The key to healthy houseplants

Tips on picking a plant that can thrive with the light and lifestyle in your home.

By , Associated Press Business Writer

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    Houseplants add color and charm to a room.
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Forget every story you've heard about the accidental death of a houseplant. The key is picking a plant that can thrive – OK, survive – with the light and lifestyle in your home.

"You have to have a realistic sense of your maintenance skills," said Justin Hancock, senior garden editor at Better Homes and Gardens magazine. "Something like watering seems easy enough, but when you have kids or have to make dinner every night, it may not be one of your higher priorities."

Here are some tips to foster your foliage:

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Water: Overwatering is often the most common mistake plant owners make. If the soil is still moist, hold off. Don't assume that wilted leaves mean a thirsty plant — it could mean just the opposite, that it's drowning.

In many cases, low humidity will cause leaves to dry and curl. Gardening experts recommend using a humidifier during the winter and spraying leaves with water in the morning rather than overnight, which may cause leaves to rot.

Light: Of course, the quality and intensity of sunlight a plant needs will vary. It's also important to consider how many hours of sunlight per day the plant will get when deciding which window will provide the best exposure. While natural light is best, many houseplants adapt well to an artificial grow light that can be purchased for under $10.

Bugs: It's also important to inspect your plant for tiny insects that like to hang out on the undersides of leaves. Spider mites, scale, and mealybugs are most common in houseplants. Try to identify the problem before reaching for a pesticide, even an organic one — sometimes the solution is something as simple as cutting back on watering.

Low-maintenance plants

Hancock suggests these five house plants that are practically indestructible:

Pothos. Streaked with a creamy or white in the leaves, this popular plant thrives in low to bright light and prefers moderately dry soil. Its versatile vines can trail as long as 8 feet, or can be mounded on a tabletop. Beware: Sources say that the plant's parts can be poisonous to pets and children.

Snake plant. This plant has a high tolerance for neglect, so don't worry if you're one to take long vacations. Dark green in color, the snake plant sometimes has silver marbling or striping on its cylindrical leaves, and its architectural look has made it vogue. Be careful not to over water because its roots are prone to rot.

– Philodendron. Probably the most common houseplant, the philodendron has heart-shaped leaves and climbing stems that can be trained to grow around a window or over the edge of a piece of furniture. It's comfortable in low to bright light and can go a few days with dry soil. But like the pothos, it should be kept out of the reach of kids and pets.

– Zeezee. Relatively new to plant lovers' radar, the zeezee are known to thrive for many years with little maintenance. The leaves are so thick and glossy that many assume it's plastic. Occasional watering and some light will do the trick. The plant generally grows to about 3 feet tall and wide. This plant is also considered poisonous if eaten.

– Spider plant. Having been around for years, these plants have great old-fashioned appeal. Spider plants are constantly reproducing smaller plants from their long branches. The "babies" can be transferred by tying them with string into water or a pot of loose soil until they root, then clip them from the main plant. Spider plants require a little more attention, as the soil should be kept evenly moist and they require medium to bright light.

Exotic indoor plants

If you want to branch out, so to speak, there are more exotic plants that, with more care, will certainly intrigue guests with rich colors, strong scents, or hanging fruit.

"If you want flowers or something that will draw attention, you'll have to put a little bit of work in it and not disappear on vacation for three weeks without anyone watering them," said Byron Martin, owner of Logee's Tropical Plants in Danielson, Conn. "Still, you can have something fun that really isn't that hard to maintain."

– Maid of Orleans. Also known as the Arabian tea jasmine, this sambac's flowers are popular in Asia and have been processed for tea as well as offered or worn during religious observances. This viny shrub blooms with highly fragrant flowers that live only a day or two but come in waves. These plants need constant watering and tons of sunlight.

– Meyer lemon. Trees that produce lemons and limes have become popular. The lemon tree can go a few days without water, but needs a spot in front of a bright, sunny window to flourish.

– Phoe's Cleo. This begonia is perfect for windowsills. Its chartreuse leaves have copper-red or chocolate brown highlights, and in the winter months it blooms small, pink flowers. With tremendous tolerance to drought and low humidity, this plant should still have direct sunlight on it throughout the day.

– Black pepper plant. This plant doesn't mind dry conditions as long as it isn't too severe, and will grow in relatively low light. It does require rich soil and partial shade. The peppercorns it sprouts can be dried and used for seasoning.

– Hoya australis subspecies. This plant tops the list for fragrance, flower size, and robust growth. Its sweetly scented flower clusters bloom through the summer season, and its tropical vines can cascade from hanging baskets or small pots on mantels.

For something short-term, consider seasonal plants, such as poinsettias around the December holidays or potted lilies and tulips in the spring. It also makes sense to choose plants that are room-appropriate, like lavender for homemade potpourri in the bathroom or herbs in the kitchen.

When displaying your plant, consider keeping the original plant container inside a more decorative cachepot or basket. Double-potting will protect the roots and contain the mess of soil and water with a visually aesthetic appeal.

"You should always consider your plant an investment," said Jennifer Williams, curator of interior displays for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. "You don't want them to ever be missing leaves, buggy, or scraggly."

If you do somehow manage to kill your plant, don't fret — sometimes it takes a few mistakes before you can cultivate the perfect plant.

Editor’s note: For more on gardening, see the Monitor’s main gardening page, which offers articles on many gardening topics. Also, our blog archive and our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest. We’ll be looking for photographs of fruits. So find your best shots of summer’s blueberries, peaches, plums, etc., and get out your camera to take some stunning shots of early fall apples. Post them before Sept. 30, 2009, and you could be the next winner.

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