Whether you’ve been on the biophilia bandwagon for years, or you’re dipping your toe in the water for the first time, the most common question of any plant owner is: how do I keep houseplants alive?!
We’ve always thought of our houseplants like any other pet. We invite these amazing, living things into our home – to be a part of our family – and then slowly, agonisingly, we watch them die despite our best efforts. Even the most experienced houseplant carers can come unstuck when confronted with mystery spots, drooping leaves or plants that seemed happy one day and are suddenly browning the next.
If we’re really to embrace biophilia, then we’re going to need to better understand better how to keep these beautiful beasts alive! So in amongst all our researching for what we’re doing wrong here in Whole Mood HQ, we wanted to share some of basics that have saved us some heartache and brought us some success.
Wherever possible, try to find plants whose natural habitat matches your space. The varieties of plants you have to choose from are nigh-on limitless, and each has evolved in a unique climate: there’s bound to be something perfectly suited to the home of office you’re hoping to spruce up.
There are just 2 key factors to keep in mind when looking for your perfect, green friend:
- the amount of natural sunlight
- the amount of water
Think of this as a sliding scale from Desert on the one end to Rainforest Floor on the other.
A Desert environment implies an ability to withstand exposure to a great deal of direct sunlight, strong wind and going a long time between drinks, while life in a Rainforest is all about limited, patchy sunlight and a near constant damp soil and high humidity.
So think about the space you have in mind. Is it in direct sunlight for any time in a day? Is it an outdoor patio with occasional, blustery wind? Or is it a windowless bathroom?
Thinking through these simple factors and checking the natural conditions that each prospective houseplant likes will significantly increase your chances of finding a happy match for your home and your new Green Pet.
Does anyone really like “fussy plants”?
Orchids are not good gifts. Sure they look good in the shop, but once they are watered too much or too little, and placed on a shelf with a little too much light, or slightly too little, and it’s shed its blossoms, but not quite died, or you’ll be left with is a barely living reminder of your inability to tend to the needs of the Panda of the Plant World.
Start with hardy houseplants (succulents!) that can bear to be a little forgotten without becoming a full blown guilt trip.
Don’t Be Cheap! Quality Sellers stock Healthy Houseplants
Cheap plant offers might catch your eye and help you to flirt more seriously with biophilia, but buyer beware: the quality and health of a plant can effect its longevity.
Here in the EU, a good test can be to check the “grower’s rating” from Royal Floral Holland; an organisation that regulates the sourcing and care of houseplants, all the way from seed and bulb through to the point of sale.
2. Don’t overwater! But don’t under-water either!!
Starting again with the desert/forest analogy, it’s a quick and simple guide to imagine the sort of liquid love your houseplants need. Desert plants can go dry a while, whereas your tropical rainforest plants will need regular showers and high humidity between times.
But having said that, statistically, it’s over-watering that’s the more common crime against houseplants! We’ve killed unkillable cacti and yuccas by fussing over them and there’s no amount of bafflement from the assistants at the local garden centre that can bring them back from the brink.
So what can you do? Always make sure that excess water can drain freely away from your plant’s roots. Whether it’s through the holes in the bottom of a “nursery pot”, or having upgraded them to something a bit higher end, houseplants are actually very efficient at taking what they need and letting the rest go. But unlike us (or your more mammalian pets) they can’t over eat.
But what this can lead to is your houseplants sitting in a puddle for days, and just as this was bad in the trenches of WW1, and would be bad for you and your other pets today, it’s not great for your Green Pets either!
So, after watering, if you’ve kept your houseplant in its nursery pot, check the decorative pot that that’s in for any excess water and pour that away after about a half hour. Don’t pour it away immediately! It’s important to give your houseplant a bit of a chance to soak up the water before also making sure they don’t get too much of a chance.
On a side note, where possible, don’t be tempted to repot a houseplant directly into a pot without drainage holes; it will make plant care that much more difficult! But if you have repotted – and you might just have to, if you’ve got that beautiful, designer pot that won’t be flattered by an oversized, plastic inner pot – then you’ll need to keep a close eye on the moisture situation. While the “right” amount of moisture will depend on the type of houseplant in question, a good rule of forefinger is to shove your pointer finger into the soil beyond the second knuckle – if it’s not ”cool-to-damp” then try 0.5-1 cup of water.
When should you water?
Early morning is best and room temperature water is ideal.
How do you know you’re getting it wrong?
OK – so we have loads of experience with getting it wrong, so try these pointers for a start!
If the leaves are yellowing or droopy this can be a strong sign that you’re watering too much! That’s right! Easy to see how you might think this was under-watering right?! So if you’ve got yellowing and droop, maybe rein in your watering and check the drainage.
A clear sign of real under-watering is dry, curling leaves. Check the soil and try upping your watering routine for that plant. Keep in mind that some plants might simply be used to greater humidity than they’re getting where you have them. You could try spraying the leaves down on a daily basis or even moving your ailing houseplant to a room with higher humidity like the bathroom or kitchen.
But keep checking the soil! Be sure you don’t overcompensate by drowning your Green Pet.
But what if you’re away?
Jetsetting is a problem. If you can’t trust a friend to stop by and water your plants 2-3 times a week then you might want to look into some of these Handy Gadgets for Happy Plants:
Water bulbs will slowly drip water into your plant’s soil to keep them hydrated.
Hydrospikes, will do the same, but relying on Aristotle’s very own, cutting-edge syphon technology to allow your houseplants to suck up water as it needs.
You can try a similar trick without spending any money with just a crafty bit of DIY syphoning: put one end of a damp cloth in the soil and the other in a glass of water. It’s that simple. Moisture from the glass will be wicked through the cloth as the houseplant needs it.
For larger plants, you might want to use several layers of cloth on top of the soil – or even newspaper! We’ve had success with both.
3. Get the Light Right
Once again, play your new favourite game: Desert or Rainforest.
When selecting your Green Pet, think about the place in your home where it will live. What directions do your windows face? Are they overlooked? In the Northern Hemisphere, south-facing windows will get the most light every day, and north-facing a lot less. East and west-facing windows will be somewhere in the middle.
Remember that it’s not just the amount of light coming in the window, it’s also how close you’re going to put the houseplant in question. Shade-lovers to the back of the room, please; all you sun-lovers step forward to the window, thank you.
Signs of Trouble:
Once again, drooping leaves can be a sign of insufficient light; but keep an eye out for houseplants growing pale leaves or shedding leaves altogether. These can be good early signs of a plant struggling to stay healthy. Give it a hand by moving it to a brighter location.
Vice versa, plants getting too much sun will have crisp leaves with yellow or brown spots and dry soil.
Beware of your own overreaction though; brown and crisping leaves may be a result of actual burning from sunlight that is too direct. Try shifting your suffering houseplant back from the window in stages, giving it at least a week in each location, until it finds a level it’s happy with.
4. Killer Plants vs. Plant-killing Pets/Kids: Bringing Peace to the House
This is an important question that you might not think about at first.
Houseplants that are going to be within the reach of little hands or more bitey pets, considering their toxicity is important – especially as the vibrant colours that make for an interesting houseplant might also be nature’s way of warning off curious mouths.
If you know the specific species of a plant, then give it a quick Google, but if you’re just window-shopping, there are readily available lists of plants to avoid, which are toxic to dogs, toxic to cats, and indeed, toxic to many “mammals”, including curious toddlers.
If you already have a plant already on one of these lists, simply make sure to keep it out of reach. Hanging planters or tall shelves are good options.
5. Houseplant Cleaning: Necessary or Retentive?
If you’re not dusting your surfaces regularly, then we have bigger problems than keeping your houseplants alive, but since you’ve asked: yes! Anything that impedes light getting to a plants leaves – whether it’s shade, dirt on your windows or dust on the leaves themselves – will effect your Green Pet’s ability to absorb the light it needs.
Dust can also clog a leaf’s pores, reducing the a plant’s ability to breath.
For houseplants with smooth, waxy leaves, it’s best to wipe them down once a month with a damp cloth. For plants with “fuzzy” leaves, use a soft brush.
6. Getting the Humidity Right
For those yet to be bored with Desert Plant/Rainforest Plant, here’s another round! Deserts are dry, rainforests are not – pick where your houseplant came from and try to emulate it.
A little extra help on this front, houseplants with delicate, thin leaves will be more susceptible to drying out. Give then a chance in more humid rooms, such as the kitchen or bathroom. Or mist them to imitate a humid environment.
There’s another trick you can try, which is create a microclimate by grouping humidity-loving plants together; as each of the plants release moisture through transpiration they’ll each feed into a climate better for all of them.
You could also pick up a humidifier – though the sustainability of using electricity isn’t the best option. A more sustainable alternative is to fill a tray with pebbles and add water to the halfway point; put your houseplants on the pebbles, ensuring they’re not actually in the water, and top the water up to the same level as necessary. This simple trick can increase the humidity of a room using nothing more than evaporation and really enable those rainforest plants to flourish.
7. Fertilising for Life & Soil Ph
Turns out this one is important:
Your Green Pets need nutrients just like every other gaping maw in your house, and fertiliser is a way top-up the nutrient value of soil that isn’t being naturally replenished by decomposing “stuff”, as it would be if you hadn’t trapped it in your home.
Potting most houseplants in multipurpose soil will keep them happy for a good couple years, with the notable exception of succulents (read: cacti) which need a special soil of their own. Some outdoor plants also prefer an alternative soil called ericaceous soil. A lot of this is often boiled down to variation of acidity or “Ph”; but for most houseplants it’s multipurpose all the way.
‘Topping up’ that soil’s nutrients without having to repot can also be done with products like this Miracle Grow. These are generally phosphate rich cocktails of blue goodness: check that these nutrients are suitable to you particular Green Pet, don’t exceed the recommended dosage and generally restrict using it to Spring only, when your houseplants are at their most rapidly growing. These fertilisers can help, but too much can also poison.
8. Going Au Naturale: Should You Trim Your Houseplants?
Pruning will encourage your houseplants to grow and refresh by enabling them to focus their energy on new growth, but overpruning will also kill them, so knowing what’s damaged and what’s dead is key.
Some flowering plants even require ‘deadheading’, which is the process of removing dead flowers from their stems; doing this as often as every few days in peak season will encourage (read: trick) your Green Pet into flowering over and over again.
9. Is Your Houseplant Bugged?
While listening devices in the undergrowth is a concern (if you’re living in an episode of The Americans), a more realistic threat to your houseplants is a parasitic infestation.
If you spot any webs, lumps, bumps or spots your Green Pet may be fending off some rent-free tenants. Move the effected plant away from any others to stop the spread and then dig in for a solution.
Start with wiping the leaves down. This should crack down on the bugs and their eggs. Once that’s done, pick up an insecticidal spray to stop them coming back – organic options are available; which again can be an important consideration if you only want to kill the parasites without harming your pets, children etc.
White mould can also crop up on the soil around the base of your houseplants. It’s generally harmless in itself, but it’s probably a sign that the plant is overwatered and not draining properly. Scraping the mould off will take care of that, but fix your watering schedule!
10. Seasonal Care: Keeping your Houseplants Weather Appropriate
Most of us try to keep our homes a relatively stable temperature all year round, which is why tropical plants do so well as houseplants. Nevertheless, a change in seasons can still throw up some surprises.
Plants tend to be actively growing during the Spring and Summer and will slow down – or even go dormant – in Winter. This means they’ll need much less water and nutrients in the cooler months. Be sure to keep checking the soil and only water when it’s dry an inch below the surface.
Then, think about the shorter daylight hours. Consider moving houseplants closer windows to help them get enough light. Keeping their leaves clear of dust can also help them to maximise the rays available to them.
And make sure none of your houseplants are too close to any heaters or radiators. This can be a sad surprise when the heaters first come on: dried out soil and leaves won’t help any plant survive the colder months.
Side note: the same goes for air-conditioning in Summer. Chilled plants aren’t happy plants, and constant airflow can evaporate moisture from the leaves and soil.
But back to winter. If you have underfloor heating, this can upset your plants by keeping their roots too warm and again, evaporating moisture from the soil. You’ll need to invest in some plant stands to keep any plants off the ground.
Another factor to keep in mind is to protect your houseplants from any cold drafts. Any dramatic changes in temperature can shock a houseplant, and they can freeze in minutes if exposed to cold air.
If you’re going away and turning off your heating, consider moving all your plants to the warmest spot in the house.
11. My Houseplant’s Leaves are Dropping Off! WTF?!
We’ve got a lot of plants around and there are a lot of dropped leaves: how do you know which are normal and what’s a cry for help?
We’ve mentioned quite a few different symptoms along the way, so consider this a checklist for those who skipped to the end.
Diagnosis #1: It’s Normal.
It’s a normal part of its life cycle. Some plants shed leaves throughout the year to conserve energy during the darker months. Other plants shed leaves all-year-round – so, if your houseplant looks consistently healthy despite the leaf dropping, don’t assume it’s a sign of ill-health.
However, if the plant in question isn’t looking well or wouldn’t normally be dropping leaves, it could be for one of the below reasons.
Diagnosis #2: Shock
Plants will often drop leaves if they’re in shock. Any abrupt environmental could do it; this is why new plants to your home will sometimes seem unhealthy, with some yellowing leaves and dropped fronds. This may be part of a normal adjustment period, and it should present as only a portion of the plant. It will right itself in time without any special treatment.
If the whole plant is looking yellow, sad or drooping, then it’s not this. Move on to…
Diagnosis #3: A Change in Lighting
If you’ve had a plant for awhile, check that it’s still getting the same amount of light. Plants get their energy from light and leaves require energy to maintain, so if the light levels drop a houseplant may drop some leaves to save its strength.
Diagnosis #4: Time for a New Pot?
If the roots are starting to show on the surface of the soil or are coming out of the bottom of the nursery pot, then well done! Your Green Pet is flourishing and it’s be time to move up a size and repot it!
Diagnosis #5: Over-watering
Overwatering can also cause leaves to fall off. If there’s too much water in its system, it will start to flood the leaves, turning them yellow and mushy. This will move from the bottom up, effecting the lower leaves first and as they lose their structure the leaves won’t be able to support their own weight and they’ll drop off. It will all look a lot like the plant is rotting, because it is.
If it’s gone this far, there won’t be a lot you can do. You could try to dry the plant out: check the soil, it’s most likely a sodden swamp. Take the plant out of the pot and you’ll need to dry out the roots. Many will be black and rotten already: ditch those. Prepare a fresh, dry batch of soil and repot your plant, being sure to just give a moderate watering. Place your poor mistreated houseplant in a warm window with plenty of indirect sunlight and hope that your neighbours don’t see that you nearly killed your pet!
Diagnosis #6: Under-watering
If the leaves aren’t rotting off, but are brittle, dry and crisping off, then you might have been starving your houseplant of the good stuff instead.. Under-watered plant cells can’t hold the leaves up. They’ll be curling up and looking plenty sad, so step up your watering regime! But don’t drown the poor thing now! If the leaves are dry then the root system will be under-nourished too. Don’t drench it! Now you’ll be at risk of over-watering the poor thing, leaving what roots are left standing in a sodden marsh…which will cause them to rot! Take it easy, you’ll need to nurse it back to health. Try a half cup of water in the morning and evening for a while, and hopefully build up from there.