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Indoor plants: You have to learn by killing things you love (and then growing more)

Planting a patio garden? Here are some things to consider

Julia Chiesa of The Plant Foundry gives tips on plants to grow in your patio garden on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 in Sacramento.
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Julia Chiesa of The Plant Foundry gives tips on plants to grow in your patio garden on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 in Sacramento.

When Kayli Sessions bought her first houseplant about five years ago, she learned the hard way that it’s easy for owners with good intentions to overwater.

The soil of her snake plant became so saturated it nurtured a nest of fungus gnats. “I had no idea what I was doing … so I watered it a lot,” she admitted. “It took an infestation of hundreds of little flies to realize what I’d done wrong.”

She was diligent, however, and after repotting and addressing the pests, they were gone in a week and her plant flourished again.

Despite the dubious beginning, Sessions, the houseplant buyer for Green Acres Nursery & Supply in Elk Grove, now has a thriving collection of indoor plants. She’s particularly taken with her philodendrons, snake plants and hoyas.

It took time to find her passion.

Every day, the center helps people with a gamut of questions, concerns and problems, like the one Sessions went through. A common inquiry: Where do I start?

For those interested in indoor plant cultivation, there are species that are not only amenable to a life indoors but can thrive. Among the easiest to care for include varieties of peace lilies, snake plants, pothos, philodendrons, ZZ plants, rhapis/lady palms and dracaena. (Pet owners should note, however, that all of these species are considered toxic to dogs and cats by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.)

These chiefly are suitable options for a variety of folks, such as first-time plant owners, those who believe they lack a green thumb, and people who are too busy for high-maintenance types but want to spruce up their living space. Research has shown indoor plants are beneficial to people in many ways, by removing pollutants from the air, improving productivity and concentration, promoting relaxation and reducing stress.

What makes these types ideal houseplants, in particular, Sessions said, is that they grow in low-light conditions. And, they’re low-maintenance.

Forget to water them? No problem. Fair Oaks Boulevard Nursery Manager Quentyn Young, who also is a master gardener, said they’re quite forgiving in this regard.

“They sort of thrive in a little bit of what I call benign neglect,” he said.

In Young’s experience, when people run into issues with houseplants, “the No. 1 thing is the wrong plant in the wrong place.” Placing a plant that needs bright light in a dark bathroom, for example, or exposing one that enjoys low-lighting to prolonged, bright, direct sunlight.

The next misstep: misjudging a plant’s thirst and over- or underwatering. Some, like succulents, need to dry completely between waterings, for example.

“[Overwatering] is actually a pretty common thing people don’t realize,” Sessions added. “One of the main reasons people kill their houseplants is because they think they need watering every day. Almost no houseplant does.”

Humidity also can be a factor. Tropical plants, such as the ficus, fern or prayer plant, often are sought after and can suffer if they end up in dry indoor spaces – when a fan or heater is on and no extra moisture is provided, it can be deadly, Sessions said. They should be in homes with humidifiers, placed in rooms that create moisture, such as bathrooms or kitchens, or sprayed with water.

There are, of course, many other ailments, diseases and disasters that can befall houseplants. A lot of troubleshooting can be done online, of course. But both Sessions and Young emphasized the importance of relying on other gardeners, cultivators and plant managers. Many nurseries will examine pictures or bagged clippings to help identify any issues and suggest how to nurse the plant back to health.

“The important thing is to ask a knowledgeable person,” Young said. “Go to your local nursery or wherever and see what their house plants look like.”

And if it doesn’t work out and a plant perishes? Don’t fret and start over, Sessions said.

“I have killed many houseplants in my time doing this. I tell my customers, ‘That’s how you learn.’”

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