Thinking of becoming a plant parent? Here’s what you need to know.
You’ve seen those gorgeous interiors, the ones with minimal furniture, deep-pile area rugs, and monstera plants the size of elephants. Houseplants have long been an essential part of interior design, but you don’t need a mansion to appreciate the joys of indoor plant parenting.
Why grow plants indoors?
A room containing houseplants is pleasing to enter. Natural greenery lifts the spirit and brings a sense of life to indoor spaces. But welcoming houseplants into your home has other benefits as well.
Removes toxins from the air
A well-known NASA study linked specific houseplants to cleaner indoor air. Apparently plants can remove chemical vapors and indoor toxins diffusing from the everyday things in our home. (We’re looking at you, toluene and formaldehyde, along with carbon monoxide and VOCs.) These are the same pollutants linked to ‘sick building syndrome,’ that mysterious illness afflicting office workers with headaches, allergies, fatigue and more.
Improves sense of well-being
Humans are known to thrive in spaces near or with living plants. Studies show that people who spend time in nature or surround themselves with natural beauty, inside or out, experience a wide range of benefits including reduced stress and depression symptoms, improved memory, higher levels of creativity and a whole lot more.
Helps us heal faster
Scheduling a surgery anytime soon? Or recovering from an illness? You might be surprised to learn that research shows people recover more quickly and with less medication when recuperating near plants. Oh, and your mood improves, too. What’s not to love?
Before you start
Convinced that you need plants in your house or apartment? You’re not alone, but it’s important to first consider whether your space is right for indoor growing or if it needs some tweaking to help plants thrive.
Do you have enough light?
Like many living things, houseplants need light to grow. While some will do well with filtered or indirect light coming through a curtained window, others need almost as much light as vegetables grown outdoors.
Before you bring home any houseplants, do an inventory of your space. Which direction do your windows face? How many hours of sunlight do those windows receive? Do you have skylights that brighten a space where windows don’t?
Once you know what you’re dealing with, consider the information below about the most popular houseplants.
|African violet||Bright, indirect sunlight in a north or east window (spring-summer) and south or west window (fall-winter) for 12 hours per day.||Water before soil dries out completely.|
|Orchid||At least six hours of bright light each day in a south or east facing window. More sunlight will improve flowering.||Water thoroughly no more than once a week. Make sure orchids never sit in water.|
|Pothos||Bright, indirect sunlight near a south-facing window for 12 hours per day is ideal. Pothos will grow in low light areas, but will lose variegation.||Allow soil to dry out between waterings. Then thoroughly saturate, allowing water to run from drainage holes.|
|Monstera||Six to eight hours of medium to bright filtered sunlight each day is best. Place near a south or west-facing window with sheer curtains.||Water when the top layer of soil is dry. Don’t allow it to dry out completely. Drooping leaves are a telltale sign it’s time to water.|
|Aloe vera||At least six hours of direct sunlight each day. Place in a south-facing window.||Water sparingly in winter, when light is low. The rest of the year, allow soil to dry out on top before watering deeply, about every two to three weeks.|
|ZZ plant||Six to 12 hours of indirect, bright sunlight is ideal, but the plant will grow in low or direct light as well. Place in a room with south-facing windows where possible.||Water every two to three weeks, allowing soil to dry out in between waterings.|
|Snake plant||Grows best with more than 6 hours of bright, indirect sunlight, though will tolerate low light. Protect from drafts.||Permit soil to dry out between waterings. Water every two weeks during the growing season, less frequently when winter comes. Water from the bottom of the pot using a saucer or basin.|
|Peace lily||Locate in bright, indirect sunlight in a north or west-facing window. Plant will thrive with 10 to 12 hours of sunlight each day.||Water weekly much of the year, reducing this to every other week in wintertime. The plant will droop visibly when it’s too dry.|
|Rubber plant||Provide six to eight hours of medium to bright, indirect sunlight each day–in an east-facing window if possible.||Water every one to two weeks, permitting soil to dry out on top between waterings.|
What if there’s not enough sunlight where you live?
Even if your space lacks the sunlight required for plants to thrive, you can still cultivate houseplants. Introducing artificial or grow lights into your home will help expand what you can grow. They’ll also be in place if you ever decide to start seedlings for a vegetable garden or grow indoor herbs.
Bringing your plant home
When you’ve decided what type of plant you want and found the perfect location, there are a few things you can do to make the transition a smooth one.
What’s the best way to transition my plant to its new environment?
Besides making the conditions in your home as close to what your plant needs as possible, you can also take the following advice to help your plant adjust to its new environment:
- Inspect any plants already in your home for hidden pests and diseases. This includes scale, thrips, spider mites, and so on (see Pests below). While they may not have killed your plants yet, adding another plant to the mix risks infecting something new that may be smaller and more susceptible. If you find anything, treat the cause before introducing your new plant.
- Inspect your new plant. Yes, some nurseries do have issues with pests and disease, although reputable ones will take back anything that’s unknowingly infected. Know before you buy to prevent introducing a hidden pest into your home. Look along stems, on the undersides of leaves, and on the soil surface for evidence of webs, tiny insects or mold.
- Provide extra light for the first few weeks as your plant adjusts. Move to their permanent location after this period.
- Avoid temperature fluctuations. Your plant needs to get used to its new home. Keeping the temperature steady, while slightly cooler at night, will help it adjust more quickly and with fewer problems.
- Adjust the humidity. Unless you’re bringing home a cactus, your house plant will likely prefer an environment that’s slightly more humid than the average house. To help your plant adjust, place a saucer of water filled with pebbles beneath the plant pot. (Your plant pot should be above the water level.) As the water evaporates, it will increase humidity around your plant. For added humidity, drape the plant in a clear plastic bag for one to two weeks. Take care to inspect the soil for any mold and remove immediately if it develops. If your plant needs more humidity long-term, consider moving it to the bathroom.
- Avoid repotting right away. Given the stress of a new environment, repotting is best left for two to three months.
- Don’t worry about chlorinated water. If you are bringing home spider plants, calatheas, prayer plants, dracaenas and a few others, you may have heard about their sensitivity to chlorine. Luckily, the amount of chlorine in tap water is well below what is deemed toxic to plants. If you’re still concerned, find out whether your water contains chloramine or chlorine before leaving it out on the table to evaporate (chloramine will not evaporate the way chlorine will). If that doesn’t allay your concerns, use distilled or rain water for these plants, or water run through a simple filter.
Caring for houseplants
Taking care of a new plant is a simple matter of routine. Once established in your home, your plant will need little more than a weekly check for moisture and a periodic dose of nutrients. Here are some of the most common questions that come up for new houseplant gardeners.
How much water does a houseplant need?
The basic answer is ‘that depends.’ Are you growing cacti native to the desert or tropical plants meant for the jungle? Is your soil medium absorbent or easily drained? Given the factors involved, it’s hard to name the perfect frequency or amount for watering. What we can do is share a few general guidelines.
- Most tropicals are happy with a thorough watering every 5 to 10 days.
- Most cacti and other succulents prefer watering every 10 to 15 days.
- Plants prefer less water during the dormant season (usually fall and winter).
- During the spring and summer, plants need slightly more water.
How often should you fertilize your houseplant?
Like your watering schedule above, fertilizing will fluctuate with the seasons. Houseplants generally grow very little during the lowly lit winter months. That means they don’t require added nutrients. Start tapering off all fertilizers before the first frost and let your plants rest throughout the winter.
When spring comes along, it’s time to start building up to a full dose. Just how much will depend on what type of fertilizer you choose (see below). Feed regularly throughout the spring and summer.
What type of fertilizer is best for houseplants?
There are many great fertilizers on the market that work perfectly for houseplants. Here are our favorite options.
- Liquid or tablet plant fertilizers: Liquid and tablet fertilizers are easy to add when you water. Simply mix in your watering can and administer according to the manufacturer’s instructions. We love this organic plant food concentrate.
- Granular fertilizer: Just as it sounds, granular houseplant fertilizer is made up of small granules that you can distribute across the surface of your plant’s pot. You can also mix them into the soil when repotting or perforate the soil with a chopstick or dowel and apply at the root zone. Just be sure to get granular fertilizer meant for houseplants, since the composition of nutrients will be different than for outdoor plants. Choosing organic is also important, as the nutrients will release over time rather than all at once.
- Spike fertilizers: Insert solid fertilizers like the spike variety into the soil around your plant. Soon they’ll be slowly releasing nutrients at root level. Since they work over time, you won’t need to apply fertilizer as often as other varieties.
- Specialty fertilizers: While most houseplants will do very well with an all-purpose fertilizer, some have extra special needs. Orchids, African violets, and other blooming plants benefit from fertilizer higher in phosphorus.
What about temperature and humidity?
According to the University of Georgia, plants do best when temperatures range from 70 to 80 degrees F during the daytime and 65 to 70 degrees F at night. Since people feel most comfortable with temperatures in the lower part of that range, houseplants make the perfect companions.
Humidity is another story. Most plants prefer a higher relative humidity than people. Add to the mix our winter heaters or wood stoves and summer air conditioners, and indoor humidity levels can be a tad low for many plants. If you think your air is too dry for your plants, consider the suggestions above for increasing humidity. Most houseplants can adjust to lower humidity levels over time, even if they don’t seem optimal.
How and when should you re-pot?
Depending on the rate of plant growth, you’ll need to inspect your plant roots once or twice a year to see if they’ve outgrown their pot. A plant that needs a larger living space will have thick masses of roots pressing into the side of the pot, with tendrils escaping through the drainage holes. The plant may also look stunted or may have slowed in growth. Transfer to a new pot no more than 2 to 3 inches bigger in diameter.
Common houseplant problems
While growing houseplants is usually easier than growing vegetables outdoors thanks to the controlled environment, there are a few problems that can crop up. Keep your eye out for the following issues.
My plant is dropping leaves. What does that mean?
Plants may go through an initial leaf drop when they first come home, meaning they’re in a state of shock and need time to adjust. Check the light, temperature and humidity of their new location and adjust as needed. Seasonal temperature changes can also cause a plant to drop leaves.
Be sure your plant isn’t near any drafts or heating vents that might contribute to stress. Keep your home evenly heated when you go away on a holiday. If you’ve recently repotted your plant, be sure to water it evenly and regularly until it’s re-established. Finally, make sure it’s receiving enough nutrition through a slow-released, balanced fertilizer.
What does a wilting plant need to improve?
The most common reason for wilting houseplants is water: either too much or too little. If your plant perks up within a few hours of a good watering, adjust your routine to either increase the water given or the frequency of watering.
If your plant is wilting, but the soil feels wet to the touch, ensure the pot is not standing in water. Remove the rootball from the pot and inspect. Roots should be white and evenly dense. If they’re brown, your plant may have root rot, most likely from overwatering.
What does it mean when a plant has brown margins on the leaves?
There are a few reasons for this. Sometimes brown leaf edges means your plant hasn’t received consistent enough water. Adjust your watering schedule to make sure the soil doesn’t dry out too much in between. Browning of leaves can also be a sign of too much or too little fertilizer in the soil. Check your plant’s needs and adjust dosing as needed.
Dealing with pests
A few common pests affect plants grown at home. Most are easy to control, particularly if you catch them before they really take hold. To do this, inspect your plants regularly during routine waterings. When you know what a healthy plant looks like, you’ll quickly pick up on anything out of the ordinary.
Common houseplant pests
- Spider mites: Tiny white or brown insects that leave a rust-colored mess in their wake. Watch for thin webbing between leap tips and pock-marked or shrivelled leaves (spider mites suck the moisture from plants). Learn how to control spider mites.
- Aphids: Common outdoors as well as in, aphids are another moisture-sucking creature that can damage houseplants. Look for fat, juicy (but small) bugs in green, black or brown clustered near the new growth on your plant. Learn how to control aphids.
- Thrips: Similar to spider mites but without the webbing, thrips are tiny white insects that colonize adjacent plants. If you find them on one, check them all! You can control them by washing your plant down in the sink or bathtub with soapy water.
- Mealybugs: Mealybugs excrete a waxlike coating that will mark the surface of plant leaves. They also produce ‘honeydew’ that can quickly turn to black mold. Mix one tablespoon of canola oil and a few drops of Ivory soap into a quart of water. Shake well and pour into a spray bottle. Spray the plant from above down, and from below up to get the underside of the leaves. The oil smothers the insects.
Keeping your plant fed, watered and at the correct temperature and humidity will help fend off pests and disease. That’s because healthy plants are more resilient to threats in the environment.
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