Like most gardeners my plant addiction isn’t isolated to the garden. Though I am currently very restrained indoors, my husband is convinced that we have a jungle inside. He has no idea how restrained I’ve been. I am definitely a collector, and love having a variety of unique specimens to pamper, but it took me several years to hone my green thumb and end up with more survivors than casualties.
During that time many of my prized beauties ended up in the garbage. Most were victims of root rot (I’m a habitual overwater). Others suffered from the dry indoor conditions and my reluctance to prune. Overtime I learned how to take care of each plant, and as my skill has grown so has my collection. So in today’s post I want to share some of the things I have learned.
Know Your Plant
The foundation of success with any plant is to know what kind of conditions it likes and its growth and feeding habits. The plant tag, if there is one, provides some information but doesn’t fully explain how to grow and care for your specimen. That’s why I always have a few resources I can refer to when I need to look up details on a specific plant.
One of my favorites is the Costa Farms website. Costa Farms is one of the main growers that provides house plants to the market, including the big box stores. They aren’t the only one but they are the one I see the most. More importantly, their website is phenomenal. They have a plant library with detailed growing and care information for a wide variety of houseplants, plus other tips throughout the website. I reference it constantly.
I also keep my Complete Guide to Houseplants and Houseplant Survival Manual handy for trouble shooting specific plant issues. The Survival Manual is especially great as it has colored photos of common problems so you can easily diagnose what is going on with your plant.
Choose the Right Pot
The first step toward a healthy houseplant is choosing the right pot to serve as its initial home. Considerations include size, material, and drainage.
Generally speaking, it is recommended to place your plant in a pot only slightly bigger than its existing pot. Some plants, like Lucky Bamboo and a few others, do best if they are kept in very small pots that restrict root growth. Other plants, like many philodendrons, can become root bound and compacted, with their roots tangling and constricting to a point of damaging the health of the plant.
The material of the pot can also impact the health of the plant. Terra cotta pots are prone to fungus, since they hold water in the material itself. You can soak the pot in vinegar to help combat this but I’ve found them to be a nuisance for indoor plants.
Plastic pots and other synthetic materials are nice because they are lightweight and make it easy to move plants when necessary. However, if I have large palms or trees that are top heavy then I opt for a ceramic or other heavy pot that can provide counterweight.
Metal can be corrosive and rust overtime, which can add unwanted metals to the soil, which may be toxic to the plant. If you want to use metal pots, its best to line them with plastic to prevent rust.
This is where I really screwed up when I first started my journey as a houseplant collector. As I mentioned earlier I was a habitual overwater. I’m also a little OCD about protecting my furniture from water damage. So I always bought pots without drainage holes. And then continually ended up with root rot.
That’s why many decorative pots, although attractive, are not functional as a permanent home. However, you can use them as a nesting spot and place the plant in a plain plastic pot or nursery pot, line the bottom of the decorative pot with pebbles, and place the plastic pot inside. That way you can remove the plant to pour off any excess water and still have your pretty home.
Choose the Right Spot
Choosing the right spot is largely based on sunlight and airflow. Different plants have different light requirements. Some thrive in a sunny window, while others need more protection from direct sun. Some plants can handle fluorescent lights or low light situations such as in offices and bedrooms, while others struggle in those conditions. I sometimes struggle to find the spot where a plant is happy and will play musical chairs with them until I find the right home for each of them.
Airflow is also a key consideration. Some plants will struggle and weaken if placed directly beneath the blast zone of an A/C vent. In those situations, keep it away from vents and doorways and place it in a protected corner instead.
Use the Right Soil
A pot is a contained environment and has different needs than an outdoor garden. Generally speaking, it’s best to use actual potting soil designed for potted plants and not garden soil, which is intended to be mixed in with native soils outdoors. Potting soil has additives to help with water retention and drainage. Also, different houseplants originate from different ecosystems with different soil types. Cacti and other succulents need excellent drainage and more porous soil. Some tropicals like a sandier soil while others prefer a more acidic, rich soil. Some plants, like orchids, prefer not to even be in soil, growing best instead in bark and other substrates.
Bottom line, know what kind of soil your plant prefers and be sure to use that. It stays in that soil for a very long time. It’s not a place to cut corners.
Repot Every 1-2 Years
As I just mentioned, your plant stays in that same soil for a very long time. So its a good idea to repot, or at least freshen up the soil, every 1-2 years. Some plants can wait longer, and any care instructions will indicate the optimum length. When repotting, you can move up a size in pots to encourage your plant to grow, or you can prune the roots and above soil foliage to maintain a more compact/dwarf growth habit and place it back in its exiting pot. The key is to make sure the plant is not becoming root bound and providing it with fresh soil.
Different plants have different watering needs, so its best to water accordingly. I find it helps to group plants with similar light and water needs together so I can remember. Some like to dry out in between waterings and some should never dry out. As I mentioned I still have a habit of overwatering even the thirsty plants. So a couple years ago I switched to water globes. They pull water from the globe as the soil dries out. When the globe is empty, it’s time to refill. It has really helped me stop drowning my plants. For my guys that like to dry out in between, I go around every Sunday and check to see if the top inch of soil is dry before I apply a small amount of water. As a result, my survival rate has gone way up and I’ve been allowed to keep my green thumb status!
Note that in the winter most houseplants benefit from a lighter watering schedule. Plants are healthier when they can still maintain their normal rhythms. Many plants go dormant in the winter and don’t require as much water during that time.
Caution About Tap Water
Generally speaking, most plants are fine being watered from the tap. There are two exceptions. If you have a water softener, the excess salts in the water can damage plants. Extremely hard water can also damage plants, especially acid loving or sensitive plants. In those cases I use bottled distilled water. I use it for my orchid and spider plant, as well as my daughter’s carnivorous plants. Before we switched, the leaves were turning brown no matter how much we watered and misted. Once we switched they perked up in a matter of weeks.
Humidity is often overlooked as a factor of plant health, but for many houseplants it is essential. That’s because most houseplants are tropical plants that are used to high humidity conditions. If you are watering regularly and still seeing brown tips on your leaves, low humidity may be to blame. Add a humidifier to the room or use a small spray bottle with a spritz setting to mist plants twice a week. In dry winters you may need to spritz more often.
I hate to admit it but for a long time I didn’t fertilize my houseplants. Most of my education has come at the expense of many a good plant. Once I picked up the fertilizer habit though, I saw much better results. The Medina Hasta Gro is my fertilizer of choice for most of my plants. Generally speaking, you fertilize either every two weeks or monthly through the growing season (March through October), adjusting for heavy or light feeders as needed.
I’ll admit that I was a very timid pruner for a very long time. Which left me with thin, scraggly looking plants. As I learned to regularly prune, I eventually ended up with full, bushy specimens that were healthier and better looking. Plus those clippings are easy to turn into new plants to replace aging ones or to give as gifts for the holidays. Just saying!
One of the biggest complaints about houseplants is the fungus gnats they attract. I struggled with this for awhile until I finally found the right combination of things to keep them under control. Fungus gnats hatch and live on top of the soil, so keeping the surface of the soil dry can help. Using water globes lets you administer water below the surface and keep the top dry. A dilution of orange oil, water, and soap that is watered into the soil also helps to kill bugs. You can also spray it on the plant leaves, just be careful to do it in the evening so the citric acid doesn’t burn the plant leaves when exposed to sunlight. Prior to employing these two methods we were infested with gnats. I haven’t had a problem since.
As with any type of gardening, real knowledge comes from experience, making mistakes, and trying new things. Don’t be afraid to experiment and test out methods and plant types. Over time your confidence and knowledge will grow. As will your own houseplant collection!
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