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Indoor Gardening Guide: Tips and Tricks from the Archives

Indoor gardens have been used to add character and glamour to homes for centuries. Taking care of plants can be a calming escape from the stressors of everyday life and can provide both physiological and psychological health benefits as well. Whether you're an experienced gardener looking to try new methods, or a beginner having trouble keeping even the hardiest of plants alive, these tips and tricks have lasted the test of time and will help your indoor garden thrive. You'll be enjoying the benefits of gorgeous, healthy plants and impressing your friends, family, and guests in no time.

In March of 1939, Better Homes and Gardens readers were assured that anyone could grow a successful garden indoors, even those who believed they were missing the "green thumb" that their mother or grandmothers must have had to grow beautiful ferns, fuchsias, and begonias in their homes and coax flowers from even the most stubborn of plants.

It's easy to blame failing houseplants on the absence of a "green thumb," but "Mother's and grandmother's plants grew, not because of green thumbs, but because they were treated as living, feeling beings that required the same common-sense care as the canary or any other house pet" (Better Homes & Gardens, Indoor Gardening Guide, March 1939).

Plants need a few basic necessities to survive and thrive in the household setting. They need sunlight and water like any plant, but sometimes they also require additional nutrients, cleansing, and care due to the dry indoor environment of the home. Once the basics are covered, there are numerous fun tips and tricks to solve problems that may arise and to grow strong and healthy plants in surprising and unique ways. For example: Cutting up a pineapple for dinner? Save the top to plant to bring a piece of the tropics to your kitchen windowsill! (Better Homes & Gardens, Indoor Gardening Guide, April 1940)

A Flowery Foundation: Starting an Indoor Garden in Your Home

Knowing what type of plants to choose and where to place them in your home is the first step toward growing a successful indoor garden. Looking back at the architecture of historic homes during periods when indoor plants were especially popular, like the Victorian Era, shows that many houses had large bay windows and even greenhouses or conservatories that catered to growing and displaying indoor gardens. Today, urban living and structural changes to buildings can make things a bit trickier—but a little challenge simply adds more fun to the gardening process. Here's how to start an indoor garden that works with your home and lifestyle.

Assess your sunlight. Do you have windows facing the south with hours upon hours of warm sunshine? If yes, you have a wonderful advantage. Plants should be placed in a sunny location if possible, like a windowsill, with as much direct light touching them as possible. Why is this key? Because sunlight allows plants to complete photosynthesis and produce chlorophyll—a necessary part of their lifecycle. If your living room or kitchen windows are facing the north and only see a bit of the sun, choose a plant that can withstand low-light conditions, like a fern, spider plant, or African violet. There are even some plants that you can turn to that require no sunlight to thrive, like pothos. (Better Homes & Gardens, Indoor Gardening Guide, February 1940).

Create a Care Routine. Depending on the plant you choose and its specific needs, you will need to water it to make sure it's staying hydrated, feed it with a plant food or fertilizer mix every few months, and occasionally clean the leaves with a damp cloth to ensure cleanliness. Regularly checking for mold or pests can help determine if your routine is working and can help you decide what modifications may be necessary, like reducing your waterings. It's also important to occasionally trim or thin out plants when they become too big, and repot in bigger pots as they grow to avoid overcrowding. (Better Homes & Gardens, Indoor Gardening Guide, March 1939)

If all of this seems a bit overwhelming, start with a succulent, cactus, or bamboo plant. These hardy varieties thrive with minimal care. Women in the early 1940s grew succulents in fun pots to add a touch of playfulness to their indoor gardens, and even used them as fashion accessories, like corsages that lasted much longer than those made of cut flowers and could be replanted for future use. Today, succulents are more popular than ever. Plant one in a quick-draining soil blend, like a mix of soil and course sand, then water every couple of weeks to enjoy the plant's unique textures and colors. Feeling extra spunky? Try making a DIY succulent wreath or adding a few to a living wall in your home. (Better Homes & Gardens, Indoor Gardening Guide, March 1943)

When the Waters Get Rough: Troubleshooting to Avoid Disaster

Covering the basics may sound easy, but as many have experienced before, plants are living organisms that can have temperaments of their own. Problems can arise seemingly out of the blue, no matter how hard you try to provide the best atmosphere and care possible. But don't fret! Try these tips to help fend off possible troubles, and to react with confidence and ease if they do come along.

Make Your Own Sun. If your plants are losing leaves, developing root rot, showing signs of etiolation (growing lanky stems with a pale yellow or faint green coloring), or leaning sharply toward the sun, they may not be getting enough sunlight. Artificial light sources like fluorescent or incandescent lights can provide them with the additional light needed for proper photosynthesis. (Better Homes & Gardens, Indoor Gardening Guide, April 1940)

Get Creative with Your Watering Techniques. Watering plants in hard-to-reach places or unique pots can be a bit tricky. Try Mrs. Will Merck's tip of adding holes to the bottom and sides of a plastic funnel and gently pushing it into the center of a hanging flower basket to create a mini irrigation system for simple and even watering. Or try a self-watering system like a glass watering bulb for an easy, hands-off approach. (Better Homes & Gardens, Indoor Gardening Guide, April 1940)

Take on the Role of Mother Nature. "Spray your own dew" by lightly misting the leaves of your plants so they don't dry out. If you're growing microgreens to provide color and yummy nutrition to your meals, misting up to twice daily can ensure proper growth and a bountiful yield. Misting is also extremely beneficial for homes that are lacking humidity. Be careful not to overmist, however, because some plants become finicky when they get too wet. Orchids, for example, do not fare well when water drips into their crown, so watering the soil directly is preferred. (Better Homes & Gardens, Indoor Gardening Guide, April 1940)

Tricks for Your Indoor Gardening Toolbox

Now it's time to branch out and have a little fun with your indoor garden plants. Try one of these fun tricks to diverge from the ordinary and add variety to your garden.

Turn Household Items into Multitasking Pros. Get crafty with common household items to create fun garden surprises. Sprinkle a thoroughly-moistened sponge with parsley seeds, then hang with string in your windowsill for a one-of-a-kind herb garden. Or use small containers like clean, used yogurt cups, ice cream cones, or even egg shells for helpful seedling starters. (Better Homes & Gardens, Indoor Gardening Guide, April 1940)

Repurpose Your Produce. Don't throw away that lettuce head stub or the tips of those green onions! Many vegetables and lettuces can be easily regrown in the kitchen. Cut the leaves off a lettuce head to eat, leaving about an inch connected the bottom, then submerge the root-side in a bowl of water. Place in a sunny spot and change the water every few days, then harvest once fully grown (about 10 days). This works well with other greens, too, like celery and green onions. You can also use cuttings or seeds from produce like tomatoes, avocados, and ginger to regrow your own harvest in your kitchen. (Better Homes & Gardens, Indoor Gardening Guide, April 1940)

Add a Touch of the Tropics. Some produce can be replanted, but for aesthetic purposes only. "Alligator Pear" (avocado) seeds, or the seeds from any other tropical fruit like mangos, can be replanted for gorgeous green plants that, unfortunately, will only be for looking during the first few years. (Better Homes & Gardens, Indoor Gardening Guide, April 1940)

Enjoy Plants Without Getting Your Hands Dirty

Indoor gardening isn't limited to physically growing plants. It can also mean arranging cut flowers to add beauty and nature to the home. In the mid-1940s, arranging flowers and even fruit was a common and much-loved way of brightening rooms or kitchen tables and enjoying the fruits of outdoor gardens.

Today, gifting cut flowers often marks a celebration or shows love and affection for a special someone. Arranging beautiful blooms from the outdoors or from loved ones can be a welcome mindfulness activity and a creative outlet. "Psychiatrists and common sense tell us everyone needs some creative mental relief from routine" (Better Homes & Gardens, Indoor Gardening Guide, July 1942). Try these tricks to keep your cut flowers looking fresh for longer.

Pay Attention to the Water. Cut flowers will last longer if they are properly hydrated with fresh, clean water. Change out the water in the vase daily, or try the timeless trick of placing charcoal in the water for extra longevity. Adding a splash of vodka to the water is another trick to help minimize bacterial growth. (Better Homes & Gardens, Indoor Gardening Guide, June 1939)

Seal Stems. Keep the nutrients and necessary "juices" in the flowers' stems by sealing the cut stem with the open flame from a lighter or by placing the tip in boiling water for 30 seconds. (Better Homes & Gardens, Indoor Gardening Guide, June 1939)

Try Hot Water Revival. Hot water can be used to seal stems, but it can also be used to revive wilted flowers. "Cut off about an inch of the stems under water as hot as your hand can stand. Leave the flowers in hot water until it cools. They'll revive quickly and are then ready to arrange" (Better Homes & Gardens, Indoor Gardening Guide, June 1939).

See More Gardening Tips from the Archives