Beginner’s Guide to Caring for Houseplants
By: Julie Day
Houseplants enhance your décor, clean the air, and bring the outdoors inside.
Growing houseplants is a great way to start gardening while enhancing the beauty of your home. Like any other gardening endeavor, indoor gardens can be as simple or elaborate as you would like. Here are some general guidelines to help get you started.
Dracaena comes in many varieties and is easy to grow.
Choose Plants Wisely
The first step is to choose healthy, actively growing plants with no signs of disease or distress. Start with plants that are forgiving, rather than ones with special needs. Some suggestions for easy to grow houseplants are:
- Pothos (Epipremnum aureum)
- Philodendron (Philodendron sp.)
- Dracaena (Dracaena sp.)
- Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
- Snake plant (Sanseveria sp.)
- Rubber plant (Ficus elastica)
- Peperomia (Peperomia sp.)
- Peace lily (Spathiphyllum sp.)
- Diffenbachia (Dieffenbachia sp.)
Most houseplants like bright, indirect or filtered light.
Light and Location
In general, the best place for houseplants is a bright window that gets direct sun only part of the day. Houseplants like light, but most don’t necessarily like to bake in the sunshine. Check the plant’s label and follow the instructions about light requirements. Some tips:
- High or Direct Light: Sunny windows facing south or southwest.
- Medium or Indirect Light: East facing windows, and spots in bright rooms away from the windows.
- Low Light: North-facing windows and darker rooms.
Plants with darker leaves can usually tolerate less light.
Houseplants are usually tropical plants, so it’s important for your indoor environment to mimic these conditions as much as possible. In general, your houseplants will do best when:
- Temperatures are between 65° – 75° F during the day.
- Night temperatures are no more than 10° cooler. Most tropical plants begin to suffer below 55°.
- There are no sudden large temperature changes. Keep plants away from drafts, heat registers, fireplaces, and cold winter window glass.
Peperomia is another easy houseplant with bright, variegated foliage.
Houseplants like humidity, particularly in the winter when indoor air is so dry. Humidity around your plants can be increased by:
- Grouping plants together.
- Placing plants on a pebble tray.
- Using a humidifier.
- Lightly misting plants with water.
In the winter, you may want to group them together in a warm, humid bathroom or kitchen, then move them back to their regular locations in the spring.
Potting mix is lighter than regular soil.
Pots and Soil
The pot is your plant’s entire world, so it’s important that it is the right size and type, with good soil that drains properly and has plenty of nutrients. Here are some tips for keeping your plants healthy in pots:
- Size: Houseplants need the right size pot. Too big, and the mass of moist soil can rot the roots. Too small, and the crowded roots will starve. Most of the time, your purchased houseplant will be okay in its present pot for a year or so. Many houseplants benefit from being repotted every couple of years. Each time you repot, go up just one pot size (an inch or so bigger).
- Drainage: Your plants need to drain excess water, so choose a pot with holes in the bottom, and put a layer of gravel in the pot before adding soil. Put the pot on a drainage tray or inside a larger decorative planter or bowl.
- Soil: Houseplants need well-draining, nutrient-rich soil. Use a packaged houseplant potting mix – garden soil is too heavy for most plants. Specialized soil is available for specific plants (such as cacti, orchids, and African violets), but in most cases a general indoor potting mix will do.
Water houseplants without splashing the foliage.
Watering can be a touchy aspect of indoor gardening. Some plants like more or less water than others, some are sensitive to wet foliage, and some plants’ water needs change seasonally. As you experiment with new houseplants, you’ll become familiar with each plant’s water requirements and growing cycle. In the beginning, though, here’s what to do:
- Once a week, visit your plants with a watering can. Stick your finger about half an inch into the dirt. If the dirt feels dry, then water. If it’s moist, then wait.
- Water your plants by carefully adding water until a little runs out the bottom into the drainage tray.
- Avoid getting water on the foliage.
- Don’t let your plant sit in water, particularly if it’s in a decorative planter where it could drown.
- In the winter, cut back on watering to perhaps every 10 days to two weeks. Winter tap water can be very cold – use room-temperature water to avoid shock to your plants.
- If your plant needs more water, it’ll let you know by looking droopy. Overwatering can make a plant unhappy, too, so be sure to water only when needed.
Choose a balanced fertilizer for most plants.
Fertilizer and Plant Food
During the growing season (spring through early fall, for most plants), houseplants benefit from a little extra food. There are different types of houseplant fertilizer:
- Instant powders that are mixed with water.
- Premixed liquids that are added when you water your plants.
- Slow-release pellets or spikes that are applied every few months.
Start out with a basic balanced, all-purpose plant food in whatever form suits you. As you become more experienced, you may want to use specialized products for specific plants. Follow the instructions on the package carefully as too much fertilizer can kill your plant.
Pothos is a fast grower that can tolerate neglect.
Your plants will benefit from a bit of housekeeping. As you water, you can also:
- Gently wipe dust and pollen off the leaves.
- Remove dead, brown, or yellow leaves (a few dead leaves are normal).
- Remove spent blooms (also called deadheading).
- Pinch back leggy-looking stems to help them branch out.
- Rotate plants to help them grow evenly.
- Inspect for insects and diseases. If you spot anything growing (or crawling) on your plants, first spray the plant with a little soapy water and gently wipe clean. If that doesn’t work, visit your garden center for a houseplant spray. Take a problem leaf, or a description of the insect, with you to find the right product.
Snake plant has brightly colored foliage.