Some Advice About Natural Additives for Houseplants

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By: Eleanor Moyer, Master Gardener℠ volunteer of Clay County

One raw, dreary day, I shambled down to the workroom to be greeted by the enchanting scent of orange blossoms-well lemon blossoms, to be accurate. My old and beloved Meyer lemon tree was putting out flowers! These plants do bloom all year, but not this amount at this time of year as it also has fruit ripening on its branches. Clearly, it was inaccurately fertilized. It was an easy mistake to make as many folks look to fertilization as a cure-all for anything that ails a plant, when a bit more research would both cure and revitalize it. The good news is that the fertilizer improperly used was developed for citrus plants, and since beginning use, the tree has been a prolific producer of those juicy, thin-skinned, and expensive fruits. Besides that, product, I think African violet food is worth the trouble as it strengthens growth and increases bloom.

There are about 20 elemental nutrients plants need to thrive. The creation of chemical fertilizers has been a boon to food production worldwide. But too much of a good thing can be, well, not so good, and that extends even to houseplants. If one tablespoon of fertilizer is good, then three may not be better. Over-fertilizing plants will result in a buildup of salts and weak, leggy growth. Using the right amount at the correct intervals will help houseplants flourish. Winter is definitely the time to lower amounts and frequency of fertilization, but they do need enrichment to look their best.

Many houseplants become deficient in micronutrients. Repotting with fresh, nutrient-rich potting soil every year or two will suffice. Adding compost to carefully loosened soil will also work. There are many natural additives to enrich your plants. Magnesium leaches from soil each time you water. It can be replaced with a tablespoon of Epsom salts to a gallon of water twice a year. This can also be applied as a foliar spray. Be careful to avoid carnivorous plants like a venus fly trap since they can only survive in nutrient-deficient soil. Coffee grounds are excellent for African violets, jade plants, Christmas cactus and other acid-loving plants. Green tea is another additive for plants in acidic soil. Eggshells are calcium carbonate. The trick is aiding the breakdown so the resultant calcium is absorbable. After rinsing and drying the shells, grind them to a fine powder (in a coffee grinder, for instance). The powder is great for both indoor and outdoor plants. If you are lucky enough to own an aquarium, you have what Dave’s Garden calls “liquid gold” in the used water obtained when cleaning the tank. Just apply it when watering plants. Actually, any cooled cooking water contains plant nutrients. Molasses at a rate of 2 TBL per gallon of water occasionally, offers absorbable iron and other trace elements.

If you are interested in becoming an Extension Master Gardener℠ Volunteer of Clay County, submit your application for the 2024 intern class. More details can be found at or call the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Clay County Center at (828) 389-6305.