December 18, 2011

Maine Gardener: Consider your home before choosing the best plants to live in it


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Kevin Kearns, director of the Seedling Program at the Morrison Developmental Center in Scarborough, shows a Hoya that can thrive as a houseplant in Maine.

Photo by Tom Atwell

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A Hoya in bloom.

But Kearns said the problem he sees most often is people overwatering plants that come from the desert, such as cactus and succulents, that should be watered sparingly.

In addition, every plant pot should have a drain hole so that the soil does not get saturated with water. If you want to use a decorative pot without a drain hole, place the plant in a smaller pot with a drain hole, and put that pot in the decorative pot.

One of the best things you can do to prevent houseplants from getting diseased or infested with insects also replicates their natural environment.

"When plants are outside, they get rained on," Kearns said. "If you take your plants to the shower, it removes a lot of dust from the leaves, and also will remove a good percentage of aphids and whitefly."

If that doesn't work, you can clean them with rubbing alcohol.

Kearns is also a proponent of taking plants outdoors during the summer, starting in a shady area so they get acclimated to the brighter light and then, if it is a sun-loving plant, moving it to full sun. If you put them directly in the sun, the leaves will get sunburned.

"It is great vacation for the plants," Kearns said, "just like spending the winter in Florida for us people from Maine."

He said he puts his out about June 1 and brings them in about Sept. 15.

Kearns said there is a bit of myth and a bit of fact in the reports about people with houseplants being healthier.

"There have been studies that have shown that houseplants are psychologically beneficial," he said. And houseplants do take carbon dioxide out of the air and put back oxygen, although large plants with big leaves do the best job.

Kearns and I discussed some of our favorite plants. He is an orchid specialist, and said orchids should be treated like any other houseplant.

Orchids vary in the requirements for light and temperature, and if you select the right orchid for the conditions in your home, it will thrive.

I mentioned clivia. Nancy got some from her grandmother (we also bought a more modern variety), and we can get them to bloom most years. Kearns said clivia is another Victorian plant that can stand quite a bit of neglect.

Kearns has a collection of Hoya plants, a fairly big family of plants that he said are related to milkweeds, and they thrive in his wood-heated home.

Many of them are epiphytes like orchids, which means they grow on trees and don't require soil. He said they have a flush of blooms, usually in the spring, that have a heady fragrance he really enjoys.

The Morrison Developmental Center, 60 Chamberlain Road, Scarborough, sells a variety of houseplants grown by students with special needs in the Seedling Program. The public can purchase plants from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday year round.

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Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth, and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:


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