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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Household pals

Pat Munts Correspondent

For Master Gardener Rhonda Elliot, green, living houseplants help her get through winter. To her, plants are soothing to be around and add life to the spaces they grow in. “I don’t think I ever met a house plant I didn’t like,” said Elliot as she gestured to the collection of cane or angel wing begonias, African violets, philodendrons, spider plants and a 100 other plants that crowd the windows of her home south of Cheney.

Besides being a form of horticultural therapy, indoor plants are good for us in other ways too. “They clean pollutants out of the air. They give off oxygen and take in the carbon dioxide that we exhale. They create humidity that is good for people and animals,” said Elliot.

With the spring gardening season still a few weeks away, now is a good time to spend some quality time with your houseplants. According to Deby Ritter, manager of Ritter’s Floral and Nursery in north Spokane, the lengthening days and more intense sunshine will soon be bringing them out of the semidormant state they have been in since mid-fall.

Ritter starts getting her plants ready for spring by giving them a good cleaning. “Cut back anything that has gotten long and gangly. Remove any dead or discolored foliage to clean them up,” she said. She also pinches back growing tips on some plants to encourage new bushy growth.

Wipe dusty leaves off with a soft damp cloth. Dust reduces the amount of light that gets to the leaf surface, and that in turn reduces the leaf’s ability to make food for the growing plant. If your plants are small enough and their pots have drain holes, you can put them in the bathtub and give them a shower. Remember to leave them enough time to allow the excess water to drain away.

As you pluck, pinch and dust, look for any sign of insects. “This is the time of year we see an outbreak of mealy bug,” says Ritter. Mealy bugs are cottony white globs found at the junction of stems and the undersides of the leaves. If there are only a few of the bugs, Elliot removes them by dabbing them with a cotton swab soaked in rubbing alcohol. Other bugs that might appear include white fly, scale, aphid and spider mites. Consult with an expert to find the best ways to get rid of these pests.

Over-watering is the biggest cause of decline and death for houseplants during the winter. According to Ritter, “A lot of people think that if they are watering once a week through the growing season, they should maintain it through the winter season.” Dormant plants do not need as much water as actively growing ones.

Unfortunately, the symptoms of over watering are very similar to those for under-watering: drooping leaves that start turning yellow from the bottom of the plant. As growth resumes, check the soil frequently to determine watering schedules by inserting a finger about a finger joint deep in the soil. If it’s dry to that level, water the plant.

Over watering also creates the perfect environment for fungus gnats. These are the tiny black, fruit fly-like insects that seem to fly out of the plant when the plant is bumped or moved. They are actually living on the surface of the soil in the pot and eat the fungi that are growing on the constantly moist soil surface. They don’t hurt the plant very much.

Ritter says that there are sprays that will kill the current bunch of bugs, but the next batch of bugs will hatch in the moist environment and be back in force within a couple of weeks. The only way to completely eliminate them is to let the surface of the soil dry out between waterings. “When I see fungus gnats, I just set that plant aside to dry out a bit.”

The next task is to check for any plants that need to be repotted. “Every plant is going to be different,” said Ritter. Vigorously growing plants are going to need repotting more often than slower growers. “If you put your finger in the soil and you feel a fullness or can’t get your finger through the soil and you feel all roots, or you have to water a plant more than every five or six days, it’s time to repot.”

However, some blooming plants like African violets and Christmas cactus bloom better if they are in snug pots. Others like orchids need to be repotted each year because they use all the nutrients up in their special bark planting mix.

Both Ritter and Elliot recommend that a plant be repotted in a new pot no more than 1 to 2 inches bigger than its current home. If you have a decorative pot you want to use but it’s too big, Ritter recommends repotting the plant in the correctly sized pot and then “slip it down into the decorative pot and (put) moss over it so it looks like it was planted in it.”

Sometimes plants get so big that it takes more than one person to get the job done. Elliot suggests that if this is the case and no one is available to help, take an inch of soil off the top of the plant and replace it with fresh soil.

Except for cacti and other fleshy leaved plants, Ritter recommends using a good quality potting soil. “When you pick up the bag (of soil) or run your hands through it, it should feel like a good soil mixture that is not too heavy,” she said. Stay away from potting soils that have visible particles of wood or have a lot of peat moss in them. If you are repotting cactus or other fleshy-leaved plants, use a cactus mix that contains sand to encourage fast drainage

Both Elliot and Ritter use a liquid fertilizer to fertilize indoor plants. Ritter recommends that regardless of the brand of fertilizer you choose to use, it should have a nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium (N-P-K) ratio of 20-20-20.

Elliot uses Miracle Grow. “I simply mix it according to the directions on the label and about this time of year, I will start fertilizing every other time I water through mid-fall.” By the looks of her indoor jungle this method works quite nicely.

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