SAE: Renovating an Overgrown Houseplant Business

Teachers, Parents, Neighbors... What do they all have in common? Overgrown, pot-bound house plants! Here is an opportunity to use those skills you have learned in your horticulture class and make some money.

Branching, shrub-like houseplants, such as scented geranium, hibiscus, flowering maple, begonia, and schefflera, need regular pruning to keep them healthy and attractive. Ideally, we should begin pruning while the plant is small. By pinching back growing tips regularly, to get a full, dense growth and an attractive shape. But so many people forget or do not know how to properly prune or repot a houseplant. However, if the plants have become overgrown and leggy, tell that so to be customer of yours not to despair. Most plants can be renovated to bring them back to their ideal form. Although you can prune houseplants any time of year, radical pruning is best done in the spring at the start of the growing season. The plant will looks sparse for a while, but should quickly sport lush new growth.

Here's how to renovate a scented geranium.

Tools and Materials

Step 1: Size up the plant. Is there one central stalk, or are there several shoots arising from the crown? Is there new growth sprouting from the crown? Has the plant lost all its lower leaves? Are there any sprouts along the main stem? This scented geranium has gotten tall and sparse. There is one main stem, which quickly splits off into four branches.

Step 2: Know where to make the cuts. When pruning, always cut back to just above a node--the area where a leaf or branch meets a stem. If you look closely you may be able to see a small bud, called an axillary bud. If the leaves have fallen and the stem is bare, look for the leaf scar that indicates where a leaf was attached at a node, and make the cut above that. Nodes have latent buds that will sprout once the main shoot is removed. It's best to leave some foliage on a plant so it can continue to photosynthesize and manufacture food for growth.

Step 3: Prune the plant. A good place to begin is to prune back half of the longest branches back to about a third their length. If these branches have side shoots even further down toward their base, you can prune all the way back to those shoots. Since this geranium has four main branches with lots of sprouts, we'll prune two of the branches back hard, almost to their bases, and we'll make less drastic cuts on the remaining stems, leaving some foliage. (A side benefit of pruning is that you can root the cuttings!)

Step 4: Fertilize, and repot if necessary. Fertilize the plant with a soluble, all-purpose fertilizer diluted as instructed on the label. Check to see if the plant needs repotting. If roots are growing out of the drainage holes, or if you remove the plant from its container and see mostly roots with little soil, it's time to repot. This geranium can stay in its current container for a little longer.


  • Since drastic pruning stresses a plant, place it in a bright spot out of direct sun for a week or so, then return it to its former home.
  • Since you have reduced the amount of foliage on the plant, it will probably require less water than before pruning, so adjust accordingly.
  • You should see new growth within a week or two. Once new shoots have two sets of leaves, pinch out growing tips to encourage branching, and continue doing this on subsequent branches.
  • Some plants will resprout even if you cut the entire plant back to its base; however, removing all the foliage is stressful to a plant. If you have just one central stem, you may need to resort to such severe pruning and hope the plant is strong enough to recover

Written by Teri Hamlin, 2002

Step 1

Step 2

Step 3

Step 4


Factors To Consider


1 = lowest

10 = highest

Time required


Investment 3
Equipment needed 2
Skills required 7
Facilities required 2
Land required 1
Labor Intensity 5
Potential for income 7
Transportation required 1
Expansion possibilities 7
Expertise needed 8
Advertising needed 8
Susceptible to disease 6
Susceptible to insects 6
Suitable for residential areas 10
  Other (specify)
Length of production cycle Year round
Regional All
When to start project Anytime



Houseplants 101

Once you identify your client's houseplant, find out what its likes and dislikes are. Houseplants grown by large commercial growers are usually sold with fairly informative tags attached. The tag should provide such basic information as the amount of light the plant needs, how much water it requires, etc. If an informational tag is not included, ask a knowledgeable clerk or look up the plant's requirements in a book specifically about houseplants. Once you're armed with the information, finding just the place to make your houseplant thrive may still be a matter of trial-and-error. A few basic rules, however, apply:

Begin by taking an inventory of the light levels in your various rooms at different times of the day. The bathroom and kitchen may have relatively high levels of humidity (which houseplants like), but low levels of light. The picture window in your living room may be flooded with light in the morning, but the drapes will need to be open for it to benefit your houseplants. A spare bedroom may stay relatively dark and cool most of the time. Try different houseplants in different rooms. Any houseplant will respond to its new location in a week or so, letting you know whether or not it's happy. And be prepared for happy accidents: If your piggyback plant is happiest on top of the refrigerator (even though it doesn't seem to make any sense to you), by all means, leave it there.

When you're told that a houseplant needs "plenty of light," that doesn't mean direct sunlight. Very few are the houseplants that can tolerate direct sunlight (especially when intensified by a glass window). Shear curtains are excellent at diffusing direct sunlight, creating an excellent environment for houseplants that need "plenty of light."

Any houseplant that gets "leggy," like an asparagus fern that sends out seven-foot runners, is searching for more light. Conversely, a stunted houseplant, or one with burned, crisp leaves, is receiving too much light.


Each houseplant has its own requirements for water but, again, a few basics apply across the board:

When you water, do so thoroughly until water drains out of the bottom of the pot. If the water doesn't drain all the way through, you haven't watered enough.

Always test the soil before watering: More houseplants die from overwatering than any other reason. Press your finger into the soil to the depth of an inch or so. If the soil is damp at that level, there's no need to water. Check the plant again in another few days. It's okay for a houseplant to dry out slightly between waterings, particularly during winter when growth has slowed. If the foliage of any houseplants begins to droop even slightly, water immediately and completely.

Oddly enough, using a lightweight soil mix (as mentioned below) will do more to correct watering problems than any other measure. A soil mix specially prepared for houseplants permits good drainage while at the same time encouraging water retention. The combination of a heavy, dense soil and regular watering spell death for almost any houseplant.

Houses are built to give their human inhabitants a more comfortable climate. More often than not, the indoor climate is characterized by low humidity and a fairly even 72 degrees F, not exactly the ideal conditions for growing jungle plants. That said, there are a number of ways you can boost the humidity for indoor plants short of converting your living room into a greenhouse.

Group houseplants together in a large planter and place moist sphagnum moss around them, or set individual pots on the surface of pebbles in a shallow plastic or metal tray. Keep water in the tray so the bases of the pots touch the water.

Spraying leaves often with tepid water helps increase humidity and keep the foliage clean and healthy. Kitchens and bathrooms are natural places for higher humidity because of running water and escaping steam. A relatively inexpensive humidifier can be added to your central heating system, creating a more desirable climate for both houseplants and people.

Virtually all houseplants crave a loose, lightweight, fairly rich soil mix, one that allows for plenty of air circulation and good water retention. Experimenting with the proper proportions of sand, leafmold, vermiculite and other ingredients to come up with your own potting soil "recipe" is fine if you have the time and don't mind a few failures (and a lot of messes) along the way. The sure-fire method is to use a pre-packaged, sterilized soil mix. They are clean, easy to use, and relatively inexpensive. Just make sure to buy packaged soil labeled for use with houseplants; if you're not sure, ask the clerk at your nursery or garden center.

With roots restricted to a pot, houseplants are totally reliant on you to provide them with the nutrients they need for healthy growth. There are any number of excellent, all-purpose houseplant fertilizers on the market. Most houseplant aficionados favor liquid formulations for their ease of use and flexibility: Instead of a once-a-month full-strength feeding, houseplants benefit from the consistency of a every-two-week feeding with fertilizer mixed at one-half the recommended rate. And even though they are indoors, houseplants respond to the seasons just like their outdoor counterparts. Because of this, withhold fertilizer during the late fall and winter months, when plants are relatively inactive, and resume again once the daylight hours lengthen in spring.

Ten, Very Easy-to-Grow Houseplants
If your experience growing plants indoors has been less than successful, you can increase your success rate with any of the following ten, almost-indestructible houseplants: Chinese evergreen (Alglaomema modestum and A. simplex), cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior), spider plant (Chlorophytum elatum), dracaena, philodendron, grape ivy (Cissus), umbrella tree (Brassaia or Schefflera), arrowhead plant (Syngonium or Nephytis), and piggyback plant (Tolmiea menziesii).


Sources of Additional Information:


The Complete Book of Houseplants : A Practical Guide to Selecting and Caring for Houseplants -- by John Evans

Easy-Care Guide to Houseplants -- by Jack Kramer

Indoor Plants : The Essential Guide to Choosing and Caring for Houseplants -- by Jane Courtier

Websites: Guide to Growing Houseplants Proper care can extend houseplants' lives. All about houseplants, their variety and care. : House plants, all you will ever need to know on one website : Help For Your Indoor Plants -