May 18, 2021
How to Not Kill Houseplants
I’m a serial plant murderer. Well, I suppose it’s actually plantslaughter, as they were all accidents. Regardless, despite my good intentions I never successfully kept a plant alive until 2020.
Instructions on how to care for plants often seem similar to me to recipe instructions: they assume a whole bunch of contextual knowledge that beginners don’t have (how much is a ‘knob’ of butter?? What does ‘frequent watering’ actually mean??)
But inspired by the plant-filled instagram-worthy Zoom backgrounds of my colleagues (shout out to Kemi), I resolved to make “learn how to keep houseplants alive” my pandemic hobby.
After watching many YouTube tutorials, reading lots of blogs, and some messy trial and error that resulted in a few sacrificial offerings, I appear to now be succeeding 🤯💪
So, from one beginner to another, here are my tips for how to not kill houseplants:
I think these two things account for 80% of my success. Master these first.
1. Plants Need Infrequent Gulps, Not Frequent Sips
Watering your plants, it turns out, does not mean going around with a watering can every few days and giving them a little sip, like pouring a dash of milk into a cup of tea. Oh no.
Watering a plant means absolutely drenching the soil all the way through, and then letting the excess drain out. This is because plants have roots all through the soil, and you need to reach them all with the water. If, like I was, you’re only giving them surface level sips, the water won’t seep all the way through and the bottom roots will die of thirst.
In my opinion, the best way to do this is:
- Take the inner plastic pot out of the outer pretty pot
- Bring the plant in the inner plastic pot to the sink
- Run it under the tap until it starts to come out the drainage holes (you don’t want warm water, but ideally it shouldn’t be super cold either)
- Try to make sure there are no dry patches in the soil
- Turn the tap off
- Wait until the water stops trickling out of the drainage holes (or at least, it goes from a stream to a very slow drip)
- Bring the plant back to the pretty pot and place it back inside
- If any water gathers at the bottom of the outer pot (or saucer), empty it. You don’t want the plant sitting in still water.
On average, plants seem to need watering in this way every 1-2 weeks (depending on the type, size, season, proximity to sunlight, etc). The best way to check if it’s time is to stick your finger right into the soil. If it feels like a moist, tasty cake, wait. If it feels like a dry, crumbly cake, water it.
2. Don’t Repot Your Plant After Bringing It Home
Instead, find a pretty pot that’s big enough to contain the cheap plastic pot the plant comes in, and simply place it inside. This has two advantages:
- Plants get stressed out moving to a new environment, and immediately repotting them makes it worse (new soil, new size, etc). They’ll be more likely to make it if you keep them in their current pot, at least for a while.
- The cheap plastic pot the plant comes in will have drainage holes_—_placing this inside another pot removes the need for a saucer to catch excess water.
The alternative to this is buying a “home-ready” plant that already comes potted in a pretty pot along with a matching saucer. This is actually quite a good option for beginners as it means you don’t need to worry about finding the right sized pot or anything like that, but it’s obviously more expensive.
After following the essentials, these can help maximize your chance of success.
If the soil of a plant feels like it’s packed together really tightly, that’s not good. Take a skewer or a fork or your finger and try to break it up a bit_—_this allows air to get in a bit more.
There’s probably optimum types of soil for different plants, but since you are following rule #2 and not repotting them, just leave them in the soil they come with. It can be helpful to have some generic expanding potting mix on hand in case you do need to top up the soil or repot them for some reason — just follow the instructions on how to mix it with water.
In general, plants need more water when they’re in their growing season (Spring/Summer). Somewhat counterintuitively IMO, this is also when they need more fertilizer, AKA plant food (I kind of assumed they would need more food in the winter, as they aren’t getting as much sunshine, but apparently not). To be honest, so far my plants have been doing ok without fertilizer, so I haven’t really explored what the right kind or amounts are at this point.
Often plants are supposed to be placed “in a bright room but not in direct sunlight” — I still don’t really understand what this means — is bright sunlight just the window sill? Is it anywhere the sun’s rays hit? What if they only hit it for a short time per day, does that count? I haven’t worried too much about this, except to make sure that all my plants are in rooms with nice big windows, and the more desert-y the plant (e.g. cacti), the closer I put it to the sun.
Unless you don’t mind lop-sided plants, you’ll want to rotate your plants slightly every few weeks, otherwise they tend to grow towards the sunlight. However, you ideally don’t want to move them around too often, as apparently they like to get used to a spot and moving them can stress them out.
If your plant has big leaves, you may want to wipe the dust off them once in a while — this helps ensure they can absorb the maximum amount of light (though TBH I haven’t been very rigorous about this and they seem fine).
Because plants apparently like air, you don’t want them to pack them in too close together. At a minimum, try to space them apart so that their leaves aren’t touching, and ideally a bit further. If one of your plants is looking a bit sickly, move it away from the others so that it can’t infect them.
If you have a pet, you’ll want to be somewhat careful about plants that can be toxic for them. Some websites let you filter by “pet-friendly” which is helpful for beginners. Alternatively you can just google “[name of plant] pet toxic” and see what the internet says.
However, just because a plant is listed as toxic doesn’t mean you definitely can’t have it. Some options:
- Keep your pet-toxic plants in a room your pet doesn’t go in
- Keep it high up (e.g. hang it from the ceiling) so it’s out of reach
- (Riskier, but it worked for me) Introduce your pet to the plant, let them sniff it, and see if they are tempted to nibble it. Observe them for a while and watch how they interact with it. If they don’t seem interested, you might be ok. My cat (Catthew) has eaten all my palm plants to death (they are cat-safe so it’s ok), so I was worried about getting any pet-toxic plants as I assumed he’d eat them too. But I really really wanted a nice leafy Monstera, so I bought one and resolved to keep it high up. But when I introduced Catthew to it he just sniffed it a bit and then ignored it — I guess he doesn’t like the smell. I’ve had it for a few months now and both he and the plant are as well as ever!
I would love to know if this helps you have any success. Or alternatively, if you’re a houseplant aficionado and you have any tips to help me take my plant game to the next level, ping me at firstname.lastname@example.org