How to Grow a Houseplant: Light & Temperature

spider-plant_home_20090908_lah_0280“Mom, can you fix it?”

My college freshman was looking at me with a dejected, mournful expression, holding the spider plant I had sent to school with her. It looked awful. Wilted, brown leaves hung limply over the edge of the plastic pot. There were no signs of life.

“Well, that one looks kind of done, but I can give you another one. I’ve got plenty of spider plants. What happened?”

The story unfolded… it was well below freezing outside, but the central heating in the dorms was turned way up. Suffocating in her room, she’d opened the window a crack. No one thought to move the plant on the windowsill. Unfortunately, tropical spider plants aren’t equipped to survive 6ºF drafts. The poor plant had succumbed during the night.

As I potted up another victim, er, spider plant, I explained to my daughter that the primary thing to remember is that plants are alive. I know this seems obvious, but too many people treat them as decorations rather than living organisms. It’s better to think of them as pets—sort of like green hamsters without the exercise wheel. They need food and water, shelter and room to grow. If you meet their needs, they’ll not only survive, they’ll grow and perhaps even bloom. It’s really not that hard.

Cactus enjoy sunny windowsills.

First of all, plants need light. Some plants need bright sunshine while others need shade. You need to know the requirements for your particular specimen. But no plant will live for long tucked away in a dark corner. Most houseplants are happy with bright but indirect light, such as sunshine filtered by sheer curtains.

Remember that sunlight varies with the seasons. A windowsill that is shaded in summer may receive full sun (and burn your plants) as the seasons change. It’s better to set the plant back a bit from the glass, such as on a bookshelf or table.

Temperature extremes are also dangerous for plants, as my daughter discovered. Both icy drafts (including the cold that penetrates a pane of glass in winter) and hot, drying furnace air are equally harmful. Most houseplants are happy at the same temperatures we enjoy.

Note: This is Part 1 of a three-part series on How to Grow a Houseplant. Part 2 will cover feeding and watering, and Part 3 will discuss containers and repotting.

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