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House plants for black thumbs and cave dwellers

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Photo courtesy of Doreen Howard.

(Read caption) Group several low-maintenance plants like these for a green view during the drab days of winter. Boston ferns, philodendron, and even crotons do well in eastern light where the night-time temperature dips into the low 60s. They don't require much heat (65ºF to 79ºF) during the day, either.

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I’ve killed more than my share of houseplants.

One of the great paradoxes of life is that accomplished gardeners who grow prize-winning roses and gigantic tomatoes frequently turn into grim reapers when it comes to ficus and philodendron indoors.

Gardeners are used to supplying plenty of water and nutrients to their outdoor plants and never have to worry about enough light. Indoors, daily watering and large doses of fertilizer spell disaster. And lack of strong light dooms the healthiest of orchids or staghorn ferns.

Learning the delicate balance of providing just enough water and nutrients and finding the right light in your home for different plants comes with practice. Yes, you’ll kill a few, but you’ll learn. I did.

Start with a healthy plant. You’d be surprised how much misery you can bring home at a premium price. Some houseplants are destined to die because they have incurable problems.  Some, even, infect other plants.

Pass up plants with foliage that is yellowed, limp, or has soft, discolored spots. All are indications of disease or root damage.

Also, leave behind plants with tiny dots on their leaf undersides, which indicate insect infestations.

Avoid plants that look like they have been pruned. Store personnel may have cut off diseased or damaged parts.

If possible, slip the plant out of its pot to inspect the roots. If they’re dark brown, black, or mushy, the plant has been overwatered and probably will die. Look for whitish, plump, firm roots.

Seek plants with new shoots, buds, and leaves. This is a sign of active growth and health. Vivid hues are signs of health on colored foliage plants. Pick the smaller plant over the lanky, overgrown one, too.

Start with one of these fail-proof plants:

‘Sprengeri’ (asparagus fern): Place near a sunny window, water when soil is dry to touch, and feed once a month.

(parlor palm): Tolerant of neglect and low light. Likes to be near an east or west window and thrives in low to moderate humidity. Fertilize monthly in winter and water sparingly. Fast growing; will reach six feet indoors.

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