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How to turn gift plants into long-term houseplants

Combination houseplant gardens are best separated into individual plants for long-term survival. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service1 / 4
Cut through soil to separate individual plants if they’ve been planted in groupings. Small plants could still be in individual pots. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service2 / 4
Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service3 / 4
Don Kinzler, Growing Together gardening columnist. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service4 / 4

Topics for our weekly garden column often originate from what's happening in our own gardening life. My wife, Mary, recently experienced the passing of her mother, Betty Schouviller. At the funeral, Mary received houseplants, a dish garden and a spring bulb garden among the many floral gifts. As we took the live plants home, it occurred to me that many people are similarly faced with how best to care for these houseplants after a funeral or a hospital stay.

These plants hold important memories. The death of a relative or a stay in the hospital are tender times, and the last thing wanted is for the plants to die. Most houseplants gifted for funerals or hospital stays are dressed up in ways detrimental to the plant's long-term health, if we simply take the plant home and attempt to grow them in their decorated style. Most are in ornamental containers or baskets that lack drainage, which is a quick recipe for failure.

Here are my recommendations for houseplant care after a funeral or hospital stay.

Combination dish gardens

• Gift-type dish gardens are assembled from multiple small plants closely arranged in a decorative container or basket to appear instantly full and pretty, but they're usually not meant to remain together for long-term growth. Plant types grow at different rates, and slower types will be overshadowed. Limited container space doesn't provide room for future plant development, causing overcrowding and eventual decline. Separating the plants is best.

• Although they're pretty, first remove decorative bows, colorful pot wraps and pebbles or moss covering the soil, to better focus on plants and their health.

• Check the container to determine if the small plants are still in individual pots clustered closely together, with pots concealed under moss or pebbles. These dish gardens are easy to disassemble by simply removing individual pots from the collective container and repotting each separately in slightly larger pots for continued growth. One dish garden yields multiple beautiful houseplants.

• If dish garden plants are actually planted into the decorative container's soil, the soil can be carefully cut into blocks with a knife, giving each plant its own root cube. Then pot separately.

Single-potted houseplants

• Remove decorative pot wrap, ribbons, outer baskets and other ornaments.

• It's dangerous to keep houseplants in baskets or pot liners because excess drainage is easily concealed inside the base. Pot bottoms sitting in water quickly cause plant decline.

• Many gift-type houseplants are in pots large enough for another year or more of plant growth. If the plant seems crowded, now's the time to replant into a pot several inches larger in diameter.

Spring flowering bulb gardens

• These can be saved for perennial beds. For best success, locate blooming pots of tulips, hyacinths, daffodils and crocus in a sunny but cool window location.

• While plants are blooming and leaves are healthy, fertilize weekly with water-soluble fertilizer. Keep soil moist, drying just slightly between waterings. Fertilizer and sun are vital to rebuild the bulbs' strength if you'd like to add them to future outdoor flowerbeds.

• When the leaves begin to turn yellow in several weeks, discontinue watering. When leaves turn brown and paper-dry, cut off foliage, remove bulbs from pot, shake off soil and store in a brown paper bag in a dark location, until fall.

• In September, plant the dormant bulbs in a flowerbed, and if they re-energized themselves sufficiently, they'll grow and bloom the following spring. Saving potted bulbs is not always successful, but worth a try with little to lose.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler's Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at

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