Keeping houseplants: A beginner’s guide

Growing and maintaining houseplants seems daunting to a lot of people, for a number of reasons. Some have killed plants before, and are terrified to try again; some only have a basic understanding of plants and their needs; and some just don’t know where to start. If you fall into any of these (or any other) categories, you totally can bring plants into your space with very little worry.

Photo by Huy Phan on Pexels.com

What plants need

Before bringing plants into your home, you should ask yourself if you’re ready to fulfill the three basic requirements of plant life: sunlight, water, and nutrients. Without these, a plant will not be able to survive for long.

sunlight

All plants require sunlight to grow well in the home, though it is possible to supplement this light with artificial light if you need later on. Depending on where you live, the duration of and angle of the sun vary. If you live close to the equator, you will receive brighter, stronger sun, while someone further away would receive less. For most Americans (and anyone else living in the northern hemisphere), the strongest sun will come from the south, and the weakest from the north. This is the opposite in the southern hemisphere. The next strongest sunlight comes from the west, and the next weakest comes from the east. Morning sun is generally gentler than afternoon sun, for some reason.

Water

All plants also require water to grow, though some admittedly require much less than others. Typically, you can predict how frequently a plant will need to be watered by looking at the way it grows; plants with thinner leaves will need to be watered more frequently than plants with thicker, more succulent leaves. You would expect to water a fern with fine fronds to be watered more often than a cactus, after all. The best way to know when to water your plant is by feeling the soil. If it’s still wet from a previous watering, you should probably wait. If it’s quite dry, you should probably water it.

When watering, you should aim to fully saturate the soil of the plant, and let excess water drain away. Just as too little water will kill a plant, too much water will kill it. Avoid buying plants that are sold in pots without a hole for drainage, as this makes it especially difficult to know when to stop watering.

By giving your plant enough sun and watering it when it’s dry, you will find success.

Nutrients

As a beginner, this is the least important of the biological requirements for life of your plants. Many plants can grow for a long time with only sun and water without the need for additional nutrients. Without them though, your plant will become nutrient deficient, and much like human vitamin deficiencies (scurvy for instance), and will become sick.

The solution is a fertilizer, which you should apply following the directions on the package every month during the growing season. The fertilizer you choose should have nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium at the very least. Many you can sprinkle at the top of your soil, or by adding concentrated water-soluble fertilizer to the water you use on your plants.

Growing season:

The portion of the year when your plant is producing new leaves, new shoots, or flowers, probably from Spring to Fall.

Too much fertilizer, or by fertilizing too frequently, you can cause chemical damage to your plant’s roots; be sure not to fertilize when it’s not needed.

Getting your first plant(s)

The big question for those ready to take on the challenge of growing houseplants is what exactly to get, and experienced gardeners sometimes have very strong opinions about what to recommend. In my opinion, you can be successful growing any plant you choose, as long as you are prepared to provide it with the right conditions for it to grow, though there are of course some choices that stand out for whatever reason.

It’s important to recognize, before bringing plants home, that they are living, breathing organisms that we can only so much to care for. It is impossible to simulate the conditions that any houseplant might have evolved to grow in, and there are infinite interspecies and abiotic interactions that cannot be brought inside. Plants are strong, and hard wired to grow with what they have; if a plant dies in your care, you can either take it as a learning opportunity (What did I do wrong? How can I prevent this mistake from happening again?) or accept that the cause of a plant’s death was just beyond your reach. Every plant owner kills plants sometimes. When it happens to you, you can grieve, learn something, and move on.

The holy trinity

Golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum), snake plants (Dracaena (Sansevieria) trifasciata), and ZZ plants (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) are the three houseplants that were mentioned in the Bible, and every plant parent should consider starting with one (or all) of them. These plants share one common trait, despite being very different species: resilience. They require very little maintenance, can survive being forgotten for a while, and can even sometimes withstand some basic mistakes that beginners make, like overwatering, too low of light, or lack of fertilizer. They are also quite attractive plants, and can make quite a statement in your home without much work.

“Golden Pothos” by elvisripley is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Other first plants

As long as you do a little bit of research on its specific care requirements, you can pick practically any other houseplant that speaks to you. Here are my recommendations:

Easier

Dracaenas include snake plants and tropical-looking trees.

Succulents and cacti are perfect for sunny windows, and do just fine for weeks without water.

Pothos (Epipremnum, Scindapsus sp.) and philodendrons are versatile plants, with many varieties.

Peperomias are cheap, stay small, and will thrive if you allow them to dry out fully between waterings.

Hoya varieties (H. carnosa, pubicalyx, australis, etc.) are good options if you allow them to dry out between waterings. Beware of scammers selling individuals for more than they’re worth, though.

Cuttings in water are great if you’re a beginner, as long as you change out the water every one or two weeks. If your goal is to fill your home with green, this is a cheap, reliable option for many plants.

Harder

Fiddle-leaf fig (Ficus lyrata) (or other figs) require lots of sunlight, and are sensitive to changes in their environment.

Calatheas are sensitive to low humidity, which can brown their ornate foliage.

Alocasias also require high humidity and are sensitive to environmental changes.

Expensive “rare” plants are not usually a good idea if you are new to plants. Though it seems alluring to own a plant that is beautiful and somewhat scarce, the risk of killing it and losing hundreds of dollars is just too great.

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