February 11, 2013

Houseplants can scratch that gardening itch

By AMY IVY, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — If your gardening fingers are getting itchy as you watch the snow pile up and you’re wondering how long you’re going to have to wait to have dirt under your fingernails again, don’t despair.

I get a lot of satisfaction working on my houseplants, and this is the one time of year that they really get much attention from me.

The days are getting noticeably longer finally, and your houseplants have probably noticed that, too. Most go into a resting phase during the shortest days where little new growth is produced, and that is not an ideal time to prune or divide them. But as the days get longer, they begin to push out new growth, and that’s a signal that they are waking up. This is an ideal time to prune and divide them, since the plants will be able to respond by pushing out new growth in response to your efforts.

The term I like to use when pruning any kind of plant is “ruthless.” New gardeners have a hard time with this concept, afraid that all those cuts will be hard on their plants. But pruning invigorates plants. And just like a bad haircut, it can always grow out if you don’t get it right.

Aside from the therapy of whacking back an overgrown plant, there is also the pleasure of turning the pile of pruned stems into cuttings. If you’ve never grown a plant from a cutting, give it a try this winter. It’s a handy skill to learn because you can then easily expand your houseplant collection by taking cuttings of friends’ plants to root for your own. My mother once even took the sprig of a particularly good-tasting mint out of her iced tea glass at a luncheon, rooted it when she got home and soon had a carpet of this mint by our back door. Mint is one of the easiest plants of all to root, but many houseplants are almost as easy.

If the plant in question doesn’t take well to rooting, chances are good it can be divided. Dividing houseplants (and perennials in your flower garden) is another task where it pays to be ruthless. Most plants love it and respond with lots of vigorous new growth. Plants that thrive when divided include spathiphyllum, or peace lily; Boston fern; Chinese evergreen; snake plant; arrowhead; and pothos.

Some houseplants that I find very easy to root from cuttings include Christmas cactus, African violet, geranium, jade tree, goldfish plant, pothos, vining philodendron and English ivy. Roots will form at the nodes, the swellings where the leaves are attached, so just take a length of stem a few inches long, remove the lower leaves and stick the bottom inch or so into moist potting mix. You don’t need to root these stems in water first. Cover them with a plastic bag and keep out of direct sun until new growth forms at the tips or the stems stay in place when tugged gently. Note: African violets don’t form stems so either root a single leaf by poking its leaf stem into the moist mix or divide the plant into individual plantlets.

I hope to see you at our upcoming Food from the Farm event from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday, March 2, at the Plattsburgh City Gym. For more information or to buy tickets, call our office or visit

Amy Ivy is executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Clinton County. Office phone numbers: Clinton County, 561-7450; Essex County, 962-4810; Franklin County, 483-7403. Website: Email questions to