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Back to My Roots

How to: Experiment with aroid growth mediums

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When I first got into plants, I wanted the prettiest pots for all my plants and would buy MiracleGro cactus potting soil to repot immediately upon purchase. While there didn’t seem to be any issues, my plants also didn’t thrive.

This summer, I experimented with mixing my own soils and different growth mediums to determine what my plants prefer and what’s easiest for me to implement. Different plants have different needs, so putting all my plants in a cactus mix is unlikely to succeed. It’s great for succulents and cacti, but peace lilies? Calatheas and ferns? They’ve left the chat.

I started digging into soil mixes for aroids, since the majority of my collection falls within the aroid category. Aroids are generally understory plants in the tropics; some are climbers, like the pothos and philodendron, while others, like peace lilies, remain on the floor. 

Because aroids are susceptible to root rot and prefer to dry out between waterings, making sure they’re in a well-draining mix is key. Cactus soil is a good option, but it doesn’t necessarily mimic the natural environment of the plants.

I really want massive leaves on my aroids, so mimicking their natural environment will be a big help. Typically, aroids are found in tropical regions in Latin America, Asia, and Europe, and can be aquatic, epiphytic, or terrestrial. This means they can be growing in water, the air, or the ground — so there are lots of different options for aroid mediums.

In houseplant care, aroids are typically grown in hydroponic systems like sphagnum moss, semi-hydro systems, or soil; each medium has its own benefits.

Semi-hydro systems, or LECA (Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate) systems, use clay balls as their growth medium. LECA elevates the roots above the bottom of the container. The LECA absorbs the water and brings it up to the roots, where the plant can take what it needs without becoming overwatered. 

Semi-hydro systems also reduce pests, because there are no nutrients in the LECA and the plant is less susceptible to rot, so the pests don’t have anything to munch on. Semi-hydro also allows you to check in on your plants, since the roots are always visible. However, unlike soil, LECA doesn’t have any of its own nutrients, so adding nutrients to plants is key in semi-hydro systems.

Growing plants in sphagnum moss is a new favorite for me because, like with LECA, I’m able to watch the root growth, and the moss retains moisture, so I don’t have to water very often. For plants that like to stay particularly wet or are working on establishing root systems, sphagnum is a good option. I let my moss dry out almost completely before watering again to ensure I don’t cause root rot, since moss does retain moisture really well.

Moss is also excellent if you’re planning to repot to soil after rooting, as it makes the transition period much easier. But, like LECA, sphagnum moss doesn’t contain nutrients, so they’ll have to be added to provide the plant with all the good stuff it needs to keep thriving.

For the aroids in soil (which most of mine are), I got my soil recipe inspiration from the Plant Daddy Podcast, a local, intersectional horticultural podcast. In an episode about soil substrates, I learned how key it is to customize your soil recipes to match the native environment of your plants. 

For aroids specifically, the podcast stressed the importance of well-draining and airy soils. I initially thought these were different ways of saying the same thing, but boy, was I wrong. Something that is airy is also well-draining, but something that is well-draining isn’t necessarily airy.

Discovering this, I combined chunky substrate ingredients to create my perfect blend of airy and well-draining for my aroids. I use a standard houseplant potting mix (note: this is not a cactus mix), perlite, orchid bark, charcoal, and LECA at varying amounts, depending on the plant and the pot it’s going into.

For a plant that’s going into terracotta, I might use more potting mix than chunky ingredients, because terracotta wicks moisture away and I don’t want to be watering every five seconds. For a plant going into a ceramic pot, I’ll ease up on the potting mix, since ceramic holds moisture in; I’ll also want to add the chunky ingredients to ensure a well-draining soil.

Similarly, for plants with different care needs, I’ll adjust the amounts of each ingredient. My thirsty gals require a lot of potting soil with some chunkiness, so they drain but still hold on to moisture for longer. For my plants that want to stay on the drier side, I use lots of chunks.

In making the soil mixtures airy, the aroids have space to grow their roots, which helps them become thick and strong like they would in their natural environment.

Experimenting with different growth mediums has been a lot of the fun in houseplant collecting. Some plants just do better in different substrates; almost all of my super expensive plants are thriving in moss, while my basic b------ are living their best lives in chunky soils.

Depending on your lifestyle, one substrate might work best for you. If you’re a chronic overwaterer, maybe try LECA or chunkier soils; and if you forget to water your plants, sphagnum will probably work better. If you like to stick to the basics, you can still get creative with your soil mixtures.

Reach Health & Wellness Editor Iseabel Nance at arts@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @iseabel

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