first time gardener grooming plants

It’s time to fall in love with houseplants

Maybe you have just left the nest and moved into your first apartment. Maybe you’ve spent time travelling and never got around to buying a houseplant. Or, maybe you’ve had houseplants before, but had too many nasty breakups. At any rate, you’ve decided it is time to green up your space (again?).

Where to start?

Whether you’re a first-timer or a repeat offender, you may be wondering where to even start a houseplant hobby.

Choose hard-to-kill plants

Realtors talk about starter homes. Divorcées talk about starter husbands. But starter plants? Absolutely. Here is a short list of some of the best plants for beginners (and begin-againers):

  • Dracaena marginata (also known as Dragon Plant)
  • Sansevieria (also known as Mother-in-Law’s tongue or Snake Plant)
  • Ficus (fiddle-leaf fig)
  • Philodendron (similar to, and often mistaken for monstera)
  • Bromeliad (air plant)
  • Chinese Evergreen (aglaonema)
  • Pilea peperomiodes (although this one is getting hard to find because people love it so much)
  • Cactus and succulents (probably the hardest to kill—except by drowning)

Choose the right containers

After you have chosen a plant that has promised to live for you, that you have committed to help thrive, head over to the supply section and choose something in which to put your plant. Standing in front of dozens of pretty containers can be daunting—which one to pick?

Material: start by considering the right material for your new plant.

  • Clay (terra cotta): Terra cotta pots are one of the most basic choices. They are an earthy, orangey-brown that always look good with any color of plant, and if you want a uniform look to your houseplant collection, they are a perfect choice. One thing to consider, however, is that because clay is porous, the soil inside will dry out more quickly than with other types of pots, so you may have to water more often. It will be a slightly higher-maintenance relationship.
  • Plastic: The great thing about plastic containers is that your options seem endless. Plastic containers come in just about every color, size, and shape you can imagine. They often even come with snap-on trays to help with drainage mess. Their only drawback is they are not quite as durable as some other materials. They can become brittle and crack over time, like a lover who has been taken for granted.
  • Faux Clay: Lastly, you may decide you would rather have a longer-lasting relationship with a pot or a more formal look. If this is the case, there are two types of material that look like clay and help the soil inside retain moisture longer and last much longer. Glazed ceramic pots are heavy and sturdy. They are best for smaller plants, however, as you will want to be able to move them, and don’t want them tipping over in the process. They are a bit more expensive, so these may be best as an anniversary present to your plant when it’s time to repot. Fiberglass is every bit as strong as glazed ceramic pots, but they are much lighter. This material is fairly inexpensive and perfect if you want a classic style (they look very Mediterranean).

Size: Yes, it does matter when it comes to houseplants. Now that you have chosen the perfect material and are considering the perfect color, you will be wondering just how big this container needs to be. A quick calculation is to measure the height of your plant from the soil level to the tallest leaf. Divide this by 3, and you have the diameter of the container you should start with, which is most likely going to be in proportion to the depth you need. If you forgot to bring your tape measure to the greenhouse with you, feel free to eyeball it. It’s as doesn’t need to be as exact as it sounds.

Drainage: Don’t hold on too tightly. When you water this new plant, you will need to make sure the water has a way to get out, otherwise you will end up with root rot—the common result of poor drainage and overwatering. Turn the pot over and take a look at the holes in the bottom of it. If there aren’t any holes, you will either have to drill your own (provided the material you’re using won’t split and crack), or you will have to put pebbles in the bottom of it and place another smaller container (with drainage holes) inside of it. Also, keep in mind that several medium-sized holes are better than one big hole.

Choose the right soil

house plant in soilThere’s no reason to overthink this one. A basic potting mix will usually be just fine for most houseplants. This mix is not actually soil, believe it or not, but a compost mixture of peat and pine bark with either vermiculite or perlite to add space. If you are going to start your houseplant relationship with a cactus or a succulent, however, you will want to find the mixture specifically for these, since they won’t need as much moisture as other types of houseplants do.

Recipe for survival

In addition to love, all living things need sunlight, water, food, and air to survive. And in the right proportions, these living things will thrive. And yes, this means houseplants, too.

Sunlight: Without sunlight, the human body cannot produce Vitamin D, and the human mind can enter depression. Too much sunlight and we get sunburned. Plants have a similar relationship to the sun. Remember when your junior high school teacher explained photosynthesis? If you need a refresher, that’s the process plant cells use to convert sunlight into energy (i.e. growth). So, you will need to do your research on the particular plant you purchased to find out just how much sunlight your plant will need. You can use the planting guides that greenhouses typically provide with the plant, and you can also go by the leaf thickness rule of thumb. That is, the thicker the leaves, the more sunlight your plant needs.

Water: Rookie mistake #1: Hmm…the leaves are wilting and turning yellow. This plant must be thirsty. Au contraire, mon ami! How do professionals check to see if their plants need water? They stick their fingers into the pots up to their first knuckles. If it’s moist, they come back another day. We will give you more ways to water different plants in another article, but for now, just let the first few inches of your plant’s soil dry out between waterings. Relationships take the right amount of togetherness and space, right?

Food: If the way to a lover’s heart is through their stomach, then the way to new growth on your plant is fertilizer. First of all, a warning: do not fertilize your plant as soon as you bring it home. It needs time to adjust to its new digs. Give it at least six weeks, and make sure it has started to produce new growth. The best time to fertilize is between spring and fall, when the days are longer. In the winter, many plants want to rest and hibernate (like we do), so you won’t see much new growth then. Also, make sure the soil is damp before you feed it. The leaves need to be hydrated to take in the right amount of nutrients.

house plant hanging from ceilingAir: Most places in the US have humidity levels of 40 to 60 percent, which is perfect for most houseplants. However, there are extremes in our deserts and our swamps. So, much like adapting to your lover’s preference for handles up or handles down in the dishwasher, you may need to adapt your climate to your plant.

  • To increase humidity: Place a plant that needs more humidity in a room where it will get the effects of frequently running water, like the bathroom or the kitchen. If your bathroom doesn’t have any windows, however, you may want to pick up a spray bottle and mist the plant frequently instead. You can even go so far as to buy a humidifier just for the plant.
  • To decrease humidity: Again, consider placement. Which room has the best ventilation, maybe even a light breeze running through? Water sparingly and set the plant apart from other plants. (Plants grouped together will increase humidity.) A dehumidifier in the plant’s room can help as well.

Relationship advice from Plants and Petals

In the early stages of your relationship with your new houseplant, you may find yourself intensely involved, checking on it each day, talking to it, perhaps even naming it. As time goes on, however, the demands of life can cause you to take your plant for granted. And yet, your plant is still there, faithfully cleaning your air, brightening your room, and making you feel happier. Don’t forget about it. Some space is good, but too much, and your plant will wither, get other offers (like mealy bugs and white flies), and eventually leave you. With the right amount of attention and care, your relationship will flourish, and you may find you want to expand your family with other plants. When this time comes, remember, Plants and Petals is here with helpful advice and a directory of the right people to help you and your houseplant live happily ever after.