Home & Garden

Grow Your Own Fresh Air with Houseplants

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Sure, they brighten up a room and add some color on these white-and-brown winter days, but did you know that houseplants can also help us to keep a clean, healthy environment? Discover a few popular houseplants that have a good effect on your home.

The addition of green plants to a home or office not only makes the space more pleasant, but the air more healthful. NASA has published extensive research about plants and their impressive ability to reduce toxins. Why NASA? Because it needs to replenish oxygen at its space station.

In NASA’s controlled tests, some plants removed more than 85 percent of indoor air pollutants, such as benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene, within 24 hours. It’s hard to imagine a more welcome element in our closed-up winter homes than fresh oxygen.

Some corporations in highly polluted large cities, such as Delhi, India, have substantially improved indoor air quality for employees, by introducing large quantities of plants that convert carbon dioxide to oxygen. (Roughly four large plants per person). This photosynthesis process cleans the air by absorbing toxins along with carbon dioxide. Given the increasing number of people worldwide who live and work indoors, and declining air quality in many major cities, the unfolding research holds much potential for improving good health on a global scale.

If you like the idea of better air quality, but your thumbs are purple, not green, don’t despair. You, too, can grow your own fresh air. Start by purchasing your plants from a local greenhouse that will give you the support you need to be successful.

“Growing healthy houseplants isn’t difficult, once you learn a few basic things about them,” says Jessica Salisbury, general manager at Village Green, 6101 E. Riverside Blvd., in Rockford. “The best thing is to ask questions of greenhouse staff. It’s why we’re here.”

Becky Baeverstad, owner of Enders Flowers, 1631 N. Alpine Road, at Edgebrook in Rockford, echoes that sentiment. “It’s in our best interest for you to be successful at growing things,” she says. “So we not only stock and nurture healthy plants – and choose varieties that aren’t too finicky – but we talk to you about where in your home they might be happiest. You might want to start with something really easy to grow, like a pothos or philodendron, to build your confidence, and then add one new variety at a time.”

Plants purchased from local greenhouses and florists tend to be better acclimated to our conditions, and off to a healthier start in life. Problems like mites and other pests are watched for closely.

“But the main advantage to a greenhouse, over a big-box store, is knowledge,” says Dee Speaker, greenhouse manager at K & W Greenery, 1328 Hwy. 14 East, Janesville, Wis. “Chances are, whatever problems you run into are something we’ve seen before. We can also help you learn what your plant needs in terms of light, soil, fertilizer, and so on. And we’ll help you figure out where it will be happiest in your home.
“Soil, water and light conditions all figure into the success of growing plants. Among the many attractive ones that thrive in bright light are various palm trees, Norway Island pines, cacti, kalanchoe and various forms of ivy. “Some, like fig trees (ficus), prefer bright light but not direct sunlight,” says Baeverstad, who’s grown one in her home for decades.

K & W has on display a huge variety of no-fuss cactus in many amusing forms. “They like lots of light, not much water and are easy to grow,” says Speaker. The greenhouse stocks most every kind of houseplant that can thrive in the Midwest, along with herbs and flowering plants like florist chrysanthemums, “which are super air cleaners,” says Speaker. She also recommends easy-to-grow Chinese Evergreens, which come in various attractive forms.

“They rate very highly in their ability to clean the air and they’re just very pretty,” says Speaker. “They’re easy to please, as long as the house stays above 60 degrees. Like many plants, they tolerate low light but prefer medium light. A croton, for example, will be OK in lower light but its colors are much deeper when it gets a little more light.”

For medium light conditions, Speaker likes peace lilies, spider plants and ever-dependable golden pothos. “Boston ferns are a little more difficult to grow because of their need for humidity,” she says.

In low-light rooms, consider philodendron (which is nearly impossible to kill), croton, parlor palm, Chinese evergreen and snake plant (mother-in-law’s tongue), which has proven to be one of the best air cleaning plants of all, but is toxic to cats and dogs.

Other widely available and dependable houseplants include the rubber tree, Aralia ming, China doll, rheo, lemon cypress, silver-striped Wandering Jew, schefflera, baby tears, hen and chicks, sedum, Mexican heather and myrtle.

Succulent plants, like cactus, sedum, aloe vera and jade plant, need ample sunlight, but are otherwise easy to grow, says Salisbury.

“Most all plants benefit from some fertilizer, the right light, appropriate watering and good drainage,” she adds. Be sure to read plant tags and follow directions.”

The most common mistake homeowners make is over-watering plants, says Baeverstadt. “This actually starves them for water, since their roots rot and can no longer absorb it.”

Good resources for learning about houseplants include university extension services like the University of Illinois, urbanext.illinois.edu/houseplants. A quick Google search will also provide good information on most any plant type.

Find NASA’s list of best air-cleaning plants at Wikipedia.org under “list of air filtering plants.”

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