How to grow your favourite flowering houseplants

There was a time when houses large and small belonging to garden fanciers sported a succession of home-grown indoor plants all year round. From the smallest succulent to the mightiest tree fern, an older generation of gardeners always made time and space for plants that did well in the house. This is much less likely to be the case nowadays. The sad truth is that many of us appear to have dismissed the idea that it is possible to grow plants for the house easily and well. As with alpines, there seems to be a belief that specimen houseplants are old hat and difficult to grow. I also think that gardeners have lost their skills – and with it their nerve: we worry that we are more likely to kill a cymbidium orchid, say, than be able to guide it through successive years of abundant flowering.

Gardening habits and trends have changed over the decades: since evergreens such as ficus, monstera and dieffenbachia rampaged through the homes and offices of the Seventies and Eighties, old-fashioned flowering houseplants have been left reeling. The low maintenance aspect of these dreary plants played a big hand in lowering our expectations – and the advent of widespread central heating didn’t help either. Rooms became too hot for flowering plants, while the evergreens flourished. As time went by we picked up the habit of buying plants only when in flower and disposing of them quickly – potted azaleas, ‘Paper White’ narcissi, poinsettias at Christmas and other forms of cheery bedding such as polyanthus, cyclamen and pot mums. That market has grown and long may it remain. But if we are bold we can keep such plants – and many others like them – flowering well each year without too much effort. My feeling is that it is often the knowledge of what to do in the off-season that holds us back. This, along with the belief that we need a greenhouse. But in many cases there is no need for this, merely a little space outside in the shade during the season when the plants are not flowering, where they can be kept until the following year. This is true of the jasmines and the woody plants such as the azaleas and the delicately scented rhododendrons – ‘Fragrantissimum’ and ‘Lady Alice Fitzwilliam’.

If you need a frost-free spot, many a determined gardener has turned a light window sill, porch, spare bedroom, under-used dining room, glass lean-to or conservatory into the ideal location for indoor plants. Bulbs are a good example. Why not grow a big tub of freesias or tuberoses that come back year after year? Freesias give excellent value because they come back strongly with very little needed in the way of attention. Corms planted in spring will flower in summer and afterwards can remain in their pots for several years before they begin to weaken. All they need are twigs to support the leaves and flowers, a cool frost-free place to spend the winter and a top-dressing of compost before they shoot again in the spring. Hardy climbing Jasminum officinale is a plant that suits a cool, indoor room well and is possibly the finest of all scented indoor plants. The joy, apart from the magnificent scent, is that it can be pruned to any size, as can its close relation J. grandiflorum, which has red on the underside of the flowers but is equally strong smelling.

The key to shaping a jasmine, and to keeping it for a long time, is to cut the flowering stems hard back after flowering. In alternate years, prune the roots back fearlessly by a third and repot with fresh compost. Both species need a cool winter to set flower buds so, after they have flowered, remove them to a cold room or even outdoors. They are frost hardy but are vulnerable in pots. Some of the other old favourites, such as tall growing cane-stemmed begonias, are back in fashion and are surprisingly easy to grow.  Cane-stem begonias, the group that includes the angel wing begonia, make magnificent plants that can last for years. They do need warmth but, given the right conditions, they will continue flowering all year round. Be careful not to overwater and keep them out of direct sunlight. They will need support and regular feeding. They also propagate very easily from stem cuttings nudged into a very light mix of moist sand or perlite.

Another charmer is the palm-leaved begonia, B. luxurians. More spreading than upright, the most important thing is to have both these types in wide pots, as they tend to become top heavy. Old-fashioned gloxinias (now renamed Sinningia) are a cinch to grow and cinerarias make excellent pot plants from a packet of seeds sown in spring. A shallow tub with an arrangement of four or five two-litre pots of these annual daisies makes an excellent display through autumn. Of all the houseplants we are likely to encounter it is perhaps the orchid, either moth or cymbidium, that takes the most looking after. Jim Durrant of McBean’s Orchids near Lewes, East Sussex, where the oldest orchid is 117 years old and still flowering, advises his clients of three essentials for success with cymbidiums. The first is to use rainwater for watering. The second is to water sparingly. (McBean’s offer a repotting service and Jim sees more cases of drowning than any other complaint.) His third tip is to avoid strong sunlight.

As a rough guide, water the plant once a week during the flowering season, September to May, when it is indoors and once a fortnight when it is outside during the summer. Feeding is also important but only in the flowering season: every third of the four waterings per month. All garden centres stock orchid feed. “Plants don’t commit suicide,” Jim says, “it is what we do to them that creates the problems. Cymbidiums are cool temperature plants and do not like excessive heat, but they do like light. Direct sunlight can be very damaging. The best place for a cymbidium in the house is a north-facing window.” Lack of availability is the final reason for the drop in popularity of indoor plants. Nurseries such as the excellent Hill House, near Staverton in Devon, which specialises in tender exotics such as justicia, abutilons and many varieties of begonia, are few and far between. We should search them out. Clivia, tibouchina, citrus and many other plants on offer at such nurseries are well within our capacity to grow and the pleasure gleaned from looking after houseplants is immense.

Flowering houseplants to put on your list

Clivias (Clivia miniata)

Guaranteed to flower year-on-year. They tend to perform in autumn and must then be removed to a cool spot in order to set flower buds for the following year. Cut off stem at the base after flowering. Then ease off watering and lower the temperature for winter. Bring back into growth and feed from late spring through the summer.

African violet (Saintpaulia)

Related to gloxinias, too much heat and water will kill them. They flower all year but like a period of dormancy in winter. Give them a cool spot, ease back on the watering and repot plants before bringing back into growth. Avoid watering the leaves.

The Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata)

Keep it damp in organic, fibrous compost, away from direct sunlight and not too hot.

Aspidistra elatior

If you hark back to the Victorian era when evergreens filled every corner then the aspidistras fit the bill on account of their tolerance of low light and dry conditions. ‘Snow Peaks’ is a popular variety with white  dappled leaves.

Ivy (Hedera helix)

Ivy does not like it too hot and is tolerant of shade. Keep damp and give it a frame to climb over.

Aeonium arboreum ‘Schwarzkopf’

This succulent that you see growing everywhere on the Isles of Scilly functions brilliantly as a houseplant in a gritty compost. Impossible to kill but don’t overwater. Any temperature.

Recommended suppliers

  • Staverton Bridge Nursery
  • McBean’s Orchids
  • Hill House Nursery

    Hot tips for handy houseplants

    • Buy dormant tubers in spring.
    • Place these in shallow seed trays half-filled with fibrous potting compost. Bury them to half way and keep moist at 50-60F. Water only to keep moist.
    • After a couple of weeks, as they begin to shoot, pot them up into two-litre pots of John Innes No 3, again buried to halfway up the tuber.
    • Water sparingly but increase as they grow and while they flower. Feed fortnightly with Maxicrop Organic Flower fertiliser.
    • Once flowers are finished the foliage will die back. Stop watering. Cut the remains of the flower and foliage away from the tuber.
    • Remove the tuber from compost. Cut off old roots (the gloxy is now dormant) and store part-dried tuber in a box of dry compost, half buried for the winter in a frost-free place, dark or light.

Till and Cultivate Your Garden

Cultivators and Tillers

Both cultivators and tillers dig into the ground. Choosing one over the other depends on the size and type of planting area you need to prepare. Cultivators work well in existing planting areas for weeding, loosening the soil and working in amendments. Tillers are more powerful machines that are better for larger areas. Some tillers are designed for breaking new ground to create new planting beds.

For more information on choosing the right machine for your planting project, see our Cultivator and Tiller Buying Guide.

Tilling for Best Results

Good soil allows roots to quickly develop and spread, which in turn increases the water and nutrient intake necessary for healthy and productive plants. A tiller or cultivator makes quick work of what could be a strenuous task if done by hand.

Fall Tilling

Improving the soil is best done in the fall. Tilling in soil amendments at that time allows them to settle in and break down over the winter. When spring arrives, the garden is ready for a new crop.

Tilling a New Garden

You can successfully till the soil for a new garden once it warms up in the spring as long as it’s somewhat dry. Soil needs to reach a temperature of about 60°F before you work it. If a handful of soil crumbles when you squeeze it, it should be dry enough.

You can remove sod before tilling or work it into the soil. Working the sod in during the fall will provide nitrogen to the soil. However, tilling sod under in the spring may only cause the grass to resurface as the temperature warms.

Caution

Make sure that the selected garden area doesn’t have underground utility lines that you can damage with a cultivator or tiller. Before digging, cultivating or tilling a new garden, call 811 to be connected with the local utility companies. They’ll mark your utility lines for you.

Evaluating and Amending the Soil

Good soil must have nutrients and must allow water to reach plant roots. Good soil also allows excess water to drain away. Using a cultivator or tiller is a great way to work needed amendments into the soil.

Inspect the soil and feel it with your hands to determine whether water can permeate it. If the soil is excessively damp or has high clay content, consider adding sand or gypsum. These amendments will help break it up and allow moisture and nutrients to move through the soil.

Organic material such as compost can improve most soil. However, some soil conditions require extra attention. If the soil is extremely wet or thin, consider constructing a raised garden bed instead.

Test the soil to check the levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and the pH level. Make the necessary adjustments based on the type of plants you plan to grow.

For more information on soil tests, see Test and Improve Soil.

Tilling a Garden

For best results when tilling, wait a day or so after it rains so the dirt is semidry. A little moisture will make the soil easier to till. Soil that is too wet will clump and eventually dry into hard clods that will be difficult to break up.

Read the cultivator or tiller manufacturer’s instructions carefully to become familiar with the controls and for information on use, maintenance and safety. Wear eye protection, sturdy work shoes or boots and any other safety gear and clothing specified by the manufacturer. Instructions for cultivating and tilling may vary by the machine and the type of work you’re doing. Here are some general steps for tilling a garden.

Plant a Rose Garden

Rose gardening has given many people the impression that roses are difficult to grow and maintain. Growing roses can be challenging, but you don’t have to leave it to the experts. Here is a brief tutorial on rose basics for beginners.

Rose Planting Types

Roses are available in three types for planting:

  • Bare-root roses are dormant, sold during winter and early spring. Plant them as soon as the ground warms enough to be workable.
  • Prepackaged roses are bare-root plants packaged in a bag or box with a moisture retaining medium such as sawdust around the roots.
  • Container-grown roses are grown in containers at the nursery. They’re budding or already blooming and are available in spring.

Rose Growing Types

Roses are defined by their growing type.

  • One type is budded, meaning that one variety of rose is grafted onto the roots of a sturdier variety. The grafting is visible at the bud union. Grafted roses combine the best qualities of strong rootstock with the foliage and blooms of the grafted variety.
  • Roses are also grown on their own roots. Own-root plants are grown from cuttings so the entire plant is of the same variety.

If a grafted rose is heavily pruned or cold-damaged, the rose that grows back may be of the rootstock’s variety, not the grafted one you purchased. Under the same circumstances, the own-root rose will grow back true to its variety.

Rose Grading

Bareroot roses are graded according to the quality of their growth. Grades also designate the future size and productivity of the rose. Grades are established by the American Association of Nurserymen and should be noted on the plant tag. The three grades are:

  • #1 is the best of a variety. Three or more healthy canes and a strong root system are essential.
  • #1.5 roses have two or more thin canes and usually take longer to develop.
  • #2 roses have one or two small, thin canes and may require extra care to establish.

For the best of the best, look for The All-American Rose Selection (AARS) designation. These roses are judged to be the superior in disease resistance, flower production, color and fragrance.  With all of the varieties available, you’re sure to find a variety to fit your taste and garden style.

Planting Roses

When planting roses, whether bare-root or container-grown, the procedure is the same as for other shrubs. Remember a few key factors that especially affect roses:

  • Remember that the bud union should be about one inch below soil level when planted.
  • In warm areas, the graft can be slightly above soil level.
  • Prior to planting, cut off any dead leaves as well as decayed or thin shoots. Also prune damaged or extremely long roots.
  • Soak bareroot roses in tepid water overnight before planting.
  • Always water soil well when planting.
  • If you’re able to plant within ten days of getting the rose, leave it in its package in an unheated (but frost-proof) room. Keep it moist until you’re ready to plant. If planting after ten days, heel-in the plants until you are able to plant properly.
  • Make sure the hole is large enough to accommodate root growth.
  • Roses appreciate organic matter mixed into the soil when planting.

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Fertilizer, Water and Mulch for Roses

Fertilizing Roses
Roses are heavy feeders and need several applications of fertilizer during the growing season. Use a fertilizer formulated especially for roses and follow the instructions on the package. In general, begin feeding when new growth starts in the spring and discontinue feeding in early fall. Feeding too late will stimulate new growth that is susceptible to winter injury. Do not exceed the recommended application rate. Water thoroughly after each feeding.    


Watering Roses

Roses need a lot of water. Remember how deep you planted the rose? Water needs to reach that level to get to the roots and keep the plant healthy and blooming. Water thoroughly at least twice a week if there is no rainfall. Set a watering schedule and adjust as dictated by the weather.

Summer especially brings a need for vigilance. Even though you may see fewer flowers during the summer, cooler weather will bring more, so keep up the watering schedule. To discourage black spot and mildew, water in the morning and avoid wetting the leaves. 


Mulching Roses

A three- to four-inch layer of organic mulch will control weeds, retain soil moisture and help maintain a constant soil temperature. As organic mulch breaks down, it improves soil structure and adds nutrients.

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Pruning Roses

Proper pruning increases blooms and promotes healthy plants. In general, prune when growth just begins; from midwinter to mid-spring depending on where you live. Your signal is when the uppermost buds begin to swell, but leaves are yet to appear. Each variety has specific recommendations, so check yours before cutting.

  • First remove all dead wood, cutting back to healthy wood.
  • Reduce the number of canes. The number of canes to leave and their recommended lengths differ by variety.
  • During the growing season, prune only to remove diseased foliage or canes.
  • Deadhead faded flowers.
  • Destroy any diseased foliage to control disease spread.
  • Use curved by-pass pruners for the cleanest cut. Keep your pruner blades sharp.

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Other Tips for Rose Care

  • Buy good, healthy plants.
  • Roses need full sun for optimal growth and blooming. Select an area that receives a minimum of six hours of sunlight a day.
  • Plant in an area with good air circulation to decrease disease susceptibility.
  • Avoid overcrowding.
  • Prepare the soil with organic material before planting.
  • Provide good drainage. Soil should be loose (not compacted).
  • Feed plants for proper plant development.
  • Clean up dead branches and leaves from the rose garden.
  • Inspect plants regularly for any problems.
  • Treat problems immediately.
  • Treat both the top and bottom of the leaves when applying sprays or dusts to leaves.
  • Find a concise rose grower’s guide to use as reference.