Purdue Extension Garden TIPS - Indoor Plants Purdue Extension Garden TIPS - Indoor Plants Purdue Extension Garden TIPS - Indoor Plants Purdue Extension Garden TIPS - Indoor Plants
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Purdue Extension Garden TIPS - Indoor Plants

Indoor Plant Care
B. Rosie Lerner

If you have been puzzled as to why some indoor plants thrive while others refuse to flourish, this article is for you. Most indoor plant problems can be easily corrected and even more easily prevented.

First, realize that most of the foliage plants known as house plants are native to tropical areas. This is why, for instance, most indoor plants prefer a humid atmosphere and indirect light. Of course, there are exceptions, and these are also discussed. Keep in mind that sound cultural methods, preventive care, knowing your plant’s requirements, and careful attention are the best substi-tutes for a green thumb.


Plants vary considerably in their light requirements. For example, plants such as the croton need direct sunlight, while philodendrons will grow under lower light intensi-ties. If plants are not receiving enough light, their leaves turn yellow and die.

Most people depend on natural window light for the growth of their plants. Natural light may be adequate if plants are close to windows. However, the amount of natural light a plant receives, decreases dramatically the farther it is placed from the window or its source of light. Usually, plants must be located close to windows to receive enough light for them to grow and flourish.

If window sill space is in short supply, hang basket planters, make glass shelves, or build a “bay window greenhouse” by extending the window and adding shelves for plants that require higher light intensities. Light from reading lamps is also beneficial, but the new “broad spectrum” fluorescent lights are usually better. Generally, artificial, fluorescent light 10 to 14 inches above the plants will provide sufficient light for plants requiring medium light intensity, such as the pothos. A combination of one warm white to one cool white light is best. If your plants appear spindly, they need more light, should be closer to artificial light, or your fluorescent light bulbs are too old to produce the proper wavelength for growth and should be replaced. For even growth, turn the plants once a week so they receive light on all sides.

Temperature and Ventilation

Most indoor plants grow well between 60 and 75 o F. They may become spindly if kept warmer. Always keep plants away from hot or cold drafts, warm appliances, and heat registers. Flowering plants will retain blossoms longer if lower temperatures are provided. Temperatures above 75 o F hasten the death of flowers and make plants spindly as well as less resistant to disease and insect attack.

Proper ventilation is necessary for good plant growth. In most homes, ample fresh air is provided. However, guard against escaping fumes from gas appliances or furnaces.


Most plants require a higher humidity than that of the average home. Any means of increasing humidity will be beneficial to your plants. Today many heating systems are provided with humidifiers, which should be kept full of water. Sprinkling or syringing plants with water is not effective as the water evaporates rapidly. Fittonia ( Fittonia verschaffelti), baby’s tears ( Helxine soleiroli), and strawberry begonia ( Saxifraga sarmentosa) will tolerate high humidity conditions. Growing plants to-gether in a terrarium or setting them on a tray of gravel with moisture in the tray are good ways to raise humidity.


Improper watering is the cause of most house plant problems. Both under- and over-watering can cause leaves to yellow and fall. Check plant soil daily to see if they need water (soil dry 1/4 inch down and tapped pot sounds hollow). If needed, add water until moisture drips out of the drainage hole of the pot. Wait a few minutes and water the plant again until moisture drips out of the drainage hole. Be sure to discard drainage water. Do not allow the bottom portion of the pot to stand in water.

With small plants, weight is a good indicator of when water is needed. Dryer plants feel lighter than those with moist soil.

If you prefer, water from the bottom. Place the plant in a saucer of water until the top of the soil is moist. Then remove the plant and let excess moisture drain away. Never keep ordinary indoor plants standing in water continuously.

A well-drained soil mixture is essential for ease of watering. Heavy soil mixes hold too much water and often cause the plant to rot at the crown.

When watering, the water should be visible on the surface for not more than a few seconds. If it tends to stand on the surface, mix perlite or sand into the soil to improve drainage.

Note: Water all plants from the top once a month to prevent mineral or salts build-up, and be sure to water any plant before it wilts. A build-up of white or brown crusty material on the soil or rim of the pot indicates salt accumulation.


For more information on house plant care, fertilizing, soil preparation, repotting, summer care and list of which plants prefer which environments, read or print out the entire article on Indoor Plant Care (PDF).

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Indoor Plant Care - Full Publication (PDF)






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Updated on September 24, 2003
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