Creating a Micro Ecosystem for Your Houseplants
An entire greenhouse of fig trees in Michigan is a sight to behold. And so many varieties! But I wasn’t going to buy a fig tree, I was just on a group tour. Then I saw it - a Tiger’s Eye fig tree with fruit that looked like that Tiger’s Eye marble I remembered from a kid. I tried to walk away but it called my name.
So began my serious venture into gardening with indoor plants. That tree has been transplanted twice and is a focal point in the sunroom. Of course, more plants have joined that lone fig tree, creating a micro ecosystem that feels like a tropical jungle. It’s my favorite place for morning coffee. Plants can change your mood, increase your oxygen intake, decrease the carbon dioxide and purify the air, and add beauty.
But if I wanted that fig tree to survive in my home, I had to do some homework. What micro ecosystem did I need to find, or create, so my baby fig tree would thrive?
What Micro Ecosystems Are in Your Home So Houseplants Can Thrive?
Plants need all the same things you need to thrive. Water, food, enough light, a comfortable temperature, a little humidity and you and your plants will be happy. You have many different kinds of natural ecosystems; even in one room. They’re a combination of light, temperature, and humidity.
Have you noticed you can sit in one part of a room and be comfortable with a short-sleeved shirt but in another part of the same room you feel a little chilly? Your houseplants feel that temperature difference too. And it can make a difference between a thriving plant and an OK plant.
Light and Temperature Ecosystems are Closely Related
Light is essential for all plants to photosynthesize. But the quality and quantity of light matters the most. And there are many plants that can grow in very low light as long as they’re in a slightly humid environment. For example, in your bathroom, as long as you keep it warm, showers and baths will keep the humidity high and many houseplants will thrive.
Are there parts of a room where it’s easier to read than others? Those are high light areas and are usually by a large window. The combination of the high light and warmer summer temperatures by that window create a micro ecosystem that’s perfect for some plants – but deadly to others. The micro ecosystem by that window may be very different in winter, especially if you have drafty windows.
Lighting for indoor plants varies considerably. Most house plants though, do best in indirect sunlight. Because the natural environments of many house plants are under trees in lush tropical areas, they can thrive in low light areas of your home.
The light will be high by a south facing window. In the summer, the ecosystem in that area is going to be hot, even though the rest of your room may only be warm.
If you’re using air conditioning the room may be cool but the area directly in front of those windows will still be hot. You may want to move your plants away from the window but still keep them in a high light environment.
In the winter the reverse is true. Even when the rest of the room is a nice 68-70 degrees F. the area in front of your south facing windows will be cold, especially if there’s a draft.
Placing a plant on a window sill in summer will burn it and in winter chill it. You don’t want to have either result. Placing that same plant on a stand near the window will mediate some of the weather extremes.
Did you know you can actually give a houseplant too much light? Trust me, I have killed indoor plants by allowing direct sunlight to hit their leaves. The leaves browned up and the plants died. It took me quite some time to figure out the cause of the deaths, but I hadn’t done my microclimate/plant homework.
The other piece of plant health is the soil it’s growing in and what’s in that soil.
What Is the Soil Ecosystem for Houseplants?
Most plants grow in a soil that has quite a bit of sand. That keeps the soil water pores open. It may look like soil, dark brown, crumbly, and makes a mess on your floor when the cat digs in it but it’s nothing like your outdoor garden soil. It’s made of some combination of peat, coconut coir, vermiculite, perlite, sand, and compost.
Why not just use some good rich soil from your garden?
Houseplants need to have very good air circulation in the soil. Garden soil is heavy and prone to compaction if earthworms and other critters don’t keep it aerated. Every now and then your garden gets a good “soaker” of a rainstorm. That rainwater helps to leach out accumulated salts.
Garden soil contains all kinds of micro and macro-organisms. The vast majority of these critters are beneficial and the soil food web in your garden keeps everything in balance.
Indoor plants also have a soil food web. Think of houseplants as perennials, shrubs, or trees. They need microorganisms just as much as your outdoor plants, and those microorganisms need food in the form of organic matter. The plant controls which microorganisms thrive in the soil food web in its pot.
Beneficial microorganisms are your allies in successfully growing indoor plants. Just as you never leave soil uncovered in your garden outside, you always have a layer of mulch on your indoor plants. That mulch serves multiple purposes; it keeps the cat out of your plants, it feeds the microbes that feed your plant, it introduces beneficial microbes to the potting soil, and it helps retain moisture so you don’t have to water as often.
Hint: for keeping kids and cats out of your plants: have as little mulched surface area of soil as possible. I put a potted rosemary in the large pot that contains my fig tree. The cat doesn’t seem to like the smell of the rosemary and leaves the fig tree pot alone. For kids a prickly cactus might do the trick. Better yet, give your kids their own plants to take care of, they’ll learn a number of skills that will serve them in the future.
Humidity in Your Houseplant Ecosystem
One thing to keep in mind is that the native habitat of most houseplants we grow in the Northern Hemisphere is tropical rainforests, such as the snake plant. That’s the first clue that you have to up the humidity in your home so your houseplants can thrive.
Whenever humidity is discussed, everyone thinks immediately of those hot humid August days when it was really uncomfortable working outside. But in the middle of winter in our heated homes most people have dry itchy skin – perhaps we could use some of that August humidity?
Houseplants, by the very act of respiration, add humidity to any room. But no plant by itself can add enough humidity. Houseplants are happiest when grown in a room with relative humidity of 50% or higher. Most indoor air in the winter is around 10-20%. No wonder your skin itches and your sinuses dry out. You can increase the humidity in your home by buying a humidifier, or - you can grow plants!
Having indoor plants, and upping the humidity is good for your health – as well as your plants. You can easily increase the humidity by placing your house plants on top of a tray filled with gravel and pouring about ¼ inch of water so the gravel isn’t quite covered. Be sure the bottom of the pot isn’t sitting in the water, but on the gravel. The water will evaporate and better health will be enjoyed by all.
Plants help each other out. Grouping a number of plants that have the same lighting needs is a great way to increase the humidity in that micro ecosystem and improve the air quality.
What Else Should You Know About Plant Food?
Plant food for your indoor garden plants is the soil, or growing medium, the roots are gaining nutrients from. When you buy a houseplant from a store it probably has some type of synthetic fertilizer in it. Those little green specks in potting soil are fertilizer pellets. Some potting soils also have gel packs that hold water so you don’t have to water as often, but they degrade over time.
They feed your plant for a while but eventually you’ll need to add nutrients for good plant health.
Your plant has created a soil food web. You can feed that soil food web by adding compost, leaf mold, or shredded leaves to the top of the soil in your indoor plant pot. There isn’t any need to mix it into the soil – disturbing the soil surface may even damage plant roots.
The added organic materials will decompose as you water. Adding humic acid when watering is even more beneficial for the soil and microbial activity. Our product Kaytonik provides a source of carbon for the microorganisms your plant has recruited.
Beneficial microorganisms are allies in successfully growing houseplants with beautiful green leaves.
Keeping Your Houseplants in Check
Now that you’ve gotten the hang of growing houseplants, you’ve discovered some plants grow faster than others. If you’ve given your houseplants ideal conditions, they will thank you with luxurious growth.
How do you keep the Devil’s Ivy from taking over the living room? And what about that Spider Plant in the entry?
Pruning is an art form and a necessary part of indoor gardening. If you feel sad cutting off that ivy runner heading for your computer, think of pruning as an act of propagation. Put the runner, or any part of a plant that you’re cutting back, into a plastic bag and as soon as possible get it into potting soil and start another plant. That’s a gift for a friend.
Not all plant pieces you cut off will develop roots and thrive. Some will simply die. They become part of your compost. Be sure to remove any dead or decaying plant material from your rooting area. Those dead pieces are attractive to gnats, pathogenic bacteria, and mold.
You can do this. Indoor plants cleanse the air you breathe, improve your mood, and give you a sense of satisfaction. You’re able to keep other living things alive. They might even make you more productive in other ways, just because you feel good.
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