Loving care for droopy houseplants involves a list of 'dos' and 'don'ts'

A room with healthy foliage is inviting and luxurious. But you may become disheartened with the whole idea of indoor gardening if you have trouble keeping your greenery alive.

Here is a checklist for plant lovers, geared to helping you pinpoint your problems quickly, no matter what type of plants you're working with:

* Don't overwater. This is a major problem in plant care. Most plant lovers are too 'good' to their collection and end up drowning the plants. The rule here is to stop watering when the slightest trickle of water drips from the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot.

If your container has no drainage hole, the plant will need even less water.

Soil should be slightly dry on the surface before watering. Push your index finger deep into the soil to check for dryness. The plant needs water if no moisture is felt at this level.

Watering once or twice a week is enough for most types of plants. If the room has electrical wall heaters, check for dryness more often than this. Never use ice-cold water on your plants.

Most plants will not fail quickly from too little water. They will begin to show signs of dryness for several days before they begin to wither. In contrast , overwatering can cause a plant to give up quickly -- in only a few minutes, if it is very small.

* Water during the day, not at night. Night waterings don't allow moisture to dry from the leaves. Fungus-type diseases then could develop and the leaves would start turning yellow. If yellow leaves do appear, remove them, using care not to touch the other leaves until you wash your hands.

If you must water your plants at night for one reason or another, be sure to dry off damp leaves with a tissue.

Should a plant begin to fail, always move it away from your other plants or destroy it. The rule here is to consider the cost of the plant. Naturally, you will want to try saving the larger, more expensive plants. They should be given less water and a little more light than they've been receiving.

* Makes sure the container is large enough. A healthy, fast-growing plant can become root-bound in a small pot. If your budget calls for inexpensive containers, use small plastic waste cans. Many plant experts frown on plastic containers, but if you keep the soil worked up by gently prodding it, enough air can get to the root system and the plants will do well.

* See if the soil needs changing. Worn-out soil will not support plant growth sufficiently. At least once a year your plants should get fresh soil. I've had plants survive nicely in two-year-old soil, but growth is better if the soil is changed once a year.

Never reuse soil in filling a larger container for repotting.

* Don't forget the plant food. If you're wondering why your flowering plants won't bloom, it's usually because they need feeding.

Always get a good brand of plant food that's easy to use. Liquid plant food is much handier than the kind you have to mix.

* Have you tried misting your plants by giving them a fine spray of water all over the foliage? If the leaves look dry and start curling at the tips, this means they need misting.

Leaves absorb moisture into the plant's system just as roots do. Buying a misting can is not necessary. You can use an empty spray-pump bottle. Mist plants in the early part of the day so that the surfaces of the leaves will be dry by nightfall.

* Dusting also is important, as heavy dust on the leaves can build up and clog the "pores." Misting can't help if the leaves are too dusty.

Each leaf can be wiped off with a moist tissue in a few minutes. A light film of dust, however, will do no great harm to plants, although glossy leaves look a lot better.

* Check the room temperature. Even slightly cold temperatures affect sensitive plants, such as coleus.I've had coleus plants die on the dining-room table because of chilly winter nights.

Ask your plant dealer what growing temperatures are best for your plants when you buy them.You cannot judge how temperature-sensitive a plant is by looking at it. For example, the asparagus fern is very delicate in appearance but it does well in a cool room.

* See if your plants need more light. This doesn't necessarily mean bright sunlight -- perhaps just more exposure to moderate lighting.

Artificial light can serve the purpose just fine if you don't have many windows. For instance, a lighted bathroom can be a good place for plants at night.

* Remove withered leaves or blossoms regularly. Dead leaves and flowers adversely affect the health of an entire plant.

By making subtle changes in your plant-care program, you will soon have a lush collection of plants. Even if you have only one plant now, you may become inspired to raise more plants if that one begins to thrive.

Keep moving plants to different locations in the house so as to find the best place for each one. I have a croton plant which thrives best in the dining room , a rubber plant that does well on an upstairs windowsill, and a pineapple plant that favors a bright hallway. Other plants in my home have been placed accordingly.

Remember, a green thumb does not happen by chance. You must learn plant care as you do any other craft or skill.

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