You know all those houseplants you just lugged in off the back porch? The ones you hosed off and de-bugged and set up for the winter on little pebble trays?
Well, don't get too attached: Before the winter's out most of them will be dead.
And unless you're prepared to give them hours of extra attention every day, there isn't a whole lot you can do about it. Houseplants do best in a tropical, humid atmosphere; the average Washington living room, once the furnace clicks on, provides just the opposite. Even if they don't actually die, over the months they become pale, scraggly, bug-infested shadows of their former selves.
That doesn't mean you have to spend the winter looking at a lot of sickly plants.
Throw all your plants out. Right now, before they start getting depressing-looking. Then go to the plant store and buy one each of the following foolproof varieties.
VARIEGATED PEPEROMIA -- (P. obtusifolia ). Grows like crazy, given the proper neglect. Mine gets no sunlight and I can't remember the last time I watered it. It's not variegated any more (due to lack of sun) but who cares? Its shiny green leaves take up half the dining-room table.
CHINESE EVERGREEN -- (Aglaonema modestum ). The shmoo of the plant world. Produces new growth through the worst abuse you can dish out. Give it any water or light at all, it blooms its head off.
MING ASPARAGUS FERN -- (not sprengeri or plumosus). A real undiscovered gem. Because of its delicate appearance -- it looks like something out of an Oriental dish garden -- I thought it would be one of the first plants to go. It not only refused to die, it doubled in size. I rewarded it with an outing on the porch; it promptly got ripped off. (Moral: Soft-heartedness doesn't pay.) Not always available in stores, so if you come across it, grab two or three and plant them all together in a big pot.
STAGHORN FERN -- (Platycerium bifurcatum ) not only survived, but produced nice new fronds month after month. Don't be put off by the plant books, which tell you to attach it to a sphagnum moss board and water by immersion. Instead, stick it in a flowerpot and water the usual way. The fronds will start to die; just tear them off and new ones will grow. Honest.
MING and BALFOURIANA ARALIA -- (not the variegated balfouriana, and not the false aralia). Supposed to be finicky, demanding high humidity, but don't believe it. Just water them now and then. They'll drop all their leaves until they look like a telephone pole, but don't panic. Something seems to force them to send up new shoots when they think they're being killed, so ignore their histrionics and they'll become lush and full again.
JADE PLANT -- (Crassula argentea ). It's easy to kill this plant with kindness, but ignore it and it'll flourish. Water only when the leaves feel leathery and bendable. And don't repot it; it blooms only when the roots get crowded.
HINDU ROPE -- (Hoya carnosa compacta ). Not recommended for the squeamish. It gets mealybugs (especially if it's kept too dry), and the overall effect is pretty disgusting. But the bugs on mine haven't injured or disfigured it in any way -- the leaves are intact, it's almost five feet long and growing faster than ever.
NORFOLK ISLAND PINE -- (Araucaria excelsa ). Never gets droopy, never gets bugs, just faithfully produces a new tier of branches year after year. Supposed to need a humid environment but gets along fine in the typically dry house.
PONY-TAIL PALM -- (Beaucarnea recurvata ). Unconditionally guaranteed. It stores water in a bulbous growth at the base of the stem. Mine has been living on this reserve tank for months and is still completely green, with none of the brown tips that afflict most under-watered plants. The only problem is that cats like to snack on it, so keep it up high.
I can personally recommend all these plants because they are survivors of a Darwinian experiment in neglect I conducted last year. I wanted to cut down on my plant collection but couldn't bring myself to throw any out, so I just stopped taking care of them. Out of 165, 10 lived.
These 10, then, are my candidates for the Plant-Haters' Hall of Fame. You'll notice that certain traditionally hardy plants, like sanseveiria and philodendrons, aren't on the list. That's because I wouldn't have them in my house.
If you decide to grow any of these plants, remember to cut out all plant food, mistings, pebble trays and other molly-coddling. No more nursing them through diseases -- just throw them out if they get bugs or start looking scraggly. As for light and water, the less you give them of each, the better they'll do.