Time to give houseplants some TLC

Lee repotting his bonsai weeping fig.

We’re now at the tipping point. No, not the global climate one, after which our climate permanently veers off in a new direction. Nor a sociological tipping point that describes, for example, how many instigators are needed to create a mob action. Nor the biodiversity tipping point – the threshold after which biodiversity irreversibly plummets. This tipping point is more down-to-earth and not open to debate: Buds on houseplant stems are poised to grow, seeds are ordered and the Sun is slowly rising higher in the sky and lingering longer each day.

I feel it and act accordingly. As soon as buds start to open on indoor plants, I’ll put a little fertilizer in with the water when I water them. Not the tablespoon-per-gallon-per-week that’s recommended on the packet label: The plants can’t use that much yet; any extra is wasted and contributes to salt buildup in the potting soil. I’ll start with only a teaspoon per gallon and offer it every other week, gradually increasing it commensurate with growth.

Generally, I don’t use soluble fertilizers. Outside, nutrients locked up within the compost and other organic materials that I add to the soil are gradually solubilized by soil microorganisms. But compost and other organic materials are bulky, so there’s no room to keep adding them in sufficient amounts for feeding plants growing within the confines of flowerpots. Compost added to my potting soils provides sufficient food for seedlings and small plants that spend little time in pots, but houseplants spend their life in pots. Hence the soluble fertilizers that I’ll soon start adding to their water.

As we’ve crossed the threshold to having longer days and brighter sunshine, some potted plants need more than just nutrients: Their roots have run out of space in which to grow. They need either to be moved to bigger pots, or to have their roots hacked back to make room for fresh potting soil in the space that has been freed up in their existing pots.

My weeping fig is the first candidate for repotting. In its native tropical haunts, this tree grows a hundred feet high. As a familiar houseplant, it’s easily held in check at six feet high. My bonsai weeping fig tops out at only six inches high and grows in an index-card-sized, shallow pot an inch deep.

Every year, the weeping fig gets its soil refreshed. Once I ease the plant out of its pot, taking care not to disturb the mossy mat that now covers the soil surface, I tease soil out from among the roots at the bottom of the rootball. After snipping back some roots and laying some new potting soil at the bottom of the pot, I return the plant to its home.

Larger potted plants get more brutal treatment – especially my potted edible figs, now in 12-to-18-inch-diameter pots. I’ll slice a couple of inches of soil from all around their rootballs. But no need to do that yet; those plants are still dormant in the cold, dark basement.

New seeds on their way by mail to welcome in the New Year provide an incentive to discard old seeds. Seeds are living entities, albeit quiescent, and eventually peter out. How long a seed stays viable depends on the kind of seed and the storage conditions, the ideal conditions being cool and dry (around 45 degrees Fahrenheit and ten percent humidity). Consistent temperatures are better for storage than variable temperatures.

I used to store my seeds with a silica desiccant in airtight plastic tubs in the refrigerator: perfect, but no longer feasible. These days, I have too many seeds, so they have to make do in rodent-proof tubs in the garage.

Today I’m checking the date on each packet of seed, either written there by me or already stamped on the packet. The onion family has least longevity; I order new onion and leek seeds every year. Next in longevity comes the carrot family, which includes parsley, celery, fennel, parsnip and of course carrot. Because my storage conditions are less than ideal, I also replenish these seeds every year. Under good conditions, these seeds, along with non-family members okra, beet, chard, pepper and corn, would stay viable for two or three years. Seeds of tomato and eggplant, and cabbage and its kin, keep well for about four years, as do lettuce and legumes (beans and peas).

If there’s ever a doubt about seed viability, it’s easy to test germination by counting out, say, 20 seeds to put between the folds of a moist paper towel. If the towel is kept moist on a plate covered with an overturned plate, any viable seeds should germinate within a week or so.

Seeds readied and plants repotted or fertilized, as needed, take advantage of the change in our planet’s orientation. We’re off to another year of gardening. This season’s tipping point is thankfully repeated every year.

Any gardening questions? E-mail them to me at garden@leereich.com and I’ll try answering them directly or in this column. Come visit my garden at www.leereich.blogspot.com. For more on local homes and gardens, go to Ulster Publishing’s homehudsonvalley.com.

Share this article
Submit your comment

Please enter your name

Your name is required

Please enter a valid email address

An email address is required

Please enter your message

Hudson Valley Almanac Weekly © 2013 All Rights Reserved

An Ulster Publishing publication