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5 Tried-and-True Houseplant Care Tips Passed Down from My Great-Grandmother

updated May 7, 2021
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Room filled with plants and flowers
Credit: Studio Firma/Stocksy

At this point in my “writing about plants” career, it’s not much of a secret that I come from a long line of green thumbs. My mom is a literal pro at it — she makes her living as a flower farmer — but others in my family, going generations back, have had just as much passion and expertise for plants. Most notably, my great-grandmother, Lucille Melton, was an avid houseplant collector who had ferns, philodendrons, and African violets galore — not to mention a Christmas cactus that’s still in the family 100 years later.

Any time I’ve asked a family member for houseplant advice, their response always starts with “Well, Grandma Melton used to…” So, over the years, I’ve honed my houseplant knowledge and expertise with the understanding that what I know has been passed down through a game of familial telephone. Is this advice the end-all-be-all of houseplant knowledge? Absolutely not. Is it always technically and critically correct? Nah. But it has worked for our family for ages, so why change a good thing? 

These sage houseplant tips have never steered me wrong in my own plant care, and I hope they’ll bring a little of Lucille’s magic to your houseplant collection, too.

Don’t forget to clean the leaves.

Houseplants collect dirt, dust, and pet dander just as much as your shelves do — and they need to be cleaned on a regular basis. All of that gross stuff sitting on the leaves can get in the way of the plant being able to perform photosynthesis and thrive. Lucille used to brush the leaves of her African violets with an extra-soft baby doll hair brush, a sure way to get the dirt, dust, and excess water off the sensitive leaves. 

You can do the same using an extra-soft dry toothbrush on your African violets, which don’t like to be damp or wet. For most other plants, a soft, damp cloth will do the trick.

Move your houseplants around.

Lucille was always moving her plants around and checking up on them. During the warmer months, she put them outside. When she brought them inside, she’d rearrange them again.

While houseplants don’t get bored of their surroundings quite as quickly as people do, they do appreciate a change in location a few times a year. Whether you’re rotating the plant in the same spot, or rearranging your collection as the seasons change, a little movement is good for your plants. It helps recreate the environmental changes they experience through the year in their natural habitat.  

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

Train your trailing plants.

No, I don’t mean train them to do tricks like your pet mouse or parakeet. I mean train your trailing plants to climb. Plants like pothos, some varieties of philodendrons, and other aroids are genetically disposed to climb up trees and other vertical foundations.

Lucille had a giant philodendron that climbed all the way up her living room wall. With some hooks and a little twine, she was able to help the plant grow upwards instead of outwards. According to my mom, the plant became a backdrop for all sorts of family photos over the years.

Helping a plant climb is extraordinarily easy, and will create a thriving and beautiful display for your home. Whether you have a moss pole or a trellis, I guarantee you can rig your set-up in less than 10 minutes. You’ll need to start by securing your vine to your pole or trellis with twist ties or rope; make sure these are loose enough that they don’t damage the plant, but tight enough that the plant is anchored. Place one every foot or so. If you want to train your vine to climb a wall, use clear Command hooks instead.

Credit: Anna Spaller

Gift plants to the people you love.

According to family stories, Lucille was always giving plants and cuttings to friends and family. When my mom was a freshman in high school, Lucille gave her a plant stand and a dieffenbachia of her very own. While the plant is long gone, that plant stand was a fixture in my own childhood and still takes residence in my mom’s laundry room. One day it will be mine, and I’ll be able to tell my own children the story of it’s legacy.

Houseplants can carry meaning and history with them as they’re passed along. And propagating your own plants means this heartfelt gift is budget-friendly, too.

Take some time out of each day for your plants.

It can make all the difference when it comes to caring for your houseplants. Over the years I’ve received many comments from friends and family saying that they don’t understand how to care for houseplants, and therefore won’t have one. 

My most used piece of advice for houseplant care is simple observation. Get to know the plants in your care. Observe how they react to light, water and the environment. You can learn so much about your plant by spending time with it. Take 15 minutes out of your day to interact with your collection. Get at eye level. Look at the leaves, the soil, and the condition of the container. Take notes. Use it as a meditation practice. 

The more you pay attention, the better your plants will thrive. I learned this from my mother, who learned it from Lucille, who had learned it from her mother Anna. And now, I’m passing it on to you!