Maryland Grows

Top 10 ways to kill a houseplant

Phalaenopsis orchids are relatively easy houseplants to grow

It’s easy to kill a houseplant.

No matter how green his or her thumb, every gardener has a sad tale about the orchid that expired, the pothos that went to pot, or the weeping fig that dropped every blessed leaf.

You can gnash your teeth, rend your garments and fume. Or you can get busy and figure out what went wrong.

Houseplants fail for a handful of reasons.  Here are my top ten:


The number one killer of houseplants is overwatering. Roots need both water and air to thrive.  Waterlogged soil chokes roots.

Most plants like to dry out between each watering.  Stick your finger in the soil. If it feels dry, water until the water runs out the bottom of the pot.  Let the water drain and dump the excess.

Water needs vary. Cacti like it dry. African violets like moist soil.  Find out what your plant needs and give it just that.

Improper drainage

Poor drainage also causes roots to rot.  So, make sure every pot has a drainage hole.

Low humidity

Our winter homes are dry, dry, dry.  When the heat comes on, humidity takes a nosedive.

Set plants that need higher humidity – like orchids – on a tray of pebbles with a bit of water.  Mist humidity-loving plants such as ferns once a week.  Or get chummy and shower with them.

Low light

Too much or too little light is tough on houseplants.  Read the tags and do some research in books or online to find out what your plants prefer.

Sun-worshipping orchids need strong light while dracaenas are happy in lower light.  Place each plant where it will get what it needs.


Oh, how houseplants hate a burst of cold air or a blast of heat.  So keep them away from doors, fireplaces, radiators, vents, or chilly windows.


Indoor plants don’t photosynthesize at the same rate as outdoor plants, so they need less fertilizer.  In winter, fertilize at half the suggested strength or not at all.

Ignore pests

Bugs hitchhike on houseplants that summered outdoors.  Be vigilant and deal with pest problems swiftly.

Look for spider mites’ webs, sticky leaves from aphids or leaf bumps that are scale.  Contact your local Extension office for an ID or fix or contact the Ask Extension experts.


If your houseplant is happy, don’t move it.  Most plants resent a change of scenery.  Drama queens like ficus weep copious leaves with even the slightest change.


Roots too small for a pot circle madly, strangling houseplants.  If you notice roots circling or peeking out of the bottom of the pot, it’s time to repot.

Choose a pot an inch or two bigger than your existing pot and repot with fresh soil in the spring.

The wrong soil

A light soilless potting mix is good for most houseplants.  Garden soil is a no-no, too heavy to drain well.

Some plants need specific blends.  Cacti like a sandy mix while orchids need a special chunky orchid potting mix.  Do your research.

Stop killing houseplants.  Avoid the dreaded top 10.  Your plants will love you for it and reward you with years of health and beauty.


By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.


What work can I do in the perennial garden in the dead of winter? Edging! – Featured Video

Edging the beds to control weeds and to reduce the lawn area. Plus dividing perennials that you can watch in the event of heaving during the freeze-thaw cycle. Check out this pretty, evergreen perennial – Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’!

Joyce Browning Horticulturist, Master Gardener Coordinator Video credit: Bethany Evans Longwood Gardens Professional Gardener Program Alumni; CPH

More videos on the HGIC YouTube channel

Cool-Season Vegetables: First, Fresh, Foods from the Garden

Erica got us all thinking about spring crops in December and her New Year’s Day article made me feel hopeful and excited about growing food in 2021.

So let’s get this season started as soon as possible with cool-season crops. These are the plants adapted to grow best with cooler daytime temperatures, 65⁰ F-75⁰ F, compared to warm-season crops like tomato and chile pepper. They are planted in Maryland from early March through mid-May and again from July through September. Thinking about these crops in January gives us time to plan and prepare for success!

Some cool-season crops are hardy, very frost-tolerant, like pea, spinach, and onion. Others are semi-hardy, more easily injured by cold temperatures, like beet, carrot, and lettuce (although this depends a lot on cultivar, stage of development, and growing conditions). Cool-season crops germinate at lower soil temperatures (40⁰F-45⁰F) than warm-season crops like cucumber and squash (55⁰F-60⁰F).

Some cool-season crops need both cool and warm temperatures. Onion and garlic need cool temperatures for rapid leaf growth, and warm temperatures for bulb enlargement. Leafy greens grow well in spring and fall while broccoli and cauliflower tend to produce better yields and higher quality heads in fall. That’s because leaf and root growth is favored by warm temperatures and head development is best with cooler weather.

We’re mostly interested in eating the leaves, stems, and storage roots of cool-season crops. Cool temperatures cause these crops to produce more sugars which makes them more cold-tolerant and better tasting. Rising temperatures can reduce crop quality, causing bitter or off-flavors, and force plants to send up flower stalks and produce seeds (bolting). Increasing daylength may also induce bolting in lettuce, spinach, radish, potato, and carrot.

A few cool-season crops are perennials (rhubarb, horseradish, and asparagus) but most are grown as annuals, even though many are biennials.

Most commonly-grown cool-season annual crops by plant family:

  • Bean family (Fabaceae)- garden pea, fava bean
  • Cabbage family (Brassicaceae)- radish, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, mustard, turnip, collard, kohlrabi, Asian greens, Chinese cabbage, rutabaga, arugula
  • Garlic family (Amaryllidaceae)- garlic, leek, onion, shallot,
  • Beet family (Amaranthaceae)- spinach, beet, Swiss chard
  • Carrot family (Apiaceae)- carrot, parsnip, celery, celeriac
  • Lettuce family (Asteraceae)- lettuce, endive, escarole, radicchio
  • Tomato family (Solanaceae)- potato

See HGIC’s Vegetable Crop profiles for specific planting and care information.


Tips for success:

Seeds or transplants– most gardeners plant cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprout transplants but sow seeds directly in the garden for all other cool-season crops. This year, try growing or buying transplants instead. Even peas can be started indoors under fluorescent or LED lights.

Growing lettuce, kale, pea, arugula, etc. for just 2-3 weeks indoors will give you a head start on the growing season and eliminate the need for thinning excess plants (tedious!). Transplants are also less likely than seeds to be washed away in a storm. Even carrot and beet can be transplanted as long as the tap root doesn’t hit the bottom of the container while growing indoors.

Large endive transplant ready to plant.

Large endive transplant ready to plant.

Soil preparation and nutrients– it’s possible to plant and grow warm-season crops, like tomato and squash, in cloddy, clayey soil. The same is not true for most cool-season crops. Whether you plant seeds or transplants the topsoil should be loose, well-aerated, and high in organic matter. Heavy, cloddy soil slows seed germination and restricts root growth.

Preparing a bed in spring requires minimal tillage- cutting winter annual weeds at the soil with a weeding tool, fluffing the soil with a garden fork, and raking the soil smooth. If a cover crop is in place, cut it to the ground with a string trimmer, cover the area with a tarp or weed barrier for 2-3 weeks, remove it and plant through the cover crop residues.

The majority of cool-season crops have a medium to high requirement for nutrients. Fertilize seedlings and transplants in spring with a soluble fertilizer to get them off to fast, strong start. Nutrient release from soil organic matter is low at this time and root systems are too small to adequately mine the soil for nutrients may be inadequate. Fertilize fall crops once they are established.

If the soil is not suitable, plant in containers filled with a mixture of compost and soilless growing media (lightweight “potting soil”).

Salad table of mixed baby greens. Growing spring crops in containers is easy and convenient. A  row cover is used to accelerate growth.

Salad table of mixed baby greens. Growing spring crops in containers is easy and convenient. A
row cover is used to accelerate growth.

Protection– climate change is giving us a longer fall season allowing big harvests of cool-season crops into December. But climate change is also making spring weather even more unpredictable than “normal.” The average last frost date is earlier but seedlings and transplants are subject to wide temperature swings, excessive rainfall, and late freezes (as we saw in 2020).

Floating row covers and cold frames provide a buffer against unfavorable and rapidly changing weather conditions. They allow us to extend the gardening season so that we can plant earlier, harvest latter, exclude insect pests, and increase yields. Protective covers, whether, glass, clear plastic, or polyester fabrics, increase the air temperature around plants and reduce damage from wind and driving rainfall.

Pieces of #9 wire form bows over a raised bed to support a floating row cover protecting leafy greens.

Pieces of #9 wire form bows over a raised bed to support a floating row cover protecting leafy greens.

Timing– planting calendars are helpful but planting decisions should also be based on the 7-day forecast. Transplants give you some added flexibility as they can be set out earlier or held back depending on conditions. The key is to have all the pieces in place- seeds or transplants, prepared soil, protection, and fertilizer- when conditions are right for planting. Some years you may find yourself planting with a headlamp or flashlight!

Future articles will focus on planting and caring for specific cool-season and warm-season crops, and how to extend the gardening season and adapt to climate change.


Author: Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist

Garden Resolutions and Winter Weather Plant Care – The Garden Thyme Podcast

Podcast player

Happy New Year! It’s hard to believe that we’re already in a new year. After almost an entire year of quarantining, in this month’s episode, we took time to pause and reflect on last year’s gardening success and failures. Like many of you, the pandemic really threw us for a loop and many of our goals for the previous year took the back burner to more pressing issues. We chatted about our 2021 gardening goals. At the same time, we discussed cold weather plant care (13:00 ). Northeast winters can be very harsh and damaging to our plants, ensuring that they receive proper care during bad weather safeguards our plants. 

Listen to podcast


Garden Tips of the Month at (19:03)
Native Plant of the Month at (26:50) Partridgeberry- Mitchella repens
Bug of the Month at (29:45) Springtails – order: Collembola

The Garden Thyme Podcast is brought to you by the University of Maryland Extension. Hosts are Mikaela Boley- Senior Agent Associate (Talbot County) for Horticulture, Rachel Rhodes- Agent Associate for Horticulture (Queen Anne’s County), and Emily Zobel-Senior Agent Associate for Agriculture (Dorchester County).

Readers’ 2020 Gardening Highlights

Last week, we asked readers to share any notable stories, projects, or accomplishments from their past year in gardening activities. We received some great submissions. We will feature a portion of the submissions in this post and more in the future.

It’s hard to contain our excitement about this container garden

Reader “FDelventhal” from PG County writes:

What a different year it was in the container garden on our deck. Lockdown created the obstacle and scramble to find potting mix. That began a journey of new ways to do things differently than we had every other year for the past 20 years. A few of the things we have learned this year that kept our garden productive:

  • Coconut Coir helped us expand the small amount of potting mix we had. 
  • We found a great 5 tier, 2-sided planter online that ended up being too good in that we had more herbs and flowers than we could use or give away. 
  • How beautiful sages are and how attractive they are to bees and hummingbirds. 
  • There are lettuces that can be grown in the heat of our summers, such as Ice Queen, Jericho,  and Crisp Mint. 
  • We discovered Joyce Browning’s videos on the UMDHGIC YouTube channel and we check daily for new videos. 
  • One Papalo plant is plenty. Love it, but one can only use so much of it. 

Home and Garden Information Center comments:

Great uses of alternative growing media (coconut coir) and growing the cilantro alternative, papalo. All of the pollinator activity in your garden is great for the environment!

Time’s up for turf

Betsy Kingery from Montgomery County writes:

This is section one of a 4-section, 2-year plan to transform about 1/3 of my front yard into a woodland garden. The area is heavily shaded by existing oak trees and has been planted with redbuds and helesias, a katsura, and two Cedar deodors.  We started in the spring of 2020 by placing cardboard and newspaper over existing turf and covering with 2″ of mulch with a goal to begin planting in the fall. In October, the mulch and cardboard were degraded such that we could dig it in along with the degraded turf and supplemented the soil with Leafgro. 

The planting was heavily weighted to native plants with some exceptions. We repurposed plants from other parts of the yard that were under renovation.  The plants listed on the plans are not the final choices. After planting section 1 in the fall, we papered and mulched section 2 to get ready for Spring 2021.

  • Garden planning drawing
  • Removing turf
  • Photo of planting after turf removal

Home and Garden Information Center comments:

Wow! We love efforts to reduce lawn, as they cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, support pollinators, and reduce runoff.

Susan touts the trombocino

Susan Levi-Goerlich writes:

The highlight of my 2020 garden season was my tromboncino squash. It’s an Italian heirloom that does double duty: its fruit can be used like summer squash (it’s firmer and tastier than zucchini) or, if allowed to fully mature, winter squash. The only challenges I face with this plant were (1) providing strong enough support for this vigorous grower, (2) reining in its enthusiastic sprawl to avoid overtaking my neighbor’s plot in the community garden, and (3) finding refrigerator space for the prodigious amount of squash it produced.

  • The arch the tromboncino were growing on collapsed and needed to be reinforced.
  • Tromboncino is a vigorous grower
  • It is also a prolific producer
  • Medusa’s refrigerator

Home and Garden Information Center comments:

Wow! What a haul! Kudos to your effort here; it looks like you employed some structural engineering to go along with your horticulture activities. (Search “tromboncino” in the search box for more articles on this cool squash!)

Hope and resilience in the garden

“Happy 2021!” we all said at midnight, and then we had to stop and think about it. Hopefully, we said. Relatively speaking. Couldn’t be worse.

In any case, we are glad to see 2020 behind us. It has been a year defined by awfulness, by extremes, and yet also one in which a lot of us didn’t seem able to get very much done. I’m not going to look back at my gardening resolutions made last January, or at any other goals; I doubt I managed to succeed at any of them. Maybe my resolution this year is not to make resolutions, but just roll with the punches and do what needs to be done.

So yes, it was all pretty terrible. But somehow, when I look back through my photos to come up with some that represent 2020 in a food gardening context, what I see—besides some really quite nice tomatoes—are resilience and hope. Here are two of those photos.

Read More

Send in your gardening highlights from 2020!

Planting seeds

As we weather the winter months and dream about goals for our 2021 growing seasons, we thought it would be fun, interesting, and informative to share some highlights from your 2020 season.

Do you have anything notable to share? Such as:

  • Big vegetable hauls
  • New garden construction or turf removing projects
  • Unusual crops for our area that were successful
  • Great container gardens
  • Spectacular failures or big problems
  • Gardening projects or activities with kids

If so, send in:

  • Subject line: Gardening 2020 Highlight Submission
  • Your name (if you are comfortable having it published)
  • What county or city you are in
  • Are you a Master Gardener? Yes/no
  • One paragraph to describe your challenge or project
  • Up to 3 images as email attachments.

Send to Dan Adler

We will look for interesting stories to share on the Maryland Grows blog and HGIC Facebook page.