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Guest Blog | How to Clean Your Plants

David Liu unpacks how to clean your plants and properly take care of them.

Image Source:  David Liu  


Cleaning your indoor plants is more important than you think

Did you know that there is more that goes into making sure that your plants look and feel great when keeping them indoors?  In today's blog, the owner and president of Foliage Design Systems, David Liu is leading the interiorscape authority. He unpacks the importance of making sure that your indoor plants are cleaned and properly taken care of. Take a look at how to clean your indoor plants:



Here are some reasons why

Plants lack several things when placed indoors that are chiefly provided in their natural environments. The most obvious is light, water and nutrients. But there are other environmental factors that are a part of a plant’s life in a natural setting that they receive. However, we can save that discussion for another day. For the purposes of the title “How to Clean Your Plants”, the missing elements that indoor plants miss are rain and wind, both which help keep the plants clean. This neither exists in the house, so dirt tends to build up easily. 

Well, think about how often surfaces are cleaned in your home. Generally, at least every two weeks; daily in a commercial setting such as an office building, depending upon how much, or how little, of a clean freak you are. How often do you change the filters in your air conditioning unit? You do know they have filters, don’t you? How often do you make your own pizzas from scratch? Flipping pizzas gets flour dust everywhere; just try taking care of plants in the pizza parlor. You get the picture. It seems that without diligent attention, or a professional service, plants never get dusted or cleaned.



How to keep your indoor plants clean

People are afraid to clean their plants, thinking them to be way too fragile. But plants are tougher than you would think. Rinsing them down with plain water works fine, provided that the water is not freezing cold and you use enough. Of course, do not do this in your living room, and do not do this on the 5th floor deck of your apartment, unless you know that the decks on floors 4, 3, 2 and 1 are not hosting a cocktail party. Ask me how I know this? We actually use an electric pressure washer. No, not close enough to send shredded leaves blowing across the driveway at 100 miles per hour. Hold it back until you get a fine spray just hard enough to make the leaves jitter. Another option is the shower; just like you do with your dog; admit it.

I’ve read that using soap on your plants is not recommended because the same “grease cutting” power can damage a plant’s waxy cuticle. The professional industry has been soaping plants down until they are foaming and frothing like they are midway through a Mr. Bubbles Car Wash. Some get rinsed well, some do not. We tend to use Dawn dishwashing liquid, but all kinds of soaps have been used over the years. We have also used a commercial preparation designed specifically for plants that was based upon citric acid and a surfactant. It was the best plant cleaner ever, and never damaged plants if you used it right. But it would etch concrete, stone, tile and damage wood.



a photo of plants being cleaned



Cleaning with soaps

The key with all soaps is to spray it on, and do not let it dry on the leaf surface. Do not do this in full sun. Rinse it off starting at the top of the plant and working to the lowest point, using copious volumes of water. Some plants you can lean over, to avoid too much run off into the pot. If your plant is really dirty, this may take repeated applications, just like the shampoo bottle says.


When a plant is wet, they look clean, just like your car; so do the white glove test. You can find the dirt with your fingers. Plants can also be wiped down with a wet cloth, but only plants with a sturdy waxy leaf. Be sure to support the plant leaf from the bottom. Some plants  have textures that can be felt, so wipe in one direction, usually from the base to the tip.

Professionals dust plants weekly with feather dusters and other synthetic-type dusters; and in doing so, washing can be avoided. It is also important to avoid cleaning certain plant types.

With no more than a gentle spray of water, no soap, and no hand wiping. These include plants such as gesneriads or any plant with hairy leaves. Also avoid succulents and ferns. While some plant leaf cleaners are commercially available, many are just mineral oil based or other coatings that do not clean plants but do leave a nice shine. I don’t have a problem with that; just don’t go overboard and make your plant look like a custom Ferrari with 12 coats of clear lacquer.


I have diagnosed the death, decline or damage to thousands of plants over the years, but the problem is rarely due to the proper cleaning of a plant with mild soap and water. I have diagnosed far too many plants that have declined due to a buildup of dirt, dust and grease (restaurant).


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Posted by David Liu

David is the owner and president of Foliage Design Systems. Leading Interiorscape authority. Long-standing board member and former president of the National Horticulture Foundation and current chair of the research committee. AmericanHort Interior Plantscape Hall of Fame 2012 Inductee. Former author of monthly "Ask the Expert" column and bimonthly "In Liu Of" column in Interiorscape Magazine. National lecturer.



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