Time to pay attention to those house plants

The second week of January is when gardeners take note of their often-ignored houseplants. This year the beauty and health benefits of indoor plants is a top trend for 2013 as health and wellness surpasses prestige and luxury as the reason consumers decide to part with their disposable income. Those green stalks of lucky bamboo that were such a hit with the 20-something crowd had spread to include all ages and all types of indoor plants — including the benefits of cut flowers, potted bulbs and houseplants that flower for months indoors.

This winter bring home the exotic beauty of an orchid, the lush green of a palm or the textural treat of a jade plant. Consider houseplants a natural prescription for good health.

Q. I would like to try growing an indoor orchid plant as a co-worker informed me that orchids can be grown by people like me with what I call a “black-thumb.” I should tell you I have killed other houseplants — but really love orchids because they remind me of Hawaii. What type of orchid is easiest to grow in a office environment? R.S., Maple Valley

A. You cannot fail with Phalaenopsis — because new varieties are not only easier to grow, but also much easier to find now that grocery stores, home stores and discount retailers are offering potted orchids as well as your local greenhouse. Buy a phalaenopsis or moth orchid that is in bloom but still has many buds. Do not over water. Root rot is the most common way to kill a potted orchid. In our cloudy climate many orchids need water only once a week. Just make sure the plant does not sit in drainage water. Some orchid growers suggest you water orchids by placing a few ice cubes on top of the bark chips that surround the orchid roots once a week. Phalaenopsis orchids love filtered light so keep them out of direct sun — again not a problem in Western Washington. Another tip is do not fertilize your potted orchid when it is blooming. Too much fertilizer can cause the orchid to drop its already formed flower buds. Wait until summer when the orchid goes dormant to feed your orchid plant. An office is actually a great place to grow phalaenopsis orchids because they prefer warm daytime temperatures over 70 degrees but low night temps below 60 degrees — perfect for any location that turns the heat way down at night. Buy a budded orchid plant in January and you can easily enjoy fresh blooms until April. I think your black thumb is turning green already.

Q. I have a dark corner in my condo living room and have tried to grow various houseplants to fill up the space and add some life. I am giving up on growing a ficus tree after watching the second one drop leaves and die. What tall indoor plant do you suggest for a corner with no windows? D.S., Tacoma

A. Sounds like you need a lady in your life — the graceful lady palm that is. Lady palms or Rhapis excelesa come in over a 100 named varieties but all do extremely well in low light — something the British found out in the 18th century when these palm trees graced every proper Victorian parlor. Lady palms are a slow grower with thin stems and the soil should be kept just barely moist — but allowed to dry out a bit during the winter months. Slow growth means it does not need much fertilizer so use a liquid plant food diluted to half strength in the summer months only. Now here’s a design tip to turn this lady into a diva. Use a low voltage spot light hidden on the ground behind your palm tree to “up-light” the graceful fronds from below. Delicate shadows will be cast onto the wall for an inexpensive alternative to wall paper.

Q. Help! I inherited a large and beautiful jade plant — that is now dying. It was happy all summer and then a few months ago started to drop leaves. It is near a bright window and I water it once a week. Should I repot the plant? P.P. Email

A. Help is on the way! Do not repot your jade, just stop watering. This succulent plant needs very little water in the winter when days become shorter. In our climate potted jade plants thrive on a cupful of water once a month from October — March. Some indoor gardeners insist they don’t water their jade plants at all during the winter, but I find if you water once a month you can prevent the foliage from shriveling. Jade plants enjoy spending the summer outdoors on a patio but check the plant carefully for cottony-white mealy bugs before you bring it back indoors. A cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol is an effective treatment for mealy bugs on any houseplant.

Marianne Binetti is a syndicated columnist.