Like many people obsessed by their hobbies, gardeners aren’t good at recognizing when they’ve crossed the line from making polite small talk to giving too much information. At parties, an innocent question on what could be troubling houseplants gets them fired up and, waxing eloquent on the gestation of a fungus gnat, people think they need a life or are a complete lunatic. Either way, they end up alone talking to the plant.
Gardeners, if you want people to talk to, take some advice: people are willing to listen to you explain that a houseplant’s lower leaves yellow and drop from over-watering. Or that leaves dry up and fall off or wilt when under-watered.
But describe plants wilting from being too wet because roots need air as well as water leads to trouble. Gardeners know that the pot’s surface soil is usually dry, and that this involves pushing a finger into the soil deep enough to check – up to a knuckle or two.
Passionately insisting that people need to give regular plant proctologic exams is a sure-fire way to get them to think you’re nuts. It’s worth it, though. Over-watering is the number one killer of houseplants.
A few plants react differently from over-watering, such as Scheffleras. Their leaves become soft or develop black spots. Others, like Jades, will get leaf drop or spots from under-watering. Checking the soil is the best way to tell if a plant needs watering.
Gardeners are safe talking about the weather, not discussing the affects of salts. Leaves yellow, often from the tips or edges in, when there is too much salt from soft (salty) water or fertilizer. Admonishing people to follow fertilizer directions because plants don’t benefit from a power drink, and they’ll start wishing they had one.
When giving advice, give it cheerfully: if the tip burn is from salty house water, the only solution is to give the plant bottled water. Be prepared to be labeled a lunatic; only gardeners understand some plants prefer Evian.
Never talk bugs. Alarm sets in when encouraging people to recognize the damage bugs do, such as making leaves a mottled yellow, leaving spider webs or sticky droplets. The sap feeders (spider mites, mealybugs, brown scale, and whiteflies) do this, and good control means looking closely to identify the bugs.
A light but firm hand propelling people toward the bugs causes full-scale panic. Hosts start wondering why they invite gardeners. Try to soothe things by discussing control. Depending on the bug, repeated showering of the plant (spider mites), dabbing with alcohol (mealybugs and brown scale), rubbing them off (brown scale), or vacuuming them up (whitefly) is effective.
Fungus gnats, the bugs that fly slowly about homes in winter, lay eggs in overly moist soil. One control for them is allowing the soil to dry slightly between watering. Another is placing a raw potato slice on the soil, which gnat larvae love, and after a few days they swarm it. Pick this up, throw it away, and replace with a fresh slice.
After this advice there’s usually no one left nearby except other gardeners. Simply smile and tell them that the host can use Gnatrol, a natural product to get rid of fungus gnats while watering. Gardeners will nod at this wisdom, knowing it’s not as much fun as the potato slice.