Houseplant Care: A Beginner’s Guide to Healthy Greenery

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It makes perfect sense that the pandemic saw one walk on houseplants. We all want to bring more life into our homes, feel the beauty and hope of another intelligence. Plants remind us that we are part of nature and despite everything we have done, nature still works. or can work, with a little care.

“It’s a total relationship,” says Mickey Hargitay, a Los Angeles expert whose business, Mickey Hargitay Plants, has boomed like never before in its 42 years of existence. “Over the past few years, it’s been refreshing to see how so many people are experiencing it. Once you get to know your plant, you can definitely learn to speak the language.”

As a couple of urban farmers, we’ve found that our relationship with plants, both outdoors and indoors, has helped us maintain our sanity over the past few years. But there is something special about living with a plant in the house. It’s simple, inexpensive (even fancy stores sell small plants in 6-inch pots for around $20), and it really feels good to be in daily communication with another living creature.

Similar to the plants we grow outdoors, the basic elements you need to take care of indoor houseplants are sun, water and food. Hargitay says the place to start planning your indoor garden is in the sun. The most popular houseplants are jungle dwellers that grow in the undergrowth and are adapted to dappled or filtered light, meaning they want lots of sun but not direct sun. So start thinking about where your new companion will live. Will it be front and center in a sunny kitchen window? Hanging on a hook in the bathroom? Do you stand tall in a dark corner?

Here are some of the easiest and most popular plants for different scenarios. Charissa Seloadji, a houseplant specialist at Sunset Nursery in Los Angeles, also helped us choose some of the tropical beauties on this list. They are sold all over the US and can thrive in any home.

Houseplant Care: How Much Sunlight Does Your Plant Need?

For placement in a sunny window or bright incident light:

(Photo MAXSHOT/iStock/Getty)

Wax plant (Hoya carnosa)

“They’re becoming increasingly popular, but they need decent light and have beautiful buds,” says Hargitay. These make great hanging vines near a bright window, where they will burst out with plenty of star-shaped blooms.

Two Dracaena trifasciata snake plants (Sansevieria trifasciata) decorate a wooden surface on the wall
(Photo: Adam Yee/iStock/Getty)

Snake Plant (Dracaena trifasciata)

This clean and elegant plant features clumps of upright, sword-like leaves up to three feet tall and first became popular in mid-century modern homes. These are great for the sun, but can also use a move inside the room as long as it’s not pitch dark.

Red flower of Lipstick Vine or Aeschynanthus radicans Jack hanging in black plastic pot isolated on white background, clipping path included.
(Photo: Pannarai Nak-im / iStock / Getty)

Lipstick Plant (Aeschynanthus radicans)

A beautiful climber with short, pointed leaves and beautiful bright red flowers, this loves good light and will not do well in a dark corner.

Monstera flower in a white pot stands on a table on a white background
(Photo: Kseniâ Solov’eva/EyeEm/Getty)

monstera

This genus of shrubs and vines has huge leaves with deep lobes and intriguing windows or holes in them. They can be small table plants or large outdoor trees that bear fruit where they need a lot more water.

For low light placement, away from a window and in the shade for part of the day:

Zamioculcas plant in a pot isolated on white background.
(Photo Issarawat Tattong/Getty)

ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)

The ultimate beginner plant, she adapts to light or dark. “You can put them anywhere in your home,” says Seloadji. “If you have them in a really dark area, we advise people to only water about every three to four or weeks.”

Philodendron minarum isolated on white background.
(Photo Issarawat Tattong/Getty)

Philodendrons and Pothos

These are two different genera of vines with heart shaped leaves that make great hanging plants and do well being further away from a window. Gold and green pothos are good for low light, and the popular light marble queen variety wants to be in brighter light.

Madagascar Dragon Tree - Dracaena Marginata
(Fotomicroman6/Getty)

dracaena

These come from a huge genus of trees and succulent shrubs like Dr. Seuss trees with palm-like trunks and long, pointed leaves. Hargitay says, “They’re very forgiving and pretty bulletproof. They take a lot of abuse. In low light, they don’t like a lot of water; They will have a drink every two weeks.”

Pink Aglaonema in a flower pot against a white background
(Photo Insung Jeon/Getty)

Chinese periwinkle (Aglaonema)

These feature wonderfully variegated sword-like leaves growing from a central stem. Seloadji adds, “Ags just want to dry out completely, so this is another one that you don’t need to water very often and they will thrive.”

Nothing for beginners

Choosing a plant is a matter of aesthetics. Note, however, that we didn’t include the hugely popular fiddle leaf fig tree on the list. That’s because they’re finicky about the sun and difficult to care for. We’ve also removed prayer plants from the list, despite their intriguing foliage, because they need to be monitored more closely to ensure they’re getting enough water.

After optimizing your plant’s sunlight exposure, you need to provide appropriate water and fertilizer. Here’s our best advice on how to do it.

Houseplant care: water 101

Here’s the thing: most of us kill our houseplants by overwatering them.

“The most important thing with houseplants in general is to let them dry out,” Seloadji adds, meaning you should let the plant use up all of the water before adding more. “That goes for most houseplants. There are a few exceptions like ferns and some plants like prayer plants; they like to stay wet.”

For example, a ZZ plant in a darkened room only needs water every three to four weeks. Most of us can hardly bear to wait so long – we want it to do something! When the plant is noticeably wilted, water it. But if the leaves turn yellow or the stems turn black, you’re overdoing it. You can check the soil by sticking a finger in it or, if the pot is deep, use a chopstick. If you want to get technical, grab the Mosser Lee Soil Master ($17: all prices from Sunset Nursery), which tells you dry from wet.

Another note about sun and water: the lighter your plant’s foliage, the more sun and water it’s likely to need. Dark green indicates chlorophyll, the active part of the plant that makes food. So when the leaves are more emerald green, they are better equipped to live in low light and normal water. This marble queen pothos, parts of which are white, has less chlorophyll, so needs more light and, since more light means it dries out faster, more water.

Houseplant Care: Nutrition 101

Most of us never fertilize our plants, and as a result, eventually they start looking sickly. Our plant friends need food or fertilizer applied to the soil every few weeks. Each plant has its own specific regime. Good liquid fertilizers are for example Espoma Organic Indoor! (8 oz., $11) and Agrodrive Organic (32 oz., $22). Dry pellet fertilizers release nutrition every time you water, and a good organic fertilizer is Osmocote Plus (1 lb, $11). Again, don’t overfeed. Adding more food will stop your plant from growing, but could actually burn the plant with too much nitrogen.

Additional houseplant care tips

Do not let your children or pets chew the indoor plants. None of them are safe for humans to eat, and most will make your dog sick, too.

error, but love to eat your plants. You’ll probably get a few. Some of the most common are fungus gnats, spider mites, mealybugs, and a tiny but oddly prehistoric-looking armored insect called scales. Fungus gnats are about the size of a fruit fly — to deal with that, Seloadji says her customers buy a lot of a product called Mosquito Bits (8 ounces, $15), which is a beneficial bacteria that feeds the larvae in the soil kills. There are many organic or natural remedies for mealybugs and spider mites, including neem oil and pyrethrin, and one of the most effective ways to get rid of limescale is to simply wipe down your plants with a cotton ball or swab filled with rubbing alcohol, and then rub them off.

Hargitay recommends that you regularly spend a little time wiping down your plants anyway to keep them free of dust and dirt.

Many people feel the need to transplant their new plants from the plastic gardening pots they came in because they find the plastic pots ugly and want to put them in something nicer. Resist this urge as it is stressful for the plants. We like to place the plants in their original nursery containers in a favorite pot that we’ve lined with a plastic liner (available at garden centers and hardware stores) that catches the water so it doesn’t run off through the pot and cause water stains and puddles around the house.

Remember that plants are living things and how we respond to good care.

“I think about that a lot,” says Hargitay. “I think we’re all just living in this world that’s so plastic and fake, and we want to get back to nature, back to things that are real. Bringing a live plant indoors is one way to do this. Nursing is fulfilling. It gives people a lot of good feedback, you know?”

Maybe a new relationship is just what you need, and there’s a plant out there waiting for you with a story of its own to tell.

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