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Practical Household Uses for Houseplants

Houseplants are not so different from other plants in their practical household uses. There are endless possibilities, but the most common uses are for fragrance, medicine, and flavor. If you’ve ever been to a botanical garden, you may have found plant and garden arrangements based on these three themes. Many houseplants can be used for more than one purpose. Rosemary can be used for all three. Many people associate herb plants with outdoor gardens. Some plants are best left to outdoor grown environments, but many popular herbs can be successfully cultivated indoors.

Some practical household uses for houseplants are actually myth. For example, houseplants don’t capture enough carbon dioxide or release enough oxygen to make a difference in indoor air quality. Some houseplants are used purely for decorative purposes and to develop your green thumb, but if you prefer plants with a practical use, you’ll still find lots of choices. Here are the most popular household uses for different types of houseplants.

Houseplants as Fragrance

Houseplants can be a great way to ensure various areas of your home have a pleasing fragrance. Many houseplants that are used for their fragrance like lots of light, so it will be easiest to provide fragrance in rooms with lots of window space. Even still, there are plenty of choices. Some people prefer the slightly sour smell of citrus trees. Some prefer the sweeter smell of fragrant jasmine. Lavender is popular for its calming aroma. Heliotropes are known for their vanilla scent. Orchids and geraniums can have a wide variety of mild smells, while gardenias are known for being a houseplant with a stronger fragrance.

Most aromatic houseplants are used for room fragrance, but they can also be distilled into personal fragrance. This is common for commercially produced perfumes, but you can also make your own. When using houseplants as personal fragrance, you need to know what part of the plant is used to make oil extracts.

Houseplants with Medicinal Uses

Numerous houseplants have medicinal uses, but for acute symptoms, it probably makes more sense to run to the drugstore. Houseplants are more common for chronic and preventative treatments. especially stomach pain and digestive problems. Along with traditional herbs, certain types of jasmine and marigolds are good for stomach pain and digestive health. Thyme is better known as a kitchen spice but also has many preventative health benefits. A lot of people want to know which plants are better or worse for allergy sufferers. That said, be skeptical about health benefits of plants based solely on improved indoor air quality.

Certainly, some houseplants and home remedies are just as good or even better than commercially developed products. However, we recommend you thoroughly research medicinal home remedies before using. Even something as innocent as chamomile, which can be used as an anti-inflammatory and anti-nausea treatment, can have serious complications for people with asthma. Aloe vera is a common ingredient in skin lotions that treats sunburns. Creating aloe vera gel on your own isn’t that difficult, but the outside part of the plant is actually a skin irritant that can make the problem worse. Online medical sources, like WebMD, offer information about houseplants with medicine uses as part of their Vitamin and Supplement Resource Center.

Houseplants for Herbs and Spices

With the right setup and care routine, you can grow most types of herbs indoors, though some are easier to grow than others. You can try growing garlic indoors as an experiment, for example, but we wouldn’t count on it for your culinary needs unless you’ve already had success. Mint is another herb you can try indoors, especially if you’re tired of the mint taking over the rest of your outdoor vegetable garden. Some of the most popular types of houseplants for herbs and spices include basil, rosemary, and sage. Many people also take to growing citrus trees year-round in containers. These trees are great for fragrance and, with a little luck, extra fruit.

Household Uses for Houseplants: DIY vs Commercial Products

Often times, the plants that make for effective home remedies are the same ones used for commercial household products. For the time and money involved, store-bought products usually make more sense than houseplant cultivation. Yet, it’s easier than ever to find tutorials about how to make your own aloe vera gel or how to make your own lavender essential oil. If you live in a rural or remote area, picking up common household products is no quick errand. Likewise, if you’re looking for a new hobby with a practical use, houseplants can be a great choice.

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How to Bring Houseplants Inside for the Winter

Many types of houseplants can thrive outside during the summer and spend the rest of the time indoors so long as you know how to bring houseplants inside for the winter. (There are also rules to follow for taking a houseplant outside for the summer.) The most important thing is to remember to start early and slowly reintroduce the plant to its indoor environment over the period of a couple weeks. Houseplants are adaptable to gradual changes but vulnerable to acute shock from a sudden, unexpected change to their living conditions.

For timing, it’s not too early to start bringing your houseplants indoors for short periods of time at the start of fall especially if you live in colder climates. In warmer locations, it’s not uncommon to leave houseplants outside well into the fall season, almost to the beginning of winter itself. For temperatures, some tropical plants may need to start moving inside as soon as the overnight lows start dropping below 60 degrees. Most houseplants, however, can continue to do well outside until the temperatures drop below 50 degrees. Some will even tolerate the cold until frost starts to set in.

When and How to Bring Houseplants Indoors for the Winter

  • Inspect, Assess and Move: If the plant is showing serious signs of wilt or discoloration, it’s unlikely to make a sudden recovery by being moved indoors. It may be best to bid adieu to that houseplant. Some wilting is not unusual, and the dead growth should be removed. In contrast, plants that have taken off during the summer may be pot-bound and ready for a larger container. It many cases, the houseplant will be fine over the winter but should be put in a bigger pot before the next growing season. You’ll also want to look for signs of pests. Remove any bugs you find on the leaves or soil and apply an insecticidal treatment. Finally, if the plant isn’t already in a shady spot, create shade for the plant to begin the acclimation process to lower light conditions.
  • Create Space and Start the Transition: This may include both a temporary holding area and a more permanent spot for the plant. By immediately reintroducing the houseplant to other indoor plants, you run the risk of spreading pests to multiple plants. If pests aren’t a major concern, you can let the plant start acclimating to its new permanent spot. Bring the plant inside overnight and back outside in the morning. Gradually increase the amount of time the plant spends indoors. Do your best to maintain a schedule, but if you don’t get it exactly right every day, the plant should be fine. Continue to inspect the plant for pests and other signs of distress as you move it back and forth.
  • Move the Plant to Its New Spot: After a period of a week or two, it’s time to move the plant to its new spot. This is another good time to wash leaves and apply an insecticidal treatment to ensure there are no insects trying to become last-minute hitchhikers. Inspect the indoor plants that will live near the transplant. Wash the leaves. Wash any nearby windows to maximize the amount of natural light getting to the plants.

Seasonal Houseplant Care

It’s easy to make the mistake that moving a houseplant inside for the fall and winter is a time to give it extra water. In fact, the opposite is true. Indoors, the plant will almost surely need less water than it did outside during the growing season. Be sure to closely monitor the soil’s moisture level and be prepared to adjust your watering schedule accordingly. The same can be said for fertilizer. Don’t dump a bunch of fertilizer into the soil thinking it will help the plant manage transplant shock. During the winter, it’s more likely to oversaturate the soil and expose the roots to harm. You can find more tips for season-by-season houseplant care.

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How to Repot Houseplants that are Pot-Bound

Repotting houseplants that are pot-bound isn’t all that different from potting other houseplants. But first, you need to know if, in fact, the plant has outgrown its pot. Sometimes, the signs are obvious. If the pot has split open and roots are growing through the cracks, it’s past time to repot the houseplant. If there are visible roots and hardly any soil, this is another clear indication for most types of houseplants. Without soil to retain moisture, there are often signs of underwatering including discoloration and weak growth. At the same time, you must know what type of plant you’re dealing with. Orchids, for example, live on other plant material rather than soil and have naturally exposed roots that look perpetually pot-bound even though the plant is perfectly healthy. Learn even more about how to tell if a houseplant is pot-bound.

How to Repot Houseplants that are Pot-Bound

  • Prepare a Workspace: Make sure it’s no problem to get some dirt on. Have fresh potting mix that’s formulated for that type of houseplant, succulent or tropical. Have a full watering can and a new pot ready to go. You may also need a knife or sharp edge. If you’re using rocks or activated charcoal as a bottom layer, have these ready as well.
  • Separate the Plant from the Pot: Turn the pot sideways or almost upside down. It helps to water the plant first and give the bottom of the pot a few whacks. Grasp the plant firmly by a major stem and give it a tug to see if you can dislodge the plant. If the plant is still stuck or if there’s no good stem to grab, you can gently scrape the inside of the pot a little ways, add more water, and try again. As a last resort, you may have to break the pot or dig out as much of the plant as you reasonably can.
  • Agitate the Roots: Pot-bound plants will have a large root ball that needs to be agitated to disentangle the roots. If some of the root ends get destroyed in the process, it should be fine. You want to encourage the roots to grow in various directions when placed in their new pot. In fact, it’s better to cut off the bottom of the root ball, rather than leave the plant root-bound in its new pot. Cutting the roots is common for seriously pot-bound houseplants.
  • Repot the Houseplant: Put a layer of fresh potting mix at the bottom. Gently tamp and compress the soil. Position the plant in the pot at a good height near the top of the pot but with sufficient room to give the houseplant water. Fill the remaining space with more potting mix and again tamp down the soil. You want to provide the plant with adequate physical support while also letting the roots easily penetrate through the soil. When you have the plant in a good position, all that’s left is to water generously and then monitor the plant’s progress and soil moisture level.

Fafard has one of the best online guides we’ve found for how to repot houseplants that are pot-bound.

Repotting Houseplants in the Same Pot

You may not want to put the plant in a bigger pot if it means it will no longer fit in that perfect spot in your home. The good news is that you can usually repot these plants in the same pot (or a new pot of the same size). The process is nearly identical. The key difference is that instead of agitating the root ball, you cut off the bottom third or quarter of the roots altogether. You should clean the inside of the pot, backfill the bottom with fresh potting mix, and then replace the houseplant.

When is the Best Time to Repot Houseplants that are Pot-Bound?

If your houseplant is showing serious, obvious signs of being pot-bound, there is no wrong time of year to repot your houseplant. If you’re not sure if a houseplant is pot-bound or it’s a borderline case, the best time to repot is in the spring when the plant is about to enter an active growth phase. So long as you stay diligent with houseplant care, it’s usually fine to repot a houseplant right away or wait till next year. Ignore the problem for too long, and the houseplant will eventually suffer and become vulnerable to even small mistakes with watering or soil consistency.

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How to Tell if a Houseplant is Pot-Bound

People who take care of houseplants long enough will eventually run into houseplants that have become pot-bound. If you give certain types of houseplants the right growing conditions, this could be a question you’re asking almost every year. Sometimes, it’s easy to tell with clear-cut signs that a houseplant is pot-bound. In other cases, the signs are more subtle. With this guide, you’ll know how to tell if your houseplant is pot-bound and what you should do about it.

Signs of a Pot-Bound Houseplant

  • Exposed, overgrown roots are one of the most obvious signs of a pot-bound houseplant. This could be roots poking out the top of the soil, or it could be roots coming out the bottom of the drainage holes. However, some plants, like orchids, have naturally exposed roots, so you need to know the type of houseplant you’re dealing with.
  • The houseplant is drying out more quickly than usual. This is a side effect of the roots breaking down the soil. Without enough soil, the water washes through the pot too quickly. Discoloration and wilted growth may be a sign of a pot-bound plant.
  • Many pot-bound houseplants are hard to remove or even stuck in their pots. In some cases, the root ball forms in a place where it can’t escape the confines of the pot. These roots may crack or deform the pot from the pressure of its new growth.

Houseplants that Like Being Pot-Bound

Several types of houseplants are known to like being pot-bound, but this is something of a myth. It’s not so much that these pot-bound houseplants like cramped conditions. Rather, it’s that these houseplants respond to these conditions in favorable ways. Simply put, being pot-bound stresses the plant. Many types of plants respond to this stress by producing new offshoots (spider plants) or flowers (peace lily) to ensure a new generation of plants. Some plants will survive the stress of being pot-bound for many years but are already stressed to the point that repotting them may do more harm than good. African Violets, for example, are very hard to transplant successfully once they’ve become pot-bound.

Pot-Bound vs. Root-Bound Plants

Root-bound plants are a closely related condition to pot-bound plants, though there are some differences. Pot-bound plants have consumed so much of the potting soil that there’s not enough growing medium left to provide enough nutrients, hold enough water, and allow the plant to continue to grow. Root-bound plants have had their roots turn in on themselves creating an increasingly dense root ball that threatens to strangle itself while also not finding enough nutrients in the growing medium. You can read more about the differences between root-bound and pot-bound plants from Nellie Neal at the Clarion Ledger.

How to Repot Houseplants

While transplanting will stress a plant, healthy plants quickly bounce back and see new growth. Even many struggling, pot-bound houseplants will quickly find their footing and again become strong, established plants. There are some basic steps to repotting houseplants, but the trickiest part is often removing the plant from its current pot. Pot-bound houseplants with extensive root growth often stubbornly cling to the pot. Learn even more about how to repot houseplants that are pot-bound.

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Best Home Humidity Levels for Houseplants

Houseplants may struggle when the air has too much or too little humidity, so it’s good to know the best home humidity levels for houseplants. There is no exact number that fits every climate and houseplant, but the range is usually somewhere between the 30-60% recommended by the EPA for general home humidity. Too much humidity can lead to mold, bacteria, gnats, and increased risk of root rot, while too little humidity makes the plant vulnerable to spider mites, scale, aphids, and other pests that thrive on warm, dry air. These are among the most common houseplant killers in which advanced infestations may require you to start over or fight an indefinite battle with houseplant pests. But the pests themselves are only one part of the reason houseplants struggle in dry air.

Low Humidity Levels and Houseplant Pests

It’s not just that common houseplant pests like dry, warm air. The plants themselves may be vulnerable due to low humidity levels. If you live in an arid climate, it’s only the most drought-resistant succulents that will live their best lives. Most houseplants can still grow and look good in drier climates, especially if you stay up on its watering and fertilizer needs. At the same time, you may have a houseplant that’s done well for years, but during an especially dry year or because an adjacent plant became host to a pest, this houseplant gets an infestation and is never the same.

Another reason houseplant pest control is harder with low humidity is that it adversely affects predatory bugs. One of the most effective forms of houseplant pest control is to introduce other bugs that prey on houseplant pests. This is especially true if you can identify the type of pest and then determine if it has a natural predator. One of the most common types of plant pests is the spider mite, but there is also a bug called the spider mite destroyer. The only problem is that predatory mites and other bugs that might serve as pest control aren’t viable in humidity levels lower than 50-60%. Most homes require a whole home humidifier system to maintain this humidity level.   

High Humidity Levels and Mold Growth

People who live in a tropical or high-humidity climate need to be on the lookout for different warning signs. Too much humidity comes with its own set of risk factors including mold, bacteria, or fungal growth. Mold is the most common, but these problems are all treated pretty much the same. The first step is to physically remove as much of the mold as possible. For minor mold growth, you may be able to prevent new mold growth by increasing the ventilation and/or drainage so the soil can dry out between watering. More widespread mold may require repotting with fresh soil.

For further control and prevention, a simple home remedy is to dissolve one teaspoon of baking soda in one quart of water. You can also find many types of fungicidal treatments and products. These products are fine and good if you have them available, but don’t wait if you have baking soda ready to go. Better to treat the plant as soon as possible, and then follow up with targeted treatments as necessary.

What’s the Best Home Humidity Levels for Houseplants?

The best humidity levels for houseplants is usually within the high end of the range for a comfortable, healthy home. We frequently suggest somewhere between 45-55% to accommodate the widest range of plants. In general, it’s helpful but not essential for houseplants to have a whole house humidifier. Some houseplants including most succulents do fine with dry air, but many houseplants will do best with just a little extra humidity. If you live in a dry climate but want to grow more tropical houseplant varieties, some type of home humidifier may be essential. If you live in a tropical or coastal climate with high humidity, it’s important to maintain good ventilation in areas with houseplants. For seasonal climates, the time of year also plays a role with colder outdoor temperatures leading to lower humidity. Here is a handy chart of home humidity levels based on outdoor temperatures.