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Or, if there is, you already have one. Many plants are easy to grow, and I can prove it. If you’re the kind of person who says that you can’t keep a plant alive, this blog post is for you. I’m going to talk extremely generally about “most” houseplants here, of course, there are exceptions to everything. Why talk about houseplants in a garden blog? Because starting out with houseplants will help you learn about them and many of them can be transplanted to a garden outside.This advice has always helped me, and I hope it can help you, too. I learned it from 20 years of trial and error, and a lifetime of watching plants grow.

The Basics

Although plants are living things think of them as biological programs. They have four inputs: water, soil, light, and environment. Environment means air temperature and humidity. Most of us have no control over these things, and that’s okay. I’ve lived in apartments with no air conditioning and crappy electric heaters (which never worked) and had perfectly happy indoor plants. So don’t worry about controlling the environment for now. Just get plants that are likely to thrive in your environment. Soil, if you’re buying potted plants, soil comes with the plant. You can generally assume that the nursery picked the right kind. So soil is another thing you won’t have to worry about at first. You may need to re-pot a thriving plant, and if you do, you are probably going to buy a bag of potting soil and many of them are good soils to use. So, of a plant’s four inputs, you’re already done with two, and you haven’t lifted a finger yet. See how easy this is?

The two you have to worry about are light and water. If you have an unhappy houseplant, one or both of these things are probably off.


I water once a week. It’s okay to let most plants dry out in between waterings, but if the leaves droop, it’s time to water. If leaves go brown, the plant may not be getting enough water. If the leaves go yellow, it’s getting too much water. Standing water is bad, because roots can rot. Make sure water can flow through the pot. Make sure it has a saucer and water it slowly until you see water come out the bottom. Have a towel ready for when you over-water. It happens to the best of us. Years ago, I had a bunch of houseplants that all started to droop around the same time. I asked for help at my local nursery, and they asked, “What kind of fertilizer are you using?” My answer was, none. I was still learning, and the plants had been fine for years, but had finally used all the nutrients they could get out of the soil. So a little fertilizer and they perked right up. So buy a simple liquid fertilizer, but use it sparingly too much fertilizer can kill a plant.


Plants are solar-powered. I can’t tell you how many times a friend has asked me for help with a plant, and I came over to find it in a dark corner. Most houseplants like bright, indirect light. So pick a window that’s bright, but not in the direct path of the morning or evening sun. Often this means a north or south facing window, but it could also be an east or west facing window that’s partially obscured by something outside. If your plant’s leaves are withering, turning brown on the edges, or developing brown spots, that means it’s getting too much light. Move the plant away from the window a bit.

Let's Buy a Plant

Now that you know the basics it's time to go get a plant. Here are some shopping tips. Buy small plants. The fun part of having plants is watching them grow (plus small plants are cheaper). So don’t go buy a huge, well-established plant. You don’t have to go to a nursery to buy a plant. Some of my longest-living houseplants were bought from grocery or hardware stores. Think of it this way: If a plant is hardy enough to survive a week on a shelf next to the breakfast cereal, it should be able to live in your house. When considering a plant, make sure the stalk is dense and not "squishy". But don’t just examine the plant, check the soil. Stick your fingers in and make sure it’s not moldy. Look for bugs under the leaves and in the soil. Sniff it (yes you will get strange looks but you will get a healthier plant) it should smell like wet earth, not a stagnant pool. Buy cheap plants. Some of my favorite plants came from the 99-cent bin because they were a little weird. I’m a little weird, too. If you can revive them, they’ll reward you with amazing growth. If you can’t, well, you only lost a buck.

If you get your plant from a hardware store find the employee that’s tending to the plants (not the guy from electrical or plumbing) and strike up a conversation with them. For the most part they should know the plants. If you describe the room you’re buying for, they’ll help you find the right plant, and advise you on how to care for it. Do not buy plants in baskets or pots without drainage to start off with. You want to be able to see when water comes out of the bottom to learn how much to water is needed. Also avoid pots that have several different plants sharing the same soil. It’s just too complicated to get everything right for all the plants at the same time. If you want your plants to be in a nice pot put the plastic pot inside the nice pot, instead of physically transplanting the plant from the plastic pot to the nice pot. Having the plastic pot inside the ceramic pot allows you to swap plants between the nice pots, and saves you the heartache of killing your plant right away from the stress of transplanting it wrong. If you’re just starting out, don’t buy finicky plants like Ficus, Orchids, or African Violets. You can work up to those.

Keeping It Alive

Now that you’ve got a plant in a plastic pot, with a saucer, in front of a window, all you have to do is keep it alive. The good news is, plants want to be kept alive, so they'll talk to you, you just have to learn their language. Strong, green leaves are generally what you want. Brown means too much light or not enough water. Yellow means too much water. Flowering usually means the plant is happy, but some plants will flower if they think they’re going to die. Some plants will drop leaves if they’re unhappy, but others just drop leaves as they grow. Point is, every plant is different. So get to know your plant. Just check them every day, and see what changes (keep a log if you have to). Dust collects naturally, and it gets in the way of the leaves making energy out of sunlight. So if your plant is dusty, you can occasionally take a damp cloth to the leaves and gently wipe off the dust. This is more important for plants with big leaves. Many houseplants originated in"jungle-like environments, where there’s a lot more humidity in the air. So if you live in an arid environment and want to be nice to your plants, you can get a simple mister and mist your plants occasionally. I often mist my plants when I’m waiting for the toaster or on the phone. It’s not required, but I think it helps them, and it’s a nice calming ritual for me. Remember that plants live in slow motion. So any change you make today won’t make an immediate difference. Sometimes you won’t see a change for weeks, even when you’re doing the right thing. So, above all, be patient.

Watching It Grow

I have an Umbrella Tree I purchased at drugstore while I was in college. Since then, it’s grown to the ceiling, several times. It’s lived in several cities and is now in my living room and still growing. As plants mature, new issues emerge. The soil, which I said you could ignore at the beginning, is now important. There’s only so many nutrients in soil, and they run out. Remember, these plants were designed to live in the ground, which is a living ecosystem. As a potted plant, they’re like little space stations. If they live long enough, they’ll use up all their nutrients and run out of space to grow. So if a previously happy plant starts to seem unhappy, and you haven’t changed your routine, they may need to be repotted. Fortunately, it’s easy. Just get a bigger pot and some potting soil. Pull the plant out of its current pot and marvel at the network of roots that have formed at the edge of the soil. If the roots are in a tight clump with lots of soil around them, you’ll want to "massage" them to break up the soil a bit, so that they’ll notice the new soil. Then set the plant in the new pot and pour soil around it. Pack the soil in firmly but not tight, give the plant a "big" water, and let it drain completely. Congrats! You’ve repotted. Some plants also need to be trimmed to make sure they don’t get too big or unbalanced. Don’t be afraid to trim, if a plant is healthy, it’ll come back. The aforementioned Umbrella Tree has been cut back to a stump several times, and each time it bounces back strong.

It Ain’t About You

The most important thing to remember is this: It’s not personal. Sometimes you obsess over a plant and it still keels over on you. Other times you forget to water for two weeks and your cat uses it as a litter box and it thrives anyway. Plants are living things, and living things are complicated. If your plant dies, I’m sorry. It may not be something you did or didn’t do. The environment may have just been wrong for that particular plant. Try again with a different plant. Ask for advice at your local nursery and try again. If your plants look great, feel free to take credit when your friends compliment you on your green thumb. But know that it probably has very little to do with the color of your thumbs. Smile, enjoy the beauty it brings to your life, and then go get another one. Soon you're house will be overflowing with plants and you will have to replant them outside.
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