It was our turn for a heatwave, or so it seems, as our outdoor temperatures seared this week to about 114°Fahrenheit (about 45°Celsius). A hot autumn is normal here but the heat is getting hotter — with the North Bay city of Santa Rosa breaking an all time record of 115°F.
Fortunately, the night temps have been low enough to cool the house a bit. Nonetheless, it is much too hot to work outside in the garden and it’s during these toasty, dry and dusty days of California autumn that I go into my annual indoor hibernation.
The hot autumn season normally results in a general garden-withdrawal depression for me. But like so many others during the pandemic, I became a zealous gardener of houseplants. Frankly, I didn’t expect to enjoy them as much as I do. Since I began collecting and caring for them about a year ago, I thought it would be nice to revisit how it’s going.
First Anniversary With Houseplants
It’s really a boost to my mood to have some living greenery and kiss of lush growth about me. As I go about my day, doing chores, or talking on the phone or resting, my eyes are naturally drawn to the living plants all around. I feel like we give each other encouragement–some verve. When the view outside the window is of crackly beige hills, sometimes even smeared with wildfire smoke–it’s so wonderful to be able to retreat to a green world indoors.
Do Houseplants Clean the Indoor Air?
Speaking of smoke and air quality in general, lots of articles say houseplants purify air quality. I often see it posited that houseplants do so much to clean the air of toxins and provide enough oxygen that one could live in a sealed house with them. A 1989 NASA study is the reference for this. Alas, I think our wishful thinking may have skewed the facts a bit. This article posted in Politifact is a good place to begin your own fact-finding research on that, if interested. Another interesting article, from National Geographic, summarizes from Michael Waring, an environmental engineer and indoor air quality expert at Drexel University: “To reduce VOCs enough to impact air quality would require around 10 plants per square foot. In a small 500-square foot apartment, that’s 5,000 plants, a veritable forest.” … Ok, so I need just a few more. 🙂
I’m not mentioning this to be a downer or be argumentative towards us houseplant enthusiasts, but sometimes we all have things we just wish were true but aren’t, and gardening is one of those realms with some pernicious myths floating around. If you have other studies you’d like to add as reference, feel free to include them in the comments. In any case, houseplants are good for me and I love them! (But keep your air purifier for wildfire smoke.)
Assessing What is Working and What Isn’t
As with outdoor gardening, you try things and see what does well and what doesn’t in your microclimate. So I tried an assortment of houseplants, in hopes that some would be happy. Most went through the customary adjustment period to a new environment. Some just couldn’t be made happy in my environment and they eventually gave up, like a white and pink anthurium I really liked, and which grows at a friend’s house with gorgeous vigor. Others took several months to adjust and I thought they were going to die, but then suddenly started to thrive, like the Kangaroo Paw Fern and the small alocasias.
Some plants got moved around to see if different light conditions would suit them better. I tried not to move them too often though–to give them a chance to acclimate.
It helped to repot the plants after a month or so–after they had a little time to adjust to the new environment. I discovered that the planting media around houseplant roots varies widely and some was shockingly inappropriate and causing drainage issues.
I have a south-facing space but there is a roof overhang, so the light isn’t as bright as some plants prefer. So, I mostly go for those that can handle lower light unless I can fit them in near the windows. I also added some LED plant lights here and there.
I collect the plants that I have an affinity for, whether they are trendy or not.
As I mentioned in another of my houseplant posts, I use the app called “Planta” to remind me when to water and fertilize which plants. Given that I have quite a few, this is a great help. I use an organic liquid fertilizer. When I have rainwater available in the rainwater collection barrels outside, I use that. Otherwise it’s well water.
In the outdoor garden, I do little for pests other than encourage the natural ecosystem with beneficial insects and protect from gophers and larger critters. Indoors is not a natural ecosystem and my goal is to keep the houseplants pest free. To this end, I use neem whenever I see a problem developing, or a light dusting of diatomaceous earth for several days, then rinse it off. This seems to be mostly working so far.
Houseplant Pots–How to make it easier to water & transplant
Firstly, I keep the transplanting and watering easy by keeping the houseplants in a plastic nursery pot. I put that plastic pot inside a pretty ceramic pot or one of my homemade ones — to be described soon. This solves several issues. Watering is easier: I can lift them outside or to the sink or bathtub easily since the nursery pots are lightweight and free-draining.
If the bottom of the decorative pot has holes, or if it’s a basket, I place a plastic drip tray or plate in the bottom. On top of that I place some risers: either a few small rocks, a small tin, a cut-to-size yogurt container, or ready-made risers. This keeps the bottom of the plastic nursery pot up off of the bottom, so that the plant roots are not sitting in any residual drainage (as this can cause root rot).
Transplanting to a larger nursery pot is easier this way too. Many decorative pots have a shape that narrows at the top, meaning the plant roots can get stressed as you try to prize it out.
Ceramic pots too expensive or hard to find?
I don’t know if this is true or just my impression, but since the gardening boom of the pandemic, the normal abundance of ceramic pots and plant containers of all sorts seems to have thinned out, and they have become pricier. Whether that was from so many getting purchased, or a supply-line issues, or both, I don’t know. When the houseplants were tiny, I started with some small white ceramic pots. But as they grew, I either couldn’t find larger pots or they were just too expensive. Also, the large ceramic pots are too heavy for indoor uses. So I’m experimenting with baskets, and decided to make some for myself.
Making My Own Raffia & Yarn Houseplant Pots
I was never patient enough to knit or crochet, but since my knees decided to enforce more sitting, I’ve taken it up. My favorite thing lately has been working with raffia and a gorgeous rustic wool from Iceland — a brand called Lettlopi. The raffia give the wool additional structure. Sometimes I also like to use strips of fabric, like from an old scarf, with the edges left raw. I prefer the look and feel of natural fibers.
As I said above, the houseplant is planted inside the plastic nursery pot, not in the basket, which wouldn’t work, of course. Then the nursery pot fits INSIDE the basket, which has a plastic or ceramic drip tray at the bottom to catch any draining water. These baskets are lightweight, easier to store, and multi-functional. If I ever see a moth getting interested in the wool, I’ll just blow a little puff of diatomaceous earth inside the pot to control them.
Though I love making them with yarn and raffia that I mentioned, the whole setup could cost almost nothing if you source some yarn from a thrift or remnant store or upcycle some fabric strips. Nursery pots can often be found for free, cheap, or you may have some already. Clean them well if they are pre-used.
I started with this tutorial for making the baskets but adjusted for different size yarn and finished size. I like the waistcoat stitch for baskets as it’s thick and has structure. Sometimes I use one strand of yarn and one of raffia. Other times I work with two or more strands of yarn and the raffia.
I find that I really enjoy making the baskets, and sometimes I make them with handles so they could be used alternatively as bags. The artistic streak in me loves playing with the colors and textures, and I might decide to offer them for sale at some point. Another post highlighting them may follow. We’ll see. 🙂
As I hibernate indoors during the hot days, the heat outside is hopefully ripening fruits and tomatoes and winter squash and not baking them to death! Everything is on drip irrigation scheduled for nighttime, with us only venturing outside just before nightfall, to check on the vegetable garden.
Hope all of you are doing well and managing OK in any weather extremes!
P.S. Just as I’m about to post this at 10pm, a cool breeze just wafted through the window! A welcome sensation. 🙂
If you are reading this on an email, you might like the layout better in your browser. Click here to go to the blog of the-compulsive-gardener.com.