Bringing new plants home is always a joy! Photo: getgreenbewell.com
By Larry Hodgson
You’ve just arrived from the garden center with a brand-new houseplant. Congratulations! You’re now a proud plant parent! But suddenly, like any new parent, you’re assailed by doubts. What care does it need? Will it be happy? Is there a transition period when special attention is needed? (The answer to the latter is yes!) Help!
Here’s a review of what you can do to help your new plant adapt to your conditions and to ensure it lives a long, healthy life.
1. Isolate it.
Yes, I’m sorry to have to warn you about this, but there are undesirable insects that can easily find their way into your home by hitchhiking a ride on a new plant. Mealybugs, scale insects, whiteflies, thrips, spider mites, aphids … those are just a few of the pests that you can bring into your home inadvertently.
Hopefully, you carefully inspected the plant before buying it, but even so, it’s best to put any new plant in quarantine, far from any other houseplant. That can be in another room or, failing that possibility, seal the plant in a clear plastic bag (don’t worry: it will be able to breathe). Check it regularly. If there are no signs of pests after 40 days or so, it’s probably fine. Whew! Then you can move to a home among your other plants.
2. Look It Up
It helps enormously to know what your plant is called. Ideally, you’d have its botanical name, but common names can also help identify it, although they’re just not as trustworthy (the same common name often applies to more than one plant and the plant can easily have more than one common name). The name may be written on the label … if there is one (so few houseplants have labels these days). Or the garden center where you bought it should be able to identify it for you. If you bought your plant in a big box store or supermarket, though … well, you’re on your own.
Sometimes the plant is just labeled “succulent” or “foliage plant.” That’s not much information to go on, but a least the term “succulent” suggests a plant that will need full sun or very bright light and will do best if allowed to dry out between waterings, while “foliage plant” generally suggests moderate light and watering as soon as the soil begins to dry.
If you do have the name, look up the plant in a houseplant book or a trustworthy online site and carefully read over the details of its care.
Can you trust the information on the plant label? Often, they have symbols indicating the plant’s light needs, watering needs, etc. Sadly, the labels don’t always tell the truth. They often seriously underestimate light and humidity needs, for example, or gloss over details about watering. Nor can they cover everything. The little details that can make all the difference (like special seasonal care or that fact that carnivorous plants need mineral-free water) just aren’t there. So, consider the label to be no more than an introduction to your plant. You’ll need to do further research.
3. Give It Light
Green plants get all their energy from sunlight. It’s their “food.” So, don’t leave the plant sitting in an opaque plant sleeve or paper bag. Get it out and into bright light. Some plants react badly to only a few days without sun.
Plants almost always need more light than you think. What you see as bright light, the plant often sees as deathly shade. Plants almost never die of too much light (indoors, at least), but millions of them die yearly from lack of light. Try the newspaper test to get a better idea of what the plant is looking for.
Where sunlight is absent or weak, remember you can use artificial light (LED and fluorescent lights especially) to compensate.
4. Increase the Humidity
Most houseplants—succulents being the main exception—need high humidity—60%, 70% or even more—to really thrive. Yet, our homes often struggle to make it to 40% in the summer, 30% in the winter. Yes, many can adapt to lower humidity … but if you expose a plant that has spent its entire life in a humid greenhouse (the likely original home of the plant you just bought) to dry indoor air without giving it time to adapt, it can decline rapidly.
Boost the humidity with a room humidifier or by setting the plant on a humidity tray. For certain plants known for their massive loss of leaves after a move—the weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) and the croton (Codiaeum variegatum) being the two most notable ones—, seal the plant inside a transparent plastic bag while it adapts. Read more about that technique here. If you buy any thin leafed plant in winter (fittonia, calathea, etc.), bag it too. (A winter move is tough on plants and giving them really high humidity to compensate can really help them adapt.)
And by the way, you do know that misting plants with water doesn’t help increase the atmospheric humidity to any useful degree, right? So why waste your time spraying? Read more about that here.
5. Water Carefully
You don’t know this plant yet. And it hasn’t yet adapted to your growing conditions, nor to your watering habits, so its watering needs are probably going to change over the next few weeks. So, when the potting soil feels dry to the touch, water slowly and carefully with room temperature or tepid water until the excess starts to drain into saucer below. After 15 minutes or so, drain the saucer of any surplus water.
If the plant is in a hanging basket, you’d do best to take it to the sink and soak it for 15 minutes or so, then let drain. Orchids, too, do best if their roots are soaked.
Then check every 3 or 4 days, watering again when the soil is dry again. After 4 or 5 weeks of this, you’ll have a better handle on the plant’s real needs and it will be well on the way to adapting to your conditions.
6. Don’t Fertilize
Fertilizing your new plant should be the least of your concerns. Most houseplants can get along just fine with no fertilizer whatsoever. Not that a timely application of minerals isn’t useful, but too much can be harmful or even kill the plant. And you have no idea whether your plant just received a massive shot of fertilizer days before you bought it. Indeed, flowering houseplants especially are often “boosted” with huge doses of fertilizer just before they’re sold.
Wait until the plant has adapted to your conditions, say in about 2 or 3 months, before fertilizing moderately, at never more than half the dose recommended by the fertilizer supplier. And remember, most plants need no fertilizer at all in fall and winter.
In an ideal world, any houseplant would be sold in a pot of adequate size for at least six months’ growth, because repotting is a major stress for the plant and just moving to new growing conditions is enough stress to start with. This is doubly true if the plant is in bloom, as flowering uses up much of its energy. Ideally, you’d wait until it finishes blooming before repotting.
That said, there are many cases where you shouldn’t wait, but should instead repot the plant without delay. Here are few:
- It wilts rapidly. If the plant starts to wilt only a few days after you gave it a thorough watering, it is likely seriously underpotted. Repot into a larger container so its roots will have room to spread … and fresh potting soil acts as an excellent water reservoir. Many “gift plants” (flowering houseplants like poinsettias and florist’s hydrangeas) are seriously underpotted at purchase time, as they cost less to ship that way, but won’t survive long if you don’t “pot them up” (move them into a bigger pot).
- The pot it grows in has no drainage hole. Ideally, you’d never even buy such a plant, because it is so easy to overwater a plant when you can’t tell if you’ve watered it enough, insufficiently or too much. And if no water can drain out from the bottom, the usual sign to any gardener that the plant has received enough water, you don’t know, do you? Without a drainage hole, one day the plant will eventually be left soaking in water … and rotting. If you did buy such a plant, remove it from the original pot and move it into a more appropriate container.
- There are several plants sharing a single pot. This seems to be the new trend in houseplants. Stuff a clump of seedlings into a pot so it looks nice and full, call it a plant and sell it. This usually turns out badly in the long term, as all these little plants are competing for the same resources. Soon, they start to go downhill. It’s better to unpot these clumps before their roots become inextricably intertwined, divide them and give each plant its own pot.
- The plant is top-heavy and won’t stand up on its own. Sure, you could double pot (place the pot inside a heavier outer pot), but that complicates watering. You might as well bite the bullet and repot it into a wider pot with more growing mix and possibly a heavier pot. It would need it soon anyway.
8. Remove glued-on pebble mulch
Yes, just about the worst idea for houseplants ever, invented so the seller can ship poorly rooted plants without the soil falling out of the pot. Even an earthquake couldn’t shake the soil loose! However, since you can neither see nor touch the soil, how can you judge whether the plant needs watering or not? Pry it loose without delay.
9. Prune Lightly
This isn’t vital, but yes, store-bought plants often often have a few flaws or suffer a bit of damage during transit: torn leaves, brown edges, faded flowers, bent or broken branches, etc. You might as well remove the damaged bits with pruning shears. And if your pruning leaves the plant somewhat lopsided, prune into the healthy parts too so as to balance its appearance. That will allow the plant to fill in evenly with fresh growth and look its best quickly.
10. Remove Flowers
Honestly, no one buys a houseplant in bloom with the intention of coming home and chopping all the flowers off. Yet, logically, you really should.
Flowering—and the step that follows, producing seed—require a tremendous amount of the plant’s resources. Since your plant has to adapt to new growing conditions, asking it to stay in bloom as well is a lot to ask. So, in theory, you really should cut off the flowers. Again, you probably won’t do it (I mean, I wouldn’t myself!), but … if the plant goes downhill; well, at least you know that might well be the cause.
A compromise would be to remove flowers of little interest. Some plants are essentially foliage plants that occasionally flower. Crotons, prayer plants, caladiums, most succulents, etc. Their flowers add little to their appearance and needlessly sap their energy. So, if you buy a “green plant” or succulent that just happens to have a flower or two, cut it off. If you want to let it bloom, wait until it does so on its own under your growing conditions.
And there you go. Ten timely tips on giving your new houseplant the best possible care! Put them into practice and just watch your thumb turn green!