Houseplant Watering Secrets from Regular People Who Keep their Plants Alive & Happy

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Viv Yapp)

Advice from plant professionals (like ecologist and urban jungle dweller Summer Rayne Oakes), is great for broadening your nature knowledge base. It can even give you confidence. But sometimes, you need to hear that regular, non-professional people can rock a plant-filled home as well as a professional who seems to have been born with two green thumbs.

As someone who just recently made the leap from a very black thumb to “hey, I’ve actually kept these plants alive for two years now,” I know that it is possible to make the conversion. But if pro advice still feels too out-of-reach for you, the common sense (but still worth hearing) advice from real folks like you and me might be more accessible. Some of the tips below might even seem to conflict one another, but I think that underscores something Summer said in this post, “…Good gardeners have only become good through trial and error, and I believe everyone has a plant — or many plants — right for them!”

Below, four regular folks (with lovely, plant-filled homes) share some of the methods they’ve found that work for them. Perhaps their tips may help you to finally master the art and science of watering houseplants:

Listen to (and watch, and maybe even photograph) the leaves:

(Image credit: Bethany Nauert)

“There is no science, it is just merely intuition and careful attention to the plant’s leaves! The plant itself reflects when water is needed or when you are putting too much water. Some plants require that the soil is moist and some of them require that the soil is a little dry in order to breath more.”

Erick Millan‘s Burbank home has a showstopping plant wall and lots of greenery sprinkled around. He says he’s felt compassion for living things since he was a little kid. “My mom said that when I was tiny I used to be captivated or distracted by trees with big roots, always asking her for permission to touch the roots.”

(Image credit: Esteban Cortez)

“My biggest secret is just making time to “intentionally observe.” I feel like plants are pretty good at telling you how they’re doing, provided you know what to look for. To that end I do a lot of pre-education: plant guides on Urban Jungle Bloggers and the Jungalow have been invaluable, and almost without fail if I google some plant, The SFGate has put out a very helpful guide. I also ask the staff at nurseries and plant shops for help.

When I was living in Utah, I was both a regular shopper and a regular caller into Paradise Palm, just always asking for help. If you learn plants’ specific names, it’s easier to google to get specific advice. So many house plants have these names that are often applied to several others — you can get all kinds of advice on Swiss Cheese Plant or Asparagus Fern or Philodendron and later realize you were reading about the wrong plant altogether. So get specific, write it down, pin it, whatevs.

Anyway, it’s far easier to ask for help if you’ve been paying attention — if you can describe the changes in the plant, the soil, etc. I already had time scheduled in my mornings to water, but I just made a point to pay attention and keep an eye on things. I discovered, accidentally, taking shots on the reg for instagram and blogs, that keeping a photo record can be super helpful. Did this cactus always have this brown spot? Is it growing? Check your photos. Were these leaves always hanging just so? Were they like this before the weather changed? Check your photos.

So yeah, learn the basic watering guidelines for your plant species, do that regularly, and then pay attention. Don’t panic if it starts to struggle — adjust what you’re doing and watch.”

Jory’s not sure if he would say he’s mastered the art and science of watering just yet, but he reports he’s kept many of his plants alive for more than five years, and his San Francisco studio is filled with lovely life. Though not all have survived: “Some plants I have had to accept that I will (probably) just never get the hang of: at this point I assume all Asparagus setaceus dread and fear my hand, I’ve killed so, so many. I’m basically Darla, from Finding Nemo, but for asparagus fern.” See more of his plant photos on his Instagram.

Leave them be sometimes, too

(Image credit: Viv Yapp)

“My main discovery after years of over-water plant murdering is to just leave them be…I water them less often, about once a week or once a fortnight depending on how much sun they are getting, and when I do water them, I give them quite a lot. I spray the leaves of any ferns and tropical plants about every couple of days, but am careful to do that in the evening so that they don’t get burned by sunlight.”

Darkroom Director Rhonda Drakeford’s wall of plant-lined shelves in front of her London rental apartment’s living room window gives me life. And the rest of her bold, geometric and colorful decor makes the plants in her home pop.

Enjoy your plant time

(Image credit: Aimée Mazzenga)

I can remember my mother talking to her plants and genuinely showing them TLC. My plant-watering rhythm is every Sunday or Wednesday dependent on the plant’s need. I enjoy a cup of coffee and quiet time while I water. So each Sunday and Wednesday morning I allow myself a little extra time to take care of my plants, which in return is taking care of me!”

Mel Holmes grew up with a mother who is a Master Gardner (“And when I say Master Gardner, she volunteered for a plant help hotline… yes, that is 100% a real thing.”) So it’s not surprising that Mel’s Chicago loft is filled with green beauties, considering her family has plants still living today that were around when Mel was a child. “I can remember at times being annoyed at how long watering seem to take and would think my parents were so odd for finding so much pleasure in taking care of plants. Well… I’m officially becoming my mother.”

Still want more houseplant advice?