, but other locations are also used to hold large turnouts and to socialize. The casual, info-packed event lasted about an hour and a half. Hagen and Howell offered a series of suggestions, though audience members occasionally called out questions. Some advice seemed simple but served as good reminders.

Early on, Hagen said that a person should consider the area available for plants.

“Look at your space,” she said. “Not all plants will be happy in all rooms.”

“Think about what kind of display you want,” she said. “Think about keeping your plants proportional” to the space, she said. A large room with small plants, “maybe you won’t notice them as much.”

Yet, she said, “don’t be afraid to experiment with moving the plants around.” Overall, she advised taking into consideration each plant’s requirements for light, water and humidity to replicate the plant’s natural environment.

Regarding lighting, Hagen said you should look at the windows: “You want to look at how the light comes in.” Keep in mind the direction the light comes from; a window facing north or east generally offers lower, more diffuse lighting, she said. Also, “usually there is less light in bedrooms,” she said, because, for example, people might have blackout curtains.

Corner areas of a room have “probably lower light than you realize,” she said.

As for succulents, Howell said, “windows tend to magnify light, so be careful of scorching.” A plant needing more light might look like it is growing, but really it may be stretching toward the light, he said.

“I rotate my plants” periodically, Hagen said, cautioning to “be careful when moving plants (closer to the light). They are a little bit more delicate after being in less light.”

As well, Howell said, “succulents need to be eased into it.”

As for watering, Hagen said, the right amount depends on factors such as the size of the pot: “Generally, (plants in) smaller pots dry out faster than larger pots.”

Some plants are “good communicators” about their watering needs. “There are signs. You have to look at your plants,” she said. A houseplant might get “droopy.”

However, “we always recommend underwatering rather than overwatering,” Hagen said.

“When in doubt, drought,” Howell added.

“I do highly recommend, if you’re not sure, a water meter,” Hagen said. For a big plant, stick the meter in a few different places, she said. That can also help to break up the soil, to “put air back in the soil,” she said.

Consider your personality as well. Talking about a maidenhair fern, Hagen said, “If you love to water every day, this is your plant.”

For some plants, she said, mold can be a sign of overwatering.

As for humidity, some plants show signs they lack humidity, such as leaf edges turning brown. However, “misting can just cause fungal disease, so it is not a solution” oftentimes, Hagen said.

When “potting up,” which means moving a growing plant to a larger container, Hagen suggested, “Take it out of its nursery pot and just peek at the roots. … When the roots grow in the shape of the pot, they are starting to get rootbound,” which generally means a plant has grown too large for its container. But, she added, not all plants need to be “potted up.”

Also, you “want the root ball to be proportionate to the new pot.” She said to break up the roots so it has room to grow. She demonstrated this technique by taking a peace lily out of its pot and loosening up the dirt and roots with her hand.

When potting up, Hagen said to “keep a bit of space between the top of the pot and the top of the soil.” The pot also needs a hole for drainage, she said.

Planting in glass, such as terrariums, “is not optimal,” she said.

As for fertilizer, Hagen said, “You can burn your plant with overfertilizing.” They recommended using a fertilizer with a low NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) number.

However, do not fertilize carnivorous plants, which eat bugs, she said; likewise, “don’t fertilize houseplants in the winter,” she said, because they are dormant.

A discussion of pests ranged from fungal gnats to spider mites. Overall, it’s best “to get (the plant with bugs) away from your other plants,” Hagen said.

In general, she said, if a plant is infested with bugs, “I’ll just cut the leaves off.” Don’t be afraid to cut your plants, she said: “You want to get the bugs out of there.”

The workshop drew a mixed crowd.

Brittney Turner, 28, who sipped a pinkish concoction, attended to get advice on how to keep her plants healthy.

“I killed the same fern three times, so I started researching how to keep them alive,” she said. Among other things, Turner wanted to learn a plant’s signals for help and what to do, she said.

“I’m very houseplant-immature,” Turner said.

Heidi Oldenkamp, 24, said she lives in an apartment, “so I only have the opportunity to grow houseplants.” She previously attended a class at the venue, and she said, “I’ve been pretty successful with the suggestions they’ve given me. … I try to absorb as much information as I can."

Information about future workshops can be found at the Tillery Street Plant Co. Facebook page.