- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Watering indoor plants once a week without first making sure they actually need it is a mistake, says Jeff Kushner, president of Plants Alive! His firm is a Silver Spring plant-scaping company that provides and services plants at businesses and agencies.

Mr. Kushner checks plants with a slight lift of the whole plant, by tugging on the trunk or the grow pot, to determine their dryness. He feels how light they are from water absorption, indicated by the weight of the plant. He touches their leaves and visually looks for any changes in coloration to grayish green that could indicate a watering problem.

His method, he admits, is not very scientific, but he has to know the type of plant to use it.

As such, over-caring for a plant or buying the wrong plant for its environment are the most common mistakes homeowners make, Mr. Kushner says.

“I’ve seen very few people underwater plants to death. More overwater,” he says.

Mr. Kushner’s customers do not have to worry. The six horticultural technicians on staff, also called plant and maintenance technicians by other companies, maintain plants weekly. Plant-scaping companies like Mr. Kushner’s provide, install and maintain indoor plants and trees in lobbies, offices, malls, restaurants and hotels and rotate out any unhealthy plants, ensuring that the plants remain green, hearty and attractive. Homeowners can follow the advice of these companies, along with nurseries and gardening centers, to improve care of their own plants.

“The main thing is selecting the right plant for the right environment and the right lighting situation,” says Les Hughes, owner of the Northern Virginia Plant People, a plant design and maintenance company in Haymarket, Va.

Mr. Hughes recommends placing light-seeking plants near windows or florescent lights, and keeping plants that are more sensitive to environmental changes away from vents and doorways. Plants’ leaves can turn black in response to the gusts of wind coming in from the opening and closing of doors in the wintertime, he says.

“It’s a plant’s version of frostbite,” he says.

The technicians at the Northern Virginia Plant People maintain plants weekly by watering, fertilizing and cleaning them as needed and trimming any overgrowth. They check for signs of ill health, such as discoloration or wilting, and bring in replacements, which are ordered from nurseries in the metropolitan area and along the East Coast. Plants that can be saved will be revived at the office or given away to company employees or to employees in the offices the company services. Other plant-scaping companies rejuvenate plants at their nurseries or throw them out but have some available for rotation.

“We want to keep things looking nice and fresh,” Mr. Hughes says.

The technicians at Plants Alive! make an on-site visit to look at light levels in the building and to determine what the customer wants.

“It’s the quality of light you’re looking for, not the quantity,” Mr. Kushner says.

Florescent lighting can be a source of light for most plants, as can reflective light from light-colored surfaces, he says.

The more light a plant gets, the more water it will need, says Ginger Harwerth, vice president of Eastern Plant Sciences, an interior plant-scaping company in Laurel.

“Most plants like to be a little bit moist, but not sitting in water,” Ms. Harwerth says. “You have to know what each specific plant wants. Are they plants that like to stay more wet, or do they like to dry out more?”

The eight plant technicians at Eastern Plant Services check plants for dead foliage, insect problems and any cleaning needs, taken care of with a feather duster, sponge or leaf shine product.

“When you first look at it, you notice the surroundings. Has anything changed? How does the plant look? Is it wilting?” Ms. Harwerth says.

Plant care, to some extent, depends on the type of plant, says Jonathan Kavalier, manager of the Merrifield Garden Center in Merrifield. The most common mistakes he sees are overwatering or fluctuating between neglect, then realizing the plant needs water, and overwatering, he says.

Overwatering displaces the air content in the soil, which is necessary for the plant to be able to break down the nutrients it needs. The lack of air can cause the plant to drown or the roots to rot.

Mr. Kavalier recommends checking the soil moisture one-third of the way down in the soil and, if it is dry, watering. Likewise, he warns against over-fertilizing, which with a fast-release fertilizer can burn the plant from the excessive nutrients and cause the leaves to turn crispy brown. Fast-release fertilizers release nutrients quickly over a short period of time.

Instead, Mr. Kavalier recommends fertilizing with a product widely used in the gardening industry called Osmocote, a controlled-release fertilizer that can feed a plant for four months, he says.

“In the winter, I don’t recommend fertilizing. You don’t want to encourage a lot of active growth in the winter because the sun is not as strong,” he says, adding that pruning, which also stimulates growth, should be done in the spring and summer. “Any growth will be weak and spindly,” he says.

A healthy plant has thick, dark and plentiful foliage, growth shoots that lengthen during the growing season, and if it blooms, thick blooms evenly spaced over the plant, says Stephen Cockerham, president of Betty’s Azalea Ranch, a nursery in Fairfax.

Alternatively, an unhealthy plant may be infected with insects, evidenced by spots or webbing, or improperly fed or watered, Mr. Cockerham says.

“Plants are textured water. And the food you give them is what textures the water,” he says. “Each plant looks different depending on how you feed them.”

Houseplants, Mr. Cockerham says, require light watering during their dormancy period, which in the metropolitan area extends from Aug. 1 to 30 days after the equinox in late April. They require more watering in the spring and summer months, he says.

However, plants kept in air-conditioned or heated environments may need more water in the summer and winter months to prevent them from drying out, Mr. Kushner says.

“When you have indoor plants, you want to think about the same things as when you’re planting outdoors,” says Monica Lear, horticulture extension agent for the Fairfax County Extension Office in Arlington. She holds a doctorate in plant pathology. “You want to make sure you have plants appropriate for the light. You want to match your temperature setting inside and your light exposure because it’s really important for indoor plants,” she says.

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