Houseplants 101

By Christopher Crown

March 19, 2020 5 min read

Some of us just aren't gifted with a green thumb. Somehow, plants that have been thriving at a nursery or department store instantly wither and die when we bring them home. Many just accept this as a sign they shouldn't own plants, but with the proper instruction, information from experts and a few helpful rules of thumb, you can turn your black thumb to green and have a house full of healthy, flourishing plants.

Oftentimes, merely choosing the right plant species greatly improves your houseplant success. Plant stores, websites and department stores sell plants that look aesthetically pleasing but are actually very hard to keep alive, states plant scientist and New York Botanical Garden instructor Christopher Satch in an interview with NBC News' Brianna Steinhilber. A perfect example of a deceptive plant is the orchid. Orchids are raised in highly controlled greenhouses and then brought to stores in their absolute prime. Customers purchase them seeing a healthy plant and not understanding the complex care needed to raise it. Satch recommends purchasing in person from family-owned nurseries whose staff not only has ample knowledge about the plants offered but can help beginners choose species, soils and pots to fit their home.

In Real Simple magazine online, writer Marla Christiansen recommends several plant varieties that are resilient against some common environmental/care factors that kill houseplants.

-- Chinese evergreen: This plant is forgiving because it has the ability to retain water for longer periods than others, thus making it a great pick for owners who are still ingraining the habit of consistent watering.

-- The ZZ plant: This attractive shrub can survive in a variety of lighting conditions and even low light, often a limiting factor for many plant species.

-- Ponytail palm: This palm stores a generous amount of water in its thick trunk and uses the water during periods of drought. Many houseplants suffer indoors during winter due to dry air from the heater. The ponytail palm naturally thrives in these conditions and gives owners a bit more leeway during the cold months.

Find other examples of sturdy, formidable houseplants that will add a festive feel to your desk or home on the Real Simple website.

Beyond choosing good beginner plants, the Patuxent Nursery, an online plant care database ranked as one of the top 100 garden centers in the nation, strongly recommends assessing the microclimate of your home (humidity, temperature, air flow, light, etc.) and, before buying, researching the climates in which your desired plant species thrive.

Equally important to choosing the right plant is post-purchase plant care. You've picked a healthy plant that suits your home, but what do you do next?

-- Potting: Satch says to always re-pot your plant. This will ensure its roots are not crowded and it has room to grow. A good size is 1 to 2 inches deeper and wider than the pot in which the plant was sold. Real Simple writer Jen Stearns recommends adding a porous 1- to 3-inch layer of pebbles, bark or pottery pieces at the bottom of the pot before adding the soil to keep the soil from falling out the drainage holes and the roots from sitting in water.

-- Insecticide: Select a natural insecticide to help protect your new plant from any pests from your home, other houseplants or just from changing seasons. Derek Markham from the Tree Hugger website recommends neem oil or diatomaceous earth (both available online or at gardening centers) as good natural alternatives to harmful chemical insecticides.

-- Fertilizer: Satch states that fertilizer is a must. This compound mix of nutrients will help your plant continue to grow after it has exhausted the available resources of the potting soil. Buy one that has an NPK number: an assurance that it contains nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Jessica Walliser, garden specialist for the Savvy Gardening website, recommends researching the plant species' fertilizer needs (also based on your fertilizer's NPK number) to make sure you are not overfeeding or underfeeding them.

This may sound like a lot, but take plant care one step at a time. Satch recommends giving an honest appraisal of the time and effort you are willing to put in, as many buyers come home with a plant they like but quickly find out it doesn't fit their level of interest. Do your research, and talk to the experts, and your house will be blooming in no time.

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