How to Care for Houseplants
This blog was originally published on September 13, 2018 and has been updated with new information and links to better suit the Garden Goods Direct audience.
House plants are the unsung heroes of our homes.
They produce oxygen, improve mental health and reduce stress. A study by NASA showed that within 24 hours, indoor plants remove up to 87 percent of airborne toxins. Besides bringing a lush and vibrant aesthetic to our rooms, houseplants quietly increase our quality of life.
The decision of whether or not to buy a house plant is an easy one. But before you know it, the leaves of your thriving Pothos begin to turn a sickly yellow. Your Peace Lily is brown at the edges, and your Snake Plant fronds are starting to droop. What are you doing wrong?
House plant care can be frustrating, but it doesn't have to be. With only a little upkeep, your indoor plants will keep brightening your space for years to come. Keep reading for Woodie's guide to not just keep houseplants alive, but thriving.
What to Consider When Growing Houseplants
To keep your plants in excellent condition, you have to consider certain factors. Many houseplants are intentionally low-maintenance and will survive in sub-optimal conditions. But if you want your plants to truly thrive, try to meet as many of their needs as possible. Below are nine factors to consider when caring for your houseplants.
After you purchase a new indoor plant, the first step is to repot. This is not just for aesthetic reasons — a newly-purchased plant has probably outgrown its current, temporary container and will do best in a slightly larger pot. However, one type of potting soil won't work for all species. When you transplant your plant, it's essential to use the right kind of potting soil.
Different types of plants require different types of soil. This makes sense once we remember where different plants originate. Think about the natural environments of ferns compared to succulents — while ferns grow in moist environments with a high level of organic matter, your favorite cacti thrive in places where moisture is infrequent and unpredictable. The soil of the desert is well-draining and doesn't retain water, unlike most generic potting mixes.
If your new houseplant comes from a tropical family, odds are it will do best with a potting mix that is high in organic material such as peat moss and compost. For succulents and plants that prefer arid conditions and fast-draining soil, look for a blend that includes sand and is specifically designed for maximum aeration and drainage.
At first, watering your indoor plants seems simple — don't drown them, and don't let them dry out like raisins.
To some extent, this is true — everything in moderation, including how much you water your plants. But try growing any plant, and you'll quickly discover that watering is much more complicated.
When watering houseplants, a common mistake is to either under-water or overwater.
If your plant is wilting or becoming brittle and the soil is dry, it might need more water. A simple fix is to water more frequently. But if a plant is drooping, don't immediately assume it needs water. Wilting foliage can also be a sign of a far more common problem with houseplants — overwatering.
Overwatering is the number one cause of houseplant death. Too much water can cause dreaded plant root rot, which plagues beginner gardeners and seasoned green-thumbs alike. Most plants don't like "wet feet," or having their roots rest in a puddle of water. If you're worried you might be overwatering your houseplant, cut back — odds are you're giving it too much moisture, and if not, it's much easier to correct the damage of not-enough water than too much.
A poorly-draining plant can also exhibit symptoms of overwatering. Make sure your planter has drainage holes at the bottom of the pot to allow excess water to escape. If you choose to grow your plant in a container without drainage, first line the bottom with aerating objects such as horticultural charcoal. While your plant may still develop root rot, the charcoal lessens the risk by absorbing excess moisture.
During the first weeks of owning your plant, you might go through an experimentation period to find out the right watering schedule for your houseplants. Start with watering once or twice a week, and adjust where necessary. Keep in mind that houseplants go through growing and dormant periods, and their water-needs will fluctuate accordingly — when growing, typically in spring and summer, plants will require more water. When dormant, they will need less.
Tip — Stick your finger into the soil before you water, up to about the first knuckle. If the dirt feels moist, the plant doesn't need water. Test the soil every couple of days until it feels dry.
Armed with air conditioners and dehumidifiers, many of our homes are designed to stay cool and dry. Especially in the summer months, air conditioners work hard to take the warm moisture out of our air.
Unfortunately, most plants really like humidity.
Many houseplants naturally grow in tropical, high-moisture environments. When placed in the dry conditions of houses, they may start to brown and crisp at the edges of their leaves. To avoid this, try setting your moisture-loving plants in rooms with increased humidity such as bathrooms. The regular steam of the shower will help them flourish.
Another tip is to fill a drainage tray with pebbles or small stones. Pour water into the tray until it almost covers the rocks, but not quite. Set your pot on top of the tray — the evaporating water will increase the humidity of the roots.
Consider investing in a spray bottle. Lightly mist your plants once or twice per day to increase humidity.
Knowing how much and what kind of light your plant needs is crucial to its success. It also helps to know the layout of your house — a north-facing window will get very different light than a south-facing one.
When you purchase a new plant, the instructions on the tag will list how much sun it needs. These three categories are the most common:
- High or Bright Light: six or more hours of direct light per day
- Medium or Indirect Light: five to six hours of bright indirect light per day
- Low Light: less than three hours per day
A tell-tale sign your plant isn't receiving the right amount of light is if it stops creating new growth. If you notice your plant stops growing, it could be a sign to move it to a room with different windows. Here are the four directions of sunlight, and the benefits of each:
- North-facing windows: Windows facing north will not receive any direct sunlight. They do provide consistent indirect light, so they're perfect for plants such as Rabbits Foot Fern and Jade Pothos.
- East-facing windows: Eastern windows get gentle morning light. Because east-facing windows receive plenty of light without getting too heated, many plants will thrive here. Try placing indoor trees such as a Fiddle Leaf Fig in front of an east-facing window. Majesty Palm Trees also do well in front of eastern windows
- South-facing windows: Windows that face south get the strongest sun. A south window is ideal for plants that demand full sun such as a Croton or White Bird of Paradise.
- West-facing windows: Western-facing windows get the last rays of sun during the day, but unlike eastern windows, this light tends to be warm and can overheat sensitive plants. Try putting a Spider Plant, Aglaonema or light-loving succulents near a western windowsill.
Plants grow towards light, so rotate your plants one quarter turn each week to ensure even growth.
Tip — Blooming plants need more light than non-bloomers, so make sure you put them near south-facing windows or supplement them with fluorescent or grow lights.
In natural environments, the soil around plants is constantly changing. Every season, organic matter dies and contributes to new soil nutrients. But when potted, a plant has a limited supply of nutrients. Over time, the plant will deplete the soil.
To thrive, indoor plants need regular applications of fertilizer, which is readily available at any gardening center. But be careful not to over-fertilize your houseplant — too much fertilizer can weaken a plant and stunt growth.
Fertilizers are available in many different types and combinations, but all indoor plants need fertilizers that contain nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. As a general rule, don't fertilize more than once every one to three months between March and September. This ensures that plants receive nutrients when they need them — during the growing season. Applying fertilizer during a plant's dormancy can cause damage.
Outside, the air is continuously moving and changing. But most modern buildings are designed to be airtight, and the air in your home quickly gets stale.
Many plants benefit from some air circulation. While you should avoid putting plants near vents, try setting your houseplants in rooms with ceiling fans or high traffic to take advantage of maximum airflow.
Be careful of drafts, especially ones that deviate from the temperature of your home. A freezing breeze from a drafty winter window will damage your houseplant, which is accustomed to milder temperatures.
The thought of cleaning your houseplant might seem ridiculous. But like anything else in your home, plants will get dusty — and unlike the dust on your TV, this grime could be deadly.
A thin layer of dust and debris can block light from reaching the leaves of your houseplant, slowly starving it. Inside, a plant is shielded by the rains and winds that would otherwise keep it clean. It's up to you to groom your houseplant.
Try gently rinsing your plant in a sink or shower, or wiping down the leaves with a wet sponge or dry dust cloth. For plants with "fuzzy" leaves, such as African Violets, use a soft toothbrush or paintbrush.
For indoor flowering plants, pick off the spent blooms to encourage more flowers to grow. Regularly clip off yellow leaves, and if stems have lost their leaves, prune them back to the soil line.
Pests and Diseases
Despite your best efforts, your lovely houseplant may become infected with pests or disease. Don't despair — most issues are treatable, and your plant may recover after a little bit of attention.
Here are some of the common indoor pests that attack houseplants:
- Fungus Gnats: You know you have fungus gnats if tiny, mosquito-like flies seem to emerge from your plant's soil. Also look for little slime trails on the top of the soil. These nuisance insects are attracted to moisture, so they may be a sign of overwatering or root rot. Try letting your plant's soil dry out between waterings — if the gnats persist, use a specially designed product such as Gnat Nix.
- Spider Mites: When tiny, pale specks start pocking your plant's leaves, you're probably dealing with spider mites. Another sign is delicate white webbing on leaves or buds. To treat spider mites, use an organic spray such as Bonide Insecticidal Soap. Apply a second time after two weeks to make sure you've killed all eggs.
- Whiteflies: When you have whiteflies, you'll know — a cloud of the small white insects will fly away whenever the plant is disturbed. Try spraying the infected plant with insecticidal soap or other natural pesticides.
- Mealybugs: If your plant's leaves turn yellow and curl, check for mealybugs. These pests are attracted to high nitrogen levels and soft growth, so make sure you are not over-fertilizing or overwatering your plants. To control mealybugs, apply insecticidal soap or organic pesticide such as neem oil.
Sometimes an insect isn't at the root of your plant's sickness. Below are some common diseases that attack houseplants.
- Gray Mold: Gray mold is a fungal disease that frequently strikes African Violets and Begonias. To treat gray mold, make sure the air around your plant is well-circulated and remove all dead or affected leaves.
- Powdery Mildew: If a white or gray powder appears on your plant's leaves, it's most likely powdery mildew. Mildew is a symptom of poor air circulation, and while it won't kill your plant, it will significantly weaken it. Treat with a fungicide or try a DIY solution.
- Many indoor plant diseases are connected with poor air circulation, so to reduce risk, invest in preventative measures like small fans.
Most houseplants benefit from an annual repotting. Giving your plant a new container is an easy way to extend its life and ward against overwatering and disease.
Here are some signs that your plant may be in desperate need of a new, slightly larger pot:
- Does water run straight through the pot without being absorbed?
- Are roots poking through drainage holes?
- Has your plant stopped growing, even during its growth season?
Check out our tips for transplanting houseplants to learn more about how and why you should regularly repot your plant!
Shop for Houseplants Today at Garden Goods Direct
Caring for houseplants has never been easier. At Garden Goods Direct, we have all the supplies you need to succeed. Our plants are expertly inspected, and our team of professional gardeners is dedicated to helping you find the perfect indoor plant for your home or office.