Ask the master gardener: brighten up the darkness of winter with these houseplants

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Reply: Green plants and flowers can cheer us up, especially on long, dark winter days. Growing houseplants is a very popular hobby right now and there are some interesting new plants available. There are studies that have shown that interaction with houseplants often reduces physiological and psychological stress. Several studies were carried out at the University of Exeter in 2013 and 2014 which found that plants in the workplace improve productivity, focus and feelings of well-being. The 2014 study compared two large sales offices without factories to “green” offices on staff perceptions of air quality, focus and job satisfaction, and monitored productivity levels. A University of Michigan study found that studying and working in the presence of plants increased focus, memory, and productivity. Their study showed that memory retention increased by up to 20%. Another study from Texas A&M also found that working and studying around plants produced better, more accurate work.

A Sansevieria plant. Contribution / Jennifer Knutson

The National Institute of Health conducted a clinical trial with surgical patients that assessed whether plants in hospital rooms had a therapeutic influence. Patients who were recovering from the surgery were assigned to control rooms or factory rooms. The data indicated that patients in hospital rooms with plants and flowers had significantly more positive physiological responses (lower systolic blood pressure and lower rates of pain, anxiety, and fatigue) than patients in control rooms. Patients with plants had more positive feelings about their rooms and rated them with greater satisfaction compared to those in similar rooms without plants. According to patient feedback, the plants have brightened up the room environment, reduced stress, and even made them feel more positively about the hospital workers who care for them.

A popular NASA study has proven that certain houseplants can remove certain air pollutants commonly found in the home, such as formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, benzene, and trichlorethylene. However, for plants to be effective at cleaning the air, you would need a plant in every cubic foot! Your house would look like a jungle and there would be no room for you, but on the other hand, you would be adding humidity to your dry winter house! So yes, research shows that plants can be beneficial in some ways. Personally, plants give me that natural solution that I need to get through a long, freezing winter. I always feel like I justify buying more plants thinking it’s good therapy!

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A lily of peace.  Contribution / Jennifer Knutson

A lily of peace. Contribution / Jennifer Knutson

The biggest challenge in winter here in Minnesota is getting enough light for your plants without putting them too close to cold windows. Low humidity can be overcome by running a humidifier or placing pots on trays filled with pebbles with a little water evaporating upwards. Do not spray your plants. Moist leaves are an ideal breeding ground for bacterial or fungal diseases.

The following houseplants are very easy to grow: Croton, Chinese evergreen, Dracaena, Palm, Peace lily, Pothos, Philodendron, Sansevieria (also known as snake plant or mother-in-law’s tongue) and spider plant . Christmas Cactus, Kalanchoe, African Violet, and Orchids are long-lasting flowering plants with a long flowering period that can also add a touch of color and cheerfulness to your home.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Aloe Plants Offer Benefits Beyond Their Beauty

Dear Master Gardener: I have mushroom flies and I try to avoid using pesticides. If I buy a carnivorous plant, will it eat all the insects?

Reply: Carnivorous plants, or carnivores, are very interesting plants that generally capture and digest insects and other small arthropods. Some carnivorous plants that make good houseplants are Venus fly trap, sundew, butterwort, and jug. Venus fly traps are very fascinating plants to watch as the leaves close on an unlucky insect that gets in its way. The cup-shaped pitcher plant stores a fragrant juice, which attracts unsuspecting insects to their death. The waxy interior of the leaf and the downward-facing hairs keep the insects trapped where they will eventually drown. Droseras are mostly short-stemmed plants with a rosette of foliage. Depending on the species, the leaves vary from thread-like to paddle-shaped to almost round. The leaves are covered with tiny hairs that give off a clear, sticky liquid. The sticky droplets trap unwary insects or other small creatures that come in contact with it. The troubled victim stimulates the hairs to bend inward, bringing them closer to the leaf where they are digested into plant nutrients. Butterwort is similar to sundew in the way it catches its prey; however, it only consumes very small insects.

Carnivorous plants have very specific growth requirements that are different from the most commonly grown houseplants. They are bog plants and should be watered, but not overwatered. They should be planted in pure peat and sand rather than potting soil and should not be fertilized. Good lighting is essential for carnivorous plants. An east or west facing window that receives at least an hour or two of direct sunlight is ideal. Use only distilled or rain water so that no minerals are added.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Caring for Colorful Cyclamen Plants

Dear Master Gardener: We moved to a house with black walnut trees in the yard and noticed that it is difficult to grow anything under them. Are there any perennials or annuals that will grow under them?

Reply: Black walnut trees, native to Minnesota and much of the United States, pose difficult gardening conditions due to the poisonous juglone naturally produced by plants. The following plants will grow under a black walnut tree: hollyhock, Jack-in-the-pulpit, astilbe, wax begonia, pot marigold, bellflower, snow glory, crocus, snowdrops, geranium geranium, coral bells, Spanish hyacinth woodland, morning glory, lemon balm, sundrops, cinnamon fern, garden phlox, lungwort, Siberian scilla, lamb’s ear, spider crab, zinnia, pansies, violets, daylilies, hosta and sedum.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: The Benefits of Feeding Birds in Winter

You can get answers to your garden questions by calling the new Master Gardener Helpline at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A master gardener will call you back. Or, emailing me at [email protected] and I will respond to you in the column if space allows.
The University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. The information given in this section is based on academic research.


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