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Got an itchy green thumb? 5 winter houseplants

by P. Allen Smith /  / Updated  / Source: TODAY

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Growing houseplants is easier than you might think, especially if you follow a few simple guidelines. And you will be amazed at the variety of interesting foliage and gorgeous blooms to choose among. There is something to suit every style of interior. Here is a list of my five favorite houseplants for cheering up my home after the holidays.

Mother-in-law's tongue (Sansevieria) This plant is nearly impossible to kill, and the dramatic, swordlike foliage will complement any style of home. I think Mother-in-law's tongue is especially attractive when grown in a simple container that allows all the attention to be focused on the plant itself.

Another reason I like this plant so much is it can tolerate very low light conditions and it will actually thrive with just artificial light. When it comes to water, you want to keep it on the dry side. Mine has actually gone for months without water. If you water too much it can actually damage the roots, causing the blades or leaves to turn soft and slimy.

Occasionally I like to clean the leaves because the air can be dry and dusty. To do this I just put a little mild dishwashing soap in warm water and wipe the leaves with a cloth. They clean up beautifully.

Cyclamen During the holidays, I always use a few cyclamen in my arrangements because after the decorations have been put away, these plants still have plenty of blooms to carry me into the new year.

Cyclamen come in a wide range of colors, from white through the various shades of pink into the deep maroon. And if that's not enough, the foliage looks like a handpainted masterpiece. Cyclamen blooms and attractively marbled leaves are a knockout when combined in an arrangement with other winter flowers such as primroses, paperwhites or amaryllis.

There are a few tips you may want to follow to help keep your cyclamen fresh and vibrant. First, you never want to let them wilt. They never fully recover and when it comes to light, make sure it is indirect. Full sun is hard on the plant's leaves and blooms.

Bromeliads I am partial to bromeliads because of their tough nature and interesting shapes and blooms. These plants are equally suited for a modern or classically designed interior. Like the Mother-in-law's tongue, they are best displayed in a simple container that showcases the fun and funky form of the plant.

Low light, low humidity and dry air make it unbearable for many plants, but not bromeliads. In their native habitat they can grow, with very little root system, on tree branches, trunks, even on rocks. With so few roots you might guess it wouldn't require much water. Well, you are right. In fact, overwatering is the No. 1 cause of death of bromeliads in our homes. Too much moisture around the roots will cause them to rot. But this plant has other ways of storing moisture. Its leaves overlap to create cups, which actually hold water.

When it comes to fertilizer, very little is necessary. A diluted solution, say down to 25 percent of an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer, is all you need for plenty of vigorous growth. Just feed them every two weeks or so. If your bromeliad has not bloomed in a while, there is a way you can trick it into flowering by simply using a plastic bag and an apple. Make sure there is no stored water in the leaf cups and cover the plant with a clear plastic bag along with an apple. Ten days with the ripening apple will be long enough to encourage the plant to begin producing a flower stalk.

Amaryllis While an amaryllis is not what you might think of as a traditional houseplant, it is hard to beat in the bloom department. These bulbs produce gigantic flowers in a fantastic assortment of colors and forms. I like to plant the white or lemony-green varieties because they look so fresh, but you can also choose red, hot pink, salmon or even striped. One of my favorites is "Papilio Butterfly." It has recurved cream petals flushed with burgundy and bronze.

To grow an amaryllis in your home, simply place the bulb in a clay container that is a few inches wider than the bulb. Fill with soil, leaving approximately a quarter of the top of the bulb exposed. Water and place in a sunny location. In about six weeks you will be rewarded with showy flowers that are so large the stalk may require staking to prevent it from toppling over.

Now once your amaryllis finishes flowering — and yours may already be in that stage if you planted it before Christmas — just cut off the stalk but leave the foliage. This will help reinvigorate the bulb so you will have plenty of blooms next year. During the nonblooming part of its life, just treat amaryllis like an ordinary houseplant. And then in mid-October cut back the foliage, put it in a dark place and stop watering. About a month later bring it out, begin watering, put it in full sun and presto, you will have a whole new generation of flowers.

Orchids When it comes to duration of bloom, orchids will always come in first place. The arching stems adorned with delicate butterfly-shaped blooms add elegance to even the drabbest room.

I like to create a winter garden container using orchids with other houseplants such as cyclamen, variegated English ivy and ferns. These long-blooming arrangements carry me through the coldest days of winter. One of the easiest orchids to grow is the phalaenopsis. It will take low light conditions and as far as the ideal temperature goes: If you're comfortable, it is too.

When it comes to soil, orchids really don't grow in it at all. They prefer the bark of fir trees. Some growers like to create a similar growing medium by blending 50-50 fir bark and lava rock. Orchids are light eaters. You only need to fertilize them with 25 percent of the recommended amount on a liquid fertilizer label. And they should be fed about every other week. Also, orchids hate salt buildup from fertilizer so it's important to wash that out when you water. After the blooms fade, cut the stalk above the second or third node and reduce fertilizing to once a month.

Here's what you'll need to put together an orchid arrangement:

  • 3 purple orchids in 4" containers
  • 1 container of your choice that will accommodate the plant materials. If your container is not waterproof or does not have drainage holes, you will want to line it. I like to use aluminum foil.
  • 6 4" pots of ivy
  • 3 4" pots of prayer plants
  • 9 sandwich bags
  • 9 rubber bands
  • Sheet moss

Directions:
To create this arrangement, simply apply the three-shape rule: tall/spiky, round/full and cascading.

Place the orchids, your tall and spiky component, in the center of the container. Because orchids are fussy about their growing medium, it is easiest to keep them in the pots in which they were grown. Now, since these pots will take up the majority of the room in the container, I put the other plants in sandwich bags and arrange them around the orchids. This makes it easier to tuck them into the arrangement. Simply remove each plant, along with the soil, from its pot and drop it into a sandwich bag. Secure the top of the sandwich bag with a rubber band.

Now you are ready to put in the prayer plant, which will add the element of a round/full shape. Also, the purple veining of the prayer plant combines nicely with the color of the orchid blooms. To finish it off, slip in the ivies so they cascade gracefully over the edge of the container. Once the plants are in place, fill in the open spaces with sheet moss.

This easy arrangement will last for up to two weeks and the orchids will go on to provide you with blooms for more than a month. Here's how to care for your orchids:

  • Light: Bright indirect light.
  • Watering: Flush with water once a week.
  • Fertilizer: Every other week, 25 percent of the recommended amount on a liquid fertilizer label.
  • Temperature: Daytime 75 degrees, nighttime 65 degrees.

P. Allen Smith is the CEO of Hortus Ltd., a media production company responsible for two nationally syndicated half-hour television programs, numerous magazine columns, a popular Web site, a best-selling series of garden-design-lifestyle books, lecture series and news reports that air on stations around the country as well as on The Weather Channel. He is also the principle in P. Allen Smith and Associates, a landscape design firm.

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