5 Confessions of a (Somewhat) Reformed Serial Plant Killer

updated Jul 18, 2020
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(Image credit: Kath Nash)

Let’s just say that a lot of houseplants have suffered at my hands. But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about caring for plants, it’s that nobody has a 100 percent perfect success rate. There are always missteps, even for people with degrees in horticulture and years of experience. The key is to take your errors in stride, and then apply what you’ve learned the next time around. Learn from my previous mistakes and (hopefully!) yours won’t meet an untimely end.

#1: I Randomly Picked My Plants

As a college freshman, I joined my school’s garden club, and shortly afterwards we went on a trip to a local nursery. Having zero knowledge of houseplants, I brought back a peace lily and a purple sage plant. (At the time, I thought peace lilies were the height of elegance, and I just liked how the sage smelled.) The peace lily survives still, many years later, but that sage plant met its end within weeks in my cave of a dark dorm room. I’ve since learned that peace lilies are suited to limited light conditions, while sage needs lots and lots of sun. These days, I always consider my window real estate before plant shopping, pay attention to the little tags that come stuck in the pot, and only browse specimens that will tolerate the level of light I can give them. You just can’t force a sun-loving plant to thrive in a closet.

#2: I Assumed Water Was Always the Answer

Back when my sage was on its last leg, I drenched it with glasses of water almost daily. Like many clueless plant owners before me, I assumed that all sick plants just needed more water, and held the mistaken belief that houseplants die only from neglect. In reality, my sage needed about 10 times more light than it was currently getting, and 20 times less water (sage likes to be kept dry). I’ve since learned to make note of which plants are sensitive to overwatering and never go near them with a watering can without feeling the soil an inch down. Dry surfaces are deceiving.

#3: I Wasn’t Brutally Honest

If a plant is struggling, I now turn to a trustworthy growing guide and compare its preferred conditions to its current environment. The key is to be brutally honest. Don’t delude yourself that a sliver of morning sun is the same as full afternoon sun (been there, done that). If the growing guide doesn’t match up with reality, I find the plant a new spot or gift it to someone whose home provides more suitable conditions.

#4: Sometimes I Still Smother Them

Although I know better, I still sometimes go into helicopter mom-mode when one of my plants has a near-death experience. Case in point: I recently slacked on repotting a grocery store succulent that someone gave me as a gift. The leaves covered the entire area of the too-tiny pot, which prevented the soil from drying out, which in turn caused the leaves to go limp and fall off. I finally upgraded the pot, but started obsessively checking on it a couple of times each day, and watered it when I shouldn’t have—a rookie mistake. I just felt I needed to do something to help this poor, defenseless plant. (The jury is still out on its fate.) Take it from me: Being overly vigilant about your houseplants is just as bad as neglect, and constant fussing can’t overcompensate for past abandonment. Take a step back and leave them alone to regroup on their own for a bit.

#5: I Believed in the Word “Easy”

How many times have you seen an internet listicle of the absolute easiest houseplants to grow? (Look, I wrote one right here!) The thing is, easy houseplants can still be tricky if you don’t give them their preferred growing conditions—even a tough-as-nails cast iron plant will wilt if the light is too bright. In my very favorite houseplant book, The Indestructible Houseplant, plant guru Tovah Martin discusses this point eloquently and notes that she tried to think of every type of grower—from the heavy-handed waterer to the corporate office worker—when deciding which plants to include. As you can probably tell by now, I’m one of those overly enthusiastic waterers, which is probably why I never have much luck with succulents. They’re supposed to be so easy, but I always get antsy after a couple of weeks and give them a drenching sooner than I should. Do some soul searching before your next houseplant purchase and find one that fits your style.

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