‘Houseplant Guru’ opens her Livonia home, shares tips

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Lisa Eldred Steinkopf’s shower serves two purposes in her Livonia home – one is for bathing, of course. But it’s also a great place to rinse off large houseplants that need a good dusting.

Dust is a plant lover’s nemesis. It can prevent sunlight from penetrating a plant’s leaves so that’s why cleaning them is essential, says Steinkopf, the author of last fall’s “Houseplants: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Growing, and Caring for Indoor Plants” (Cool Springs Press, $30). And what better place to give them a good rinse then the shower?

“Sun is food for your plant,” says Steinkopf. “...When you wipe (a leaf) off, that’s going to help the sun get to that leaf. That’s why I tell people to wash their plants. Either you wash them or get your sponge out or two gloves. Or you take it and throw it in the shower. They love that. You’re watering it and you’re getting the dust off.”

Steinkopf would know. Dubbed the “Houseplant guru” by fellow gardening expert (and Homestyle columnist) Nancy Szerlag, Steinkopf is an expert at growing and nurturing plants. She has more than 200 on the first floor alone of her eclectic Livonia home, everything from succulents and cacti to ferns and snake plants. Many are grown in a sunroom she and her husband converted into a greenhouse.

Steinkopf grew up surrounded by plants and gardens during her childhood in a small town near Mount Pleasant. Her husband John’s family, meanwhile, owns Steinkopf Nursery in Farmington Hills.

Today, she’s so good at nurturing plants that she still has part of a fern that her great-grandmother, Alice Eldred, gave her own mother at her mom’s 1957 bridal shower.

“I love sentimental plants,” says Steinkopf, who also has a horticulture degree and was the annuals and houseplants manager for Steinkopf Nursery for more than a decade. “When people tell me about plants they’ve had in their family for 100 years, I love it.”

Approached to write a book in 2016 after blogging about plants for years, Steinkopf says the reaction to it has been really good and hints another one could be down the road. “We’re just throwing some ideas around,” she says.

Homestyle sat down with Steinkopf earlier this month at her home in Livonia – where she loves to collect everything from flamingo art to vintage needlepoint – to get some tips. She says she wants to help people succeed with plants as much as possible. And even if you kill that succulent you love so much, don’t despair. It’s part of the learning process.

“If you don’t kill a plant there’s something wrong with you,” she says.

Have you noticed an increased interest in houseplants?

Definitely. There are houseplant shops popping up. Instagram is insane. I think it’s because of millenials. Kids love plants. They’re taking care of them, they’re really cool looking. I have two moms at church that come up to me, ‘It’s all your fault my table is filled with plants.’ I hope it’s a fad that continues. Kids really like them, they’re green, they’re healthy. They’re popular with everybody. And it is proven that they’re therapy. They lower your blood pressure, they give us clean air.

What are some easy plants to get started with?

The aglaonema (Chinese evergreen), any of them. The ZZ plant. Tillandsia (air plants) as long as you don’t just mist them. That’s not enough water. And they need a lot of light.

What’s the key to watering? In your book, you write that watering practices are the biggest killer of plants.

Every plant is watered the same. Every plant, when you water it, should have a drainage hole and you water until the water runs out the bottom. Never leave it in standing water for more than half an hour or so. You’re going to dump that out. Whatever it’ll soak up at that point, it soaks up. Your cactus you may not water again for a month or two months even – if it’s in the winter and we have low light. Then again a fern may need water again in a week or so. So you water them the same. I used to think a cactus just needed a little bit of water. But no, you water every plant until the water runs through because that’s what draws oxygen in. It’s making sure that your roots are getting water all the way down to the bottom. And always water all the way around.

And how do you know the right time to water a plant?

I can just tell when it needs water. But stick your finger down in the soil. If you come up and say ‘That’s dry down about an inch, I should probably give it a good drink.’ I tell people ‘Don’t water on a schedule. But check your plants on a schedule.’

Do people give up on plants too easily?

It’s right plant, right place. If you’re living in a basement or you have a north window and you’re trying to grow an African violet, it may not work. The highest light plant I can think of is a fiddle leaf fig. It’s the most popular thing to grow right now and they’re not easy. They need a lot of light to grow. You can look at them as decoration as long as you have them in enough light. You have to have the right plant in the right place. That’s why the ZZ plant is great.

Succulents are so popular. What are some good options for Michigan?

Haworthia limifolia or Fairy Washboard. It’s one of my favorite plants. It’s a haworthia and they’re a very good succulent for Michigan because they can take quite a lot less light than what you’d think of for a succulent. The key with succulents is light and water. When they’re on a patio, you’re going to water them quite a bit all summer long. But then you bring them in and you may still water them the same way and then they have no light because you’re in Michigan. They don’t like to be cold. A plant that’s cold, if you keep it dry, that’s OK. Succulents don’t mind that at all. If they’re warm, you can give them water and if they have enough light. Otherwise keep them way on the dry side.

Let’s talk about light.

If you have sun that comes in in the morning, your house faces east. If your sun goes down in your window, that window faces west. If the sun is in your house in the middle day, it’s south. The high-light plants are going to go in the south and west. East is a nice, soft light. That’s for your ferns, begonia, aglaonema. South is where you want to put your cacti, succulents. Or a west window. That west window and east window are kind of the same but that west window is a lot hotter than that east morning sun.

What do you say to people who insist they don’t have a green thumb?

You’re not born with a green thumb. You may have an affinity for plants but all you have to do is get the right plant, right place. Don’t put a cactus in the basement or try to grow it in a dark corner. It’s not going to live. You get a fern with a little bit of light, or get some electric lights. You can grow anything.


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Twitter: @mfeighan