Every once in a while I get into conversations about houseplants. I’ll mention that I keep orchids, for instance, and immediately people think I’m some sort of plant wizard. Well, I’m not. Actually, for long periods of my life, I’ve been pretty crap at taking care of living things.
The point is, it’s really not a big deal. Keeping flowers healthy isn’t magic, you don’t have to sacrifice baby animals to obscure deities or even buy expensive equipment. Plants are less articulate than animals. Unlike dogs or cats they won’t make much of a fuss when they’re hungry or thirsty, so the main issue is really to remember to take care of them at all.
So, if you’re one of those people convinced they’re some errant offspring of a death god, destined to kill whatever they touch: You’re probably wrong. If you enjoy having greenery around you, here’s a few tips that’ll get you started!
Don’t Be Sad If They Die
First things first: Some of the plants you get will die, and it won’t always be your fault. Plants have different needs, some plants are more finicky than others, and sometimes you’ll simply happen to get an individual plant that was no good and would die no matter what you did.
So don’t worry about losing a few. Even now, after 15 years of caring for houseplants, whenever I acquire one I’ve never had before I set my expectations extremely low. The plant might not like the lighting conditions, or the air quality, or the temperature, or my watering schedule, and it might die in a week or two. That’s just life. It dies. (Technically true, if a bit morbid. Sorry.)
Think of it as a form of natural selection: The plants you keep will be the ones that survive – and maybe even thrive – in the conditions you provide!
Get the Right Plants
It’s obviously way preferable if at least some of your plants survive for more than a few weeks. It’s pretty dejecting if you bring home a whole bunch of pretties and they all just shrivel up. So to begin with, do try to go for safe bets.
Now, you could go look for lists of plants that are easy to care for, but I would have you start in the other end: What are the living conditions that the plant will encounter?
Specifically what you need to consider is light and temperature. If you’re planning to keep the plant in a window, what direction does the window face? South-facing windows can be very bright and hot, meaning many plants will burn and dry up, whereas north-facing windows may not offer enough light for some. East or west-facing windows fall somewhere in between.
If you want to keep the plant further into a room than on a window sill, how much indirect light will reach it? Can you provide it with an artificial light source? (Remember, regular light bulbs or fluorescent tubes don’t cut it, plants need a broader spectrum of light to thrive!)
With these things in mind, have a look at good plants for beginners, and pick out the ones you think will like it in your home (I will be writing up a list of my favourites in the future). And remember, you might not need to buy plants! Many of the beginner plants are super easy to propagate, so ask your friends if they have cuttings to give you. That way you can figure out which plants you can keep alive without spending too much.
Although it isn’t strictly necessary, it’s a good idea to repot store-bought plants as soon as you can, since they invariably sit in pots too small for them. Let your new plant acclimatise for a day or so and then give it some living space.
When you repot it for the first time, leave the root lump alone. Just get a pot that’s a little bigger than the one it had. Put a small amount of soil in it and set the plant on top, making sure the surface of the root lump is roughly where it should be (a centimeter or two below the rim of the pot), and then fill up with more soil around it. Don’t press the soil together, and don’t press on the roots. The soil needs to have room for both roots, water and air, and most plants don’t like to grow in compact soil.
Use the Right Pots
Don’t plant directly in pretty flower pots with no holes in the bottom. Use plastic pots with drainage holes and then put these inside the good-looking ones. That way, if you accidentally overwater, it’s easy to pour away the excess water and let your plant dry up a little.
Even better, use classic terracotta pots on saucers. Or plastic pots on plastic saucers, but that’s less pleasing to the eye. Either way, with that set-up you can easily see if there’s water coming out the bottom.
If money is not an object, or if you like DIY projects, you might invest in or build self-watering planters.
Water Your Plants – But Not Too Much!
And so we get down to it, the dreaded topic – watering. Yes, you will have to water your plants. Yes, you are going to have to develop some sort of watering schedule. I know it’s a drag, but it has to be done. And really, for the miniscule amount of time and energy it takes, you get so much in return! I water my plants once a week, plus the occasional top-up for those that tend to drink more than their fair share. (I’m looking at you, Madagascar jasmine!)
My best tip for making sure your plants don’t dry up is to keep water close at hand. I do this by finding nice-looking bottles, filling them up with water and putting them right where my plants are. That way I don’t have to go looking for the ewer when I’m in a rush. And on top of that, it looks really nice, and it increases the humidity, which a lot of houseplants like.
The two things that can go wrong with watering is (rather obviously) watering too little and watering too much.
Watering too little doesn’t just mean the plant doesn’t get the water it needs. It also means the soil dries up and becomes unable to actually soak up water the next time you remember to give it some. You’ll notice that, as you pour water on top of the soil, it just runs straight through or even down the inside walls of the pot and comes right out the bottom. To fix this, let the pot sit partially submerged in water for as long as it takes for it to get soaked, and then let it drain properly before putting it back on its saucer.
Watering too much is a very common problem for enthusiastic beginners. You want to show your plants you love them and you’re worried about underwatering, so you overwater instead! Thing is, if the soil is constantly soaked, the roots can’t get any air. Eventually they rot, and that is sure to kill the plant. Thankfully, it’s an easy problem to solve: Stop watering for a while until the soil dries up a little. This is also why you need pots with drainage holes.
If your plants dry up quickly, consider covering the soil. This prevents water from evaporating and also makes it look pretty. I use river sand (from an old aquarium) for my smaller plants and pine mulch for the bigger ones. You could also use perlite, Leca balls, regular sand, gravel – anything really, as long as it isn’t toxic and drains well.
If you have a problem with overwatering, get a potting mix that contains perlite, Leca, sand or something similar. Or consider putting Leca at the bottom of your pots. When growing cacti and succulents, you should definitely mix your soil with sand if you didn’t buy a special mix.
Plants like to shower! Leaves collect dust, and this clogs up their stomata – the pores they use to absorb air. Also, it makes them look, well, dusty. Just rinse them off every once in a while. I like to put as many of my plants as I can fit into the bathtub and then carefully shower them with cool water. Spritzing them liberally with a spray bottle will do in a pinch.
Plants will need to be repotted occasionally as they use up nutrients in the soil and fill their pots with roots, but don’t worry too much about it in the beginning. Most of the beginner plants will be quite happy without repotting for several years, especially if you feed them some fertiliser every now and then. By the way, no need to buy fertiliser – just mix one part urine with 19 parts water and use that. Pee is totally clean when it leaves the body and contains pretty much everything your plants need.
- Accept that plants will die sometimes. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Remember: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly!
- Choose plants that are likely to survive in your home and that are suitable for beginners.
- Repot store-bought plants.
- Use pots with drainage holes in the bottom.
- Remember to water your plants – about once a week should do for most of them. Be wary of both of underwatering and overwatering, but don’t fret if it happens once in a while.
Now, get to it! I can’t say for sure that being surrounded by plants is good for the soul (mostly because I don’t believe in one), but I do believe there’s some evidence to suggest it’s good for air quality. So if nothing else, get some houseplants for the sake of your lungs. Good luck, and feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions!
More tips: Houseplants for Beginners – Follow-up