Woman watering potted plant with a teal watering can, with small gardening tools on the table.

How to Keep Your Houseplants Healthy and Thriving

by James Han

Houseplants can add life to indoor spaces and offer a range of mood-boosting benefits. But taking care of them is another story. While your average potted plant requires less effort and attention than a pet, it’s still a good idea to brush up on some basic caretaking know-how to prevent your new greenery from developing crispy leaves or droopy stems. In this beginner’s 101 guide to caring for plants, we’ll walk you through a few key tips to keeping your plants healthy all year long.

Things to Consider Before You Get a New Plant

Before you run to the nursery and drop half a paycheck on three new crotons, take some time to consider your lifestyle and living situation. One of the biggest mistakes new plant owners make is getting a species that isn’t suited for their home’s lighting, humidity, and space constraints, among other factors. Since there are dozens of indoor plants that come in all shapes, sizes and maintenance levels, you should always opt for the varieties that have the best chance of thriving in the conditions you’re working with.

Here are some things to consider before you make the commitment to get a plant:

Pets: As well-trained your pet may be, an accidental bite of a poisonous houseplant can result in an expensive trip to the vet. While toxicity levels range from species to species (and even the time of year), some plants contain potent toxins that can result in permanent damage to your pets’ organs — or even death. From English ivy to pothos to sago palm, here are 17 plants to keep out of your house if you have a furry companion.

Space: Plants can do wonders for an empty corner, but not at the expense of storage. If you’re short on space, skip the tall fiddle leaf or bulky ZZ and set your eyes on smaller options that can rest on countertops and desks or be mounted on ceilings and walls.

Lighting: Lighting is a crucial factor that can determine whether your plant thrives or dies (see below for more details). Is the window where you plan on keeping your plant south-facing, north-facing, east-facing or west-facing? Knowing will help you narrow down your choices.

Commitment Level: If you’re a jetsetter who travels every other week for work or you find yourself juggling so many tasks that it’s hard to remember household tasks, it’s probably best to bring home a sturdy plant that will happily survive with minimal maintenance. You may also want to download a handy appto track what your plant needs and when.

Woman holding several potted plants in her arms.

How to Keep Your Plants Healthy

Once you’ve brought your plant home, you’ll want to get familiar with the ins and outs of its specific needs. (This is as easy as Googling your particular plant, but you can always give the specialist at the nursery a call if you forgot to ask while you were there.)

Light: Your plants’ leaves are like solar panels, and proper lighting is essential to their survival. Even if your plant requires “low-lighting conditions,” it still needs to encounter some form of sun. Note that keeping your plant right next to a window isn’t always enough — sunlight that passes through a window isn’t as strong as direct, outdoor sunlight. 

If your plant requires bright light with some direct sun, keep it near a south-facing or west-facing window. For bright, indirect light, draw the curtains or keep your plant near an east-facing window (morning sunlight is less hot and harsh than afternoon sunlight). For plants that like medium or low light, keep about five feet away from a south- or west-facing window (or a north-facing window, for low-light plants). 

Some plants (like ZZs and Chinese evergreens) can even thrive with artificial light, for darker desks or countertops that are far from windows.

Water/Humidity: Water is another crucial element to optimal plant health, even for hearty, desert-growing succulents. While a bit of research can tell you roughly how often to water your plants, it’s important to remember that depending on where you live (California vs. the East Coast, for instance), you may need to adjust the frequency and volume of your waterings based on humidity levels and temperature. In general, plants typically require more water in the summer and less in the winter. If you have tropical, high-humidity plants like Boston ferns, majesty palms, orchids and begonias, be sure to mist them as well.

Pro tip: Always use distilled, room temperature water for your plants (unless otherwise noted).

Air: Plants breathe too, and keeping them in a ventilated areais important for its longevity and well-being. Avoid crowding them together in a corner or against a wall. Dampness in the air can lead to leaf rot and excessive condensation, and proper airflow can assist in the wicking process and keep temperatures stable. You don’t need an open window for ventilation (though this is the best solution) — a fan is perfect, as long as you don’t blow directly on your plant.

Soil: Soil isn’t usually top of mind when it comes to plant care, but choosing the right soil can make a big difference, depending on the type of plant you have. Some soil, for instance, can help with draining to avoid moistness (which can kill your cactus or succulent), while others can help your water-loving plants retain as much moisture as possible. In general, potting mix should be loose and fluffy, so you should “poke” or aerate your soil when it feels dense, and change the soil every 12 or 18 months.

Potting: Your new plant can usually grow in the black or green plastic nursery pot it comes in for a good amount of time — the most you’ll need to do is place it in a more aesthetically pleasing decorative pot at home. (Make sure there’s a drainage hole and saucer to catch water.) If the plant has grown so much that the root system has taken the shape of the pot, you might want to consider upgrading it to a bigger size.

Final Thoughts

By following the tips above (and learning to recognize your plants’ needs), you can add a thriving collection of plants to your home, with or without a green thumb. If you’re interested in learning more about the best plants that are low-maintenance and attractive for smaller spaces, check out our piece on the 5 Best Apartment Plants. For more lifestyle tips, check out our blog.

James Han is a writer, editor and content strategist based in Los Angeles. When he’s not deep in a Google Doc, you can find him reading, watching films and taking long walks.

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