Usually when I tell people I’m into plants they say, “I’m really good at killing plants! What can I do to keep them alive?” Well, here’s some basic advice to help someone with a black thumb keep their plants alive.
Start with Healthy Plants
Whether you’re buying a plant from the grocery store, a plant store, or garden center, pick a healthy plant. Look for leaves without bruising, brown spots, or trimmed tips. Make sure there aren’t any bugs in the soil. (Not all insects in the soil are pests, but most people don’t like the idea of bringing bugs into their homes). Also make sure the plant looks good to you. Do you get a warm, fuzzy feeling when you look at it? If so, then buy it!
Plants Love Light, but Not Too Much
Most leafy indoor plants species were originally tropical plants. Imagine them living in the rainforest on the jungle floor. Sunlight filters through the treetop canopy during the day but you won’t really see plants baking in the sun for hours at a time.
So, most houseplants prefer similar lighting--bright light next to a window, but not directly in the sun. In the plant world, it’s called “bright indirect light.” If you do need to put your plant near a really sunny window, try finding a spot that gets just a little bit of sun per day, perhaps one hour. If you don’t have a good spot near a bright window, you can still put your plants in darker locations--they just won’t grow as quickly. All of the plants I’ve suggested below will do well in both light and dark areas.
Water and Moisture
Underwatering (or not watering at all) is the most common way people accidentally kill plants. How much water is the right amount? Here’s a good rule of thumb: imagine the plant’s pot ¼ full of water. Once a week, give your plant this amount of water. Also, make sure the pot has drain holes so water can flow out the bottom--you don’t want your plant sitting in water for long periods of time.
Keep in mind, the amount of water your plant needs may vary depending on its environment. Plants want more water in the summer because that’s when they do more growing, and less water in the winter. If your plant lives in dry air like an air conditioned room, it’ll need more water. Try to place your plants away from breezy areas such as near heating or A/C vents, fans, or drafty windows. Imagine indoor plants’ natural environment: tropical jungle air--humid, warm, and still.
Love Your Plants!
I like tell people, this is the number one rule to keeping plants alive--you have to love your plants! This sounds a little weird and obsessive, and indeed it is. But what I really mean is check on your plants often, perhaps daily. Are they growing new leaves or are the leaves turning brown? Is the soil dried out or are they sitting in a pool of water? Try to spot bad things before it’s too late.
Good Plants for People Who Kill Plants
Here’s a nice little list of plants that are fairly difficult to kill--they’re pretty tolerant of varied lighting and watering conditions:
Note: Succulents and Orchids Are Kind of Difficult
Succulents are really popular but can be difficult to keep healthy. They’re desert plants and need a full day of bright, bright sun. When they don’t get enough light, they tend to grow mangy and leggy. They also don’t need much water at all, and many people overwater them thinking they’re like other indoor plants.
Orchids are beautiful and elegant and you can buy them almost anywhere. Many people think that when they start to lose their flowers, they’re dying and they throw them out. In fact, they’re not dying! With a bit (a lot...) of luck, you can get your orchid to bloom new flowers again and again. Put your orchid by a bright window and water it with a few ice cubes (yep, ice cubes) once a week. Don’t trim the flower stem because that’s where the new blooms will come from.
Lastly, It’s OK to Kill Plants
Don’t feel too bad about killing plants, it’s part of learning how to take care of them. Unlike a dog or a cat, they don’t let you know when they’re hungry or thirsty or need attention. Admittedly, much of what I’ve learned has been through trial and error, and along the way I’ve killed a bunch of plants too. Worst comes to worst, if you think you’ve killed your plant, try to find a plant-loving friend who can take it in and nurse it back to health!
- Greg Takayama