Having an indoor garden and houseplants have many scientific benefits like helping to purify the air in your home and aiding in the reduction of stress. But I hear people say it all the time; “I just can’t seem to keep anything alive!” Well, I’m here to help you learn how to care for houseplants with some general rules of a green thumb (see what I did there?) to help you keep your plants alive and thriving.
Before You Buy a Plant:
Know Your Home.
The first and most important part of caring for your plant is knowing what resources your house can provide. Plants need only two things for survival (light and water) but it takes a little more than that to help them thrive. Every home is different and where you live on planet Earth is also going to heavily effect the environment within your home as well. Before purchasing a plant, do a quick run down of your house. What is the general percentage of humidity in your home? Most homes stay at around a 40-50% humidity range for our comfort, but if you live in a particularly humid area, it might be higher.
Figure out the cardinal directions of your windows. This one is very important as the amount of light your plants receive can be the element that either keeps them alive or kills them for sure. Generally speaking, West and North facing windows will provide lower levels of light while East facing windows will provide bright morning light and South facing windows will provide the most light. Low light plants like the ZZ plant, snake plant, spider plant, and pothos will be quite content in a room with a West or North facing window. Many types of orchids love the warm glow of an East facing window where they won’t get burned. If you’re luck enough to have a bright South facing window, you have many options open to you since this will provide your plants with a longer period of filtered sunlight.
Next, think about the placement and environmental factors of your home. Do you have a place to hang trailing plants or will you let them cascade over a table? Can you place a plant near the window sill to get ample light or will it have to be a couple feet away? It might not seem like it to us, but the amount of light your plant will receive drops off quite a bit even at just a foot away from the light source. Plants that require bright light will need to be closer to the windows than those that do well in low to medium light. Also, consider your pets or children, if you have them. Pets, especially cats, like to nibble on plants and there’s a great number of house plants which are toxic to animals. If you have a small child that might want to play with your plants, you might want to avoid things with spines like cacti or using pots that might break if dropped.
Okay, it’s time for some tough love. . .Some people live lifestyles which do not allow them to care for certain houseplants. If you’re traveling a lot, are at work for more than you’re home, or if you’re just the forgetful type you might find it more difficult to care for a houseplant. The benefits of growing plants outside is that nature tends to provide all that your garden will need for your plants. However, I doubt you get rain storms inside your house to provide a much needed watering to your indoor garden while you’re away. Houseplants are at your mercy for care.
If you are the busy or forgetful type, consider plants that do not require a lot of watering like succulents, cacti, or snake plants which thrive on neglect. I just recently purchased a snake plant about 3 weeks ago and I still haven’t watered it and it’s doing wonderfully in a North facing window. On the other side, if you’re the type of person who either likes a care routine or loves to smother then you will want moisture and water loving plants like ferns or orchids which require a bit more attention.
Do Your Googling.
Once you have an idea of what sort of care you’re able to provide in your home, do a little Googling around for plants that fit your needs. If your home does not get a lot of natural light, search for medium to low light plants. You can also join some forums or Facebook groups for houseplants and many of the members will be rather happy to help you find the perfect plant for your home. I personally love the Facebook group Houseplant Hoarders because everyone is very kind and try to be as informative as possible.
The key to successfully keeping a plant is to know what that particular plant needs to thrive and giving it.
Buying A Healthy Plant Means Keeping A Healthy Plant.
Look, I won’t lie to you the clearance section at nurseries are my kryptonite! It’s very hard to pass up a sad plant for $1 when its healthy counterpart sells for $15. But before you go rushing over to the table of neglected plants, let me warn you that buying an unhealthy plant is the quickest way to kill a plant. Don’t get me wrong, you can probably nurse many of those plants back to health with some TLC and time but if you’re new to caring for houseplants or if you don’t know enough about that particular type of plant you might find yourself with an empty pot and wasted money.
If you want to ensure growing success with your plants, start out buying strong, healthy plants that can take the stress you are about to put them through.
Yep! Plants experience stress too. Simply moving them around stresses them out, even though they are in pots they are still plants and are used to being in one spot all their lives. And let me tell you, some plants are complete drama queens! Some will drop all of their leaves from the stress of simply going from the store to your house. Set yourself up for success and spend that little extra on the healthy plants until you feel you’re ready to take on the needier plants on the clearance tables.
(I will be releasing a post on how to shop for healthy plants shortly as well.)
General Care Tips:
There’s No Need to Re-pot Your Plant Right Away.
You will likely find that the gardening community is sort of split down the middle with this tip, but I err on the side of waiting. It’s really tempting to get a new pot for that new plant you just brought home to make everything look pretty, but re-potting stresses out plants quite a bit. This disturbs every part of them from root to leaf, which can be a little much for a plant that’s already stressed out from moving around. Some people keep the motto that the plant is already stressed, it’s best to just stress it all at once and get it out of the way. I have done this successfully with quite a few of my plants, but I definitely avoid doing this with my more “needy” plants (like my carnivores and ferns).
My advice would be to let your plants acclimate to its new surroundings before re-potting. Make sure it’s happy where you’ve placed it. Focus on trouble-shooting before you focus on appearances. One little trick I have too is that all of my plant pots are either made of glass or are white or black in colour so when I buy a new plant I’ll grab the ones in the black nursery pots so that they fit in with the rest of my plants.
Get The Right Pots.
While we’re talking about re-potting let’s also mention that getting the right style and size pot for your plant can also be a key to life or death of you plant. The biggest newbie mistake I see (and one I’ve made myself in the past) is over-potting your plants. Everyone wants their plants to grow bigger and fuller so they tend to apply what I call “goldfish logic” to their plants; a bigger bowl means the fish will grow bigger. This is a bit incorrect when it comes to plants. You typically only want to double the diameter of the pot at most when you’re re-potting. So, if you purchased a plant in a 2 inch pot, you would only want to go up to a 4 inch pot. The most common issue you will encounter with over-potting a plant is root rot. Because the plant cannot use all of the moisture in the soil from watering fast enough, the roots begin to rot and can also be subjected to bacteria and mold. It’s also a breeding ground for fungus gnats and other unwelcome insects which can then attack your other plants.
The type of pot you buy can also effect the health of your plant. Terracotta is making a big comeback thanks to Instagram and the popularity of succulents and cacti. Terracotta is a cheap and traditional looking pot but it’s not ideal for many plants and for carnivorous plants it can kill them. Terracotta pots tend to suck up moisture from the soil and will also leave little mineral deposits in the soil in the process, so for plants that like a moist soil or nutrient deficient medias this can do more harm than good. Glass looks beautiful, but it can suffocate the roots of plants. Because glass doesn’t “breathe” it’s more prone to allowing for bacteria, fungi, and mold to grow within the soil. Ceramic has some similar properties to terracotta, however because most ceramic pots are glazed (painted and sealed) they do not absorb as much moisture from the soil. Ceramic looks quite beautiful and can come in pretty much any shape you can think of, however it does tend to be more expensive and heavier. Plastic pots are (typically) your best bet. They don’t steal moisture from your media, they don’t deposit unwanted minerals, they can be easily modified as needed, and they can take some abuse in the event the plant falls over.
Figuring out what pots to get for your plant will take some time and experience. You will come to see that it’s finding the right balance between your personal preference and the plant’s needs. Personally, I like to stick to plastic, glass, and glazed ceramics but this is because I grow many of my plants in water culture. . .but that’s a story for another day.
It’s All About Ratio.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to make you do math! But you will have to figure out what ratios work best for your plants. It’s easy to find a general answer to the care for just about any plant online now, but as you have probably seen from this post, there’s a myriad of factors that can effect how your plant like to be cared for. Just because I water my pilea every week and a half, doesn’t mean your pilea will be happy with that time frame. So, to help you understand this balance a little better here’s some quick tips:
More sunlight means more water will be needed. Thank you evaporation!
More heat means more water will be needed.
More humidity means less water is needed (in most cases).
Winter time means watering less often.
A good rule to keep in mind is that it’s better to give too little water and too much light than it is to give too little light and too much water. As mentioned above, too much water can lead to root rot and sadly, root rot isn’t always something your plant can bounce back from. Often times you’ll discover it when it’s a little too late. While your plant might not be very happy that you accidentally let it dry out, it’s more likely to bounce back and perk up again. Light is how plants photosynthesize, its necessary for the plant to basically feed itself. With too little light you might find your plant getting “leggy”. This means that the leaves will be spaced further apart and that the plant will begin to grow towards the light literally reaching for the sun. You might notice the colour will begin to fade from the plant and it’s just not going to be very happy looking.
Some plants are prone to sunburn though which can look like little bleached spots in their leaves. It’s easier to move your plant away from the light to recover than it is to fix a leggy, light deprived plant.
Garden With Your Intuition and Senses.
As with many things in my daily life, I work off of my senses and intuition. It seems to me that the people who have the most success in their gardens tend to observe rather than schedule. If you’re the type of person who prefers a set schedule there’s nothing wrong with that! I do have a couple of plants that have to be on schedules otherwise they throw tantrums and get all sad looking (I’m looking at you Staghorn ferns!). But with the majority of my plants (both indoors and out) I find it best to do things by feel. I check the moisture of my soil by just sticking my finger in about a knuckle deep. I’ll lift the pots to feel the weight (wet soil is much heavier than dry). I check for aeration in the soil and I’ll occasionally squeeze the pots to give some oxygen to the roots (without worms and other bugs in the soils indoor plants do not get as much aeration as they would outside in nature). I will touch the leaves and stems to check their texture. Over time, you will just know what your plant needs and when it’s happy.
And, as silly as it sounds, you can also talk to your plants. They love the carbon dioxide you breathe out and in return they provide you with clean oxygen to breathe in. I like to put on some music and sing along when I’m tending to my plants, it feels a little less silly than trying to have a conversation with a ficus.
When I first started bringing my plants inside I felt like I had to do so much to keep them happy. I used to have to provide care for at least 10 plants every day two times per day. My orchids were the ones that demanded the most of my attention. Now, my indoor garden pretty much sustains itself (except you Staghorn fern!). I learned what methods of care worked best for my chaotic lifestyle and balanced what I can provide with what is needed of me. I do not buy plants I do not feel that I can provide for, like the ever popular Fiddle Leaf fig tree.
This might all seem overwhelming at first, but I promise you’ll get the hang of it really quickly with just a little patience.