Caring for houseplants is pretty simple… if you know what to do!

In the spirit of New Year, here are 10 resolutions for beginning indoor gardeners that will help guarantee you beautiful houseplants, even if it is the first time in your life that you’ve tried growing anything.

  1. I’ll Start with Easy Plants
Few houseplants are as easy to grow as the heartleaf philodendron!

The number one mistake novice gardeners make is to start with challenging plants. Indeed, who wouldn’t be seduced by a bonsai or a magnificent gardenia in full bloom? However, these are plants for experts. Neither will still be alive in two weeks without very precise care. As in almost anything, it’s always best to start at the bottom of the ladder and work your way up rather than on the middle or upper rungs.

Here is a list of plants that can really be recommended to beginners:

  • Aspidistra (Aspidistra elatior)
  • Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema)
  • Dieffenbachia or dumb cane (Dieffenbachia)
  • Dracaena or corn plant (Dracaena fragrans)
  • Heartleaf Philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum, formerly P. scandens and P. oxycardium)
  • Pothos (Epipremnum aureum)
  • Snake plant or mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata)
  • Syngonium (Syngonium)
  • Zeezee plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

After you’ve successfully grown any of these plants for six months or more, buy another one from the list. Then another. When you have half a dozen of these “easy plants” growing in your home for at least a year, you’ll be ready to try few of the simpler flowering plants, like peace lilies (Spathiphyllum) or African violets (Saintpaulia) . But it is only after you have been successfully growing flowering plants for several years that you’ll be ready for a bonsai! And you may never be ready for the horrendously capricious gardenia!

  1. I’ll Give Them Lots of Light
Light is to plants what food is to humans: don’t starve them by putting them in dark corners!

Most home interiors are on the dark side, especially when they are decorated with curtains (they cut off what little solar energy does enter). Four walls with a single window, that’s pretty minimal when you consider plants outdoors get light from all sides as well as above. Fortunately, all the plants mentioned in the previous resolution can tolerate fairly deep shade. Even so, there isn’t one that won’t grow much better if you place it near a window where it can get at least a bit of direct sun each day.

  1. I’ll Learn When to Water

Beginners often fail to study the soil before they water their plants: they pour on the H20 whether the plant really needs it or not and that can quickly lead to rot. The concept that you can set up a once-weekly watering session in which you’ll be able to correctly all your plants in one fell swoop simply isn’t tenable. You see, not all plants use water at the same speed. In fact, the same plant can need water after only 4 days one week, and still be soaking wet a week after being watered another. That’s why true green thumb gardeners always touch the potting mix of each plant every few days, even inserting a finger into the mix to confirm the situation. Does the potting soil really feel dry? If so, water. Is it still moist? If so, don’t.

Alternatively, lift the pot: if it’s light, water, if not, don’t. It’s so easy… once you understand that watering needs vary!

  1. I’ll Use a Singing Moisture Meter to Remind Me to Water
When the bird sings, the plant needs water. How simple is that?

For some novices, the problem is not that they water too often, but that they forget to water altogether. This problem is most easily solved by using a musical moisture meter. Generally in the form of a ceramic bird set on top of a pair of probes, you simply insert the probe in the soil… and leave it there. When the plant needs water, the bird will start to sing. Then you water! How can you forget to water a plant that sings for its moisture?

  1. I’ll Learn How to Water

When watering a houseplant, always water thoroughly, completely inundating its soil in water. A few spoonfuls are never enough… yep, not even for a cactus! Slowly pour lukewarm water into the pot and keeping pouring until it percolates out through the bottom of the pot into the saucer. Yes, do leave it soaking in a bit of surplus water for a while, just to make sure it really has drunk its fill. Then empty out any excess water that’s still in the saucer after 20 minutes. This method works every time!

  1. I’ll Increase the Atmospheric Humidity

The air in our homes is too dry for most plants, at least during the winter or when you’re running an air conditioner. All the plants mentioned in the first resolution can tolerate dry air if they have to, but will grow better if the air is humid. Other plants die very quickly when the air is dry.

Operate a room humidifier to help correct the problem. Or place your plants on a humidity tray. Or group your plants together… because the plants themselves are natural humidifiers. In fact, the more plants you grow in the house, the more humid the air will be.

  1. I’ll Use Fertilizer as a Reward, Not a Stimulant
Only fertilize when your plants is growing well.

It will be a shock to many novice gardeners to learn that fertilizer actually harms more houseplants than it helps, but that’s the case! When too much fertilizer builds up in the potting mix, it begins to “pull” water out of the roots, causing the plant to wilt even when you do water it carefully. Be very careful not to overfertilize!

Most beginners fertilize their plants to encourage better growth, but that’s the wrong way to look at the situation. Learn to see fertilization as a reward that you only give to plants that are performing well, and you’ll have much better luck with your plants.

Also note that a freshly-purchased houseplant won’t need fertilizer for at least six months, as it was “boosted” with extra fertilizer before it was sold. Afterwards, apply fertilizer only very lightly (never at more than a quarter of the “recommended” dose) and again, only to plants that are growing vigorously.

Since most plants don’t grow during the winter, or only very slowly, you’ll find you’ll mainly be distributing “fertilizer rewards” during the growing season, from March to October.

  1. I Won’t Get Hung Up On Fertilizer Labels
So many fertilizer possibilities, yet plants don’t really care what fertilizer you use.

Yes, you’ll see plenty of fertilizers labelled for “flowering plants”, “foliage plants”, “cacti”, “orchids”, etc., but you don’t need them. You see, plants can’t read fertilizer labels and will gladly accept any fertilizer you give them. Honestly, such labelling is largely a gimmick to increase sales and the theory behind the different percentages on such labels is either faulty or terribly outdated . All you’ll ever really need is as an indoor gardener is an all-purpose fertilizer. Of course, if you’ve already purchased a more specific fertilizer, just use that… even a cactus fertilizer on a foliage plant. Plants simply don’t care which fertilizer you use!

  1. I Won’t Knock Myself Out Over Temperature

Good news! All plants mentioned (and probably at least 90% of all houseplants) grow very well at normal indoor temperatures. There is therefore no need to radically to change the temperature in your home “to please the plants”. Whether you like it hot or cold or whether you lower the thermostat at night or not, they’ll adapt perfectly.

  1. I’ll Avoid Leaf Shine
Leaf shine pleases people, but not plants.

Novices are often seducing into buying “leaf shine”. This product does make the foliage of your plants shine, but think about what that means: if the foliage “shines” (reflects light), it will absorb less of it! Also, most of these products clog the plant’s stomata (breathing pores), slowing their respiration! Why in the world would you want to do that?

If you find your plants dirty or dusty, wash their leaves with a soft cloth soaked in mild soap to bring out their natural luster. Or just rinse them off in the shower. Think “natural beauty” and you’ll have much healthier plants!

There you go! Maintaining houseplants is not rocket science and anyone can learn it. Follow the resolutions above and you’ll be well on the way to a solid green thumb!20161231a

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, laidbackgardener.blog will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

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