I’m a firm believer everyone needs a houseplant. Greenery brightens up rooms and adds a bit of cheer and colour to even the gloomiest of days. Not only that but houseplants have been shown to boost mood and reduce indoor air pollution.
Personally, I just find it very satisfying to watch a living thing grow and flourish under my care and I’m guessing you feel the same way.
However, though you want a bit of greenery, you may be concerned indoor plant care will be a daunting task. After all, there are so many plant options available. How do you know where to start or what type of care your plant will need?
To help with this, and to keep you from becoming discouraged or overwhelmed, I’ve outlined the basic steps to good indoor plant care. In this guide, you’ll find everything you’ll need to know about getting started with houseplants.
- GUIDE TO INDOOR PLANT CARE
- LIGHT & TEMPERATURE
- POTTING YOUR INDOOR PLANT
- PEST PROBLEMS
- PLANTS TO START WITH
Get To Know Your Plant
Before we delve into indoor plant care, let’s talk about getting to know your plant.
Regardless of the type, all houseplants require light and water to survive. How much of each depends on the plant.
It’s always a good idea to familiarize yourself with your plant.
This means thinking about your plant’s natural environment. For example, is native to deserts where there is sporadic rainfall? Or is its natural habitat a tropical, humid jungle?
Mimicking the native conditions as best you can, will go a long way to making your houseplant happy.
So, what does this mean in practical terms? Well if, for example, you have a desert plant, it’ll probably need more sun and less water; whereas a tropical plant will likely need more indirect or dappled light and higher humidity.
When you purchase your plant, it’s always a good idea to ask your supplier about your plant’s needs. If you already have a plant, your local garden center, or a quick internet search for sites, such as this one, can help you learn more about your plant’s likes and dislikes.
Now, let’s look at the basics of indoor plant care, so you too can have a happy houseplant.
Beginner’s Guide to Indoor Plant Care
Watering Your Indoor Plant
Water is one of the main building blocks of life. And it’s no different with a houseplant. Good indoor plant care means a watering schedule appropriate for your type of plant.
Improper watering, particularly over-watering, is probably the biggest misstep both beginners and experienced plant parents make. Believe me, I have been guilty of this myself. And I would venture to say so has every other houseplant enthusiast.
However, as important as water is unless you’re indulging in hydroponics or have an aquatic plant, chances are your plant will not like soggy feet. Meaning, that most plants don’t want the soil to be wet all the time.
Except for succulents, a good rule of thumb is to water when the top inch or two of the soil is dry. In general, look to water your tropical plants once or twice a week.
Succulents and cacti will need far less water. Their watering schedule can range anywhere from once every two weeks to once every few months, so it’s important you don’t water them as you would other plants. To learn more about watering succulents and cacti, take a peek at this article from Succulents and Sunshine.
What If I Don’t Know What Type Of Plant I Have?
Often times people acquire unfamiliar plants, whether from family or friends, or even nurseries, that don’t come with watering instructions.
If this is the case, take a look at the plant’s leaves. Generally, the fatter the leaves the more readily the plant will store and retain water.
You can also keep track of your plant. Give it a good watering, then watch for when the leaves start to droop – a sign the plant needs watering again. Take note of the length of time in between. This will give you an indication of how often that plant needs to be watered. It was through this type of tracking method that I learned my peace lily needs water twice a week.
Here are some additional signs to watch for are:
Indications of too much water
- stems become soft or mushy
- leaves yellow and fall off
- plant suddenly has fungus gnats
- pot is very heavy to lift and the top of the soil is dark and very wet
Indications of too little water
- leaves become dry and shriveled
- leaves become wilted
- plant starts drooping
- leaves become discolored (brown or yellow)
Another thing to note is it’s always best to pour the water around the base of the plant, instead of on the leaves or plant’s crown. If water is seeping out of the drainage holes, that’s an indication to stop watering.
Lastly, keep in mind, that a plant’s growth usually slows in winter, so its need for water may lessen a little during this time.
Type of Water
The type of water you use can also play a role in providing good indoor plant care. Consistently using hard tap water – water that’s heavy with salt or lime, or even fluoride – can, over time, cause a build-up of these minerals in the soil. In turn, this build-up can affect some plants.
Plants that are sensitive to harder waters will often have browning tips on the leaves, and just in general look a little so-so.
To learn more about why your leaves are turning color, take a look at my post of the subject.
Also, you shouldn’t use water that runs through a water softening system, as oftentimes these systems are quite high in sodium.
If you have hard water, consider using distilled or filtered water, on its own or mixed with your tap water. You can also give the soil a good flush on a scheduled basis to help reduce any build-up.
One thing to note – some plants, such as air plants, need the minerals found in water. For this category of plants, do not use distilled water. It’s simply too pure.
In general, it’s best to use lukewarm or room temperature water. An easy way to do this is to fill your water jug up after each watering. This way, the water will be at room temperature the next time you give junior a drink.
Watering needs should be one of the top things to consider when purchasing a plant. You want to ensure your schedule and lifestyle will be able to accommodate your plant’s water needs.
Light & Temperature
As with water, light and temperature also play an important role when it comes to indoor plant care.
Most plants prefer bright, indirect light. In general, plants do not tolerate direct sunlight well, as this can be too hot and intense for your plant. And too intense a light may cause your plant’s leaves to burn. This is especially true when sunlight streams through glass.
If you have west or south facing windows, and you’re concerned about the light intensity, putting up a sheer curtain will help filter the light. You can also position your plant several feet away from the window. This way, they’re still getting a nice, bright light, yet aren’t directly in the sun’s rays.
However, if your windows face north or east, or your home is not overly bright, don’t despair. There are plenty of plants that prefer moderate to low light and will do well in this environment. The main thing to keep in mind is to choose a plant that matches your home’s light conditions.
According to Gardening Know How, high light houseplants, in general, will need five or more hours of bright light per day. These plants do best within 6 feet of a south or west facing window.
Medium light houseplants need several hours of indirect light per day, either from a window or from overhead lighting.
Low light houseplants need little light and will grow in rooms that have no windows but still have an overhead light.
Always keep in mind, that no matter if they have low light requirements, an indoor plant will not survive in a room that is dark the majority of the time. So, in other words, don’t stick your plant in a continuous dark room and forget about it. This will not make for good indoor plant care or a happy houseplant!
When it comes to temperature, a good rule of thumb to follow is – if you’re comfortable, you’re plant’s likely comfortable.
Equally important, most plants prefer an even, moderate temperature. In other words, your plant’s not going to like sitting in a cold draft, or next to a vent blasting hot air.
Potting Your Indoor Plant
First things first, don’t be in a rush to re-pot your plant. Most plants like their roots a bit crowded. Even a plant purchased from your local nursery, unless the plant is clearly overflowing its current pot, won’t need a new home immediately. If you want a more decorative pot, keep the plant in its nursery pot, and use the decorative pot as a cachepot.
When to Re-Pot
So, when do you need to re-pot? Well, if your plant is showing any of these signs, it might be time to either look for a new pot or replace the soil.
- Your plant has clearly outgrown its container.
- There is an issue with the soil – ie., it’s become too dry and compacted and is no longer absorbing water, or it’s become too saturated and your plant is in danger of the roots rotting.
- You suspect the roots are damaged.
- You’ve developed a pest issue and the soil needs to be replaced.
With some of the above issues, you may be able to reuse the existing pot and just replace the soil.
If you are planning on re-potting into a different container, pick a pot that’s only an inch or two larger than the current pot. Otherwise, you may find that the soil ends up retaining too much water because the plant isn’t big enough to absorb all of it.
In addition, you may find the plant’s growth slowing because it’s spending too much energy expanding its roots to fit the size of the pot and not enough energy for growth above the soil.
If you’d like to learn more about pots and picking the best pot for your plant, then read my post on the subject. It has a lot of helpful information.
Let’s Talk Soil
As for the soil itself, you’ll find there’s quite a variety to choose from. In general, basic mixes contain peat moss, perlite, and/or vermiculite. The ratios will depend on the type of soil.
Good soil will provide adequate air space for growth and will be well-draining, yet retain enough moisture for the plant to thrive.
Most plants will do fine with a good, all-purpose potting or container soil. However, with certain plants, such as cactus and succulents, orchids, and even seedlings, you might be better off choosing a soil that’s tailored to that plant’s needs.
No matter the plant, making sure you use a good potting mix is a basic step with indoor plant care.
Commercial soils often have a slow-release fertilizer in the soil mixture, but over time these nutrients deplete. So, although a number of houseplants don’t actually require fertilizing, many people like to give their plants a little extra boost as the soil ages.
However, there are a few things you’ll need to keep in mind.
I would say the number one rule when it comes to fertilizing your plant is to not over-fertilize. I can’t stress this enough. Excess fertilizer can build up in your soil and burn your plant’s roots. To learn the signs of over-fertilization, read through this article from the PennState Extension program.
When to Fertilize
Not only do you want to watch for over-fertilization, but you also want to fertilize at the proper time of year. Namely, during the growing season. For most plants, this will mean fertilizing in spring and summer.
During the winter, plants head into a dormant period. You don’t want to stimulate plant growth during this time.
Types of Fertilizers
There are generally two types of fertilizers: water soluble and slow release.
Water soluble fertilizers are mixed with water and, in general, can be applied a couple of times a month.
Slow release fertilizers, on the other hand, slowly release nutrients into the soil over a period of time. With this type of fertilizer, you’ll usually only need an application every couple of months, maybe even just once in the spring.
As for the strength of your fertilizer, it’s often a good idea to dilute your fertilizer to half the recommended level. This can be done with a water soluble fertilizer, as you can decide how much fertilizer will be mixed into the water, which then determines the strength of the application.
It’s harder to control the strength with slow release fertilizers as these fertilizers are usually granular or in a solid form and applied straight from the container. But they are meant to release small amounts over a long period.
Since most indoor plants aren’t too fussy about the type of fertilizer, an all purpose fertilizer should do fine. However, if you wish, you can find fertilizers tailored to specific plants, such as cactus fertilizer or orchid fertilizer.
Always water your plants thoroughly before applying the fertilizer – even if you are applying a water soluble fertilizer.
Don’t Fear the Reaper – I’m Talking about Pruning
There are several reasons why you want to prune your plant, so don’t be afraid to pick up those snippers!
First, pruning will keep your plant looking presentable. And it encourages new growth, helping plants, especially vines, become bushier and fuller in appearance.
For some plants, proper pruning is part of a good indoor plant care regime.
Tips on When & How to Prune
The best time to prune is late winter or the beginning of the growing season. If your plant has buds on it, wait until the flower has bloomed and died before removing the stem.
When pruning, you’ll want to remove dead leaves and branches. Look for stems that appear leggy. These will be longer stems with few leaves. You’ll often find this type of spindly growth on vines. These stems can be cut back.
For most plants, you’ll want to cut back to just before the leaf node (the bump on the branch or stem where new growth should appear). Always use a sharp instrument, whether pruners or scissors. Using a dull blade can potentially damage the stem and plant.
Some plants, such as succulents, rarely need pruning because of their design or their slow growth.
If you’re leery about pruning or feel you’ll have limited time for this type of plant care activity, then before purchasing a plant ask about its pruning needs. Then choose one that requires little attention in this area.
There is nothing more frustrating than finding out your houseplant has pests.
And what’s worse, is if the pests spread to other plants.
That’s why it’s important to give your plant a quick exam on a regular basis. You want to catch any pest problems early before the critters have a chance to jump ship.
How Do You Spot A Pest?
If your plant seems to be struggling, that may be an indication of a pest problem.
First, you’ll want to look your plant over to see if any insects are visible. Pests like to suck the chlorophyll out of leaves, so you might see yellow or brown spots on the leaves. Often times, these will be in an asymmetrical pattern.
With pests such as spider mites, you might see webbing between the branches.
How Did That Bug Get There In The First Place?
Pests can arrive in a number of ways.
It may be they were brought in from another plant. Or, it’s possible the larvae were in the soil when you purchased your plant and are now just hatching.
If you place your plant outside during the summer months, pests can hitch a ride when you bring them inside in the fall. And problems with indoor plant care, such as over-watering, can encourage pests.
Treating Pest Problems
If you find a pest problem, there are several things you should do.
First, you’ll want to isolate that plant from any other plants. If you can give the plant a bath, and gently rub or wipe the leaves, that will be a good first step.
You can also purchase an insecticide or insecticidal soap from your local gardening center or online. These usually come with a spray nozzle, and you’ll want to give the plant a thorough dousing, including along the stems and under the leaves.
You’ll likely need to repeat the application about every 10 – 14 days for several weeks to ensure you’ve eradicated the problem. Your local garden center should also have other treatments available, depending on the type of pest.
If you want to look at more ecological or environmentally friendly solutions, you might want to consider releasing beneficial pests, such nematodes, green lacewings, or certain mites. These pests feed on your problem pests.
Lastly, if the infestation is too far gone, you might need to repot your plant, throwing out the old soil. Or, worst-case scenario, you might need to get rid of the plant. In either case, do not reuse the soil, or place the soil in any compost you’ll potentially use for plants down the road.
Oftentimes, people choose a plant because they’re drawn to its appearance or scent, and they don’t realize the plant has toxic elements. It’s actually quite astounding how many houseplants are toxic to people and animals.
Now, with most plants, the toxicity occurs if you ingest the plant. If you don’t have a concern about a child or pet tasting a plant, then toxicity may not affect your choice of plant. For example, my cat only gnaws on my majesty palm, which is non-toxic, so I’m not overly concerned about which plants I bring home.
However, if you do have a worry, never fear, you do not have to live a life devoid of plants. There are options. First, before purchasing a plant, ask about its toxicity. Toxic plants can always be placed up on shelves, or in spots away from prying fingers and mouths.
Second, make sure to pick up any dropped leaves. And if the plant has sap, such as a rubber tree, take precautions and wear gloves when working with the plant.
There are also a number of non-toxic indoor plants. Spider plants, jade plants, or Christmas cacti are all good non-toxic choices. My post on pet safe houseplants lists some additional options.
Good Indoor Plants to Start With
Not sure where to begin? Here are some worthy starter plants.
- Snake plant
- Air plant
- Most succulents
- ZZ plant
- Umbrella plant
- Pothos or philodendrons
- Easter lily
- Chinese evergreen
Let’s Sum It Up
Water and light are the cornerstones of good indoor plant care and will go a long way towards having a happy houseplant. Taking a little time to familiarize yourself with your plant’s needs and wants will make for a much more rewarding plant experience.
And remember, a plant is a living thing. It wants some TLC. So, talk to your houseplants and interact with them. Don’t forget, plants outdoors are exposed to life – insects, birds, soft breezes ruffling their leaves. Your indoor plant also wants to feel the life around it. It doesn’t want to be shoved into a dark corner and forgotten.
Love your plant, and it will do its best to love you back.
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