It's a jungle in there!

By By Gail Barton / horticulture columnist
Nov. 30, 2003
As usual, I'm among the last on my street to bring houseplants inside. I hesitate until the last minute because I really prefer my houseplants as deck plants.
Indoors they suffocate and struggle under a mantle of dust. As deck plants they retain a bit of jungle splendor and are easy to water with a hose.
Also, I'm never quite sure if they will fit back into the house after a summer's growth outside. Indoors the plants have a tough time of it. The light level plummets from about 1,000 foot-candles in dense shade outside to around 60 foot-candles indoors. The humidity in a gas heated house like mine is lower than the level in Death Valley.
Most of my plants have to be situated near a drafty sliding glass door in order for enough light to reach them. To make matters worse, the cat population in my house views these new residents with renewed interest.
It is a tedious process to water these plants indoors after having soaked them all summer with a garden hose on the deck. If I water too freely, each plant will sit in a saucer of water and stew in its own juices until it dies of root rot. If I water too little, the leaf edges turn brown and I just feel mean. Until I get used to watering indoors, I will have to water carefully. I try to water only if the soil feels dry 1 to 2 inches deep.
If I'm really organized, I'll buy some marbles to put under the pots. This will allow water to drain out of the pot and sit in the saucer without coming in contact with the roots. As water evaporates from the saucer, it will increase the humidity in the air. If the pot doesn't sit in standing water, I'll have no problems with root rot.
While I'm buying marbles, I'll need to get some new saucers. The old ones invariably disappear over the summer. I don't like porous clay saucers because they promote mildew on floors and rugs. I prefer plastic saucers that are water-tight and terra-cotta colored to match most of my pots. I also like to use cheap garage sale plates as plant saucers.
Indoors, plants grow less and need little fertilizer. Some gardeners don't fertilize houseplants in winter at all. I previously used liquid fertilizers at half strength once a month. Now I've developed the habit of using slow-release fertilizers at half the rate. I reapply every few months following the timing on the label.
I generally hose the plants down one last time and let them drain before moving them indoors. This hosing removes debris while plants are still outside. Also, a good hosing or even soaking in a bucket of water will discourage lizards, frogs, bugs and other critters that I don't want to bring inside. If I'm feeling ambitious, I may also water the plants with 1 tablespoon Epsom salts per gallon of water. This greens them and minimizes leaf drop because the magnesium in Epsom salts "feeds" the chlorophyll in the leaf.
This process sounds like a lot of work because it is a lot of work. Every year I drag my feet. I threaten to give plants away or let them freeze instead of moving them indoors. I would probably follow through on my threats except for the trauma of deciding which ones live and which ones die.
Last year I finally parted with my husband's grandmother's Mother-In-Law's Tongue. It was practically an heirloom but it now has a happy home in the MCC Greenhouse where it has spawned many babies.
I'd love to part with my giant ponytail palm. It's the heaviest house plant I have and each year becomes more cumbersome to move. Somehow, I just can't give the death sentence to the ponytail palm because I've had it since it was 2 inches tall.
So I'm trying to accept my fate. This time of year, my house reminds me of the house of my college French teacher. The living room was 80 percent grand piano.
I am gradually realizing that dcor is determined by priorities. It may be cramped, but all those plants will fit.
Gail Barton is the coordinator of the Meridian Community College's Horticulture Technology Program.