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Houseplants clean the air while improving your mood

Enjoying the beauty and soothing vibe of a houseplant is easy. Keeping it from drooping and dying takes a little more work. Many people kill their houseplants with kindness — the greenery succumbs to oversaturated roots. McClatchy-Tribune Newspapers

Water only as needed. "No. 1: Don't overwater," said Joan Coulat of Capital Nursery in Sacramento, Calif. "People water them until they're drowned." Such species as sansevierias need water only every two to three weeks. Others get by with weekly watering. The key is to feel the soil; water when it starts to feel dry. Ideally, put water in a saucer under the pot and let it wick upward.

Use potting mix. The ideal "soil" is actually soil-less potting medium, a mix that stays moist but drains quickly. Don't use garden soil — dirt won't work. Instead, use a mix of perlite, peat moss, sphagnum moss, orchid bark and charcoal. Also, don't put rocks or gravel at the bottom of the pot to improve drainage; that keeps the planting medium from drawing water up from the saucer.

Choose the right size pot for the plant. "When you put a little plant in a big pot, it rots," Coulat said. "The soil stays too wet and it dies." When repotting, choose a container an inch or two larger in diameter than the previous container.

Keep the plant clean. Dust it regularly and occasionally give it a shower. Place the plant in the bathtub and gently rinse off its leaves with tepid water. That allows the leaves to work and stay healthy.

Plants need light to grow. Most houseplants thrive in bright indirect light, the kind found near an east-facing window. Under fluorescent light, plants do well with eight hours a day, such as in a typical office.

Fertilize your houseplant once or twice a month. Coulat recommends diluting houseplant food and feeding every time you water.

Some need misting. Some houseplants, particularly ferns and orchids, appreciate higher-than-normal humidity. Mist them occasionally with fresh water. Or make a humidity tray: Put gravel in a shallow dish. Fill the dish with water, keeping the water level just below the top of the stones. Place the houseplant (saucer and all) on top of the gravel.

Pest issues. Houseplants are beset by few pests except "mealybugs and mildew — take care of them immediately," Coulat said. Use an indoor fungicide to fight mildew. Pick off damaged leaves. For mealybugs (which look like white scales), apply a little alcohol with a cotton swab or treat with a systemic spray recommended for indoor use. Gnats, another problem, may be a sign of too much moisture in the soil.

Benefits of houseplants. According to research, two to three large houseplants (in 10- to 12-inch containers) can clean the air in a 100- to 150-square-foot room, a typical bedroom or den. For maximum effect, place plants in your "breathing zone," within 6 to 8 square feet of where you normally sit or lie. But remember: They need light to survive.

Houseplants clean the air while improving your mood 02/08/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 8, 2011 3:30am]

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