What's wrong with my houseplant?

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For many gardeners, keeping plants indoors during colder months bridges the winter gap of outdoor gardening. And, like most living things, they do not always do as well as we tell our friends and neighbors that they are doing. Well, do not worry, do not phone a friend and do not throw away those gifted cuttings just yet.

Dust off that green(ish)-thumb as we delve into common houseplant ailments. And what you are doing wrong and some general care and tips to be successful.

Ailment: Brown leaf tips

Causes: Too much or too little water, over fertilizing, salt build-up, low temperatures.

Fix: Decrease water and fertilizer and clean up unattractive leaves, if possible.

Ailment: Yellowing leaves

Causes: Over watering, not enough fertilizer, low temperatures, poor drainage, pot bound.

Fix: Fertilize with the seasons, repot if needed and hold back the water.

Ailment: Always wilting leaves

Causes: Root rot, too wet or too dry, poor soil conditions.

Fix: Save viable stems and repot into dry soil. If dry, water thoroughly and check that the water is soaking all the soil.

Ailment: Plant is stretching

Causes: Insufficient light.

Fix: Carefully and slowly increase light level if possible. Plant may need to be cut back as well. Move to new location or add supplemental lighting.

General care

How are houseplants like real estate? Location, location, location. Choose specific plants for the levels of light you can give it. There are no difficult plants to grow, only difficult conditions to mimic. Trying to grow a plant where it is not happy will only leave you disappointed. Support our industry by seeking plants from reputable sources who employ a horticulture staff. They can help you pick the things that will grow best. Most plants prefer a watering cycle that allows for them to go through the stages of being wet and drying out. While spending time with your plants, pay attention to changes — an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Be sure your container has a drainage hole. If you cannot drill one, use a slip-pot that you can remove to water and allow the excess to flow out the bottom. This is important to flush buildup of salts in the soil, especially when using city water. One common misperception is the amount of light during summer and winter months. Houseplants often receive more light in the winter due to the lower angle of the sun coming into windows. Also rotating plants that receive directional light will keep them growing straight. Even if not root bound, houseplants like to be repotted into fresh soil periodically. Unpotting a plant is good to do and can help give you more information on the health of your plant. I like to use a gradual sizing system to keep the right balance of plant to soil.

Benefits

Well, if you are still reading and not sold on why your house should be packed full of plants, these enticing benefits will close the deal for sure!

• They help purify the air. Plants breathe in what we breathe out.

• Caring for living things will boost your overall mood, reduce stress and increase productivity. And they look pretty cool.

Plants and pets

Common houseplants can often be dangerous for kids and pets. But danger is all around us, so with a little knowledge you can have both. Plants survive by outsmarting predators with mechanical and chemical defenses. Generally, pets might nibble on something and figure out that it does not taste very good. Keep unsafe plants out of reach of your pets if they cannot resist the urge to graze.

I wish you luck. And keep trying even if you kill plants — I still do from time to time.

Scott Preusser is a horticulturist with the Denver Botanic Gardens

Denver Botanic Gardens, horticulture

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