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If garden sizes are shrinking outside...advise your customers to go for house plants!

By Veronica Winterbourn, Huntingdale Plant Nursery, WA.

House plants are great! They not only look good, but are relatively inexpensive and last a good deal longer than a bunch of flowers.

However, when recommending plants suitable for indoors it should always be explained that there is no such thing as a true 'house plant', rather the fact that some plants will tolerate indoor conditions better than others. Prior to the advent of electricity, the variety of plants able to be grown indoors was limited. The gloomy rooms of Victoriana which were alternately chilled by draughts and then heated by fires, could only support a few plants such as palms, ferns, ivies, and of course, the ubiquitous aspidistra.

Modern architecture with its increased light and controlled temperatures together with the advances made in the selection and breeding of plants has greatly increased the palette of plants that can now be sold for indoor culture. Those plants suitable to be sold as house plants can be divided into two basic groups - those grown for their flowers and those for their foliage.

1. Flowering house plants:
The choice of flowering plants suitable for use indoors has greatly increased in recent years. There are the showy types that can basically be considered as a living bunch of flowers, which have a relatively short life span inside unless the light intensity is good. Examples of these include New Guinea impatiens such as the `Classic' and `Paradise' varieties with their large flowers of many different colours including bicolours.

Some others may include gloxinia, tuberous begonias including the new `Tenella', gerberas and kalanchoes. After flowering, these plants need to be replaced or, providing your customer has a protected area in the garden free from frost, planted outside.

Traditional shrubs can also be treated as a living floral arrangement. Consider recommending to your customers that they try buying say an azalea, hydrangea, fuchsia or a camellia in full flower to enjoy the colour inside before putting it out onto the patio or into the open garden.

Given proper care and conditions, the last group of flowering plants should reasonably be relied on to give a minimum of three months pleasure indoors. These include poinsettias, which we traditionally sell at Christmastime, but which you should also consider stocking at any time of the year because the newer varieties come in colours other than the beautiful deep red. Breeders overseas have extended the colour range of poinsettias to include pinks, creams and variegated flowers. The latest and most exciting development is the `Winter Rose' with its curly leaves and bracts. Not at all like the traditional poinsettia we all know!

Anthuriums are another plant well worth stocking in numbers. Thanks to new breeding we now have the option of plants that not only have beautiful red flowers but also include pinks and mauves in their repertoire. New releases that should soon be appearing in your garden centres are `Small Talk' and the smaller flowered `Red Hot' varieties.

Although cyclamen enjoy 'living indoors' during warmer weather, it is wise to caution your customers that cycs hate the fireside at night and should go outside into the cool night air with 'Fido'. The bonus of course, is that they get to choose from a wide range of colours to match their mood or decor.

Orchids
As you retailers know all-too-well, an orchid never fails to delight but when stocking up you might like to consider some of the different sorts that are now available.

There is the dramatic phalaenopsis which is fast becoming one of the most popular house plants overseas. It looks great too, in modern minimalist interiors where clutter is strictly forbidden!

Another beautiful specimen that makes a strong statement in such settings is a recent release by Houseplants of Australia (HPA). This is the native ground orchid Spathoglottis 'Odyssey' which is the first release in a collection of different colours that are well worth looking out for when you're buying.

In closing the order book on the flowering group, let's not forget the diminutive African Violet with all of its wonderful colours and combinations.

2. Foliage house plants
In advising your customers about how to grow the foliage varieties really well, you need to explain how they adapt to varying degrees of light, temperature and humidity. Most come from humid jungle areas with good light and fairly constant moisture.

Recommending the right plant for any given situation will depend largely on the amount of available light. The lower the light intensity, the more restricted the range of plants available.

Plants for bright light include bromeliads, succulents, and crotons including the new exciting 'Colour of Africa' series that has been bred for its increased colour and compactness.

Plants for moderate-light areas include philodendrons (`Xanadu' and `Congo' for example), Dieffenbachia 'Tropic Marianne', or some of the new ficus varieties including `Midnight Beauty' and `Midnight Petite'. These ficus are the smaller leaved type with a darker green colouring and are more resistant to leaf drop should they dry out. Other examples include the Syngonium 'Allusion Series', schefflera (both green and variegated including `Lemon Drop') and many palms.

Plants for low light are more restricted and include such species as the Aspidistra, Homalomena 'Emerald Gem', Spathiphyllum `Sensation' (with its huge leaves) and `Pablo', and the very hardy Pothos (Scindapsus).

Watering
How often have you been asked for your opinion in the case of a post mortem on a customer's departed house plant and how often have you told them that the plant has died from being over watered? While it is impossible to set rigid rules because these vary from climate to climate depending on where your garden centre is located, but generally speaking, house plants need water whenever the surface is dry to touch.

Tell your customers that over watering is every bit as bad as under watering so plants should be checked regularly.

Plants in bright, warm areas will require more water than plants in darker, cooler areas. Many of our present-day potting mixes tend to dry out quickly, allowing water to run straight through without wetting all the soil. Wetting agents and soil additives can facilitate more even wetting through the mix. Always advise them not to allow plants to stand in water as this can lead to root rot.

Feeding:
Most good quality stock is now grown in mixes containing balanced slow release fertiliser, but because the release times vary from one to nine months, unless you talk directly with the grower, it is near impossible to determine how long the nutrient will last. The best solution is to side-dress all stock as soon as it comes in, using a three month fertiliser. Explain to them that the release rate is determined by a combination of temperature and moisture. The hotter and wetter the conditions, the faster the release rate.

Should a 'quick fix' boost be required, liquid feeding is recommended during the growing period usually between spring and early autumn. As we all know from experience, although most plants should be fed sometime, overfeeding can be quite devastating, even though in the short term it is good for turnover. The best trick is for your customer to experience success and then come back for more.

Soils:
The quality of soils for house plants is most important and as we should all know, there are no cheap alternatives. The best potting mix will always produce the best plants! These generally contain a mixture of composted pine bark, peatmoss; coarse river sand, controlled release fertilisers, basic trace elements and water retention crystals, and should have a pH level of about 6.0.

Temperature:

Providing there are no significant draughts, humidity will rise with evaporation from the soil as the temperature rises. Temperatures below 12 degrees C. are generally not ideal for house plants (cyclamen excepted). Just like watering around the nursery, on cooler days, watering should be done at the warmest time of the day.

So how's your pest knowledge?
The most common pests of house plants include:
Mealy Bugs: These insects attack mainly ferns, palms and African Violets. They are white, waxy insects, the size of a match head, and are usually found on the underside of leaves, along veins or in nodes. Recommended treatment is with either White Oil or Malathion. Badly infected stock should be dumped immediately.

Scale: These insects suck sap and can cause serious plant damage. If not too widespread, they can be removed naturally, otherwise stock should be treated with Diazonon and White Oil, or White Oil alone. Scale attacks a wide range of plants including palms, crotons and ficus varieties.

Aphids: Depending on species, aphids can vary in colour from white, green, and yellow to black. They generally attack new leaves and suck sap from new shoots and buds, which in turn will either fail to open or produce distorted flowers. Either pyrethrum-based sprays or systemic insecticides should be recommended for control.

Mites: These are usually too small to see with the naked eye. The most common are the two-spotted and red spider mites which dull foliage with their webs and cause new growth distortion. Control is possible only by adequate spraying on a rotational basis to overcome the development of resistant strains. If you have buying access to them, some predators currently available for the control of two-spotted mite are a safe alternative to the use of insecticides in order to satisfy concerned clients.

Diseases: With proper water and light management, diseases of house plants are minimal. Bacterial Spot is sometimes a problem on philodendrons and dieffenbachia, but can be controlled by removing affected foliage, reducing watering and increasing ventilation. Should the problem persist, plants can be treated with copper oxychloride. House plants should be an important stock item in all good garden centres and ultimately, an essential element of your customers' homes. They provide us with a sense of well being; contribute to the aesthetics of homes and reward customers for good housekeeping regimes. That said though, NO house plants should ever be considered as forever unless they are an extremely rare specimen. Once past their peak, they should either be discarded or planted outside and replaced with fresh, vigorous specimens from your nursery.

Finally, any time your customers tell you they feel guilty about wanting to change their collection of house plants, tell them not to worry because they're making a sound economic decision - generally speaking it's a good deal cheaper to change the plants rather than any other decorative item in the home!

Thanks to Biemond Nurseries, Vic. for assistance with photographs.

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