Once you get growing with houseplants, and have mastered those old indestructibles, like snake plants, Swiss cheese and spider plants, it’s natural to start looking for more. I bet you have often dreamed of the ideal houseplant – beautiful; interesting; easy to grow, but not so easy you feel it doesn’t really need you at all – and perhaps collectible too, with a fascinating range of varieties showing different colors and sizes. You want your houseplants to be beautiful, but also worthwhile, with just enough of a challenge to be interesting, but not so difficult that they become frustrating. It’s the prayer of every houseplant lover. Well, here is the answer – get into Calathea.
What are Calathea?
These plants are often called Prayer Plants, because some lift up their leaves at night, as if they were praying to heaven. They are grown mainly for the beauty of their leaves, and between the different natural species and the abundant varieties created by human ingenuity, there are a host of different ones you can grow. Most are small, but they all grow larger with your special love, and some become good sized plants, up to 3 feet tall and wide after a few years, with just a little TLC. The great beauty of Prayer Plants is the wonderful striped, multi-color patterns of the leaves, which vary form one variety to another, and also with the seasons and with the age of the leaves. The more you look at them, the more beauty you see.
Not hard to grow, but not quite in the spider plant category either, if you have a little experience with plants indoors, you won’t find them at all difficult. They are perfect for the house, because their preferred environment is a bright one but out of direct sun, and they don’t need constant watering – in fact, most are killed by too much water, not too little. What they do like is humidity, so grow them in bathrooms and kitchens, and don’t be afraid to mist as often as you feel like – about as often as you pat the dog or stroke the cat.
The Secret to Growing Prayer Plants
All plants need water, right? Yet overwatering, or incorrect watering, are the main reason so many houseplants meet a premature death. Don’t let that be you with your Prayer Plants – here is the secret, or really three secrets.
The first is something you have probably already heard about houseplants – don’t overwater. Sound familiar? So what does that mean? It means two things. First, when you do water, always water so that a little flows out the drainage holes of the pot. If your pot doesn’t have drainage holes, you are off to a bad start, so that’s the first thing to correct. If you like nice planters– and who doesn’t? – then consider them what the French call un cache pot, something that hides a pot inside it, not something you plant directly into.
Grow your plants in ordinary plastic pots (or terra cotta, as some experts prefer) and stand them inside that decorative planter. You can use pebbles in the bottom to raise the pot to just below the rim of the planter. Don’t buy into that ‘gravel in the bottom, with soil on top’ idea for growing directly in planters without drainage – it doesn’t work for long.
After you have watered thoroughly, make sure your Prayer Plant isn’t standing in water. In a planter you will need to lift it up and check inside. If you use saucers, don’t forget to empty them shortly after watering.
Now, wait. Wait until the top of the pot looks and feels completely dry. In winter wait a bit longer, till you have to stick a finger in to feel moisture. Now water again. The time between could be a few days, or a few weeks – it all depends. . .
Secret #2 – change the soil. The roots of Prayer Plants really like oxygen, and most potting soils hold too much water, not leaving enough room for air. What Prayer Plants like is an open, loose mixture that always has air spaces, even when you have just watered it. If you buy your plant in fall or winter, leave it be until spring, but otherwise, change the soil. Don’t go into a bigger pot unless the one it came in is packed with roots. So use the same pot, or one just a tiny bit bigger, and mix together ½ regular houseplant soil and ½ cactus soil. Or, mix ⅔ houseplant and ⅓ perlite. Both will give you a nice loose mix that doesn’t hold too much water, and has lots of air in it. It’s the answer to your Prayer Plant’s prayers.
Once you have your Prayer Plant in the right soil, don’t be in a hurry to repot. Prayer Plants don’t do well in lots of soil, because without roots sucking up the water, it stays wet too long. Wait until the pot is full of roots – slide it carefully out to take a look – and then only pot into a slightly bigger pot. Early spring, as light levels are going up, is the best time for repotting – never do it when your plant is resting.
Secret #3 – this is the last big secret to success with Prayer Plants – and with all your other houseplants too. Are you ready? Feed them. Yep, that’s it. Use any balanced houseplant food that goes on with water – not spikes or granules, which cause too much food in one spot, and not enough in others. It can be organic or chemical, expensive or cheap, they all do pretty much the same job, of feeding your plants the minerals they need. Follow the directions carefully. It’s amazing how many people don’t do this – and then wonder why their plants are not doing well.
Often full-strength once a month is about right, but some people prefer to use ½ strength every two weeks, or even ¼ strength every week. Only feed when your plants need watering, and only feed between about March and October – not during winter. That’s the time you want to keep your plant resting, because light levels will be low. So if you use grow-lights, then you can feed all year round.
Now You are Growing Prayer Plants
That’s it – bright light, correct watering technique, suitable soil, and food. Check out our blog on the different kinds of Prayer Plants, to learn more about these cool plants.