KC Gardens

Houseplants: Short-term guests or long-term friends?


Tip of the Week

Are you average? I am not talking about your age, weight or income, but instead, when it comes to the life of houseplants, are you the average caregiver? I have heard it said that the average houseplant usually lasts about nine months. This is the amount of time it takes for the average person to take a nice, freshly shipped tropical from WOW! to compost.

You might ask why such a short period of time? Because this is how long it takes for the plant to use up the vast majority of its stored food and start to decline. Or, it is also the amount of time for the plant to finally succumb to improper watering, low light or other manmade tortures. No matter what the reason, for many people a houseplant is nothing more than a decoration that will sooner or later become trash.

Now, for the die-hard gardener the thought of pitching a plant or calling it a short-term decoration is inconceivable. So what is the condition of your houseplants? I know in looking at my small collection some should be sent to the compost pile while others are treasured mementos from people long gone from life. Over the years, in an effort to unclutter my life and to keep my wife happy, I have pitched most of the plants that don’t have sentimental value.

The houseplants that deserve a spot in my home have long made it past the nine-month period. Here are a few stories associated with my prized plants:

There is the nearly 30-year-old dracaena that I purchased my freshmen year of college at K-State. One evening I was out with friends and came home to find my intoxicated roommate swinging the plant around by the leaves like a cowboy’s rope. The leaves were bruised, but the plant has thrived through a half dozen moves.

I have two houseplants that were starts from my grandmother. Those who know me know that I trace my love of gardening to my grandmother, so these two plants are special. I can remember these plants since I was old enough to appreciate a plant at a tender young age. One is an interesting plant in the amaryllis family that blooms orange but does not go dormant, like most. The other is an oxalis, which goes in and out of bloom.

The plant that is most often the topic of discussions with my loving wife is the overgrown schefflera that takes up way too much space. But it has sentimental value — I brought it home following my grandmother’s funeral. I just cannot bear to part with this member of the family.

With all that said, what are your stories about houseplants? I know I don’t give mine enough attention. They are neglected, usually under-watered and in need of care. But if you are like me, you have started to count down the days of winter and look forward to when spring will arrive so that you can get back into the garden. Now is a good time to scratch that gardening itch by giving the houseplants some attention.

Dust is one of the biggest problems with plants, as their normally large flat leaves collect dust just as well as the bookcase. A film of dust decreases light levels even more, making it more difficult for the plant to beat the odds for a typical life span. Plain water is best for removing that film of dust. Use a soft damp cloth to wipe the leaves. Or, place the entire plant in the shower. Either method will not damage the leaves, but will remove the sun-blocking film.

Forget about the commercial leaf shine products, as these waxy layers clog the pores of the leaves, which reduce gas exchange and stresses the plant. I have also heard of people cleaning leaves with milk or mayonnaise, to name a few. Here again, they clog pores, so just use room temperature water.

Houseplants can also use some spring care, so plan now. Continue to withhold fertilization until around March 1. Our current light levels are low and plants are not processing as fast. Pushing growth when the plant doesn’t want to grow is another stress.

Spring is also a good time to repot. Overgrown plants can be moved into a 1-inch larger pot. Replace and freshen the soil every few years to keep the plant healthy.

So I am going to assume that most of the gardeners reading this post are not average. That is, your houseplants hang around longer than a few months. If that is the case, now is a good time to check your plants and take stock of upcoming chores to ensure the plants longevity. As for me, these plants are a link to my past. Each time I water them I take a few minutes to remember the good times and long lost family.


  1. 1 year, 2 months ago

    I understand this well. I have a schefflera that was a gift from my sister that is now at least 30 years old. I also have a hoya which I started from a cutting from my Aunts plant some time around 1991. These plants have endured approximately 15 moves in their nomadic life with me. They are like good friends!

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