Hi, reader, and thank you for joining me for our last installment on growing your small urban jungle. I hope that by now you’re just as in love with your new green babies as I am, and that you have been able to watch them grow their tiny roots and sprout their tiny leaves. If they’re growing slowly, don’t worry – it’s winter in Argentina, after all, and plants are in general gathering their strength for the upcoming spring. Care for them now, and watch them blossom in the near future. 🙂

Let’s play catch-up for a second: on our first and second installments, I told you about some great, low-maintenance plants you can have to start easing into the subject, so we’ve taken care of the most important thing – getting your hands on a plant. But then what? Aside from learning each plant’s specific needs, understanding what certain things mean for plants in general will make it much easier for you to care for them. Let’s go over the basics:

1. Funky leaves

Think of your plant’s leaves as its only way of telling you something’s wrong (or right! Maybe you’re doing amazing, sweetie!). In general, a strong, healthy plant will have strong, healthy leaves – it’s really that simple. However, not all funky leaves mean the same things, so let’s go: 

Lower leaves turning yellow: that’s just winter, boo! Certain plants suffer winter more than others (for example, Alocasias, which tend to lose all their leaves), but in general, this is the moment where plants rest. Care for them, give them proper soil to grow, and practice some meditation while you wait for your plants to bloom.

All leaves turning yellow: too much water! During winter, try watering your plants with the same amount of water as during summer but spacing out how often you do it. As a rule of thumb, you should see water coming out from the bottom of the pot when you water it and you should check the soil by dipping your finger about 1 cm in before watering it again. If it’s still moist, wait a few more days! 

Discolored leaves/light green leaves: too little light! Your plant isn’t doing photosynthesis, what gives plants their traditional green color. Aside from #aesthetics, this is bad because it means your plant isn’t getting enough food. Try moving your plant to a brighter environment. 

Curled up leaves, brown/dried edges: the environment your plant is in is too dry! During winter, this is quite common because of all the heating, and leaving your plant outside may bring other consequences. Check out point 3, Moisture, for tips on what you can do about this.

2. Growing your roots

Whether your plant’s roots have been damaged during repotting or you’re trying to grow a big, new plant from a fresh cutting, strengthening your plant’s roots will most definitely translate into a bigger, healthier plant. Much like people, plants need a solid foundation to grow – and much like people, that foundation can be strengthened over time. 

What you’re looking for is auxins, a group of plant hormones that stimulate root, stem, and leaf growth, and also help flowers develop. While you can (of course) get your hands on store-bought plant hormones, these are also quite easy to create at home and require stuff that, odds are, you already have. 

Here are a few cool recipes you can use, for which you only need either coffee (both beans or ground coffee will do) or lentils or cinnamon. And if you don’t have any of these things at home… maybe it’s high time you went to the supermarket? Just sayin’.

Also, note that you can definitely go overboard on this. Using plant hormones should be only for specific situations, and not something you do on a regular basis! 

3. Moisture

As mentioned before, a plant’s environment (just like its soil and the amount of light it receives) is key. Why? Because it affects photosyntesis, so, how a plant eats, so, how strong it is. Why?  Here’s a short explanation.

What affects the relative moisture of an environment? A/C and heaters. Naturally, the ideal level of moisture for your plant will depend on which plant it is and what it’s native environment is. For example, for plants native to tropical environments, that is around 50-65% humidity. So, what can you do? 

  • Use a steam humidifier
  • Place pots filled with water close to your plants (to humidify the air around them)*
  • Shower with the door open/place the laundry-drying rack close to your plants
  • Spray them with water mist every so often (check if this is the best course of action for your plant)
  • Place your plants together (this creates a sort of microclimate)

*If you’re doing this, remember to change the water every two days or cover it with a cloth. Dengue fever is very real! 

4. Plagues

Last but not least, and on a fitting note in a pandemic situation, let’s talk about plagues. Now, bear with me for a moment here while I say this: bugs, in and of themselves, are neutral. Every ecosystem, if left to its own devices, will balance itself out, as it has all it needs to maintain equilibrium. However, we (humans) are the very definition of not leaving an ecosystem to its own devices and unbalancing pretty much everything, so it’s also on us to try and help that same ecosystem out. Take for example mealybugs, a very common pest that shows up as white, cotton-like spots on our plant. Natural predator? Ladybugs. What attracts ladybugs? Tropical region native plants. Ah, but are your plants native?

Lesson here: whenever you can and as much as you can, choose native plants, especially for outdoor environments. They will adapt better to where they are, they will demand less of you in terms of adjusting the environment, they will play their role in the ecosystem they were meant to, and they will just simply be happier. Win-win all around. 🙂

When it comes to inside plants, though, and aside from providing them good soil to grow, you may need to help your plants fight off a plague. Here’s what you need to know:

What you may see: White, yellow, brown, and reddish spots in the leaves, stems, right where they meet, and even roots, as well as grayish mold on leaves and flower bulbs, and white mold on top of your soil. What it is will be something you’ll be able to deduce from what you see, and after that, treatment will follow. Here’s a handy guide for reference. 

Plague kit 101: When it comes to having a pest control kit, neem oil, potassium soap, and diatomaceous earth are your three best friends. They can all be found on MercadoLibre, and a little goes a *long* way (meaning: buy them once and forget about it for the next three years or so). By the way, here are the recipes you’ll need.

Happy planting!