A Plant Pro Demystifies the 3 Most Important Things a Plant Needs

A Plant Pro Demystifies the 3 Most Important Things a Plant Needs

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Adrienne Breaux
Mar 28, 2017
(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

What could you grow when you were a kid? Summer Rayne Oakes discovered her love of — and knack for keeping alive — plants and nature while she was young: "When I was still in grade school, I built an indoor waterfall in my bedroom so I could grow and raise aquatic plants and insects."

You might remember Summer (and the incredible indoor jungle in her Brooklyn apartment) from her video house tour. She clearly has the ability to incorporate plants into her home and take care of them so well they thrive. Whether you want your home to look like an indoor jungle — or just want to get rid of your black thumb once and for all — Summer's provided a mini primer for beginners on three key aspects to being an indoor plant parent: placement for lighting, watering and fertilization.

(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

With parents who were avid gardeners, Summer thinks she picked up her green thumb from them. But this wasn't just a childhood phase for her: She studied ecology and entomology at university and gained field experience while working in forest conservation, forest regeneration and agroforestry.

(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

"It wasn't until I moved to New York City, however, that I began to really grow my indoor garden, and I think it's a byproduct of being 'away' from nature. I also like growing herbs, edible mushrooms and other food crops too, because I enjoy cooking and making recipes from my homegrown ingredients (which I've done in my latest book, SUGARDETOXME). There's something so satisfying about eating what you grow!" writes Summer.

Summer just recently launched the website Homestead Brooklyn (you can follow on Instagram, too), to get closer to nature while living in the city. Use her tips below (or advice from her blog!) to bring nature a little closer to you.

Take it away, Summer!

(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

There's more than one way to water a plant

I'm always experimenting with watering and making my watering methods more efficient.
For instance, I installed a 150 foot expandable hose in my apartment so I can more easily water my plants. Most recently, I've also been experimenting with hydrospikes and humidity mats for some other plants, and I've found certain ones, like my Maidenhair ferns and Sanchezia, really respond to this method of watering. Additionally, I'm keeping my begonias in the bathroom, largely because they prefer a more humid environment, which the bathroom offers, particularly when one takes hot showers.

Overall, however, I prefer to really assess my plants every day to see whether they need a drink or not.
You can do this by simply looking at the plant, or sticking your finger in the soil and feeling if it's dry.

But if you're just starting out, I think a good general rule of thumb is to let the plant dry out between waterings.
Most plants don't like "wet feet" in soil because it can drown the roots and cause root rot. Cacti and succulents need less watering, so you can probably get away with watering every week or two weeks in the growing months, and then in the case of cacti, halt watering from November-March, if you're in the Northeast.


"What I love about plants is that you have to be very perceptive to their needs, which allows you to be closer to your plants on a more personal and spiritual level, and I think that's a beautiful thing."


(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

Don't be afraid to try a few spots

I try to consider the plant's needs first before insisting that it fit in a certain place in my home.
For instance, I really would LOVE a large tree-like plant in my living room, but I don't have enough light, so I'm considering other options. I haven't purchased anything yet, because I want to make sure it's the right fit — first for the plant and then for the aesthetics of it.

If you're getting a houseplant, you should be thinking about having it for the long-haul.
I mean, my mother still has a Schefflera that her mother previously had, so it's got to be at least 60 years old, which I think is marvelous! She gives it plenty of sun, which is the conditions that it needs.

I think it's okay to experiment with plants in your home to try to find the best place for them too.
I do it often! I had a Monstera deliciosain my south-facing window, but it was getting too much light and causing leaf burn, so instead, I repotted it and moved it a couple feet from a large north-facing window and it's doing SO MUCH better. In the same window, I had a Scindapsus exotica, which was growing tremendously, but I know it's low light tolerant too, so I moved that into the living room and monitored it over the course of a month. That seemed to transition from a high-light area to a low-light area very well. If it didn't, then I would have had to move it back to a more well-lit area.

What I love about plants is that you have to be very perceptive to their needs, which allows you to be closer to your plants on a more personal and spiritual level, and I think that's a beautiful thing.


"Don't let a dying or dead plant scare you off from trying again. Good gardeners have only become good through trial and error, and I believe everyone has a plant — or many plants — right for them!"


(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

Plants need food

Fertilization is important because your plant is often in a closed environment with no nutrient exchange, and as it grows, it's going to need respective nutrients to continue to be healthy, or in some cases, to flower.
Admittedly, I've been a bit remiss on fertilizing, but over the past several months, I've documented all my plants, which are around 300 different species, and now have them on a fertilizer schedule.

The best thing to do is understand what each plant needs.
Alocasia, for instance, do well with a 20-10-10 liquid fertilizer, diluted by half, and prefer to be fed every couple weeks from spring through fall; whereas air plants (Tillandsia) would do well with a foliar fertilizer and sprayed once a month.

It's so important not to over-fertilize plants because that will burn the plant or even stunt growth.
The key here though, is that if you're interested in plants, then get one and experiment! Don't let a dying or dead plant scare you off from trying again. Good gardeners have only become good through trial and error, and I believe everyone has a plant—or many plants—right for them!

More product recommendations from Summer, which she's found to be the best:


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