Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Know best indoor plants to buy, how to keep them healthy

By Diana C. Kirby
Special to the American-Statesman
ZZ plants and aloes provide interesting textures in your home decor.

Caring for houseplants might seem daunting, but with a few simple tips, you can master the art of houseplant parenting.

As with most things, the best defense is a good offense.  Healthy, well-cared-for plants are less likely to succumb to pest and disease. Stressed plants are easy targets.

Research the unique needs of your plant before you buy.  Remember, indoor winter air is drier, and plants won’t have as much light as they enjoy outdoors.  Know how much water and light are necessary for your plant to thrive.  

Before you buy your plant, check it carefully, even looking under the leaves for signs of distress or disease.  Once you bring your baby home, always start with clean pots and fresh potting soil, not garden soil. Fertilize regularly, as nutrients wash out quickly from potted plants. 

Low-maintenance spider plants will thrive when placed in a sunny spot.

To enjoy the health benefits of plants, choose varieties that are easy to grow and don’t require frequent, fussy maintenance. 

Some of the easiest houseplants to grow include:

Aloe

Dracaena

English ivy

Heartleaf philodendron

Monstera

Peace lily

Peperomia

Ponytail palm

Pothos ivy

Sansevieria – snake plant

Spider plant

ZZ plant

Pothos ivy, an easy-care houseplant, will appear to droop and wilt to let you know when it needs water.  Once it’s had a drink, it will perk back up.

If you have small children or pets, make sure to choose plants that are safe.  Whether they should chew on plants isn’t the issue — anyone with kids, dogs or cats knows their behavior often defies logic. My dog Dakota routinely ate lantana outside the back door and threw up minutes later. I removed the lantana, and she promptly started eating the next (albeit safer) plant as well.  Many house plants like poinsettias, commonly brought into homes during the holidays, can be dangerous. Be sure they are placed in a secure area, out of the reach of little ones and fur babies.

Once your new plant has settled in, if you begin to suspect pest or disease problems, the first step is to move it far away from other plants and begin troubleshooting. Don’t "wait and see." If you think there’s an issue, there probably is one. It’s important to act quickly to prevent infestation or spread.

Common issues include:

Leggy plants: When your plant begins to send out leggy stems and grows too tall without filling in, it’s letting you know it needs more light. You can rotate your plant, allowing the sun to hit the opposite side so it will grow more evenly, or you can find a sunnier spot if that doesn’t help.

Yellow leaves: If your plant develops yellow leaves, it’s probably a sign of either over- or under-watering.  Each plant is different, but you don’t want your plants to stay wet all the time, as that leads to root rot.  Most plants want to be on a wet to dry cycle. Stick your finger in the pot about 1/2 inch and rewater when the soil is dry. Succulents don’t need much water at all; you will want to treat them differently and allow them to dry out fully. Plants have different needs and preferences; you will need to learn what works best for each plant.  

You might also have a low-light problem. Revisit your watering schedule, and if that doesn’t work, try moving the plant into a brighter location.

Spotted leaves: Fungal, bacterial and viral plant diseases often cause spots on leaves. First, isolate the plant and cut off and throw away any damaged leaves. Prune the plant to increase airflow or put it in a place that gets more air movement. Make sure to water at the base of the plant without getting water on the leaves. Once you’ve removed all damaged foliage, apply an organic bactericide or fungicide.  

Powdery mildew: This fungus is different and appears as a white, chalky film on plants. It is often caused by humid conditions. Pruning the plant to allow increased airflow might help. You can make a treatment at home with 1 tablespoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon liquid dish soap and 1 gallon of water.  Place into sprayer and spray generously. Commercial organic fungicides are also available.

Aphids: The most common houseplant pest, aphids are tiny, pear-shaped insects that suck the sap from new plant growth. They attach themselves to the ends of soft stems and cause foliage to wrinkle and leaves to drop. They also secrete a sticky honeydew substance that can attract other insects or cause sooty mold or fungus.  

To eliminate aphids, you can wash them away with a strong spray of water with a hand-held sprayer indoors or a hose outside. You also can turn the plant upside down and hold it while you dip all the foliage in a bucket of water.  If those treatments don’t work, look for safe, pesticide-free insecticidal soap to spray on the plants.  Make sure you spray the undersides of the leaves because these pests are smart and will try to get away by hiding underneath.

Whiteflies: If you notice little specks of white – almost like dust – flying around when you water or touch your plants, it’s a whitefly infestation. They are prolific and rest on the undersides of leaves. Treat them at the first sign or they will spread.  They secrete honeydew like aphids and can be treated with the same methods. They are also attracted to the color yellow. Yellow sticky traps might work as well. Be sure to keep the traps in or on the plant and away from any children or pets.

Red spider mites: If infested, your plant leaves will get spots, wilt, turn brown and fall off. You might not even be able to see red spider mites, they are so small. They might appear as a reddish film in the bottom of leaves, or you may notice faint webbing or red/brown dots on the leaves.  Mites prefer dry conditions; indoor heat in winter can contribute to this problem.

They are also attracted to dusty plant leaves; keep your plants wiped clean.  Treat with miticides made from natural ingredients like neem oil or pyrethrins.  You also can use insecticidal soap.

Scales and mealy bugs: Armored and soft scales are flat and look like fish scales, with no visible legs. Mealybugs are covered with a white, cottonlike material. They all suck on plant sap. Soft scales excrete honeydew and increase plant susceptibility to sooty mold and fungi. If you only have a few, you can scrape away scale with a fingernail or a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol.  Or, for bigger infestations, spray with insecticidal soap, neem oil or natural pyrethrin products.

The key to thriving houseplants is a watchful eye. Give them the right light, water regularly and keep a lookout for any emerging pesky problems.

Landscape designer Diana Kirby helps garden lovers by educating and designing and installing successful gardens.  Follow her at dianasdesignsaustin.com, Diana’s Designs on Facebook or dianasdesignsaustin on IG.