Bringing your plant home
Are you a grown up who has mastered responsibilities such as doing your own laundry every week (give or take), getting to work on time, and remembering to pay your electric bill? Do you have at least one window in your home? Can you afford to spend $20 to $30 on a bag of potting soil, a pot, and the plant itself?
If you answered yes to these three questions, congratulations, you are ready for a plant! If you answered yes to the last two questions only, you can still try your hand at a cactus.
A good rule of thumb: the bigger the greenery, the more green you have to spend. You can get a little teacup-sized succulent for as little as two bucks, but a fully developed fiddle leaf fig tree will set you back more than $100. A good mid-sized starter plant, such as a pothos or dieffenbachia, will probably run you somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 to $20 depending on the size and where you buy it.
Well, that’s a tough question! It depends on all kinds of things, from what kind of light exposure your space has to how much attention you’re willing to pay your plant each week. Not to mention your personal style.
We picked out 20 low-maintenance plants that are all excellent choices for beginners. They range widely in appearance and size. Some of them even have flowers. The flowchart below can help you get an idea of what might work best for you.
Important stuff to keep in mind
There are plenty of plants that have a preference for one type of light, but they’ll mosey along just fine in less optimal situations. (Sort of how like most of us would prefer an apartment with, say, a dishwasher, but we manage without one.) Most of these plants fall into that category. If you only have a west-facing window but you really want to grow an African violet, that’s totally doable.
Also, if you are blessed with the bright afternoon sun of a south-facing window, you can still grow shade lovers—just move them to the other side of the room!
Similarly, none of these plants are needy, so the effort you need to put into them is somewhere in the range of little to almost none. Some like their soil damper than others, so they benefit from a weekly check-in, while others can be safely ignored for weeks at a time. All of them should be perfectly chill if you leave them alone for a 10-day vacation.
The bottom line
Use this as a starting place, not a definitive rule about what you can and can’t grow!
No, of course not! Do not compare the size of your plant to other people’s plants!
Seriously though, for a first houseplant, look for one in a pot that is somewhere in the range of four to eight inches in diameter. Very large plants are an expensive investment to make right off the bat, and while some species are very easy to care for, their little siblings will be more manageable for first time plant parents when it comes to potting, watering, and finding the right spot near a window. Teeny tiny plants aren’t a bad option; if you really want to start there, go for it, though your choices may be more limited.
Just get a pothos. It will live anywhere. You will not regret it.
If you have pets or a kid that might eat it, go with a spider plant. It is indestructible.
The bottom line is that pets and kids should not be eating any plants, even the “nontoxic” ones. There are a number of hazards of putting houseplants in your mouth outside of the toxicity rating—prickly spikes, bacteria, unexpected allergic reactions, pesticide residues from before the plant joined your household. And according to the ASPCA, ingesting any plant material can cause vomiting and GI distress in cats and dogs.
But that doesn’t mean that pets and kids can’t cohabitate safely with houseplants! The disclaimer above aside, nontoxic plants should of course be your go-to when introducing greenery to a house with pets or kids.
- Avoid floor planters, at least to start.
- Keep leaves out of the grabbing range of tiny fingers.
- Dogs and cats may be trained to leave houseplants alone with a bit of correction and persistence.
- Keep especially poisonous plants out of reach or out of the house altogether.
- If you have a cat, consider avoiding hanging baskets and other challenging perches that might cause a catastrophe if your kitty is tempted to investigate.
One last note: Some of the plants that are toxic might still be options for parents (of humans and animals) depending on where you keep them and how likely the little ones are to chew. Some are only moderately toxic, with severe stomach aches being the outcome. Do your research though, because other plants are acutely dangerous. Lilies are deadly to cats, for example.
Beginner houseplants non-toxic to pets
- African violet
- Cast iron plant
- Chicks and hens
- Christmas cactus
- Polka dot plant
- Ponytail palm
- Prayer plant
- Spider plant
Beginner houseplants toxic to pets
- English ivy
- Peace lily
- ZZ plant
When selecting a new pot for your houseplant, choose one that is 2 to 3 inches larger in diameter than the pot it came in. This will give the plant space to grow, but not so much space that the soil becomes easily waterlogged.
As far as what the pot should look like or what it should be made of, the world is your oyster. Go traditional with a classic terracotta pot or get artsy and transform old kitchenware into a quirky planter.
For best results, the pot should have drainage holes in the bottom so that water can wash through the soil and out of the pot. Without proper drainage, water can get trapped in the bottom, turning the roots swampy and potentially leading to pests and disease.
You will also need a saucer for your pot to collect the water that runs out the bottom. You can find terracotta and plastic versions at your local garden center, or you may choose to up the design element and go with a small ceramic plate or shallow bowl. The only rule is to select a saucer several inches larger than the base of your pot. A too-small saucer will result in muddy water all over your furniture.
Nope, it’s not, but finding a good potting mix isn’t hard. Good potting soil has a light crumbly texture and retains moisture without becoming muddy or swampy when you water it. The best choices for most houseplants should have lots of organic material (humus, compost, bark, loam) and some peat moss. Organic brands are great options.
Lots of times you see recommendations for soilless mixtures that don’t contain any organic material because they have good drainage and don’t compact. These are made mostly from peat moss mixed with vermiculite, a mica, or perlite, a type of volcanic glass. But they also don’t have any nutrients, aside from whatever the manufacturer adds in, and they dry out more quickly. A good humusy organic mix will serve you better in the long run.
An environmental note about peat moss
Peat moss, or sphagnum peat moss, is a common ingredient in potting mixes. Peat moss is mined from bogs, mostly in Canada and Europe. It’s formed as moss decomposes over several millennia beneath the bog’s surface without the presence of air. It’s great at retaining water while still providing good drainage, which is why it’s become a popular ingredient in potting mixes. Unfortunately, it’s also a nonrenewable resource since it forms so slowly, and mining it releases a lot of carbon into the atmosphere, so it’s best to look for mixes that use it sparingly. If you’re interested in learning more, you can read this deep dive into the peat issue in the Washington Post.
Specialty soil mixes
Most houseplants will love an all-purpose, ordinary organic potting mix, but some are a little extra. Cacti and succulents like a sandy mix designed especially for them (although most will deal if you don’t want to buy them something separate). Orchid mix contains a lot of bark and hardwood charcoal, which works for orchids and other epiphytic types like bromeliads that naturally grow clinging to trees or logs rather than in the ground. The blend is named for orchids because they are especially fussy about it.
Yes and yes. Most plants come in a temporary black plastic pot, which is not meant to be its permanent home. You might also find plants for sale in big box stores that are already in decorative pots, but a lot of times you’ll want to repot these anyway, especially if the plant is looking cramped. (Lift the pot liner out and check to see if you can see roots peeking through the drainage holes. If you do, a new pot is in order.) Occasionally plants come bare root (without soil) if you order online or acquire them at a plant swap.
No matter what, you’ll need to learn how to pot a plant because at some point your plant will need to upgrade to a bigger home, so it’s a good idea to learn what you’re in for at the start!
Step 1: Gather your materials.
You will need:
- Your plant
- A pot that is roughly 2 to 3 inches larger than the pot that your plant is already in
- Potting soil of your choice
- Gardening gloves
Pro tip: Don't select a pot more than one or two sizes larger than the current pot because the roots won't be able to drink up all the water in the soil and it will become permanently soggy. This is not a good situation.
Step 2: Remove your plant from the old pot.
Wearing your gardening gloves, hold the plant at the base of the stem. With your other hand, lift the pot sideways. Wiggle the stem until you feel the plant shaking loose from its pot and gently slide it out. If your plant is rootbound (meaning the roots are cramped into the shape of the pot and there is barely any free soil), gently loosen them apart with your fingers. You’ll know your plant is rootbound if water seems to run straight through the pot without sticking in the soil and you can see roots peeking out the drainage holes in the bottom.
Pro tip: Imagine you are untangling very knotty hair on a kid with a sensitive scalp.
Step 3: Pot your plant.
Scoop a layer of potting soil into the bottom of the new pot. It should fill about a quarter of the pot, give or take a bit. Hold your plant with loosened roots inside the new pot so that the top of root ball (where the roots meet the stem) is about ½ to 1 inch below the top rim of the pot. Fill in the pot with soil around the root ball, leaving a gap of about half an inch between the soil surface and the rim of the pot. Press the soil down firmly to eliminate air pockets.
Pro tip: You could use a garden trowel, but something like a flour scoop also works perfectly if you are trying not to make a mess.
Step 4: Water your newly potted plant.
Don’t leave your plant high and dry in its new home! Water it thoroughly.
Pro tip: Fill the pot to the brim with water (this is why you left a half inch of space) and allow it to soak down through the now uncramped roots.
That depends on what kind of plant you have. Hopefully you surveyed the light from your available windows and selected a plant suited to your home’s conditions. If you just picked something that looked pretty and didn’t think about where it would go first, that’s on you!
Anyway, most houseplants will want to live within three feet of a light source. Some, like sansevieria, might carry on in the nether regions of the room. But don’t push it, especially with your first plant.
If you have a plant that thrives in bright sun, like a succulent, give it a front row seat. If it’s a variety known to scorch easily or droop in too much sun, let it hang back a bit—tuck it behind a sheer curtain, or perch it by the window that’s shaded by an awning or the building next door.
If you have no clue where what kind of light your plant needs, check the tag that came with it. Or, you know, just Google it.
Bring it inside! Many houseplants are happy to spend the summer months sunbathing outdoors, but they’ll want to cozy up indoors when the weather drops into the lower 50s. Conversely, there are some outdoor annuals that can overwinter indoors—geraniums and peppers are two of them.
Sure, if it feels right to you. But if you are the type of person that names your cat Kitty, maybe pass on this one.
That’s a matter of opinion, but we have some ideas.
Give it a nickname based on its botanical name like Monty the Monstera or Sansa the Sansevieria.
Go for the obvious: Mr. Green.
Pick a classic dog name if your plant is the closest thing you have to a pet: Rover, Spot, or Buddy.
Name it after your favorite singer.
"My plants are all named after musicians with single names. I am currently living with Bono, Cher, Shakira, Usher, and Fergie. Since I know they love music and good vibrations, it makes me feel like I always have a band of musicians living with me"
Get sentimental. Name it after your grandma or your favorite teacher.
Name it for a celebrity, but give it a botanical twist.
Do you have sage growing in your kitchen? Name it "Nicolas Sage." Moss in a terrarium? Try "Kate Moss." Or what if you have a ZZ Plant? Try "Zach Zefron."
Name them for all of the characters in your favorite book series. Try to match the plants with the characters’ personalities.
Is your plant dying? Name it after your horrible ex-boss or your arch nemesis.
Don’t be a quitter! Anyone can grow a houseplant. We believe in you. Seriously.
(But also, no judgment: here are our best tips for disguising a faux plant.)
Care and feeding
OK, so we already discussed getting a pot and saucer, potting soil, and gardening gloves. After that, it's up to you how much money and storage space you want to dedicate to tending your houseplant.
Other things you may want:
You'll need to water your plant of course, so investing in a watering can is a good idea, though strictly speaking you don’t need one for just one small or medium-sized plant. Pyrex measuring cups or kitchen glasses will do the trick too. Watering cans are generally inexpensive though, and they make the job easier for bushy specimens.
Chances are you'll need to prune your plant at some point, so a pair of pruning shears may come in handy, though they can be pricey and scissors will do the job unless your plant has woody stems.
Some plants need to be fertilized to encourage new growth and blossoms. Other plants hate it. (More on this later). Depending on your plant, you may need to pick up a bottle of organic fertilizer after you’ve had it awhile.
Your new houseplant is going to allow you to seriously step up your Instagram game. You'll probably want to take lots of pictures with your new best bud. Don’t forget to tag us at #iplanteven.
First of all, there's no simple answer like “water once a week.” How often you'll need to water will depend on how thirsty your plant is. Some plants are fast drinkers, others take their time. Plants with thick leaves tend to need less water than plants with thin leaves.
Season, temperature, and sunlight also play a role. Plants drink more during growth and bloom periods (usually spring and summer, but not always), and plants that love shade won’t slurp up water as quickly as those that like to bask in a bright, south-facing window. Oh, and how much water you give your plant at one go will make a difference, too, as does the soil type and the size and material of the pot you chose. See why this is a thorny question?
In fact, watering on a fixed schedule can get hairy precisely for the reasons listed above. The best thing you can do is check on your plant regularly and get to know its habits. Once you are familiar with each other, you’ll have a better sense of how long to wait between waterings. A growing guide for your specimen may give you an estimate of how frequently to water, but treat it as a jumping off point, not a hard and fast rule.
Glad you asked! There is!
When you potted your plant, ideally you left about a half inch of space between the soil and the rim of the pot. Fill the pot to the brim with water, pouring it slowly directly at the base of the stem. Allow the water to soak down through the soil. Excess water will momentarily exit through the drainage holes and collect in the saucer.
If you let your plant dry out too much, the water might run straight through without actually saturating the soil. If that is the case, fill your sink or a basin with a few inches of water and set the whole pot in the water for a couple of hours. This will allow the roots to get a much needed drink and rehydrate the soil. After this you can return to watering normally (just a bit more frequently).
If you ignored our other advice and picked a pot without drainage holes, be more judicious with the watering can. Less is better.
When it comes to outdoor garden plants, conventional wisdom says watering in the morning or evening is ideal because it allows the plants to get a drink before the blaring sun comes out and dries the soil again. If you water your garden at 2 PM in mid-summer, you risk the water evaporating too quickly, before your plants have a chance to use it.
For houseplants, the time of day you water is less important because they’re in a closed, climate-controlled environment. Morning watering is still a good idea because it gives the soil all day to dry out in the sun, protecting the roots against too much prolonged moisture. Of course, if you happen to water on a cool, cloudy day, the soil will dry more slowly.
So make it easy on yourself and feel free to water whenever you remember. If it’s midnight and you suddenly realize your peperomia is parched, don’t delay until morning and risk forgetting about it for a few more days.
Ah yes. The million dollar question.
There are a variety of ways to gauge when your plant is eager for another drink, but the easiest is to feel the soil an inch or two down (surfaces can be deceiving). If it’s dry, water. If it’s not, don’t. If you’re not sure, leave it alone for another day. Most plants prefer to be drier rather than wetter, and overwatering invites pests and disease.
Other ways to tell if your plant needs water:
- Lift the pot. If it feels abnormally light, it needs water.
- Look at it. Is it visibly drooping? Do the leaves feel limp rather than firm? It probably needs water.
- Poke a toothpick or pencil an inch or two into the soil as if you are testing to see if a cupcake is finished baking. Water if it comes out clean.
Other things to keep in mind about watering:
- Plants in terracotta pots need to be watered more than those in plastic or glazed ceramic containers. Terracotta “breathes” through the pores in the clay.
- Plants in small pots need to be watered more than plants in large pots because they have more surface area relative to their mass, meaning they dry out more quickly.
- Rootbound plants (see question 12) need to be watered more. They have less soil to hold on to moisture.
- Recently pruned plants won’t drink water as fast as they did before pruning because they have fewer leaves to support.
- Plants use more water when they are actively growing than they do during the dormant season. If you see signs that new leaves and buds are forming, it might be time to ramp up watering.
- Thick-leaved plants like succulents or sansevieria need less water than plants with thin leaves like a peace lily (which droops noticeably when thirsty).
If you’ve just brought your plant home and repotted it, you should be good to go for around three months—most commercial potting soils come with a slow-release fertilizer mixed in and organic ones will have nutritious organic materials for plants to feed on. After a few months you can begin fertilizing every three to four weeks during the growing season for most houseplants, especially the hardier ones. (The growing season for most houseplants is early spring through late fall, followed by a period of dormancy in winter. You will know when your plant has entered the dormancy period because it will drop flowers and some leaves and temporarily cease producing new growth. When you see new shoots appearing, it's a sign that dormancy has ended.)
Types of fertilizers:
There are a gazillion kinds of fertilizers you can buy. Synthetic or organic. Powder or liquid or pellets or sprays. All purpose or specially targeted at blossoms or foliage or orchids or just about anything else. The liquid and water soluble types are the easiest to use, so start there.
You’ll see a series of three numbers on the fertilizer package: something like 10:10:10 or 10-20-10. This is the percentage of (in this order) how much nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium the fertilizer contains. A balanced fertilizer (often categorized as all-purpose) is one where all three numbers are the same. A fertilizer with a higher concentration of phosphorus (the middle number) is typically used for blooming houseplants. Fertilizers with a higher level of nitrogen (the first number) are good for leafy plants like philodendron.
Before you do anything, read the directions on the package. You’ll need to dilute your fertilizer in water. Don’t use more fertilizer than the package recommends—in fact many houseplant experts advise halving the recommendation. Using too much fertilizer can damage the plant’s roots and actually prevent it from absorbing nutrients.
Fertilizing dos and don’ts:
- Plants respond better to frequent weak doses of fertilizer rather than infrequent highly concentrated doses, so try to stick to a schedule and don’t over do it. As with watering, less is more.
- Never give your plants more fertilizer than the package directs. In fact, it’s a good idea to give them less.
- Give your plant some water before applying the fertilizer (even if it is already mixed in water). Fertilizer can burn the roots if they are too dry.
- Only fertilize during the growing season, spring to fall. Ramp up fertilizing slowly in spring, starting with no more than a half-strength dilution. Taper off gradually in fall.
- Don’t fertilize a sick plant that’s already struggling. Fertilizer will only hasten its demise. It isn’t medicine.
- There will always be some houseplant that’s an exception to these rules, and some plants are hungrier than others, so check out a reputable growing guide for your species for specifics.
And finally, what if you just… don’t? Some plants really don't need fertilizer and will be perfectly happy if you never feed them. Hens and chicks and sansevieria are two examples. Many would prefer fertilizer but power through without it. However, you may notice they aren't adding new growth as readily as they once did or other signs of stress like brown-tipped leaves.
Get ready, it’s time for plant biology 101.
Plants have tiny pores on the undersides of their leaves, through which they suck up carbon dioxide and moisture from the air. At the same time, they absorb water and minerals through their roots. They then use energy from light to convert the carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and oxygen. This process is called photosynthesis. The plants use the carbohydrates to refuel, and they release the oxygen back into the atmosphere through their leaves.
So plants don’t actually “eat” water—they use it to make their own food.
In addition to water, sun, and carbon dioxide, all plants need certain nutrients to survive. The major ones are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, but there are a handful of others as well. They absorb these nutrients from the soil and water, and sometimes they need to be replenished with fertilizer (see the fertilizer section for more).
Not usually. If you want to get fancy, rainwater is primo as far as plants are concerned, but tap water will do fine. Ideally it should be room temperature.
There are some people who like to toss the dregs of coffee or tea (as long as it doesn’t contain dairy or sweetener) on a plant as a mild fertilizer and pH balancer: coffee and tea are acidic, while tap water skews alkaline, especially if you have hard water. But don’t over do it or treat it as a substitute for normal watering.
Others like to use ice cubes to water orchids and other moisture-sensitive plants in small pots to guard against overwatering. However, some experts and gardening books advise against this, arguing ice cold water can shock the roots and stunt growth over the long term.
You may be over watering if any or all of the below are true:
- You plant has wilted, yellow leaves
- Your plant has yellow leaves that are dropping off
- The leaves look limp and don’t perk up within several hours of watering
- Your plant smells musty or moldy
- Your plant starts attracting insects
- You notice spots or blisters on the undersides of the leaves
More plants are killed by over watering than dehydration. Over watering is extremely common because first-time plant parents usually assume that more water will always make their plant baby happy. Unfortunately, over watering is also harder for plants to bounce back from. Once root rot (marked by blisters on the undersides of the leaves) sets in, there may not be much you can do except take some trimmings to propagate a new plant. If you’ve over watered but the plant is still holding on, repot it with fresh soil right away. Then go back and read the section on the right way to water and thank Mother Nature that you’ve been given a second chance.
On the other hand, when you forget to water, a little TLC and a long drink will usually bring your plant back to the land of the living. Just don’t drop the ball too frequently or the stress may prove fatal.
“When a plant isn’t getting enough light, it may start to get lanky, with extra long stems as it tries to stretch to get as much light as it can,” explains Justin Hancock, horticulturist at Costa Farms, one of the largest growers of indoor plants in the US. You might also notice that it leans severely to one side as it tries to soak up every ounce of sun possible.
When plants aren’t getting enough light, Hancock says you may notice the leaves start to go yellow and that the plant grows more slowly than it did previously. Flowering plants probably won’t bloom, and foliage won’t be so pretty either. “Some variegated or colorful-leaf plant varieties may also lose their variegation or color,” he says. “For example, ‘Pink Star’ earth star (cryptanthus) has brilliant pink foliage in high light; in low light, its leaves are green. Most crotons (codiaeum) won’t show off flamboyant shades of red, orange, yellow, or purple in their leaves if they’re not getting enough light.”
Yes! Too much light can be just as bad as too much water. Plants have different preferences for light based the environment they’re used to in the wild.
You plant is getting too much light if:
- It looks scorched or sunburned: yellow or brown spots on the leaves and browning tips.
- The soil dries out and the plant wilts very quickly after watering.
Ways to fix the situation:
- Move it further away from the window.
- Add a sheer curtain.
- Move it to a different window with lower light intensity.
Most houseplants, and especially the beginner-level specimens, like dry over wet. They want soil that is dry on the surface, but slightly damp a few inches down. If you allow the soil to go bone dry, however, your plant will send out distress signals in the form of wilted or brown, shriveled leaves. The symptoms of underwatering can be similar to those of overwatering, so feel the soil with your finger an inch or two down. If it is like dust, you can be sure that underwatering is to blame. Give it a generous dowsing and watch for the leaves to perk back up.
Most plants will bounce back easily from dehydration, but not if you make a habit of it. Neglect your plant too frequently and you might find it attacked by pests and disease, which flock to weaklings. Be sure not to overcompensate for your lapse in watering and drown your plant, which can be just as dangerous, if not even more stressful.
Houseplants generally like the same indoor temperatures that people do—somewhere between 55 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 50 and 70 degrees at night. Hardy houseplants will flourish anywhere in this spectrum. More delicate selections might shiver if your house runs cold. Above 80 degrees, you’ll encounter frequent wilting for most all houseplants.
Keep in mind, too, that some rooms (and even some areas of those rooms) will be cooler or warmer than others, no matter what the thermostat says. Plants sitting directly below a heating vent can suffer under the deluge of hot, dry air. The kitchen and bathroom are frequently warmer than your bedroom, which may factor into placement. Keeping plants near a window in winter is not usually an issue unless it is particularly drafty. Do your best to seal up the cracks or find your plant a new spot.
Humidity can be the biggest environmental challenge to indoor gardeners, especially in winter. “In spring and summer, relative humidity levels usually aren’t a problem for most houseplants (unless you have a love for types that that come from really moist environments). But in fall and winter when we turn on the heat, relative humidity levels can drop to problematic levels,” says Costa Farms horticulturist Jason Hancock.
Plants lose moisture through their leaves, especially when the air around them is dry. The hardiest houseplants—your sansevierias, tradescantias, peace lilies, and the like—are relatively tolerant of dry indoor air, although you might notice brown leaf tips and pale, sickly leaves when the heating kicks on.
So what can you do about it? You have a few options.
Get a humidifier. Humidifiers add moisture to the air, they are fairly inexpensive, and have the added benefit of relieving dry skin and opening your sinuses.
Try a pebble tray. For this method you’ll need a shallow dish (like a pan, casserole dish, or something similar) and small stones or pebbles (which you can buy at a nursery). Fill the dish with a layer of pebbles and set your houseplant on top of them, minus its saucer. Add about a half inch of water to the dish, or just enough that the pebbles aren’t completely covered. As the water evaporates, it will create a pocket of humidity around your plant. Be sure to refill the water when it runs low.
Group your plants. Plants add humidity to the air as water transpires from their leaves. By grouping them together, you can help your plants recapture some of the moisture that’s being released from their nearby friends.
Misting. A lot of people like to mist. It feels productive. But misting has less of an impact than you might think because the burst of moisture is so short-lived. Plus wet leaves and stems are a good way to attract fungus and disease, especially if you mist at night when the plant doesn’t have a chance to dry out in the sun. Misting can benefit plants with smooth leaves (crinkly or velvety leaves will trap more water, upping the chance of mold), like prayer plants or philodendron, but the other methods listed are likely to be more successful.
What, you didn’t know brown, curling leaves is the latest style in houseplant fashion?
Kidding. There are plenty of reasons you plant leaves or leaf tips could be turning brown and crispy.
If the browning leaves are paired with visible wilt and soil the consistency of dust or mud, you’ve got a watering problem. Review the “Is there a right way to water?” section posthaste.
Certain houseplants are sensitive when it comes to humidity, though the tough ones often recommended for beginners are not. Still, some houses can have exceptionally dry air, especially when you crank up the heat in winter, which can result in brown-tipped leaves, especially on plants with long leaves like spider plant and peace lily. Take another look at the section on humidity.
Too much fertilizer
If the brown crinkly bits are showing up on the outer edges and tips of the leaves, you might be using too much fertilizer. Lay off for awhile and watch for improvements.
Your plant is growing up
If you’re only noticing the occasional brown leaf here and there, you’re probably not doing anything wrong. Plants drop old leaves sometimes as they mature. It’s just part of growing up!
Your plant is dead
Are ALL the leaves brown and dry? Your plant is probably dead. Skip ahead to the “How do I know if my plant is dead?” section.
Pruning is the plant equivalent of getting a haircut. At the very minimum you’ll want to prune off dead leaves as you see them, but most plants appreciate a more aggressive trim every once in a while. Pruning keeps plants looking healthy and full rather than unkempt and mangy. Trailers like pothos and tradescantia especially benefit. If you let it go too long, your plant may need more drastic down the road, and it will take much longer for your plant to regain its looks.
How and when to prune
When you snip off a plant’s stem, it sends out two new shoots just below the cut. Instead of growing one long stem, it grows two shorter ones. The result is a compact, bushy, attractive plant. Pinching off just the tips of shoots with your fingers will have the same effect. Pruning should be done as needed during the growing season, at least a couple of times.
When to sheathe the shears
Some plants don’t need pruning. Succulents and cacti fall into this category, as do plants that send up shoots directly from the soil such as peace lily, spider plant, and ferns. For these plants, only trim off brown and yellow leaves as needed.
Yes, you should! Plants accumulate a lot of dust, just like any other surface in your house. Getting rid of it is good for both you and your plant—we all benefit from a clean environment.
“Accumulated dust on leaves blocks out sunlight and reduces the plant’s ability to photosynthesize, which is how it stays nourished,” explains Donna Letier, co-founder and CEO of Gardenuity, a container gardening subscription service. “A clean plant that is photosynthesizing is healthier.”
So what’s the best way to clean a plant? Just wipe the leaves down, one by one, with a soft washcloth or damp sponge to remove all the dust and dirt.
Or you can try the pro move and give it a proper bath: “I take my houseplants in the shower with me about once a quarter,” Letier says. “They love the humidity and a good warm shower. I have even been known to bring my tomato gardens inside for a relaxing shower and steam!” To keep the soil from becoming too drenched and running out all over the tub, Letier secures the pot inside a plastic bag.
It stays at home and waits patiently for you to come back! The hardy varieties we’ve recommended here for first-time plant parents should be perfectly fine when left to their own devices for a week, and probably even two. But if you’re globetrotting for longer than that or have selected a plant that’s more high maintenance, there are a few solutions.
1. Get a plant sitter
Do you have a reliable friend who can be trusted with your house key and a watering can? Call in a favor.
2. Try terracotta watering spikes
Terracotta self-watering spikes will run you about $17 on Amazon for a four-pack. To use them you’ll also need an empty wine or beer bottle (choose the size appropriate for your plant). The bottle, filled with water, sits upside down in the spike, which you’ll need to stick firmly and several inches deep into the soil of the plant’s pot. The porous clay allows water to soak slowly into the soil over an extended period of time.
3. Get some hydro spikes and a bucket of water
This inexpensive self-watering solution works by capillary action, sucking water up a slender tube from a container of water that’s set somewhere below the plant’s pot. It essentially allows the plant to water itself as long as the jar stays full. Plant guru Summer Rayne Oakes has a great demo here.
Does your plant look green and lush, like it’s thriving? Does it look just as good as when you bought it, or better? Is it growing new leaves? Could it be a stock photography model? If it’s not regularly losing leaves or wilting or going limp and yellow or getting attacked by bugs, pat yourself on the back. Your plant is happy! Congratulations on being a good plant parent! (But also, even if your plant is having a hard time, that doesn’t make you a bad parent — we don’t plant-parent shame.)
“I like to think plants have feelings! We do have proof they respond to sound,” says Donna Letier, co-founder and CEO of Gardenuity. In fact, there have been scientific studies on how noise and music might affect plant growth, and they suggest that sound waves do make a difference.
“In 2009, the British Royal Horticultural Society played plants recordings of men and women reading various passages,” Letier says. “They also set up a control group of plants that were kept away from all sound. At the end of the study they found tomato plants grew up to two inches taller if they were serenaded by a female voice.”
So chat it up—you’re not crazy. “All environmental factors play a role in your plants’ health and growth, so sing and talk away. Plants don’t talk back and they usually agree with you,” Letier says.
Technically, plants also perceive and respond to touch, including painful touch. There’s debate among plant neurobiologists about whether plants do or don’t "feel" pain, however.
Get it a bigger one! See: How do I pot a plant?
One caveat: A few plants, like hoya, bloom only when pot bound and suffering from nutrient deprivation.
“I'd say you know you're ready when your curiosity and energy for more plants is piqued. I find that plants beget more plants. And when you begin to develop a love, appreciation, and observant sensitivity for them, you'll want to surround yourself with them more.”
In other words, they might grow on you.
Absolutely! Please don’t leave your plant pal behind!
In fact, your plant is a pro at moving. It has already led a nomadic life, traveling from the farm where it grew up to the store or nursery where you bought it, and then making the journey home with you.
How should you move your plants? Carefully and with consideration, advises Donna Letier, co-founder and CEO of Gardenuity. “All plants travel differently; a lot depends on their size which impacts their mobility,” she says. Moving is stressful for plants, just like it is for people, so do what you can to make the transition as smooth as possible.
One caution: state laws
But before we get ahead of ourselves, there is the issue of legality to consider. Some states have very strict laws about what types of plants can and can’t cross state lines. These regulations are put in place to curb the spread of pests and diseases that can be detrimental to local agriculture and wildlife. You can find out if your plant is allowed to move to your new state by consulting the National Plant Board and that state’s Department of Agriculture. If it is, hooray! Read on to prepare your plant for a successful transition.
Temperature is important when moving your plants. Don’t leave them in a locked car in 90-degree heat with the windows up for too long! Letier suggests placing a wet towel on top of the soil before encasing the pot in a plastic bag to help contain the soil and keep it moist throughout the move.
Health and strength
Healthy plants are better positioned to withstand a move than those that are already stressed. To help keep up their strength, Letier recommends a giving them a good shower or cleaning about a week before the move. You should also take care not to stress out your plant with erratic watering or insufficient light in the weeks leading up to the move.
Distance makes a difference
If you’re just moving across town you shouldn’t have much to worry about—you’ll be there soon and your plant can get settled into its new home quickly. Long distance or cross country moves are more challenging. Transport your plants in a sturdy container with good ventilation.
“Before the moving van arrives, I suggest grouping your plants together in a room that is away from all the mess, clutter, and movers. If possible, keep them near a sunny window,” recommends Letier. “After everything else has been loaded into the van, then it’s time to safely place your large and small plants in the car for the drive to their new home. Keep the windows down (if it’s not too cold) and let them enjoy the fresh air.”
If your plants need to travel cross country for longer than a week, you may need to hire special plant movers. If your plants are small, you might also consider shipping them. Spring for two- or three-day priority shipping to minimize box time.
“First off, I’d take a look at if you’re really following the growing guide or if you’re cheating a little. It’s easy to convince ourselves that we have high light, for example, even though the tree in front of that big window filters out a lot of light,” says Costa Farms garden guru Justin Hancock.
So take off your rose-colored glasses and take a hard look at the light, water, and humidity levels. Assuming all of that is really correct, Hancock suggests examining the following:
Drafts. A blast of cold or hot air on your plant can be deal breakers for some plants, resulting in yellow and brown leaves. Check gaps around exterior doors and old windows and heating/air conditioning vents.
Pot size. “It’s a common myth that many houseplants ‘like’ to be rootbound. The truth is that many tolerate it really well, so it doesn’t seem to cause a lot of stress. But almost all houseplants will grow best if they’re repotted as their roots fill the container (typically when you start to see roots growing in tight circles around the inside perimeter of the pot),” Hancock says.
Fertilizer. If your plants haven’t been fertilized in a year or more, they could be running out of nutrients. Refer to the section on fertilizing for more info.
Physical damage. “I get questions from a fairly large number of people whose plants show browning or holes in the leaves,” Hancock says. “They assume it’s a pest problem, and often surprises them that it’s physical damage. Anything that bumps or jostles plant leaves, especially as they’re just emerging as new growth, can cause damage—things like a wagging golden retriever’s tail or brushing by it when you carry groceries in.” New plants may show this kind of damage from shipping and handling, whether you get them at a store or order online.
One last thing—when you’re doing your detective work, keep in mind that plants don’t usually display symptoms of unhappiness right after the cause of their distress occurred. According to Hancock, it usually takes about a week for signs of stress to emerge. He adds this is especially important to keep in mind in the weeks after you bring a plant home from the store because signs of stress could be a delayed reaction to the move.
The birds and the bees
It’s time we had this conversation. Propagation is simply how plants reproduce. They are not embarrassed about it, so don’t be shy!
Plant propagation can either be sexual or asexual. As with animals, sexual propagation results in offspring that is genetically different from the two parents. But unlike animals, plants can also propagate by cloning themselves, resulting in a baby plant that is exactly identical to the parent.
There are a bunch of different ways plants can propagate, with and without your help. These include:
- Tip, stem, or leaf cuttings
- Tubers, bulbs, or corms
- Rhizomes or stolons
- Air layering
Unless you are advanced in horticultural science, you will probably not be dealing with sexual propagation (seeds and spores). Asexual reproduction through cuttings or bulb division, on the other hand, is fairly simple for houseplant owners to achieve, and some plants will even replicate themselves without you having to do anything at all!
Of course! It’s the circle of life. How do you think your plant got here in the first place?
Many houseplants are easy to propagate with stem cuttings. Some, including many succulents, propagate readily from leaves. Others, like spider plant and kalanchoe, grow their own tiny plantlets without you having to do anything but pluck them off and root them in soil. Plants with thick underground roots like rhizomes and bulbs also multiply on their own and can be divided into separate pots.
Stem and leaf cuttings can be taken from just about any plant and can even be used to regrow a dying specimen. Many mature plants will propagate on their own as long as they are healthy and happy!
Like so many other things with plants, it all depends on the species. Some plants, like kalanchoe and spider plant, are simply propagated by plucking off the offspring and giving them a new home in their own pot. Others, like African violets and aloe, are easily divided as they form new clumps around the original plant. The same goes for plants with tubers, rhizomes, and bulbs, such as sansevieria, rex begonias, and elephant ear plants.
Many common houseplants, especially those with thick stems—pothos, philodendron, and tradescantias among them—can be easily duplicated by snipping off a piece of stem and planting it in soil. It really is that simple.
How to propagate a plant from a stem cutting:
Step 1: Cut off a few inches of healthy stem, snipping just below the spot where a leaf attaches (this point is called the node).
Step 2: Pick off the leaves closest to the bottom, leaving one to three leaves attached at the top. Get rid of any flowers—they suck up too much energy.
Step 3: Fill a small pot with potting soil. Make a hole in the soil with your finger or a pencil and nestle the snipped end inside, burying the exposed nodes. Firm the soil around the stem. Optional: if you would like to get fancy and have a higher chance of success, dab the bottom of the stem in a rooting hormone before planting it.
Step 4: Water the soil. Keep it damp but not soggy. Fungus can easily grow if you overdo it.
Step 5: Cover your new cutting with an upside down clear plastic bag or glass bowl to retain humidity. (This step is technically optional but a good idea.)
Step 6: Give your new baby plant indirect sunlight.
Step 7: In about three to four weeks the cutting will have rooted. (Check this by tugging gently. If there is resistance, there are roots.) Remove the covering. If you have several cuttings in the same container, you can now divide them into individual pots.
The tough stuff
Throw it out the window and don’t look back.
Kidding. Sort of.
If your plants are healthy and you let the soil surface dry out between waterings, insect infestations should be rare. Bugs go for the weaklings.
If you do spot bugs, your plan of attack will depend on what kind of insects you have. Some are easily decimated. Other times it might make more sense to sacrifice the plant rather than wage a war.
Aphids are the most common pest for indoor plants. They are smaller than an ant, have soft bodies, and are found in handfuls. Organic insecticidal soaps usually do the trick against them. Insecticidal soap can also be used against spider mites, which weave tiny white webs in foliage, and scale bugs, which look like brown lumps on the leaves and stems.
Whiteflies, tiny things that look like white gnats, can be attacked with a combo of sticky traps and insecticidal soap. Mealybugs create cottony globs on the leaves and stems (root mealybugs do the same in the roots). They are notoriously hard to treat with insecticides and infected plants may be better off composted.
Before you even bring your plant home, inspect it closely for signs of insects while you’re still at the store. Don’t buy it if you see anything suspicious.
How to deal with insects in your houseplants
Step 1: Quarantine your plant away from other plants, ideally outside if you can. You don’t want an epidemic on your hands.
Step 2: Identify the suspect. If you are not sure what you’re dealing with, go to the library and get an insect identification book or call your local agricultural extension agency.
Step 3: Get an insecticide, preferably organic, that is designed to treat the pest you are dealing with. Insecticidal soap works for most common houseplant pests, but do your homework and read the labels.
Step 4: Apply the insecticide according to the directions. Do this outside while wearing gloves. Keep the plant outside until the insecticide dries, even if it is organic.
Step 5: Keep the plant in quarantine until all signs of insects are gone for at least a week. Reapply the insecticide as needed according to the directions.
Dropping leaves are like the fever-and-stuffy-nose symptom equivalent of the plant world. It can mean anything. Maybe it’s just allergies, but it might also be the flu.
Or it might be nothing. Even healthy plants drop leaves sometimes. So if your plant loses a leaf here and there, don’t panic. Don’t even bat an eye.
But if your plant is losing a bunch of leaves at once and showing signs of discomfort like yellowing and limpness, you need to investigate. Start with the most common culprit: water. Overwatering is frequently the cause of falling leaves, but it could also be underwatering.
If you’re sure watering is not the problem, reconsider the light source. Move your plant to a brighter spot and see if it picks up. If it is in a particularly drafty spot, give it some protection from the cold and see if things improve.
Another possibility is that your plant is low on nutrients and therefore can’t support all its leaves. If you have recently potted your plant, this is unlikely, but if it’s been a couple of years there’s a possibility your plant has outgrown its pot and/or used up all the nutrients in the soil. If that’s the case, you should notice the leaves turning lighter in color before they start to drop. A dose of fertilizer or a pot upgrade may be in order.
First of all, check to make sure your plant isn’t just sleeping. Some plants need a dormancy period to hibernate. This happens most often with plants with bulbs like amaryllis (which is usually sold around Christmas) or purple shamrock. If your plant is dormant, move it to a dim corner and lay off watering until you notice new growth appearing. That’s when you can put it back in its usual spot and resume watering.
“Signs of health include chubby or flexible roots that are typically white or green. If the roots are mushy, brown, or super brittle then it probably means your plant has passed into Plant Heaven, likely due to root rot (from overwatering) or neglect, and should be composted,” she says. “But hey, if you compost it, at least it will return back to the soil and hopefully will eventually serve as a foundation to grow more plants!”
Please accept our sincere condolences for your loss.
Do you believe in plant zombies?
Most of the time, a dead plant is a dead plant, but there may still be live, healthy roots living below the soil—which explains why your sister’s ex-boyfriend’s coworker had a pothos come back to life once. Don’t count on it, though.
Throw it out and get a new one!
Sorry, didn’t mean to be insensitive. If your plant dies, the best thing to do is compost it. If you’re seeking closure, bury it in the backyard and say a eulogy. Do not flush it down the toilet.
When some time has passed and you feel you’re ready, visit a nursery to pick out a new plant pal. Think back on the factors that led to the demise of your first plant—too much water? not enough sun?—and use that knowledge to inform your next selection. Maybe go with something a bit more tolerant of dim conditions and dampness this time around.
Go read a book.
Might we suggest one of these?
- The Indestructible Houseplant by Tovah Martin
- The New Plant Parent: Develop Your Green Thumb and Care for Your House Plant Family by Darryl Cheng
- How Not to Kill Your Houseplant: Survival Tips for the Horticulturally Challenged by Veronica Peerless
- Wild at Home: How to Care for and Style Beautiful Plants by Hilton Carter
- The Complete Houseplant Survival Manual by Barbara Pleasant
- The Inspired Houseplant by Jen Stearns
- Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Indoor Gardening edited by Anne M. Halpin
- The Indestructible Houseplant by Tovah Martin
- The Houseplant Encyclopedia by Ingrid Jantra and Ursula Krüger
- Edible Spots and Pots by Stacey Hirvela