150 Tips: 5 Houseplant Care Ideas from the Past (That Still Work)

The Minnesota State Horticultural Society was founded by people who wanted to grow apples and other fruits in a northern climate. But from its earliest days of publishing gardening tips, the society had broad interests-including in houseplant care. Here’s how plant lovers of more than 100 years ago would have cared for their indoor plants.


sun and houseplants

Look for a south-facing window for houseplants, where even in January the sun is bright.


Find the right light. Mrs. Gen. Van Cleave of Minneapolis wrote about houseplants frequently in the early days of the hort society, advising in 1875, that growers look for sunny spots for their geraniums, coleus, saxifrage and silver-edged vincas. “A south bay window is the proper one in which to keep plants-one catching the morning sun is of all things desirable,” she said. “Plants are sun-worshipers and they thrive much the best when they attend to their devotions in early morning hours.”

Grow cyclamen from seed. Cyclamen has been a reliable and popular houseplant since the early days of the hort society. In 1882, James Bowen recommended growing cyclamen from seed indoors. Here’s how he did it: In early February, plant the seed into a shallow pan with 2 to 3 inches of a potting mix (Bowen recommended a combination of sand, leaf mold and moss.) Place in indirect light and mist the soil surface whenever it appears dry. Seedlings will emerge in about three weeks, Bowen said. A few weeks later, transplant carefully into small pots. Place them outside when the weather warms in spring. Bring them indoors in fall in a sunny window and watch them flower.

Add humidity for healthy houseplants. Whether your house is too warm or too cold in winter, it’s almost certainly too dry for most houseplants, according to Mrs. A.W. Massee of Albert Lea, who wrote in a 1903 issue of Minnesota Horticulturist. To supplement the humidity, she recommended keeping a vessel with water on the stove or a nearby radiator or laying sponges saturated with water around and among the plants. Modern growers have the benefit of pebble trays to their houseplant care toolbox. For watering, she waited until plants were very dry, then watered them thoroughly, using soft water that is warm but not hot. Great advice — then and now!

Give plants a shower. Here’s another houseplant care tip from Mrs. Massee that many northern gardeners follow today. Give plants a shower. She wrote, “if your home is dusty, wash plants off occasionally with a spray of water,” to keep them healthy and looking good.


golden flax blooms indoors

Many outdoor plants can be kept indoors in winter. Golden flax will often bloom in winter months.


Bring outdoor plants indoors for winter joy. Not all houseplants have to be tropical. Many northern gardeners brought plants they loved inside during the winter. Geraniums, fuschia and coleus were often brought inside for winter. In 1881, Hortense Share of Rosemount recommended a long list of plants to grow indoors. One of her favorites was golden flax (Linum flavum) which blooms only in winter and adds a cheery yellow note to your indoor garden.

We’ll be sharing more tips on the blog and in Northern Gardener magazine throughout 2022 on houseplant care and all aspects of gardening from the hort society’s 150 years of publishing gardening information. Stay tuned!


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