This section is from the book "Indoor Gardening", by Eben E. Rexford. Also available from Amazon: Indoor Gardening.
THE care given most collections of house-plants consists, I am sorry to say, of watering in haphazard fashion, keeping them in a temperature many degrees too high for health, and zealously preventing any fresh air from getting to them.
The care that ought to be given them is quite different. It may be urged by those to whom what I have said about the care generally given applies, that it is not an easy matter to overcome the various obstacles in the way of success. This, I grant, is true. But the woman who really loves plants, will, as I have said elsewhere, endeavor to make their life as pleasant as possible, even if a good deal of labor is involved in the attempt. If she is not willing to do this, she ought not to attempt to grow plants. Her attempts will be quite likely to result in failure, as they should. I have no sympathy for the woman who puts plants in her window simply because her neighbors have them. You must have flowers in the heart before you can have them in the window, or anywhere else.
As regards temperature: We make ovens of most of our houses. We allow the thermometer to run up to eighty, ninety, often a hundred, and because the heat furnishes us a sort of pleasant sensation we fail to understand why our plants do not do well in it, and we also wonder, quite frequently, why we do not feel brisker, livelier, and healthier generally. We keep the fires going, we keep the windows and doors closed against fresh air, and when we begin to feel drowsy, and stupid, and languid, we think we have taken cold, and most likely we open the fire-drafts a little wider, and put in more fuel, and burn all the oxygen out of the atmosphere, and make a little surer that none of the sweet, pure air of God's out-of-doors can find its way in to relieve the general congestion of things. We worry about our house-plants freezing, while all the time we are doing our best to roast them to death. Such is the almost criminal carelessness that the most intelligent of us are guilty of, in our treatment of our plants. We make the winter a season of slow suicide for ourselves, and our plants fall victims to our mistaken ideas of comfort.
Plants, when grown as they ought to be, are as useful to the human occupants of the room as thermometers are, if we are willing to be governed by their ideas of the proper thing, as regards fresh air, temperature, and moisture. They will show all the vigor of plants in the garden instead of the weaknesses peculiar to the ordinary collection. They will not be lanky, and spindling, like the general type of house-plant, and they will bloom-actually bloom,-much to the wonderment of many women who attempt plant-growing under the difficulties I have mentioned, and who are tolerably well satisfied if they can keep their plants alive during the winter. When you see fine plants in the windows of a home, you can be sure they have been given fresh air daily, have not been subjected to intense heat, and that there is moisture in the rooms where they are kept. This is why I say they are useful as indicators of conditions which prevail in the well-regulated home. If you can keep your plants healthy, it stands to reason that the rest of the family ought to be so, since what suits the vegetable part of it is about right, in most respects, for the human part.
Most plants will be satisfied with a temperature of seventy degrees F., by day, and sixty by night. A few prefer seventy-five by day, and sixty-five at night. We may consider seventy on the cool side, so habituated have we become to a higher temperature, but if we set out with the determination of accustoming ourselves to it, we will soon discover that it affords greater comfort than the higher one, and that the feeling of lassitude and general enervation which we have complained of heretofore, has been dissipated by the change. I am not making this statement as a roundabout way of saying that we should accommodate ourselves wholly to conditions that will please our plants, and decry personal preferences and comfort for their sakes. I make it because it goes to show that so much more sensible are their demands than ours that if we succeed in making them comfortable we are benefited as much as they are. There is a poetical justice in this which is quite independent of mere sentimentalism, if we are wise enough to recognize it.
Fresh air should be admitted on every pleasant day, no matter how cold it is. Do not open the windows at which the plants stand, and allow the cold air to blow directly on them, for frequently a blast of cold air contains a chill sufficient to seriously injure a tender plant. Open a door at some distance from them, and allow the cold out-door air to mix with the warm air of the room before it reaches them. It's a good plan to lower a window on the opposite side of the room while the fresh air is coming in. This will drive out the foul air. Too much stress can not be laid on the necessity of airing plants. They breathe, as we do, and they cannot breathe the same air over and over and remain healthy.
Speaking of the breathing of plants reminds me to say that they breathe through pores in their leaves, and if these pores become clogged by dust it will be difficult for them to receive a great deal of benefit from fresh air. Therefore aim to keep your plants clean. This can easily be done when you have a room for them, but it is not such an easy matter when they occupy the windows of the living-room. Dust from sweeping will settle on them, and frequent washings will be necessary to remove it. It is a good plan to throw a sheet of cheese-cloth or some other light, thin material over them when sweeping and dusting. Also to postpone showering until after the dust has had a chance to settle. If it is not possible to keep them quite clean by these little attentions, they should be removed to kitchen or bathroom once a week, turned down on their sides, and given a thorough washing. Drench them. Allow them to remain wet for a time, and then turn on the hose again, with considerable force, to remove the dust which has been rendered tractable by soaking. The cleaner you keep your plants the healthier they will be. I have urged cleanliness, so far, wholly on the score of health. It scarcely seems necessary to say anything about dirty plants to the woman of average neatness, for if she believes that cleanliness is next to godliness and practices what she believes, she will never allow her plants to get into a condition that is offensive to the eye. If she takes no pride in keeping them clean, she doesn't care enough for them to make it worth while to give her any advice on the subject.
Fortunately washing, combined with frequent showerings between times, does much to keep down insects and therefore it serves a double purpose. Clean, tepid water should be used, and it should be applied to the whole plant, especial care being taken to have it reach the underside of the leaves.
Few plants will do well in a very dry air. Those that do best in dry rooms are kinds with thick, firm foliage, like the Ficus, Aspidistra, and Palm. Plants of a more delicate foliage will soon show the effect of a too dry atmosphere after the rooms are closed against the admission of fresh air, in fall, and the fires are set going, by yellowing foliage and a cessation of vigorous growth. The red spider - that most voracious of all insect enemies- fairly revels in a hot, dry atmosphere, and the effect of his attacks upon plants will soon be seen upon plants that were apparently in perfect health a short time before. Moisture in the air will, to a considerable extent, counteract the bad effect of our overheated rooms, and it will also have a tendency to check the ravages of the spider; therefore a double benefit results from its use. The problem is-how to saturate the air most effectively with it, and keep it in that condition. Showering the plants daily will help to do this. Water in evaporation from vessels on stoves, registers, and radiators is of great benefit because this evaporation can be kept up if care be taken to keep the vessels constantly filled. In the plant-room the plants can be showered, the room closed, and any desired degree of humidity can be secured and maintained with very little trouble. In the living-room it is quite different, but much can be done to correct the unfavorable conditions by those who are concerned over the welfare of their plants. The soil in the pots should be frequently stirred to keep it from crusting over, and to allow air to get to the roots of the plants, also to keep down weeds, and assist evaporation.
Plants in the window should be turned at least once a week to give all sides of them an equal chance at the light, and thus prevent them from becoming one-sided and unsym-metrical. It is a good plan to shift them about frequently in the window, giving those that have been kept farthest from the glass a place near it, for a time. In ordinary windows it is well to keep the tall plants at the sides, and give up the center to the smaller ones, as this prevents the larger ones from robbing the little fellows of their just share of light and sunshine. The effect is finer in an aesthetic sense, as the plants can be so arranged that a pretty slope from the outside to the center of the window is secured, as if the plants had been "banked." Such an arrangement will afford a delightful outlook from the room through a vista of flowers and foliage, and will be found vastly more pleasing than the ordinary arrangement which is really a lack of arrangement. The woman who loves flowers and likes to work among them will always be discovering new ways by which they can be made attractive, and can be trusted to study these things out for herself.