Grow Healthy Houseplants: A Beginner’s Guide

by KM Team March 05, 2019
ReadGrow Healthy Houseplants: A Beginner’s Guide Image courtesy of Fire Road

Rules of green thumb

Houseplants generally prefer moderate to hot indoor temperatures (50 to 80°F), so if you live somewhere very cold, keep them away from drafty doors and windows and out of unheated rooms. This applies in offices and classrooms, too: plants will suffer when the heat is turned off at night or on the weekends. Regular watering is also important, but overwatering is often as bad as underwatering. For most houseplants, let the soil dry out on the surface. You can stick your finger into the dirt to check moisture. If it’s dry below the top inch of soil, or if the plant is wilting and looking less green, it’s time to water.

When to water

To keep plants well hydrated, set up a watering schedule by picking one day a week and watering all of your plants deeply. (Some say not to water at night, as that can encourage bad microbes in the soil, but if you water infrequently and let the soil dry between waterings, this shouldn’t be a problem.) When adding water, the whole surface of the soil should be wet—but not overflowing—and the water should soak into all the roots. (You can gently lift up the pot to check for moist, happy roots through the drain holes.) Watch the saucer, or outer container, for any overflow, which can be emptied into the next thirsty plant that needs watering.

Many houseplants are tropical, so ice-cold water can hurt them—and boiling water will kill most plants. (It’s therefore an effective organic weed control.) A few ice cubes left on the soil works great for watering smaller plants, since the cubes melt slowly, reducing shock to the plant’s system. This method is often recommended for orchids, which need just a little water at a time. For most other plants, let the water sit and adjust to near room temperature before pouring. Filtered or harvested rainwater is helpful in limiting or avoiding salt and mineral buildup in the potting soil. Some plants are more sensitive than others, and some municipal water supplies contain more minerals than others. Using filtered water avoids the issue, plus it’s a great way to recycle extra water (that half-full pitcher of drinking water you were about to empty in the sink, for example). If your houseplants live outside during the warmer months and you get summer rains, let them soak in the clean rainwater. This will leach out any salts and minerals that may have accumulated from hard tap water.

If you keep a worm farm or compost, give a few tablespoons to your plants once a year. If your plants are looking less green than usual and aren’t thirsty, give them a mild organic indoor plant fertilizer (available at your favorite nursery) and follow the instructions for dosage and application.

Create your green oasis

Tips for arranging different types of plants throughout your home.

Sun worshippers

If you have a sunny spot close to a window where the plant will receive at least four hours of direct sunlight a day, try these options:

Lucky bamboo
This plant is not really bamboo (which is too big and needs too much sun to be kept in small indoor spaces), although it does look similar. Usually, it comes planted in pebbles, but you can replant the lucky bamboo in soil in which it will ultimately be happier and probably live longer. Water every few days, and if it starts to smell “swampy,” empty and clean the container and let the plant dry out for a few days before refilling with clean water. (Occasional dryness keeps bad bacteria in check.)

Aloe vera
Every home should have aloe on hand for kitchen burns and sunburns. The dwarf variety is best for a houseplant, as it needs less sun and grows to a more manageable size than its larger cousins. Keep it outside during warm summer months and bring it inside well before the first frost. (It’s hardy down to around 50°F.) Like most succulents, the aloe needs to dry out completely between waterings and only requires water once a week at most. It will spout new “pups” from its root system, which you can separate and repot to share with friends.

These tropical plants are widely available, mostly year round, and flower in many bright colors. Keep them moist to prolong the blooms, and cut off any dead (brown) flower clumps. Once all the flowers are gone, let the plant rest (water infrequently), or compost it and start over. If you want the plant to rebloom annually, put it outside during the summer months, water regularly (at least weekly), and feed it some compost or other balanced organic plant food every two weeks from March to August.

Made in the shade

If you have a spot that’s away from direct light but not in total darkness (ideally with four to eight hours of indirect, bright light with the curtains open or from full-spectrum lightbulbs every day), try one of these options:

This is a good plant for wall planters, hanging baskets, and the top shelf, as the leaves hang down from vines rather than stiff branches. When the vining branches grow too long, especially if they start sprouting aerial roots, trim them to your desired length. To make more plants, remove the leaves along the bottom few inches of the cuttings and stick the vines in water for a few weeks. Once the roots appear, you can plant the rooted cuttings in soil. Water regularly and share new plants with friends.

Snake plant
These plants are more tolerant of darkness than most, so if you’re worried that your room might not get enough light, this is a good plant to try out. It’s forgiving as long as you water it deeply at least once a month. Whether you buy the variegated (with a yellow-green edge) or the solid-green variety, it’s easy to care for.

Spider plant
The bright, green-and-white-striped strappy leaves of this plant look great growing out of a tabletop pot, on a plant stand, or as a hanging plant. Long stems shoot out from the base and drape down, sprouting small flowers, which quickly become little “plantlets.” You can leave these to grow on the plant, or cut the stems at their base, break off the plantlets (which will have tiny aerial roots sprouting), and plant them in their own pots. You’ll never be without a gift.

Cacti and air plants
Cacti need to rest in the winter, as they would in the wild. This means you should water them less often and move them away from bright light but not where they might freeze (aim for a room that stays 40°F or warmer). If you like to give them fertilizer to ensure flowering, don’t do it in the winter. (It’s like serving them coffee at night—not very restful.) In the summer, you can move the cacti outside once nighttime temps stay above 50°F.

Air plants generally prefer regular, bright light year round. Every other day, spritz them thoroughly, or submerge them completely in a weekly bath of room-temperature rain or filtered water. Mix some air-plant food into the shower or bath if you want to encourage them to bloom again.

*This is an excerpt from “The Kaufmann Mercantile Guide.” To see more guides for a slow and thoughtful life and original artwork, check out the book in our shop.


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